A drizzle of rain set in during the hour leading up to Park Rapids Area High School’s 122nd annual graduation on Sunday.
It wasn’t going to change anything. Designed as a drive-in ceremony with families parking two vehicles deep around the school’s bus loop to promote social distancing, the event was billed as “rain or shine.” The handful of people seated on the grass had umbrellas to shelter under.
However, the rain was kind enough to stop just in time for commencement to commence. The weather continued to play tricks, though. Gusts of wind often relieved graduates of their stoles, caps and honor braids as they walked forward across the grass to collect their diploma covers.
Most graduates simply walked up when their name was called by class president Kamree Carlson, picked up their cover, paused to have their photo taken by art teacher Michael Hartung, and walked back to their car. A few acted out their excitement, running or prancing forward or whooping into a GoPro camera once they reached the dais.
It was a unique graduation experience in the school’s history, coming after 2018’s more typical ceremony in the high school gym and 2019’s on the football field.
Pre-recorded band and choir selections were played over the public address system. Microphones were replaced between speakers. There were no handshakes with the principal or the superintendent. There were only two public hugs – between school board members Stephanie Carlson and Sherry Safratowich and their live-in seniors, Kamree and Kaden.
Also unusual about the Class of 2020 was its six co-valedictorians: Paige Johnson, Noel Skadberg, Sydney Koppelman, Jada Renneberg, Kaelan Emerson and Kamree Carlson.
“I think it’s safe to say that this year has been one to remember,” Johnson said in her welcoming remarks. “From breaking the record of the longest-ever senior skip day to finally having the spring break we’ve always wanted, this year has been quite the journey.”
Johnson closed her speech by calling for “two honks from everybody to get this party started,” setting the pattern for a solemn celebration punctuated by moments of rowdy noise.
Skadberg reminded the class of their shared experiences rising through the grades of the Park Rapids school system, such as playing foursquare in middle school, spending money at the circus on light-up toys and inflatables and taking a lot of field trips to Itasca State Park.
Regarding their 12th grade experience, she said, “Even though we didn’t finish our year how we thought we would, we’ll still remember it forever.”
Noting that nobody expected this school year to go the way it did, Koppelman advised against taking “normal” for granted. “The world is weird, and it will probably just get weirder,” she said. “Things won’t always go as planned, and that’s OK. The plan doesn’t matter as much as the people you’re planning it with.”
Koppelman talked about meeting with classmates on Zoom, saying. “We did this because we need each other to really take part in school. … High school isn’t just an amalgamation of assignments and quizzes. It’s not just a requirement we fulfill so we can get a job or go to school for a few more years. It’s the people we do it with that really make it matter.”
Renneberg reminded her classmates that their parents were right: time really does fly by. “I think we can all agree, it feels like just yesterday we were walking into that school, thinking that today would never come,” she said. “For me, that’s reason enough to remember to live each day to the fullest.”
Renneberg advised younger classes, “Don’t wait until your senior to realize these are some of the best years of your life. Don’t wait until your senior year to realize that drama’s pointless and stereotypes do not define a person. … Don’t wait to realize that you are in this all together, and that you have a lot more in common than you think.”
Emerson told his classmates that they can overcome any challenge set before them.
“Hardships are a part of life,” he said. “It’s a question of how you face them and how you grow from them,” including how you handle change. “What matters is adapting and learning from it.”
He went on to say, “If I’ve learned one thing from the past couple of months, it’s this: Through difficulty and hardship and change comes strength. And man, is this a difficult and changing and hard year. But you know what? We did it. We’re here. We are the class of 2020. Yeah, the ones who graduated in the bus loop in the rain in the middle of a global pandemic. Who’s going to stop us now?”
In her closing remarks, Carlson urged her classmates to be kind and to know that they are loved – above all, by God.
“As a class that has experienced a great deal of adversity, we have an overwhelming amount of potential to go out and be leaders in this world,” she said.