For generations of Americans, high school graduation traditions have inspired joy, relief, pride, a bittersweet feeling of sadness and anticipation, and, if we are being honest, a bit of boredom. Living through a deadly pandemic, the Class of 2021 moves gratitude to the top of that list.
"Compared to last year, the Class of 2020, this is amazing," said Megan Saso of Arlington Heights, her smile hidden behind the commemorative Class of 2021 face mask she wore for graduation from St. Viator High School.
Just being able to celebrate with their classmates, teachers and loved ones in an outdoor ceremony at Arlington Park instead of online made the graduation ceremony special for 18-year-old Megan and her twin, Caitlin Saso.
"I think when we look back at us wearing masks, it will just remind us of what we went through. I think we'll be OK. We'll never forget it," Megan Saso said.
High schools, and the nation, ground to a halt in March 2020, and so did pep rallies, sports, concerts, plays, dances, parties and college visits. No one knew when, or if, students could return to classrooms. Online learning continued for much of the 2020-21 year at many suburban schools. St. Viator resumed classes in person with students wearing masks and still shut down for a few days as part of COVID-19 protocols.
"The pandemic was a big part of my high school career, but at least I was able to be in school for all but last spring," said Kate Hannon, 18, the St. Viator valedictorian from Palatine. She noted that the school even put on "a little pep rally just for seniors."
The pandemic took away a lot, but it also created some new opportunities.
"The fact that it was a pandemic graduation made it kind of cool," said Hannon, who talked about that in her commencement speech. "We had to adjust to a lot of things, and that will help us in the future. This isn't the only thing we'll have to adjust to in our futures, and we know we can adapt now."
If high school prepares teenagers to be adults, graduating during a pandemic provides a chance for extra credit.
"Over the last 15 months, they also had become, by necessity, a resilient and resourceful group," said Brian J. Liedlich, president of St. Viator High School, who noted the faculty, staff and parents also adjusted. The school's 58th annual graduation ceremony was not in the packed Cahill Gym of the old school, as tradition dictates, but involved socially distant pods of parents and guests watching the pomp and circumstances outdoors.
"Being at the racetrack is pretty cool. I'm just grateful for at least getting something," said graduating senior salutatorian Callie Mulligan. "It was a crazy year, and we're all pretty thankful."
There was no coasting to the finish line for suburban seniors. Alexis Oliveras, who lives with his father in Arlington Heights, spent most of his senior year at Hersey High School learning online in the kitchen at his mom's apartment on the South Side of Chicago while helping his 7-year-old brother, Ayben Rodriguez, get through first grade online.
"People told me my maturity level has gone up, and my brother helped me get there," said Oliveras, 18, who already has a job with FedEx and hopes to save money to get training to become an auto mechanic. "It gave me the opportunity to get early access to adulthood."
Saving text messages from friends helped him get through the year. His only outing with friends came on Halloween, when they took younger siblings trick-or-treating while wearing masks and staying apart. A wrestler for his first three years of high school, he didn't get that chance his senior year. He'll always be a member of "the COVID class," Oliveras said. "But you've got to be grateful for what you have now."
Once taken for granted, graduating with classmates en masse became a treat.
"Grateful for where I'm at, and excited for where I'm going," said Mulligan, who is off to study biomedical engineering at the University of Miami in Florida. "Just being in-person at St. Viator, we're all extremely grateful. It was an amazing experience, totally irreplaceable."
High school graduation in May 2020 was anything but traditional.
"Yeah, yeah. They had something. But, yeah," remembered Athan Huelskamp, 19, a 2020 St. Viator graduate whose many activities and leadership skills earned him the school's prestigious Andrew Johnson Award. "We had like 10 students at a time in the gym. It was not extremely memorable."
He and his parents, Tim and Angela, watched the ceremony days later on the computer link provided by the school as he took his turn walking across the stage in Cahill Gym to accept his diploma and award.
"Normally, the entire gym would have given him a standing ovation," said Stephanie Spiewak, who, as head of the school's counseling department, also has seen changes and new experiences for the last two graduations. One of the highlights when she graduated with the Class of 2002 was forming a tunnel for the teachers to enter the gym.
"I remember that applause as a way to say thank you," Spiewak says, adding that students managed to pull off a similar idea this year, as they've been forced to develop new ways to do things. "That's what this entire year has been about, and that can be a good thing," she says of students who have adapted. "Man, they've seen it all."
Counselors came up with new online ways to work out college visits and dealt with an increased amount of anxiety and depression, Spiewak says.
Huelskamp just finished his freshman year at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, where he throws the hammer, discus and shot put for the track team. The further he moves from his high school days, the more he appreciates the oddness of it all.
"I really have thought about that. I don't think there's any time in recent history where you have a whole class dealing with the same thing. We had this unique experience," he said.
Chris Paolelli has been to more than a dozen commencements at St. Viator -- one as a student, most as an English teacher at the school watching the ceremony in the gymnasium, and one as a drive-by.
"Everybody was thrown for a loop by the pandemic," Paolelli said, recalling how last year's graduating seniors, prior to entering the gym in small timed groups to receive their diplomas, drove from station to station in the parking lot to avoid mingling. "It was all virtual. It was so sudden and complete, everyone was grateful for whatever we could put together."
The drive-through part of the commencement had students picking up a T-shirt at one booth in the parking lot, grabbing a hot dog at another, and even getting the senior edition of the Viator Voice school newspaper, for which Paolelli was an adviser. "That was one thing that was completely normal," he said of the 72-page senior edition that carries the hopes, dreams and submissions of that 2020 class, compiled online.
Even with the nation slowly moving back to pre-pandemic routines and traditions, the lessons learned won't be forgotten.
"We think it will pay dividends for them as they move on," Liedlich said of the graduates. "Because of their perseverance and strength, we may in fact come to see the Class of 2021 as the best among us. Graduates, I thank you for being an example for all of us this year."
With that, the pandemic graduates receive their diplomas in the winner's circle at Arlington Park. But the finish line still lies ahead.