It obviously wasn’t lost on the Oelwein High School Class of 2020 why they were graduating in their cars and pickups this year.
“COVID grad 2020,” read a sign on the pickup senior Nolan Williams drove to commencement.
“Three and three-quarters years later,” read the mortarboard cap of senior Mahayla Harrison, referring to the last quarter missed.
Participants hung out in their cars to comply with social distancing guidance, and additional family unable to attend in person due to space constraints listened on KOEL Radio 950 AM or tuned in on Zoom Webcast or Facebook Live.
Commencement opened with a recording of the national anthem by Holly Rose Rubin, Laura Kathryn Gibbs, Blake Perkins and Nolan Williams, sung for an audition under the choral direction of Darci Fuelling.
Even though this commencement will go down in history, rather than let the COVID-19 school shutdown and resulting loss of their last quarter define them, Principal Travis Druvenga and Superintendent Josh Ehn told seniors they have a unique opportunity to choose to be resilient and grateful in the face of adversity and get back up again.
Valedictorian Nicholas Dittmer also spoke about the opportunity for gratitude.
The school made studies in the last quarter voluntary while people were urged to stay home when possible to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness.
“You’ve had the capability to contact and be in contact with your parents, family and friends as well as the opportunity to learn every single day if you chose to, … regardless of whether someone was assigning it to you,” Druvenga said.
He stepped back into his former history teacher role, citing a recently-read a book about President James Garfield called “Destiny of the Republic.”
Garfield, elected 1880, only served as president for six months before being assassinated.
“He grew up in extreme poverty and everything he learned and accomplished was essentially self-taught,” Druvenga said. “He worked his way through Harvard as a janitor, kind of like the movie ‘Good Will Hunting,’ (which) came out in 1997, maybe ask your parents about it.”
“The Garfield story resonated with me. He had every reason in his position to say I can’t do this; there’s no reason for me to do this; no one around me is doing this. But instead he chose every step to find a way to be successful. That’s what resiliency is.
“In a sense you are in a similar position,” Druvenga said. “It would be easy to stay home and ‘Netflix and chill’ or … be upset about the position you’re in. I’m right there with you, I’ve seen my fair share of Netflix in the past couple of months.
“Motivation is tough. From that perspective, you might be one of the most challenged generations in history. You’ve been told to stay home and … you have unlimited access to literally any distractive opportunity you want.
“You have to make the conscious choice every day if you’re going to grow and learn or if you’re going to chill. It is possible to do both if you have your priorities straight.
“On the first day of school this year, my challenge to all of you was to control the things you can control: your attitude, your efforts and your actions. That message hasn’t changed a bit. There are still tons of things to be positive about. You can learn about, read, watch whatever you want and continue to learn and grow. You ultimately get to make that personal choice and that should be incredibly empowering.
“Back in the fall Mrs. Kane and I met with each of you about your plans for the future. I hope you understand while society may have changed for the time being your efforts and purpose to achieve your goals and dreams should be as strong as ever.
“That brings me to gratitude. I’m sure you know, but this situation will not be the first or last tough time in your life. But there’s always something to be grateful for. No matter where you go in the world … this is an experience we’ve all shared.
“The Class of 2020 may end up being one of the most remembered in history,” Druvenga said. “You are certainly the first and, no offense, but I hope the last to have a drive-up commencement ceremony.
“For myself, and our teachers and your parents, this has been difficult. … How we choose to approach it will make all the difference. If you let negative experiences define your life, you’ll never be as happy as you want to. Gratitude is an amazing thing. Be thankful for your opportunities. Be sincerely happy for others and their opportunities. Recognize the people that helped to make your life better, or those who believed in you or have taken a chance on you. There’s a very good chance you are sitting in a car with them right now. Take a moment to say thanks.
“You get to choose,” Druvenga said. “You can be the Class of 2020 that had the attitude that they didn’t get (to do) anything they wanted and missed out on everything or you can be the Class of 2020 that dealt with adversity and went out and earned all the things they wanted. There’s a huge difference in those two approaches and mindsets and I think I know what you guys will do. Class of 2020, it has been an honor to be your principal.”
Druvenga alluded to the fact he will be moving on to a leadership role at his alma mater next fall, Dike-New Hartford.
“I can’t wait to see the great things the future has in store for you all.”
He acknowledged students receiving the Academic Excellence Award, meaning they earned a 3.7 cumulative grade point average. They were Megan Baerg, Nicholas Dittmer, Alysen Duffy, Merek Moeller, Andrew Roete, Alexis See and Morgan Vawter.
Superintendent Josh Ehn spoke about agency.
“You have an opportunity to write your own story, to head your own direction,” Ehn said. “For some of you this marks a major milestone in your lives.
“Almost four years ago, I was your principal for one year… During that freshman orientation, I challenged you to collect keys, as many as you could, because today is the day you get to cash those keys in, that open doors to your future. Those doors could be scholarships, college applications, jobs to careers to the military. The opportunities you’ve taken in the walls behind me will set you on your path to your future. If you can’t find the right key, go ahead and knock the door down anyway because you’re a Husky.
“The race is long, we often forget the first step, sometimes we even forget the last. But we look back and cherish the memories to get where we are today. Do not let this pandemic ruin that for you.
Ehn shared the poem “If” by “Jungle Book” author Rudyard Kipling, a 19th century English author and Nobel prizewinner. “If” was written as a letter to his son, John, but was a tribute to a Scottish colonial captain who failed in battle:
“If you can keep your head when all about you
“Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
“But make allowance for their doubting too;
“If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
“Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
“Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
“And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
“If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
“And treat those two impostors just the same;
“If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
“Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
“Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
“And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:
“If you can make one heap of all your winnings
“And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
“And lose, and start again at your beginnings
“And never breathe a word about your loss;
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
“To serve your turn long after they are gone,
“And so hold on when there is nothing in you
“Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
“Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
“If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
“If all men count with you, but none too much;
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
“With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
"And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”