Recently I waxed nostalgic about the traditions of the last day of school and graduation. I shared my recollections of each school year winding down and GHS commencement exercises through the years. Surely it is time to move on from these two side streets just off memory lane.
And yet, I found myself watching the students, staff, and parents of 2020-21 celebrate these classic American traditions – and I just have to share!
Lisa Siegenthaler Turner, former student of mine, who also taught language arts and recently retired (Yikes! I AM old! My students are retiring!) commented: “I always found the end of the school year so bittersweet…I’m also convinced that there is no feeling of being tired like end of the school year teacher tired.” Another student from my classroom, Lori Zimmerman Black, concurred and added: “Especially this year! Year #30 (Yikes! I AM old! My students have been teaching for thirty years!) was a real humdinger…but we persevered…made the best of it … had a great year! Now I’m looking forward to…rejuvenating this tired teacher so that I return even better in the fall.”
Occasionally, teachers receive end-of-year presents from grateful families. This year students of two young teachers I know bestowed priceless gifts to honor their teachers’ unabated efforts on behalf of the kids in their classrooms. Christina Sell, my niece-in-law who teaches history and Advanced Placement courses in North Carolina, could scarcely contain herself after this student, who learned virtually all year, expressed her appreciation: “Not only were you an incredible teacher this year but you were quite possibly one of the best people I have interacted with during this time.”
And Lauren Buell, GHS grad who returned to teach at the middle school, posted: “This is a first…a ‘Thank You’ essay on the last day as a gift. Best gift ever.” The unassigned essay was such a gesture of genuine appreciation from a young girl thanking her language arts teacher for dedication, thoughtfulness, and inspiration. The student applauded Lauren’s hard work and understanding and closed by praising Ms. Buell for the passion she has for her students. Wow!
But for unconstrained exuberance, I simply must share a post from another former student of mine, Josh Kauffman – principal at Bluffton Middle School. (Yikes! I AM old! My students are administrators!) Josh’s students began their last day with a senior clap out, talent show, and 8th grade slideshow. There were picnics with 500 hot dogs, tournaments for ping pong and cornhole, a building send-off for a departing teacher and a visit from the family of a classmate they lost. “And just like that, the school year has come to an end…we gave it all we had and…rose to the occasion for kids … I’m so proud of my staff for bringing it the last day just like they did on the first…even a pandemic isn’t taking the hearts out of educators…We made it!” His words made my eyes water and my heart smile.
The pandemic brought livestreaming to our schools, enabling families and friends to watch athletic events, spring musicals – and commencement! My viewing of graduation on Graham’s website revealed nothing fancy or gimmicky; in fact, the proceedings were eloquent and beautiful in their simplicity of classmates gathering a final time to celebrate endings and beginnings in the company of their families and teachers.
In typical Falcon fashion, students did most of the evening’s speechifying. From Vice President Bryant Crisler’s opening welcome alluding to what the class had gone through together to President Shamar Compton’s tassel-turning conclusion, the tone was set and maintained for a program of thoughtful speeches, heart-stirring music, and diploma presentation.
I was especially impressed by the three young women who delivered the academic addresses. I advised GHS commencement speakers for many years, and this set of fine speeches ranks very high on my list. It was particularly gratifying to hear each of them speaking directly and inclusively to the classmates gathered before them.
Miranda Nichols explained that growth and change often stem from difficult times and advised her classmates to surround themselves with people who “build you up…push you to reach your goals.” And she reminded the Class of 2021 it isn’t where they are, it’s where they go from here.
Salutatorian Aislen Setty opined that she and her classmates had played unique roles in each other’s lives. She urged everyone to thank each other for interactions and shared experiences, to appreciate the small moments sometimes more important than formal lessons, to thank themselves for their own efforts. Her profound send-off: “You are exactly who the world needs you to be.”
It was in Lexi Traylor’s valedictory address that the uncertainty they had all felt emerged as the “ultimate waiting game”: the day-to-day TBD status for almost everything, as they waited for better days ahead and light at the end of the tunnel. Lexi urged her classmates to use the strength they gained from the “drastic changes” during “unprecedented times” and their voices as tools to accomplish the changes they want to see. “Start making noise to lead yourselves away from mere existence…your voice is your identity.” Such powerful ideas…
I hope you have found my follow-ups about modernized traditions inspiring. My postscript: if we consistently encourage and support our young people, their families, and their teachers from the first day to the last, there just might be light at the end of our often-troubled society’s tunnel.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.