The class of 2020 always knew they were special. Born in the shadow of 9/11, they grew up listening to their family’s stories of that day and the aftermath; they grew up listening to stories of how strangers stepped up to help out each other; they grew up listening to stories of why older siblings had decided to join the military to fight America’s latest threat. They grew up during a time of economic prosperity and they were confident that graduation from high school was a step that would launch them into a world they had dreamed of and where they had a myriad of choices. Go to college? Sure, fill out this application and you’re in. Take a gap year and travel the world? Sure, get your passport and a backpack and you’re all set to go. Find a job in the oilfield? Sure, learn to get good and dirty but you’ll be able to buy that pickup or house you’ve been dreaming of. Buy the family ranch? Sure, your parents will be grateful to pass on what generations of your family have worked hard to build.
When the news of a strain of coronavirus that had appeared in Wuhan, China first hit the headlines and social media, it caused some concern and a great deal of interest, but that was in China. How could a virus in China impact our lives in Baker, Montana? We watched as the virus spread throughout the world; in February cruise ships began quarantining passengers - keeping cruise-goers on board for weeks before allowing them to disembark. Then Italy reported a spike in infections and by the end of February, the first reported US death from COVID-19 was reported in Seattle and a “do not travel” to Italy and China advisory was issued to Americans. But still, we live in Baker, Montana.
On March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency and state after state ordered the mandatory closing of schools, colleges, universities, restaurants, stores, malls, and even public parks. When the students and staff of Baker Public Schools left school for the weekend on Friday, March 13, they had no idea that would be the last time they would have the opportunity to be together as one. Their thoughts and plans were focused on the upcoming Prom, Track, Golf, Tennis, State FFA, State BPA, Close-Up, National Student Council, graduation trips, graduation itself.
Suddenly the class of 2020 was right in the middle of another national crisis - the Pandemic of 2020. All their carefully laid plans, all their hopes, all their dreams, were suddenly put on hold, if not discarded outright. Many tried to reassure themselves that the shutdown would only last a few weeks; surely by May 1 we could all be back in school and life would continue as normal. The slight bump of COVID-19 would soon be only an unpleasant memory. But, as we all know, that’s not how it turned out.
Across the world, there are students who never got to really say good-bye to their teachers; there are teachers who never got that last day of their career with their kids and colleagues; there are families who didn’t get to sit by their loved one’s bed and hold their hands as they died; there are families who have lost their jobs and don’t know how they’re going to pay their mortgages, their car payments, their family’s food. Putting it in that perspective, life can always be worse. Yes, there are many milestones in our lives that have had to be changed or perhaps even cancelled, but life does go on. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Those words are never more true than today. We are fortunate to live in a community that has worked hard to make certain our lives can go on as normally as possible. The Class of 2020 DID get a graduation ceremony as scheduled on Sunday, May 17.
Superintendent Aaron Skogen delivered the commencement address to the students who were seated in the Schillinger Stadium - with the proper “social distancing” limits imposed. Immediate family members were seated in the grandstands and friends and other family members lined the fence of the stadium to listen to the ceremony and to cheer on the graduating class. Our local radio station, KFLN, sponsored a live broadcast of the ceremony and the NFHS network streamed the event.
There were four Valedictorians, Katie Wang, Caleb Ploeger, Alissa Schell and Rachel Rost, and one Salutatorian, Lena Kennel, who delivered humorous and personal speeches to the audience. The remaining Top Ten of the Class of 2020, Shelby Moore, Halle Burdick, Mattie Mastel, Macee Hadley and Javan Kesinger, were recognized for their dedication and commitment to their education. There were numerous scholarships awarded to the graduates that will provide them opportunities to fulfill their goals. There were also the omnipresent eastern Montana winds that sent mortarboards flying, tassels tangling in hair and even taking temporary control of the microphone.
The graduating class of 2020 certainly had a unique graduation ceremony. Was it what they had planned on? Was it what they had counted on? Was it what they had always taken for granted? You know the answer to that - no. But it WAS a ceremony that they will never forget. The senior class bought banners featuring individual photos of the seniors to hang on Main Street; the After-Prom Party bought personalized car magnets for every senior; the local police department and fire department led the Senior Graduation Parade throughout the town to the cheers and delight of all. It certainly wasn’t what anyone could have planned or envisioned on March 13, but there WAS a graduation.
Once again, the Class of 2020 had a front row seat to history in the making.