In a prerecorded address live-streamed online, Danny Rock, principal of Vashon Island High School, said students of the Class of 2020 started their academic year with “a remarkable commitment to making it count.”
In the end, while the coronavirus pandemic got in the way of any chance to host a traditional commencement ceremony honoring the achievements of the graduates, there was still much to celebrate. On Saturday, islanders turned out to recognize the class, lining the highway through town to watch the students and their families parade by, riding along in a jubilant procession with honking horns and cheers.
A large mural of the Pirate’s team flag was drawn in the parking area of Pandora’s Box to meet the seniors as they went by. Owner Cheryl Pruett said she hopes the Class of 2020 will make the island proud.
“This family has four generations of Pirates having gone through,” she said, standing on the steps of her shop overlooking the mural. “So we wanted to do something special today for all Pirates of Vashon.”
The parade culminated outside the shuttered Vashon Island High School with the presentation of diplomas. The graduates, donning masks, left their cars to walk across a stage that was surrounded by cameras to capture the moment.
In his remarks, Rock said that the class’s adjustment to the circumstances — unfathomable months ago — was a testament to their creativity, resilience and determination. Looking on the brighter side, he added that the students have plenty to look forward to.
“Although we have worked hard to provide a meaningful and special graduation experience for our seniors, this moment in time is just that: A moment in time. This does not represent the apex of your life, thank goodness. This does not represent as good as it gets,” he said, later thanking the students for leaving the school better than they found it. “So as we gather and consider your graduation, your culminating event of 13 years of hard work and school, let us similarly declare that this moment will be made meaningful by what comes next as much as by what came before.”
The Vashon Island School District has been closed since March 13, two days before Gov. Jay Inslee mandated the closure of all K through 12 public and private schools in every district across the state of Washington in an effort to curb the spread of the deadly virus that has infected more than 25,000 statewide and killed more than 1,200. The national death toll from COVID-19 reached more than 118,000 this week.
With the tumultuous days’ teachers spent preparing and implementing an all-new remote learning curriculum almost entirely on the fly in the wake of the closure, Superintendent Slade McSheehy asked the graduates to reflect on the impact that district faculty have made on them throughout the years. Memories of when educators “pointed to you and said, ‘you’re going to do something amazing, you’re going to be incredible. I believe in you,’” he said.
“I hope that as you’ve been through your experiences here at the Vashon Island School District, and even in other districts, that you’ve had teachers and those staff and professionals who’ve reached out to you and shown you that that you are special and that you are unique,” McSheehy said, adding that while uncertainties about the future abound, the Class of 2020, rising to the challenges they faced, made him proud to be superintendent.
More than missing run-ins with friends in the hallways and taking classes over video conferences with teachers, Per Lars Blomgren, a Vashon physical education teacher and the faculty speaker, said the Class of 2020 should remember other moments that defined the year. “Let’s not be defined by these last few months. We control what we remember,” he said, noting that he will remember the graduates as being distinguished by their ability to laugh at themselves and ask questions that will deepen their relationships with the people they will meet.
“Don’t ask them about the weather, don’t ask them about the gas prices. Ask them what they would eat in an all-you-can-eat competition. I encourage strange questions, as that’s how you really get to know someone,” he said.
It was clear from student speakers Isaac Patchen and Logan Prouse that many of the graduates had already cemented their bonds with each other, even if the outlook for the world appears grimmer every day, so much that ocean coral is bleaching itself due to extreme stress levels.
“We can all relate to that,” Patchen said.
For his part, Prouse spoke on behalf of the class, adding that the experience of being a high school student today was not easy, filled with worry about safety and anxiety about the future. But this class has persevered, he said.
“The amazing thing about our class is that in the next 10 to 15 years, when you look back at your friends and classmates, you’ll be astonished at what they’ve become,” he said.
Associated Student Body advisor Kara Sears presented the long-running “Pieces of Eight” awards, naming the recipients who are considered treasures of the class. Those students are Joel Wiegner, Talia Spurlock, Maia Harrison, Jeremiah Bogaard, Ellie Lande, Georgia Machura, Casey Kershling and Richard Rivas.
The class salutatorian is Isabel Spence. The three valedictorians are Joel Wiegner, Hannah Spranger and Ellie Lande, all earning a 4.0-grade point average over the course of their time at VHS. Spence, Wagner, Spranger and Lande will attend the University of Washington in the fall.
For Wiegner, there’s a lot on the line now — the steady march of climate change, no end in sight for the pandemic, an economy on the brink and social injustices on display seemingly daily. Meanwhile, he said in a short address, the messaging around graduation is often that the world’s problems are left to young people to solve.
“We’ve been dealt a bum hand and we are still expected to gamble for the fate of humanity,” Wiegner said, noting that while at times fatalism prevails, his peers give him hope for a better world.
“Because with all your talents, beliefs, compassion, humor and strength in the face of adversity, you are a force to be reckoned with. So as this era of our lives ends and we all head out into the unknown, I want you to remember to be yourselves and never let anyone generalize you,” he said.
The commencement ceremony is available online.