The COVID-19 pandemic forced members of the Class of 2020 at Dansville Central School to finish their senior year remotely and physically distance themselves from friends through more than three months of school closures.
Along the way they missed sports, a prom, a senior trip and all the other activities that come during the final months of school.
But it didn’t keep class members from coming closer together, students and staff said during their graduation ceremony on Friday night.
It was a graduation that more than one commencement speaker said was not the ceremony they were expecting.
“But we did it,” said salutatorian Jasmyn Fox, who acknowledged struggling with online learning and separation from her friends. “We persevered and stayed together through isolation. We came together and helped each other grow.”
It would have been easy, Jasmyn said, for students “to drop off the face of the earth” since many would be leaving the area anyway.
“But we didn’t drift apart. We didn’t lose contact,” said Jasmyn, who will study nursing at East Carolina University. “If COVID can’t stop us, nothing can…
“If anything, COVID strengthened our bond,” she said. “We will always have a little piece of each other.”
The district’s 131st commencement ceremony came a month later than usual and required several adjustments due to the ongoing public health crisis. The ceremony took place outdoors at Ralph Clements Field, where students replaced fans in the stands while maintaining social distancing. Their traditional cap and gown attire was accompanied by masks, and families watched and listened from cars parked on a football field that was turned into a drive-in venue.
High School Principal Tom Frazier acknowledged the many emotions students likely felt with the abrupt end to their senior year and all that was left undone.
“You may feel like it was a little unfair,” he said. “All these feelings are completely appropriate under the circumstances.”
But he hoped that someday those feelings would reveal a sense of gratitude.
“I like to think that this is the best time to look for the positives in life, and show gratitude,” he said noting the students’ health, good times they experienced at Dansville High School, the proud legacy they leave as graduates, and the care and love of their family and community.
“I’m so grateful that we are all able to be here tonight and celebrate your accomplishments, celebrate your successes,” he said. “I am confident that you will make a positive impact on our world.”
Valedictorian Madeline Shafer recalled a phrase her mother and grandmother would often share with her when she was trying to make a decision: “Do it now.”
At the time, Madeline saw it as an urging to take advantage of her youth. When she was older, she wouldn’t have the freedom – or time – that youth allows. Now, after a senior year affected by the pandemic, the phrase has taken on new meaning: “Because life changes in the blink of an eye and in ways we would never imagine,” she told her classmates.
“Who would think we’d rely on Google Meets and lots of emails to finish our senior year,” said Madeline, who will next study engineering at Clemson University.
She encouraged her classmates to “take in every moment, you never know if it will be the last” practice, art show, or chance to put on a team jersey.
“There were so many things we looked forward to as seniors that never happened,” she said, urging her classmates to see that “some of the best moments of high school were right before us.” She noted little moments, such as a shared laugh or hanging out with a teacher before class.
As they head out to life after high school, she encouraged the students to “take risks, make sure you are enjoying every moment as you go forward, and ask yourself, ‘Are you ready to do it now?’.”
Students were encouraged to see the challenges they had faced – and overcome – because of the COVID-19 crisis as opportunities and a chance to make a difference.
“We’re sending you out in the world at an interesting time in our world’s history and our nation’s history. But the good news is that by the virtue of your age, you will exercise an outsize influence on the future of this country and this world,” said the Rev. J. Eric Thompson of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Dansville. “The world needs every one of you to stand up and take your part as citizens.”
Thompson encouraged graduates to keep educating themselves, seek advice from those who have come before and learn what helped them succeed or help them through when they failed.
He also urged the graduates to stay humble, be charitable – in the classic sense of interdependence – and to be accountable.
Thompson noted that the disruption of society in recent months “takes nothing away from your achievement.”
“If anything,” he said, “It makes me more hopeful because you have been tempered in steel.”
Dansville School Superintendent Paul Alioto said graduation rehearsal on Friday morning “was more like a reunion” for a class that hadn’t been all together for months. He also congratulated the Class of 2020 for completing the longest senior year in Dansville school history.
But along with the lightheartedness came a final lesson about leadership – both within the school curriculum and the experience of the pandemic.
“No graduating class is better prepared to take on the world then you,” he said.
Alioto explained that the students have learned leadership is often confused with charisma, that leadership is often the ability to keep one’s head when everyone else is losing theirs, and that leadership often result of group working together with specific roles to accomplish task.
“Leadership is in the skills you have learned, that make you,” he said. “The country you inherit will be better for your involvement.”
And, he said, “no matter how hard it gets, or where you find yourself, Dansville will always have your back.”