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Graduation like no other: Jessamine County seniors get their own parade

It wasn’t the kind of graduation they had expected.

Instead of an auditorium filled with fellow seniors and their families, the Jessamine County Class of 2020 rode in cars past teachers, school officials and others who cheered them.

Before the procession began, Mercedes Powell, who was graduating from The Providence School, sat thinking about how different all this was.

“It’s amazing that they’re even doing something like this,” she said. “Most people don’t get the opportunity to come to a train station or an airstrip to graduate, but we can actually say that we did. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

In a senior year interrupted by a pandemic that closed schools, Mercedes chose to look at the good side.

“It’s been difficult not being able to see my friends, but the staff and the school … were so supportive,” she said. They helped her with her work and “even took the time to say hi to my kids on video chat.”

“I’m just blessed to even graduate from this school,” she said. “Even through the hard times, they were always there.”

While some school districts did online graduation ceremonies to ensure social distancing, Jessamine County wanted to get its kids together, even if they were separated in their vehicles.

R.J. Corman Railroad Group provided its airfield, and firefighters set up two ladder trucks with a banner between them for students to pass under.

Junior ROTC students formed an honor guard.

“It’s cool that the community came together to make sure that the graduates got to see each other,” Providence senior Lauren Gilbert said.

Denise Adams, vice chair of the school board and former principal of Providence, handed diplomas to graduates through the windows of passing vehicles. She credited Superintendent Matt Moore and his staff were mostly responsible for the event coming together.

“Matt Moore loves kids, and that’s genuine. It was important for him and his team to have something that was memorable for the kids” during this difficult year, she said.

She also noted R.J. Corman and other sponsors, police, firefighters and first responders and others for their efforts.

“It’s a wonderful thing when you see the community support its kids this way,” she said.

Finishing strong

All three public high schools held their graduation parades the same day at Lucas Field. Providence, the alternative school, went first, followed by East Jessamine, then West — about 650 students in all.

As the cars, trucks and motorcycles made their way down the runway to the cheers of onlookers, local radio station JESS FM 105.9 broadcast pre-recorded speeches by a pastor, the school board chairman, the superintendent and the principals, and student speakers from each school.

The Rev. Dwight Winter of Wilmore Free Methodist Church offered a prayer of thanksgiving and blessing.

“Our hearts are heavy for these graduates, for they have had so much taken away from them,” the preacher said, but they had “pressed on … persevered and become the stronger for it.”

Chairman Steven Scrivner congratulated the grads on behalf of the board.

When the students left their schools March 13, he said, no one had any idea this would be the last time they would come together.

“During these last several weeks, you’ve shown us with your resilience and commitment to finishing strong that you’re more than ready for the next step,” Scrivner said.

What matters most

Moore said the seniors had missed events they had looked forward to for months or years and learned that “life doesn’t come with guarantees.” They were leaving, he said, with the tools they need to chart their own course.

This year also should teach them, he said, that “people matter more than anything else.”

“Be kind because it’s the right thing to do. In good times and bad, a simple act of kindness has the power to change lives. Find opportunities to serve; it will make you far happier than money,” he said. “Relationships are more important than material goods, and while your circle of friends may shrink and expand over time, you’ll find your people, and when you do, connect with them, invest in them, and make them know that they are loved, just as you should know that you are loved.”

Providence

Providence Principal Eric Sowers began by announcing this year’s winners of the Providence Award, given to a student, or two, who have been a positive influence and lived out the school’s mission. Lauren Gilbert and Kailee Sexton were this year’s honorees.

Sowers called the 2020 graduates a class like no other because of what they had experienced, and he urged them to be lifelong learners.

“Your education is just getting started,” he said.

Gilbert, who gave the student address, told how the school had changed her for the better.

“Over the last few years, The Providence School has helped me come out of my shell,” she said. “I used to be very quiet and wasn’t involved in anything. Then I started staying for something almost every day after school.”

She recalled memorable occasions and people and said she was going to miss them.

“Thank you all for helping me become the person I am today,” she said. “To the Class of 2020, we did it, and we made history in the process.”

Kailee Sexton and a counselor, Neil Heffelbower, closed by singing Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”

East Jessamine

East Jessamine Principal Chris Hawboldt mentioned the Class of 2020’s “incredible accomplishments,” from athletic achievements to matching the highest number of Governor’s Scholars in the school’s history.

“Ultimately, we have grown a bond that will be everlasting,” he said.

Hawboldt followed his remarks with what he called a “good bad joke,” then, “holding with our Friday tradition, it’s time for some music,” he said, as Jason Mraz’s “Have It All” began to play.

East student Luke Allen made reference to a young warrior’s sword in his speech.

“The Class of 2020 has continuously been forging, reforging and most importantly, sharpening our iron each and every school year,” he said.

Born in the aftermath of 9/11, Allen said, the graduating class of 2020 has grown up in a time of great uncertainty, but: “Every time we have struggled, we have been sharing our strength with one another, and we have come out closer and stronger at the other end each time.”

West Jessamine

West Principal Brady Thornton also referenced the uniqueness of the class’s senior year experience, and he challenged them to “arise from circumstances that are unprecedented and beyond your control into a world of uncertainty and in need of hope.”

Other generations have had to do so, and “those generations are known for their greatness,” he said.

“I know the quality of young adults you are and have no doubt,” he said, that they, too, will do great things.

Class president Josh Alden urged his fellow students to consider their entirety of high school, not just how it ended.

“Even though we missed three months of school, we still got three and a quarter years. These other years have defined my high school experience more than missing these last few months will,” he said. “I have a lot of wonderful high school memories, and these months can never take those memories away.”

He thanked teachers, staff, coaches and fellow students for making those years good ones.

“I hope we can look back in a couple of years and see some good come out of this dark time and see a blossoming future, but all we can do now is cherish the time we’re given and make mistakes and learn as we go — because, as they say, hindsight is 2020,” Alden said.

One of a kind

County Judge-Executive David West, one of the elected officials who attended the graduations, said the way the ceremony was held wasn’t the norm, but perhaps it was fitting to have a “special graduation” for a special class of students.

“It’s one of a kind,” he said. “There won’t be another one like it.”

About Randy Patrick

Randy Patrick is a reporter for Bluegrass Newsmedia, which includes The Jessamine Journal. He may be reached at 859-759-0015 or by email at randy.patrick@bluegrassnewsmedia.com.

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