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Graduates celebrate the end of a unique school year

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    At the beginning of the ceremony, the students stand up one by one. Photos by Julianne Hodges
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    The guests of the seniors watch from the stands.
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    Salutatorian Drew Remington delivers his speech.
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    Valedictorian Gabriela Valero delivers her speech.
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    Some family and friends, unable to attend the ceremony in the stadium, gathered outside of the stadium gates and left signs of encouragement for their students.
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    The students who have received academic honors, achieved college credit or committed to join the military are recognized.
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    A row of graduating students stand up to walk to the stage.
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    The sun begins to set as the seniors walk across the stage.
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    The students walk across the stage one by one.
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    A graduate puts his mask back on after having his picture taken on the stage.
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    A teacher gives a thumbs-up to each student as they pass him to return to their seat.
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    Graduates of Phoenix High School walk away from the stage after receiving their diplomas.
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    Graduates of Phoenix High School walk away from the stage after receiving their diplomas.
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    The guests cheer after their students officially graduate.
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    The graduates move their tassels to the other side of their caps to symbolize their graduation.
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    The newly-graduated seniors end the ceremony with the Elgin fight song.

Despite the challenges presented by a pandemic that has drastically altered the way people can safely gather, the graduating seniors from Elgin High School and Phoenix High School were able to officially end their high school careers and say goodbye in person on Friday night.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s graduation was set up differently in order to minimize the potential for spreading the virus. Each graduating senior was only allowed two guests in Wildcat Stadium, and each pair of guests had to sit six feet apart. The graduates’ seats were spread out across the football field. Everyone was required to wear face masks, except for the speakers while they were addressing the crowd or the graduates while they were having their picture taken as they walked the stage.

Elgin High School Principal Ricardo Reyes began the ceremony by asking for a moment of silence in honor of George Floyd, whose killing by a police officer in Minnesota has caused protests across the country about racism and mistreatment by police.

“Together, we must acknowledge racism and connect with a shared commitment to address it,” Reyes said.

After the invocation and pledges to the flags, Reyes delivered his address to the graduating class. While thinking about this year’s senior class and all of the experiences they missed out on, Reyes said he struggled to express his feelings into words until he saw the commencement address for the Class of 2020 by former President Barack Obama. Reyes quoted a portion of Obama’s speech, giving the students three pieces of advice: don’t be afraid, because America has been through tough times before; do what is right, not what’s convenient; and build community in order to get through challenges together.

“‘So, be alive to one another’s struggles,’” Reyes quoted. “Stand up for one another's rights and leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divides us—sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed—and set the world on a different path.’”

Next, salutatorian Drew Remington delivered his speech, where he spoke about how he and his classmates have been through many tough situations, including the pandemic.

“But every time a roadblock presented itself, we kept on going right through it, and look where that got us,” Remington said. “I'm extremely proud to be a part of the Class of 2020. And sure, education is important. But in 20 years, when I go to tell the story about these times, I will not be talking about what I learned in calculus or biology. I'll be talking about all the memories I've made with all my classmates, all the stories about all the crazy things we did.”

Following that, valedictorian Gabriela Valero delivered her speech. She shared her struggles throughout school, learning English and dealing with a habit of procrastination. Then, she shared a story about how, when she was six years old, a “blue-eyed” fellow student told her that she was not doing well in classes because she was a Mexican immigrant.

“I remember feeling the air turn a bit cold and my lungs shriveling up from the iciness, because it was difficult for me to deny what he was so confidently stating, when I could not even form a coherent-sounding sentence in English,” Valero said. “So I opted to kick him in the face. Then I mastered English, got rid of my inhibitions and started getting straight A's. I just completed my associate's degree, and I'm now on my way to a doctorate. So bless you, little blue-eyed child. Reflecting back on that experience, I know now that you should never allow anyone to talk down to you, not even yourself.”

After each student from Elgin and Phoenix high schools walked across the stage to receive their diploma, Reyes directed the graduated seniors to move their tassels to the other side of their caps, symbolizing their accomplishment of graduation, as their families filled the stands with cheers and applause. The ceremony ended with the playing of the Elgin school song and fight song, and a number of the graduates threw their caps into their air in celebration.