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Lake Placid’s Class of 2020 finds strength in quarantine

Lake Placid High School graduate Veda Henault waves to her family while walking to her seat before the Class of 2020 graduation ceremony Friday evening. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — In a time of pain and uncertainty spurred by a global pandemic, Lake Placid’s Class of 2020 found strength in one another and the vision of a world changed for the better.

Forty-three students walked across the stage at the Olympic Speedskating Oval in Lake Placid Friday evening and received their diplomas in a graduation ceremony that, with ever-changing public health guidance amid the coronavirus pandemic, many didn’t believe would ever happen.

The event was drive-in style. A limited number of graduates, teachers, Board of Education members and others were seated outside; while family and friends of students were asked to watch the ceremony either from their cars, or on a livestream filmed by Good Guy Productions.

Like any other year, graduates marched to their seats donning the traditional blue cap and gowns — but the ensemble was accented by a quilted blue face mask emblazoned with the school’s Blue Bombers logo. The students entered at a distance from one another, were cheered on by family members leaning out of car windows, passed a hand sanitizer station, and sat in a sectioned-off cluster of chairs placed six feet apart. The knowledge that a global pandemic was continuing to spread was ever-present.

Despite the pain and disappointment that came with finishing their high school careers in quarantine, students described how they felt the experience had made them stronger people, and how the challenges they’ve faced wouldn’t stop them from trying to make an impact on the world.

Lake Placid Class of 2020 Salutatorian Elise Pierson addresses her classmates and their families at the Olympic Speedskating Oval Friday evening. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

“Obviously, this year wasn’t what we expected it to be,” Elise Pierson said in her salutatorian speech. “We didn’t get to experience many of the traditions that make senior year at Lake Placid so special, like senior prank day, our spring sports season and senior games, or any of the other ‘lasts’ we’ve been working toward for four years. It’s been hard to be away from our friends for the past four months and adapt to a new reality, especially at such an important time in our lives. But I’d like to think that’s made us stronger. We are now entering a changing world, and our generation is the one that will shape it. Throughout history, youth have been the driving force behind change and we are no exception.”

Pierson said although her class has a reputation for being divided, and having their arguments, they’ve grown.

“If anything good can come out of quarantine, it would be learning to appreciate what we had,” she said. “We’ve all had our arguments throughout the years, but we’ve also learned to cheer each other on. It took us a while, but we’ve finally come together — and just in time.

“I never thought I’d miss the small things in school, like walking to class with a friend or playing human foosball in gym, or even waiting in the library for sports practice to start,” she added. “Quarantine was a painful experience. And as many seniors across the country have been saying, we walked the halls for the last time and didn’t even know it.”

To a symphony of cheers, ringing Blue Bomber bells and car horns, graduates took turns walking across the stage to receive their diplomas from Lake Placid Board of Education President Rick Preston, district Superintendent Roger Catania and high school Principal Tammy Casey. One student stopped on stage and took out his phone, snapping a selfie as his classmates cheered. The class heard from speaker Tom Murphy, a wrestler-turned-motivational speaker from Sweethearts & Heroes, who spoke about turning the “silly little virus” into an opportunity to excel. Students turned their tassels and threw their caps in the air — which were largely undecorated this year. The event ended with a slideshow on a large inflatable drive-in movie screen with photos of the students throughout their school years.

Lake Placid grad William Quilla gives two thumbs up as he proceeds to his seat for the Class of 2020 graduation at the Olympic Speedskating Oval Friday evening. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

Sara McKillip, the Class of 2020 valedictorian, acknowledged in her speech that she felt the ceremony was “absolutely the oddest graduation” in the school’s history. But all things considered, it seemed on-brand for her class.

McKillip described her classmates as “strong-willed, strong-minded individuals” who are passionate about what they believe in, willing to fight for their beliefs and “inspire change in a world that desperately needs it.”

They also “created a little chaos” throughout their school years, she said — whether that be by staging a food fight during their junior year, or spending hours at their lunch table trying to entice a squirrel to enter the high school building.

In quarantine, a group chat they created to plan their senior skip day became a way of keeping in touch with one another, she said.

“We were known for talking a lot during class, goofing around and not paying attention all the time,” McKillip said. “As time moved forward, we grew into ourselves.

Lake Placid High School graduates watch a slide show at their commencement ceremony Friday on the Olympic Speedskating Oval. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

“We made the best of our circumstances — good, bad or odd.”