The graduation of the Phillips High School class of 2020 was different than in years past.
On the evening of May 22, the eastern parking lot behind the school's technical education department filled with cars — some showy vintage vehicles, some the family van — all facing in toward center stage.
Grads in black gowns and square caps peered from car windows, a mixture of nerves and excitement written on their faces, family members squeezed together around them. The windows and doors of cars were strung with orange and black ribbons, balloons, and messages of support for the 56 graduating seniors.
Across the county, seniors are closing out their final year of high school in the midst of a global pandemic. Even as states loosen restrictions on gathering, the number of COVID-19 related cases and deaths continue to tick up in the United States, making for an uncertain outlook on the coming year.
It was in light of this that Phillips High School administration planned an event that will no doubt serve as memorable in the minds of all who witnessed the students — with several lengths of space between them — walk across the parking lot, cross the stage, and select their diplomas, all sealed in sterile plastic bags.
Attendance was kept to a minimum, with only school administrator Rick Morgan, school board president Jon Pesko, and principal Colin Hoogland on the hastily constructed outdoor stage.
Hoogland, valedictorian Trinity Pesko, salutatorian Jessica Roush, class president Jenna Simurdiak and class-nominated speaker Trey Tingo, gave their speeches over the phone, their words broadcast over the local FM radio station into attendees' cars. Speeches were greeted with a mixture of clapping, car horns, and flashing headlights.
“None of us ever thought on March 17 when school got let out for a two week closure that that would be our very last day of high school together,” Roush said to her classmates. “If there is one thing that we have all learned from this global pandemic, it is that you never know what the future holds. So be present and enjoy the moment.”
“Today marks the end of the life changing journey more commonly known as high school,” said Pesko. “Throughout our time spent in the public education system, we've been told 'we're preparing you for middle school, we're preparing you for high school, we're preparing you for the real world.' However, I don't think anyone could have prepared us for this.
“In school, we like to talk about our successes in accomplishments that can be measured, such as grades or awards. And although our class boasts many such achievements, the most important ones cannot be measured in As on our report cards or first-place trophies. The most important aspect of our class is our sense of unity and compassion.”
“For more reasons than one, we are one of the most unique classes Phillips High School has seen,” said Simurdiak. “We made history. No matter where our individual journeys take us, Phillips will always be home.”
As dusk settled and the last student accepted their diploma with a sigh of relief, the newly graduated teenagers returned to their vehicles and left the parking lot in a long train of cars that snaked through town, giving community members the chance to celebrate their achievement.