FLORENCE — “You guys have just made history,” Principal Toby Haugen said, looking across a football field dotted with freshly minted Florence High School graduates.
But for the 150 or so grads who heard this, it wasn’t history as much as the chance to complete a long-awaited rite of passage, albeit behind antiviral masks.
The May 21 commencement was far more restrained than the usual ceremony, with only two guests per graduate and social distancing in the stands and on the field.
Jim Thomas, vice president of the Florence Unified School District Governing Board, passed out the diplomas as seniors stepped onstage. The handshakes and hugs that usually accompany roll call, and eventually number in the thousands, could be counted on one hand this time.
Salutatorian Jesse Parr thanked everyone for following safety measures for the ceremony. “Thanks to the efforts of all of you, I am able to even stand up here and give this speech,” Parr said.
He said while the pandemic poses a major challenge as the class of 2020 enters a new phase of life, “I am optimistic that we will overcome it together and that we will all find a way around this obstacle.”
Valedictorian Maxwell Levinton talked about how life happens despite our plans, including the tough lesson that “hard work doesn’t always lead to success.” He said the day he began high school he already knew what his career would be.
“I planned on being a professional soccer player, and I dedicated all of my time and energy pursuing this goal.”
But three consecutive season-ending injuries later, Levinton’s hopes for a pro career dimmed, and he focused on school “as a backup plan.
“I’ve come to fully believe that ultimately a person’s character isn’t defined by how successful they are, but how well they deal with hardship. And I’ve come to understand that the true value of our accomplishments lies in the challenges we overcame, and not in the end goal alone,” Levinton said.
Without directly addressing the pandemic, Levinton referred to difficult days ahead.
“Life is only going to get more difficult after tonight,” he said, and the struggles he and his classmates faced in school will seem trivial by comparison.
“The world owes us nothing, and we will always be judged by our actions, never our intentions. I hope that we all find the courage to act boldly, dare to fail and become the kind of people that our friends and families can be proud of.”
Twenty-two graduates opted to skip the exercises, but their names were called and their classmates applauded them all the same. But the majority showed up. Although they’ll be forever remembered for the historic times in which they graduated, Haugen said he’ll remember them as “the class who showed up.”