Cloudy skies and early sprinkles gave way to rays of sunshine poking through the clouds as the Great Bend High School Class of 2021 crossed the stage, ending their high school careers. Those gray skies over GBHS’ Memorial Stadium proved a fitting backdrop as Panther seniors put four years of unprecedented storms behind them and began to look forward with hope to a promising future.
More than 200 seniors crossed the windy stage Sunday, receiving their diplomas from gathered administrators and members of the USD 428 Board of Education. In contrast to the dark clouds that have hovered over the class’s last year and a half, bright, colorful and varied messages of hope and promise for the future adorned the caps of many of the red and black clad graduates.
The messages shared with the graduates also carried messages of a hopeful future following four years fraught with many perils and unexpected adversity. As GBHS Principal Tim Friess addressed Sunday’s graduates, he expressed pride in their ability to overcome the challenges that came with the looming specter of COVID-19.
“You lost games, concerts, contests and activities, but you adjusted to the rules of the game. And you have made this a year to remember instead of a year to forget,” Friess told the graduates.
In a year and a half marked by stark isolation, Friess also praised the class’s “strength in numbers” in as the students came together.
Friess cited a proverb, saying each individual is as a branch on the tree, and as the winds of adversity blew, the branches of the tree made the tree stronger as the class came together.
As Friess closed to present the graduates, he left the class with an admonishment to continue persevering through whatever lies ahead.
“All of you are in the middle of the fight. Fight it well, and finish it well, so at some point you can hear, ‘well done,’” Friess said.
Though COVID was on everyone’s mind, Class of 2021 Salutatorian Olivia Rugan noted this was far from the only adversity the class faced head-on. The trials, she noted, produced a poignant reminder of the fleeting nature of life, and the importance of making every day count.
“It is our job to live a life using our days to inspire others to do good instead of beating each other down to get on top,” Rugan said. “We rise by lifting others.”
Like Friess, Rugan and Class of 2021 Valedictorian Aubrey Snapp noted COVID-19 brought many losses – both in activities and in opportunities to make memories experienced by most high school classes. However, as Friess also noted, Rugan said what the class of 2021 lost was not what defined the class.
“It was what we made of (the adversity) that really mattered,” Rugan said. “Not wallowing in self pity, but persevering and looking forward to a better future.”
Rugan admonished her classmates to continue thinking outside the box to overcome future adversity; just getting by was not good enough.
“As we leave here, I want us to hold on to this mindset - we are overcomers,” Rugan said. “And our challenges and triumphs are just beginning.”
As Snapp addressed her classmates, she noted that the four years were not just about overcoming adversity, but about the hard work the class put in to overcome – in the classroom, in athletics, and in life.
In overcoming life’s challenges, she said, hard work matters and character is crucial. For this lesson, she cited GBHS swim coach Steve Beaumont as an example of someone who always encouraged and lifted up those around him.
“He made everyone around him a better version of themselves,” Snapp said. “People with strong character have a positive impact on everyone of them.”
Snapp encouraged her classmates to follow their passion, but to direct those passions into making a difference in the lives of others.
Finally, Snapp admonished her classmates to never take the little things in life for granted.
“Looking back, the best memories won’t be from graduation day,” she said. They will come from playing the sports you love, wishing you could go to one more practice, laughing in class with your friends until your stomach hurts and Friday night lights.
“As we go on, the little things will be what continue to make our lives special,” Snapp said.
“What have I learned? Hard work and character count. Do things you’re passionate about, and don’t take anything for granted. Humor makes all the difference.
“Graduates, remember what you learned in high school,” Snapp said.