There were no hugs or handshakes when they took their diplomas, at least not officially.

The 2020 graduating class of Sparta High School, 44 of them, took part in graduation ceremonies May 21, in the midst of a global pandemic. Public health orders regarding COVID-19 led administrators to make several adjustments to the way graduation exercises were conducted, but the ceremony went on.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson was the keynote speaker, in large part because his granddaughter, Michaela House, is one of Sparta’s 2020 graduates.

“You’re going to get a little bit of a grandfather talk, and you’re going to get a little bit of a governor talk, and you’re going to get a little bit of a father talk tonight,” Parson warned the students.

Parson encouraged the graduates to put down their day-to-day worries about the COVID-19 pandemic, and start taking action to achieve their life’s dreams.

“2020 will never be about the coronavirus, so just set that off to the side, that’s not what we’re going to remember 2020 about. I’m going to tell you what 2020 will be remembered by. It will be remembered as the launchpad for you,” Parson said. “It will be the launchpad for what you’re going to do with your career and your life.”

Graduates sat six feet apart from one another. Many seats in the gymnasium were left empty. School administrators restricted admission so that a little more than 400 people were inside the gym built to hold more than 2,000. No one was admitted without a ticket, which were allotted 10 per student.

The Sparta School District provided streaming video of the ceremony on its website, and a radio station from Ava broadcast audio of the graduation to people who could not attend.

“My hope is that the students graduating this evening have made lasting relationships with many of our exceptional staff members. I can undoubtedly say that these graduates have made an impact on us,” Sparta School District Superintendent Rocky Valentine said.

Valentine quoted a passage from President Theodore Roosevelt’s famed “Man in the Arena” speech, which was taken from a longer speech Roosevelt entitled “Citizenship in a Republic.” 

A person whose skill, courage and stick-to-itiveness is challenged is often referred to as “the man in the arena.” The arena for Sparta High School’s class of 2020 has been altered dramatically by COVID-19. Many spent hours taking online classes, many for college credit already. Two members of the class have already gone through training with the U.S. Army National Guard. Others have entered the workforce full-time with plans to continue studying at community colleges in their off time. They aspire to be dental hygienists, nurses, farmers, a veterinarian and a race car driver. Some are undecided.

Valedictorian Julia Scherer touched on some of the opportunities that her graduating class missed out on because of COVID-19, but she also put the events of the spring of 2020 into perspective.

“If you think your senior year of high school was supposed to be the best year of your life, you’re selling yourself short. We have our entire adult lives ahead of us. If you were planning on this year being your best year, you lack the mindset that allows you to take the initiative to better yourself later in life. So, class of 2020, take the initiative,” Scherer said.

Scherer encouraged her classmates to forge ahead.

“Go to college or trade school, join the workforce or the military, start families, be kind, be charitable, do things you love and change the world,” Scherer said. “Maybe for some of us, this would have been the best year of our lives, but we have an opportunity now to use let this misfortune be the motivation we need to make next year the best year of our lives, and then the years after that.”

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