EVANSTON — Perhaps to make up for the complete loss of the traditions that would have made up the last weeks of their senior year, fate smiled on the Evanston High School class of 2020 with a picture-perfect day for the outdoor graduation ceremony. Families of the small graduating class of less than 150 filled the football field at Kay Fackrell Stadium with vehicles decorated with streamers, balloons, flags and posters, while additional spectators parked behind the fences above the stadium to be present for the ceremony.
Only one small hiccup impacted the ceremony when technical difficulties prevented the pre-recorded audio of the EHS Vocal Jazz group performing the “Star-Spangled Banner” from playing and EHS Principal Merle Lester instead led those assembled in the Pledge of Allegiance. Otherwise, the ceremony, put together by staff and parents when it became clear the traditional indoor ceremony wouldn’t be possible, appeared to go off without a hitch.
As he stood on the stage set up just below the scoreboard, Lester surveyed the field full of cars and said, “I feel like I should say, ‘Start your engines.’” He continued by saying it had been the “weirdest school year” he’s ever experienced, but, “This graduation ceremony is something I’ll never forget.”
Lester then introduced student body president Maya Angwin to give the first student speech. Lester said he and vice-principal Scott Kohler referred to Angwin as “the great wanderer” because she was never where they expected her to be. In her speech, Angwin thanked her classmates for always showing up to support one another and described her class as one of perseverance. “We were born into a decade of war and we’re graduating in the midst of a pandemic.”
Angwin said she hoped her classmates would go forward with a new perspective of making each day count and asked them not to “sweat the small things after everything we’ve experienced.”
Senior class president Ashlyn Lundholm presented the second speech, during which she spoke of the dramatic changes in the world over the past three months. Lundholm said, “We may not look back on the past few months with nostalgia, but we will think of how they changed our lives.”
For the second consecutive year, there were co-valedictorians in the class of 2020. Hannah Linford and Charles Winfield were both recognized, and both spoke during the ceremony. Linford said, “Seniors give cliché speeches every year, but this is the class of 2020 and COVID-19,” adding that no other class can or will really understand the struggles that they’ve faced.
“I’ll admit that I rejoiced when it was first announced we were getting a temporary break from school,” said Linford, “but as the days stretched on, I started missing things I didn’t expect. ... We’ve had a lot taken from us. Nobody could have anticipated the way we said goodbye.”
When taking the podium, Winfield said he had procrastinated in writing his speech, but looking out on the cars on the field realized, “Maybe I should have practiced in the Walmart parking lot.” Winfield thanked his fellow students and the high school staff for the huge amounts of kindness shown at the school.
“Our class has been through a lot,” said Winfield, noting the entire world has changed due to the pandemic and “it’s easy to feel like you’re falling behind.” However, he said in taking the time to write his speech he’s been able to reflect on the memories that bind the class together and the lessons they’ve learned at EHS, far beyond just an education.
Kohler then announced the students who had earned academic achievement honors as the top 10% of the class, including Angwin, Bailey Barker, David Baxter, Beckham Carver, Citlali Cerda, Dawson Crofts, Lauren Ellingford, Kaylynn Hoglin, Mason Jacketta, Alyssa Liechty, Hannah Linford, Tyler Murphy, Jake Paucarpura, Jessie Piiparinen, Garet Sharp and Charles Winfield.
Kohler also recognized the recipients of the Lois Michelstetter Citizenship Award — Bailey Barker and Winfield, as well as the students honored as Best All-Around Girl and Boy — Taryn Wagstaff and David Baxter. Outstanding All-Around Athlete honors went to Lauren Ellingford and Dawson Crofts.
Superintendent Ryan Thomas then certified the diplomas and read the same congratulatory remarks he made last year. Thomas then said, “That’s what I read last year, but this year it doesn’t seem to be enough. I’ve said the word ‘unprecedented’ more in the last three months than I ever have…My wish now is for these students to have unprecedented lives.”
Students then crossed the stage one by one to receive their diplomas and traverse the entire flag-lined walkway around the top of the stadium to stand on stars that had been painted on the sidewalk with each student’s name. Unlike ceremonies in the auditorium, which are a bit more subdued, the outdoor venue allowed for honking, noisemakers and more as each student name was read.
By the time all names were called and students had taken their places, the entire walkway was filled with students in red and blue gowns fluttering in the breeze. After the past few months, one got the sense the traditional cap toss, this year into a clear blue sky, was more triumphant and momentous than ever before.