After weathering a strange, stay-at-home end to the year that no one anticipated or asked for, county school seniors gathered Saturday evening to mark one of life’s milestones at their home campuses throughout Cullman County.
Weeks after on-campus classes were canceled to give a wide berth to the coronavirus pandemic, students and faculty who hadn’t seen each other for weeks reunited to say farewell to each other, and to their time as high school students. In all, seven county schools held (or attempted to hold, thanks to inclement weather) graduation exercises Saturday.
Seniors at Cold Springs met on the turf of the Eagles’ football stadium under skies that threatened rain, but managed to make it through a complete ceremony before gathering to sing their alma mater and toss their caps — a comforting piece of traditional normalcy to draw a close to their unusual year.
“As a parent, or as a principal, we always want to fix things…[but] this situation was not something we could fix, which was the most troublesome concept to grasp,” said Cold Springs principal Eric Dickerson in a graduation speech that, at times, turned emotional. “We couldn’t give another regular school day, a final walkthrough, another athletic contest for you to participate, or the events that make the end of your senior year so special.
But, he added, students didn’t miss out on building close relationships with friends, faculty, and staff. “For the last 13 years, not only have you been impacted by faculty and staff who’ve cared deeply for you; you’ve also had a positive impact in their lives by your being a part of it.”
Salutatorian Kaylea Mickle said the ceremony did bring a welcome sense of finality to a semester that, toward the end, lacked all the hallmarks of impending graduation. “It makes us appreciate graduation so much more,” she said. “When they originally scheduled graduation for June 13, I was actually afraid that we wouldn’t be able to have it. It was so far away. So I’m glad that we went ahead and did this.”
Fairview seniors were so glad to be back on campus that they took it upon themselves to stage an impromptu class photo before their ceremony started, posing for a fun group photo between the columns on the steps of their alma mater. It’s a good thing they did, too: stormy weather loomed as the ceremony started, forcing faculty to improvise some quick scheduling adjustments that shortened the event — while covering the essentials.
“I looked up at the sky and realized we were gonna have to do something to get this graduation done,” said principal Dr. Chris Gambrill after the event. “We reversed our procedure and we went with the cap and gown portion after the national anthem — and we barely finished. The speeches and the music didn’t happen, but we’re going to record those things and put them on Facebook Live. And in the end, we did successfully get everybody across the stage.”
Despite the weather’s rude last-minute intervention, Gambrill said this graduating class walks away with an undeniably unforgettable senior year experience. And in spite of the shortened ceremony, they seemed grateful just to be doing something that felt normal for a change.
“I didn’t hear any negative pushback whatsoever from parents or kids once we realized we had to adjust. I think the fact that they were able to come together and be at school one last time and walk across the stage was what made it special for them. In all, it went as well as anything I could’ve hoped for. It ended up being a really positive and memorable experience…and the kids did get to throw their caps.”
Salutatorian Mason Roberts sounded like just the kind of student Gambrill was describing. “I’m just excited because I didn’t think this was gonna happen,” he said before walking into the stadium — while joking that he probably shouldn’t divulge his immediate plans after the ceremony ended Saturday.
As at other schools, this was an unusual senior year for the graduates at Good Hope High School. But being able to have a graduation ceremony with their families and teachers did bring a sense of closure, Good Hope grad Mason Allred said Saturday.
“It’s a little weird having a graduation like this,” he said. “It’s not a traditional graduation, but we still get to have one — and I’m kinda glad.”
Salutatorian Cady Martin said she was happy to be able to celebrate graduation with the rest of her classmates, as they weren’t sure if they were even going to get to have a ceremony this year.
“All of our other events got canceled,” she said. “So we had gotten rid of the notion that we were even going to get to have a graduation,” adding that Saturday’s commencement helped seniors finally relax and say farewell to the unexpected challenges that came during the end of the school year.
“It’s a big relief,” she said. “The end of the year was really stressful because of the switch to online classes and not being able to communicate with our teachers the same way.”
While it wasn’t the graduation they were expecting, Martin said moving the ceremony out of Wallace State Community College’s coliseum and on to their own school’s football field was a nod to past graduations that used to take place on the field. “I think it’s kinda nice that even though this isn’t the graduation that we would have had originally at Wallace, it still resembles the traditional Good Hope graduation from years past,” she said.
Valedictorian Peyton Hall, who was also recognized during the ceremony for scoring a perfect score of 36 on his ACT, said this year’s graduation was a culmination of years of hard work — not just for the graduates themselves, but for their teachers and families as well.
“I know that these graduates, myself included, sincerely appreciate your investment in our future,” said Hall, noting that Good Hope graduates’ future achievements will now have to be earned through their own work and decisions.
“My advice to you is to use this accomplishment today to fuel your next venture,” said Hall. “Leave here today and never stop doing until you can do no more.”
The few raindrops that fell shortly after Hanceville High School’s graduation ceremony began weren’t enough to dampen the spirits of seniors and their families who thought a few weeks ago the event wouldn’t even happen.
In her invocation, class president Kelly Pickett expressed gratitude that the senior class was able to have this final ceremony of their senior year.
During line up beforehand, some seniors noted the differences between this year and previous years: graduation at the high school stadium rather than at Wallace State College, no circling up afterwards to sing their alma mater and social distancing rules in place for all attendees. “We would never have predicted that our senior year would have ended this way,” said Salutatorian Matthew Cornelius.
Yet, as they prepared to take the final walk before embarking on new journeys, the graduates were grateful to be together and reflecting on their years together.
Valedictorian Will Akin took a moment to remember their former classmate Lexi York, who died of cancer. In addressing his classmates, he noted that the pandemic has given them the opportunity to notice things they take for granted, such as time with family and going outside. “We have the choice to take advantage and stop and appreciate and value the many small things God puts in our lives,” he said.
For senior Citlaly Gonzalez, her senior year was also her first year at Hanceville High School.
“I had amazing teachers,” she said as she hugged her friend America Vera before the ceremony. Vera was one of the first friends Gonzalez made when she came to the school. Now Gonzalez is preparing to join the Air Force and plans to go to college after that.
Holly Pond students met as Broncos one last time, graduating a senior class that stands out not just because of their unique experience, but because they were good students, said school counselor Karen Rowell.
“This senior class was remarkable in a lot of ways,” Rowell said. “There were those who excelled in all areas: academically, athletically, and in leadership. But most importantly, this senior class had a great work ethic — both in the classroom and outside of class.
“One-third of our seniors worked in the school's co op program, working 25-30 hours a week. They were the type of class who always listened and used the resources available. These kids have a big heart and showed compassion for their peers as well as underclassmen — they were just a great group of young people who will be great adults, and I enjoyed being a small part of their high school years.”
Holly Pond seniors walked away with more than $1,7 million in scholarship money earned on the merits of their academics, athletics, and leadership. The school won the Hustle Award for seniors’ FAFSA completion, and sent three young men on to military service.
Salutatorian Elizabeth Miller was glad everything came together for the class of 2020.
"I am beyond blessed to be here today... beyond happy have face to face graduation with all my classmates. We worked really hard for this and I'm really proud everything came together."
Valedictorian Zackery Reynolds echoed the sentiment.
"Honestly, it's been a roller coaster of emotions, but we're feeling pretty good right now."
At Vinemont, Valedictorian Ivy Preiss said students were grateful for the chance to meet on campus one final time.
"It was really hard thinking that we weren’t going to be able to experience this memorable moment that leads us into the rest of our lives and ends our high school careers. And it’s really heartwarming to know that we actually get to do that today, and see each other one final time and spend time with each other and celebrate together,” she said. “It’s good to see everybody again and say a proper goodbye to everybody and to Vinemont High School.”
New Vinemont grad Jordan Hall even managed to recapture a little of that year-end excitement that typifies that feeling when high school’s coming to an end.
"It’s been a crazy year with everything that’s happened. It’s great being able to be out here and see everybody again and actually have a graduation. At the time, we didn’t even know if we were going to end up having one or not,” he said. “I’m kind of nervous, too. It’s time, after this, to go into real life and figure out what I’m going to do next. It’s exciting, though, being able to be out here with everybody once again.”
Weather interfered with West Point’s graduation midway through the proceedings, but students were still happy to have the chance to wear their caps and gowns on the campus of their alma mater. And if they happened to check Twitter afterward, they even got a belated confirmation from principal Heith Yearwood that, yes, they’re officially allowed to call themselves graduates.
A drenched Yearwood conferred diplomas on the entire senior class via social media, and even went through the “shift your tassel” part of his speech, applauding graduates as if they were standing right in front of him. Yearwood also added that graduates whose attempts at photos were thwarted by the rain can come to the football stadium at 2 p.m. Sunday for a raincheck photo session.
“I never thought this was going to happen,” said Salutatorian Garrett Willingham after things ended early. “I thought we’d graduate online or it wouldn’t happen at all. So even though it rained, I’m happy it happened and that I was able to give my speech and see my classmates again.”
Storm or no storm, just being together one last time took on a special meaning for graduates. "I was just really thankful to have this special moment, because so many people were not as fortunate as us,” said West Point Valedictorian Micah Oldacre. "It just really brought everything full circle to see all of the people with whom I share so many wonderful memories and friendships. I’m proud to call myself a graduate of the class of 2020 from West Point High School."
Jake Winfrey, Amy Henderson, Amanda Shavers and Tyler Hanes contributed to this report.