COOK/CHRONICLE PHOTO Thurston High senior Branton Clement is surrounded by his family on Saturday, June 11, after the graduation ceremonies on campus. See more graduation photos on pages 10-11.

Looking onward toward the crowd – be it in bleachers, fold-up chairs or auditorium seats – eyes squinted and smiles widened as the Classes of 2022 locked eyes with their loved ones, all beaming with pride from a milestone well-earned. 

With half their high school careers hijacked by a global pandemic, it took buckets of tenacity, grit and resilience for the Classes of 2022 to succeed. 

But they did, each in their own respective fashion.

Ron Otterstedt, retired Springfield educator, took to the stage at Silke Field last week to celebrate Springfield High grads. 

He said that for most of the graduating classes, the road to graduation was like being on a freeway: “straight, fast, maybe a pothole or two, but essentially an easy ride. Other classes took a detour or two along the way … but you, you’ve been off-roading,” he said. “The last few years were hard. You had to relearn how to learn. I had to relearn how to teach. It was a constant struggle to adapt to changing rules and expectations.”

But those challenges will reap even greater successes. 

“I truly believe that the Class of ‘22 is more prepared for the future than any other class I’ve seen because of this — not in spite of,” Otterstedt said.

Thurston High School Colts donned red and black “epic umbrellas” to fend off the rain last Saturday. The ceremony took place at the new Thurston Athletics Stadium, with family members and friends filling the stands. And unlike the last two years of “Zoom school,” “real pants were involved.” 

“Now be honest, raise your hand if you ever turned your camera on!” freshman English teachers Robin Erickson and Erica Peirson said, while giving the keynote address. 

Only a few hands went up. 

The pair likened the Thurston High Class of ’22 to Odysseus on his grand adventure across the Aegean Sea. 

“The last four years have been an odyssey for you, and your last normal year was with us,” Peirson said. Like Odysseus, the Thurston High School seniors underwent “lotus moments” while resisting the urge to binge-watch Netflix during class, fought off “the one eyed-cyclops” zoom camera and eventually “sailed home” to campus for senior year. 

“You’ve endured a long and arduous journey to get to this moment,” Erickson said. “In the end, you are each the hero of your own story. There will never be another class like you … And although it took Odysseus 10 years to get back home after his journey, you need to know that this house is your house. We are so honored to call you our heroes.”

A unique school with a massive arts program and modest student body of 180 students, 43 of those students graduated last Thursday in true A3 style. 

The Academy of Arts and Academics brought its own artistic flair to graduation. The gowns may have been plain black but students showed off their personality with decorated caps and fun footwear. One grad came donning bedazzled heeled boots, and another iridescent platform shoes. 

Administrative secretary Wilson Sherk delivered the keynote address, pulling out a construction paper toolbox as a visual aid. 

It was a toolbox to construct a better future: lucky charms, bumble bees and most importantly, resilience. 

“As you construct your life, recognize that because of your high school experience, you have these specific tools, you’ll have superior abilities,” Sherk said. “Reimagine yourself as a planet superhero because the Earth still needs a lot of taking care of.” 

Senior speaker Elsa Bell gave a noteworthy and impassioned speech that stressed how the weight of the world has been put on this generation’s shoulders, with so much political strain and climate uncertainty. 

“There will not be a tomorrow if we don’t change today,” Bell said.

Years from now, the 2022 Creswell High School graduation ceremony will be remembered for its “Perfect 10” group of honorees. There wasn’t just a two- or three-way tie for valedictorian honors, there was a 10-way deadlock!

The 10 valedictorians were Abbe Grubbs, Addeline Garzanelli, Gabby Halgren, Lillian Heltman-Hogg, sisters Emma Kersgaard and Julianne Kersgaard, Karinna Leonard, Emma Maness, Emme Whitson and Emily McGuire, along with salutatorian Cassidy King. 

“It’s great to graduate with all of my friends and to see them all succeed,” Leonard said. 

Leonard has been especially tight with Grubbs, Halgren, Maness and Whitson. They all played basketball throughout school (even though Grubbs had to sit out her senior season with a back injury). 

So how about that for an achievement? All five seniors on the basketball team share valedictorian honors.

Creswell girls basketball coach Tyler Hollingsworth, naturally, took none of the credit for the girls’ achievement. “These girls have always been motivated to succeed, on and off the court,” he said. 

As the 10 valedictorians posed together for pictures after the ceremony, they answered in unison how they were able to survive 2022: “We all struggled together and helped each other, and we cried together a lot.”

Al Kennedy High School, located at the former elementary school in Delight Valley, benefited from the activity shelter left over from the days of having a place for Oregon kids to go out to play in the seasonal rains. 

The low clouds and rains gave a wash of gray over the surrounding hills as loved ones gathered to celebrate their grads under the shelter – a shelter that still bears the basketball hoops from its previous life. 

Al Kennedy, a legendary educator, was known for his innovative ways to reach the hard-to-reach students. Rope tricks, hands-on activities and time spent outdoors are still part of “The Kennedy Way.” 

The small, tight community of Kennedy is characterized by close relationships between staff and students. Reflected in that style of education, students received their diplomas with a personalized observation from a teacher, who shared admirable qualities and anecdotes with the grads before handing them their diploma. 

Cottage Grove High School Principal Kevin Herington’s comments veered from the traditional style of lofty platitudes and poems at Saturday’s ceremony at Hearld White Stadium. Invoking the class motto “We finish to begin,” Herington summed up the Class of 2022 as a group of “bada** Grovers.”

Having taken the principal’s position just before the Covid pandemic, this was the first year that his students began and concluded the year in the building without breaks or distance learning. The students not only weathered the storm of the pandemic, they learned how to embrace its challenges. 

Sometimes, like at the ceremony, that also meant embracing literal storms. 

Nature itself punctuated that fact by sporadically raining during the open-air ceremony. The 132 graduates – being good Oregon kids that they are – hardly seemed to notice or mind the intermittently heavy showers. 

Herington summed up their high school experiences, including their final moments, with a quote by British writer Vivian Greene: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” 

Chronicle reporters Lillian Stafford, Ron Hartman, Ryleigh Norgrove and Dana Merryday contributed to this report.