The rain-heavy clouds parted and the sun blessed Waverly with its soft benevolence on Saturday afternoon, the first day of summer.
But June 20, 2020, was not just another date on the calendar welcoming the solstice at 4:44 p.m.
It was a moment carved out by circumstances of fate of what had been an unusual sequence of months, in which a global pandemic toppled all notions of normalcy, and established a new set of firsts.
Had it been a “normal” year for Waverly-Shell Rock seniors, prom, sports, the spring play, Robotics competitions and shows, among others, would all have happened, according to the schedule.
But as was destined, the coronavirus canceled all knowns, pushing the unknown and the uncertain as the new norm, crushing hopes, and leaving a tangible sense of loss in young hearts in the process.
For their part, Waverly and Bremer County did not see the coronavirus numbers of neighboring Black Hawk County, but as life under COVID-19 continued, new protocols of interaction, including self-isolation, quarantine and social distancing, the practice of staying 6 feet away from people other than your immediate tribe, took control of daily lives.
So graduation, the pinnacle of 13 years of schooling, floated up in the air, literally, as the end of the year approached and caps and gowns, ordered for the special occasion, sat stuffed in closets after making brief, lonesome appearances in selfies on social media.
The prospect of no formal commencement — a sore spot, seemingly more for parents than for the students — was somewhat offset by brand-new events, which would not have cropped up had the coronavirus not threatened the existence of a formal, diploma-awarding ceremony.
A drive-by parade, complete with a prayer-filled baccalaureate, an online effort to “adopt” seniors and send them small gifts of recognition, and a display of signs with the pictures of each senior exhibited along the sidewalk of the high school — all launched and led by parents — were among the palliative measures meant to soften the uncertainties.
But in the end, what was meant to be, was. Fittingly, that was the past tense of, “It is what it is,” the theme the Class of 2020 adopted as its motto.
It turns out the seniors did have their in-person graduation, after all.
And because of the virus, and thanks to a spell of great weather, not to mention a beautifully kept and recently upgraded stadium space, the seniors and their families shared a memorable commencement.
“I was really glad we were able to have a ceremony in person,” senior Rachel Jebe, who plans to major in actuarial science at the University of Iowa, told me afterwards. “Since we missed the last month of school, it was really nice to see my classmates one last time.”
It was symbolic that the field, where, in a typical year, trophies are won and tears are shed, belonged fully, on that Saturday afternoon, to the whole graduating Class of 2020 and to their families.
It was a triumph for all to gather, to reflect, and to celebrate the closure of a high school chapter four years in the making and the turning of a new leaf into adulthood.
For the first time in the school’s remembered history, commencement was held on the stadium.
A makeshift stage with a table draped in the school colors, stood in the middle of the field. Atop it, 158 diplomas, in hard black covers, stacked alphabetically, like building blocks, awaited their recipients. Under the lectern, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a container of Clorox wipes, a sign of the times, sat next to a bottle for water.
Two artificial peace lilies on either side of the stage and the American flag on the left, along with an arrangement of sunflowers in the front of the stage, created pomp and circumstance under the blue sky.
The stage faced rows of folding chairs, placed 6 feet apart, in the thick green grass, which carpeted the field, fortified by the abundance of intermittent rains.
Occasionally, a light breeze, lifted the table covering, bringing a sense of ease and relief among the spectators, some of whom had brought umbrellas to shield themselves from the elements — be it the baking sun or a burst of torrential rain, equally likely in Iowa on a day like this.
Ethan Flege, the graduation speaker and class president, summed up the lessons of the shared experiences his classmates had gone through because of the pandemic with this remark:
“If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward,” he said, using one of his favorite quotes. “In life there are going to be things and people that try to hold you back and drag you down, but regardless, you must keep moving forward. The coronavirus has stopped us from flying and running so to speak, yet, we have not stopped moving forward. We have continued along our journey and put our best effort forward. Your actions have shown your true character and how resilient you all are. I am proud to be part of such an amazing class!”
Seated in the bleachers, or in folding chairs on the edge of the field, some wearing masks, in groups but away from others, the families had come to support their sons and daughters and to share in their success.
In his speech, Flege recalled how he regretted not taking his football coach’s advice to keep his eyes wide open during the four years of high school, which had flown by in the blink of an eye.
“High school is a great time, but I also understand and know that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows,” Flege said. “You go through things that give you the highs and lows of emotions. One day you’re on top of the world, and the next, you’re not even close, and I guess that is exactly what makes high school what it is.”
“It wasn’t without good times though. We have all made many memories and friendships we will cherish for the rest of our lives. High school is a great time, but I also understand and know that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. You go through things that give you the highs and lows of emotions. One day you’re on top of the world, and the next, you’re not even close, and I guess that is exactly what makes high school what it is.”
David Fox, the hard-working principal whose penchant for humor, and especially for the saying, “Keep the main thing the main thing,” joked he would keep his speech brief and shorten it even more if it starts sprinkling.
He named the 13 students who graduated with a 4.0 GPA — Parker Boevers, Gabryele Burman, Ashley Downing, Ethan Flege, Kaylen Gayer, Camryn Grawe, Sidney Little, Julia Reed, Madeline Rodenbeck, Ryan Sand, Elizabeth Schmidt, Britney Young and Paul Zelle. All earned that honor.
About 60% will attend a four-year college, 25% will go to a two-year college or enter the military in the fall, Fox added.
Senior Germain Sagbo, who gave the concluding remarks, dived deep into the reasons for success for himself and his fellow students.
“In the last four years, we were able to create deep friendships that we will hopefully hold on to forever,” he said. “Friends that were always there to lend a hand when we needed it. We were able to understand what it is to get knocked down and get back up.”
He praised the teachers for their efforts and patience, the administrators for their leadership, the parents for their unequivocal support and sacrifices, and condensed his own parting thought in four nuggets of advice — never forget the community that raised you; treat others like you want to be treated; “never, never never quit” on your dreams; stick to your true self and never forget your “why.”
“A why is something to lean on when times get rough, something to motivate you to keep on pushing to achieve your goals,” Sagbo said.
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” he said, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche.
Sagbo then translated the 19th century German philosopher in 21st century speak like this:
“If you have a strong enough why, you will figure out the how,” he said.
Senior Britney Young said the graduation topped her expectations.
“I couldn’t ask for a better ceremony,” she said. “It went very smooth, the weather was perfect, and I was very happy to see all of my classmates.”