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Unforgettable

By JAZMINE BUNCH

RCNH News Intern

AHOSKIE – A C.D. recording of Pomp and Circumstance played as friends and family waited for their graduate to march across the stage. The stage—usually set on the HCHS gymnasium floor— stood in the student parking lot at Hertford County High, looked upon by friends and family who, instead of packed in the bleachers, stood by their cars.

Valedictorian Vanessa Barron-Rueda stood before her class for the first time since March to give a shortened version of the annual farewell.

“Most graduation speeches during ‘normal’ years focus on shared moments like senior cookouts, award night, senior week or prom, but we didn’t get that,” she said. “We never had the classic senior year experience.”

Kyasia Davis stands in line for Saturday’s 8 a.m. graduation ceremony. Although COVID-19 has caused a lot of uncertainty for grads, her cap is her mantra for the future as Davis will be attending UNC-Greensboro studying Social Work. Photo by Jazmine Bunch

The class of 2020 experienced a non-traditional school year when COVID-19 led to school closures two weeks before spring break. Students and teachers made the transition to remote learning, but many traditional senior moments were lost in the transition.

“It was the last months that I was looking forward to the most,” said Barron-Rueda, “especially because it was so many plans already in progress. It really broke my heart knowing that I couldn’t spend the last months with my classmates in school.”

In addition to a non-traditional school year, the students had to bid farewell to their classmates with a non-traditional graduation. The class of 124 graduates was split into two ceremonies to keep attendance low. Graduates with last names beginning with A-K had their ceremony at 8 a.m., and L-Z followed at 10:30 a.m.

Graduates lined up around the outside of the building draped in cap and gowns, grad cords and face masks, following taped X’s on the ground marking six feet between each student.

Each grad was provided with a custom “HC Class of 2020” mask, gifted to them by senior English teacher Victoria Ellis and donated by Patricia Ferguson.

HCHS Principal Ernest Cooley, Jr. advised audience members to follow social distancing guidelines prior to the processional of each program.

After walking across the stage and receiving their diploma, graduates returned to their families. They received words of inspiration, a tribute song, reflections, a farewell, and turned their tassels— all while standing alongside their families in the student parking lot.

The amended ceremony didn’t damper the mood for graduates and family, most of whom were thankful to still have the opportunity to have a graduation.

“I feel accomplished,” Mya Mabine began, “I feel good about myself. I spent 12 years doing school work and here I am now.”

After the ceremony, they visited the high school’s front yard where they picked up their personal custom graduation signs gifted to them by the school.

The original plan for graduation consisted of hosting the ceremonies on the football field, following social distancing guidelines, Cooley said. The biggest concern was the possibility of someone who was unaware that they had the virus being in attendance, so they chose an option that limited touching and the amount of time that people would be gathered together.

Although safety was the number one priority, Cooley considered the impact that not having a graduation could have on students during this already difficult time.

“I think it would’ve been a negative impact on them because there’s no finality,” Cooley said. “When you complete something, you want to celebrate it. It’s almost as if they were still here… because the way we ended the year, they left not knowing they were going to be done for the year.”

In her salutatorian reflection speech, Nyazjha Wilmer left the class of 2020 with a positive spin to graduating during the pandemic.

“Us all being here for our graduation ceremony during the COVID-19 pandemic is proof that we can meet any and every challenge that comes our way with courage and steadfastness,” she said.

Each graduating class strives to have a memorable last year of high school, but the class of 2020 experienced a senior year that will truly be unforgettable.