Ozark High School 2020 drive-through graduation

CADE HOLMES (center) hops onto a tailgate after getting his diploma from Ozark High School.

Words and phrases such as “social distancing,” “quarantine,” and “the new normal” littered Ozark High School’s virtual graduation ceremony May 9.

The class of 2020 had graduation on the exact day they planned, but their speeches, like their circumstances, reminded them of the senior year of high school they could have, would have and maybe even should have had but for a global pandemic.

Graduate Baylie Beard summed it all up succinctly.

“We are the class of COVID-19. Even through self-isolation, we remained strong and kept our school spirit,” Beard said. “We have learned more lessons in the past couple of months than some learn in a lifetime.”

One by one, Ozark’s 2020 valedictorians shared messages of hope, encouragement and commiseration with their fellow students in a series of videos shared on the internet on CityLinkTV on Saturday morning. After that, the graduates lined up in their cars and took part in a walk across an outdoor stage at Ozark High School. One by one, the graduates received their diplomas.

Grace-Anne Stine built her address around a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Stine used the quote to describe her thoughts about what happened to her and her classmates as their senior year changed because of COVID-19 added to the myriad of coming-of-age and what-does-it-all-mean questions that high school seniors face. She used second person delivery to give it more power.

“Your expectations were ruined and your plans were canceled. You can’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel anymore,” Stine said. “You get on your hands and knees and you start crawling, one hand in front of the other. You start to see the light, and you’ve made it. You can breathe now, and I want to congratulate you on your strength, because you’ve done something that many thought you couldn’t do.”

Ethan Padadino expressed something we’ve all longed for at one point or another, to go back and edit parts of our lives. Paladino, like many of us, would want to change how he went about the first three months of 2020 to edit in more meaning.

“I’d give nearly anything to have the opportunity to go back and truly appreciate one last walk through the halls of OHS without looking at it as some mundane aspect of my everyday life,” Paladino said.

Paladino said he hopes that in the future, he and his classmates look back at the spring of 2020 as moments that shaped and prepared the graduates for the realities, successes and failures of the future.

Reagan Griessel congratulated her fellow students, and all of Ozark, on how it has responded to the hand that COVID-19 dealt.

“We have put a stamp on this city, and now it is time to put a stamp on this world,” Griessel said.

Madi Franklin encouraged everyone to think about how they spend the time that the pandemic has granted them, or at least re-think how we invest our time.

“Fill each day with something important, because you never know what will happen,” Franklin said.

Hannah Bottarel described an “outbreak of meaning,” that she experienced alongside the outbreak of COVID-19.

“I’ve watched a second Renaissance as those in solidarity create paintings, poems, songs and dances in their living rooms. I’ve watched the kindness of strangers as they adopt seniors like us to brighten our days in this difficult time. I’ve watched human ingenuity thrive to solve the issues of limited masks and ventilators,” Bottarel said.

While distance has strained some friendships, relationships and opportunities, Bottarel is hopeful that it didn’t change anyone’s ability to empathize with those around them.

“I’ve learned that we all have a unique desire of seeing and being seen,” Bottarel said. “We miss daily interactions with our friends and teachers, but I challenge you during this time to see, and I mean really see those around you.”

Ozark High School Principal Jeremy Brownfield took a short look back at a day that proved to be the turning point for the class of 2020, a Friday the 13th that would be their last day all together in one building.

“It has been eight weeks since we have been in the building together,” Brownfield said. “Let’s go back to March 13, it’s the last day before spring break. What if at 7:30 in the morning as you’re struggling to get out of bed, and barely making it to school on time, I told you that this will be the last day you will ever step foot inside of Ozark High School as a student? What would you do differently? Who would you talk to and what questions would you ask?”

Brownfield added that he will get to give a second commencement address to the class of 2020 when they take part in a graduation ceremony scheduled to take place Aug. 8, at JQH Arena in Springfield.

“The lesson that we all got out of this is you never know when it will be your last chance to make a difference,” Brownfield said. “It is up to you to make the world’s new normal better than it was before.”

Dr. Chris Bauman, superintendent of the Ozark School District, also spoke to the graduating class by video.

“You will not be defined by this COVID-19, but really by the character which you have used to overcome it,” Bauman said.

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