The Van Alstyne High School class of 2020 assembled one last time at the school’s stadium for a graduation ceremony on May 29.
It was a typical closing note for a senior year, but so much else was different.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the remainder of the academic year was moved online. Earlier this spring, the idea of having a packed stadium for a graduation event seemed unlikely.
Some restrictions were in place for the in-person ceremony.
Tickets had been distributed to graduates, who were each allowed to have 10 people attend. This limited the crowd by about one-third of the size that likely would have attended a traditional graduation ceremony for the school.
Once assembled, the graduates, who practiced social distancing, covered about half of the football field.
"It was awesome seeing so many people there that cheered us on and supported us. Having that many people there to help make it seem very close to normal," senior Torrin Riddick said.
Some of the seniors reflected on how the ceremony almost didn’t happen.
Hallie Stormant said she was thankful "to have the chance to toss my graduation cap among my classmates whom I'd spent most of my life with, and truly celebrate all of our accomplishments."
Hannah Groce expressed a similar sentiment.
"Graduation was amazing. Even if it wasn't perfect or wasn't what it could've been, I am still so blessed to have that time with my classmates one last time," she said.
"I think I knew from the beginning (of the pandemic) that school was going to shut down for everyone's safety, but I never expected it to be so long. Not being able to see all my friends, not being to talk to my teachers one last time and not getting to say proper goodbyes was tough for me to stomach. I mean, I've been dreaming about a senior year since I started school."
The goal was to host a normal graduation ceremony - or one as close to it as possible, said Van Alstyne ISD School Board Vice President Dennis Smith.
"I am so thankful for the leadership, hard work and creativity of the Van Alstyne ISD administration to do the best thing for our students and our community. So even with the recommended guidelines and restrictions, it was simply encouraging to be together as a community and honor our students for their academic achievements."
Smith is also the parent of valedictorian Rachel Smith.
"I've been waiting a long time for the privilege of presenting Rachel with her diploma," he said.
As much as efforts were made to make the ceremony normal, things were different.
There were no handshakes onstage. Those in close contact with students wore masks. Of the 125 graduates, only one wore a mask during the ceremony.
There were graduates who, because of medical concerns, did not participate in the ceremony with their classmates. The district held private ceremonies for those students in the hours before crowds appeared at the stadium.
During the ceremony, salutatorian Quinn Rasor did not speak of the recent past, but of good times with friends and the influence of teachers on his life.
"Class of 2020: Be sad. This is the end of high school and could be the last time you see any of your fellow classmates. Parents: Be sad because your child is leaving to live on their own and you can't protect them anymore. Faculty and staff: Be sad, because you are losing the best class you've ever had," he said.
"But most importantly, we all should be excited for the future, and what it has to hold. Goodbye, class of 2020. May we leave this bubble that we call Van Alstyne and achieve greatness in this world we call Earth."
Valedictorian Rachel Smith spoke to the class about its shared experiences. "We made it to the end of our high school careers, but not in a way that any of us have anticipated."
She reminded them that although their time together was cut short, they are not alone.
"We are living through history as we speak. Not only are we living through a pivotal point in our lives, but we are living through a period that will be remembered for the rest of the time," she said.
"Remember, you are not the only person that is devastated by the current events. You are not the only person worried if their freshman year of college will be what they want. You are not the only person who fears for the health of loved ones. Right now, each and every one of us are simply trying to survive. This is our life, these are our circumstances, but we don't have to worry or be anxious because God is in control."
The circumstance of the school year also had an impact on the parents of graduates who walked this unique journey with their seniors.
"Seeing the class of 2020 miss more and more of their senior events was difficult and as talks went on about not having graduation, many emotions came with that, especially with this being our first child to graduate," Amy Fletcher said.
"However, when we got word that there would be in-person graduation, there was a lot of relief and thankfulness that this milestone would be celebrated to the best of our ability under the circumstances."
Melany Ethridge expressed appreciation for the school district.
"We are grateful for the way Van Alstyne ISD has cared about our students throughout their academic careers, and can't thank the district, administrators and school board enough for going above and beyond in providing such a beautiful and memorable graduation ceremony at a time when many schools were not able to do so."
Exiting the field, Kes Ingram, the mother of a graduate and a school staff member, summed up the event as "a perfect night. This class so deserved that."