‘A lot out of a little’: Grads walk stage in person after year of pandemic learning

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PITTSBORO — Just hours before Northwood High School’s graduation ceremony last Friday, rain threatened to move the county’s first outdoor commencement since before the pandemic indoors.

Yet as the sun set on 312 of Northwood’s newest graduates, a different rain concluded the evening: Prince’s “Purple Rain,” performed by students and alumni.

The joy across the school’s football field was palpable, as families and the recent graduates shout-sang Prince’s iconic chorus, played air guitar during the bridge solo and waved their cell phone lights from their socially distanced seating areas.

Last year, COVID-19 gathering restrictions led to drive-thru and virtual ceremonies. After more than a year of pandemic challenges faced by everyone but felt acutely by teachers, students and their parents, this final Northwood performance felt like both a celebration of the class of 2021 and of the ability to have an in-person graduation at all.

“Like all years it has been a good year and a bad year — wins and losses. We all became experts in Zoom, but the price was high,” Northwood graduate Hue Jacobs said during the ceremony’s welcome address. “But that is all behind us now and we are all here to celebrate.

“As I look around,” Jacobs said, “I realize that this is the biggest gathering of people that Chatham County has seen in over a year, and everyone is here to celebrate the class of 2021. Thank you for being a part of this great day and for all the support that you have given us.”

More than 600 students graduated from Chatham County Schools last weekend, along with seniors from Chatham Charter, Woods Charter and Willow Oak Montessori. Ceremony protocol among the schools varied slightly, but each school hosted an in-person ceremony. After watching their peers graduate virtually, through a drive-thru line or not at all last year, many students worried about the future of their own graduations.

Until April, most of these seniors primarily learned virtually, and many did not get a final prom. Unlike the class of 2020 — who had about two-thirds of a normal senior year before the pandemic upended the typical end-of-year traditions — this year’s graduates did not have a normal senior year.

For them, the entirety of their final year of high school was touched by COVID-19.

Still, students worked to make the most of a hard situation.

Some finished sporting careers and set records, donning masks while doing so, while others took extra college courses online or spent time not physically in school with friends and family. Students got their driver’s licenses, applied — and got accepted — into colleges and planned for the future.

The class of 2021 learned, as Northwood Senior President Courtney Fisher put it in her final reflection, how to support one another through thick and thin and do the best with what they’re given.

“We learned that class with masks on is still class with your friends and football games with limited capacity are still football games, and that you don’t need a homecoming dance to still have a great senior year,” she said. “And most importantly, I think the class of ‘21 learned how to make a lot out of a little, and make the most of whatever we were able to get after watching the class of 2020 suffer through a very anticlimactic end to their 13 years of school. So I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we are very glad to be graduating together in front of our families, friends and teachers.”

A few minutes later, the graduates would turn their tassels and toss their caps, officially signifying what had felt unattainable at many points over the last year: they’d graduated.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.


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