by Joseph Gresser
CRAFTSBURY COMMON — The 17 members of the class of 2020 stood in front of the Craftsbury Academy building just before 6 p.m. Friday. Across the road, on the common, about 50 cars were parked in a rough semicircle facing the bandstand.
Members of the faculty, masked, as was the senior class, sat in carefully distanced seats behind a podium set up on the grass.
As Beyoncé’s “I Was Here,” played from speakers set up on the bandstand, the graduates marched to the common, clutching their graduation caps to protect them from the stiff breeze blowing across the green.
The faculty and, those members of the crowd who were out of their cars, stood and cheered as the students made their way to chairs spread out to face the podium and the low platform set off to its side. A drone hovered overhead, sounding like a swarm of bees as it recorded the scene for posterity.
After his classmates were seated, senior class President Finn Sweet strode up to the microphone.
“I made it out here losing my hat only three times,” he began before welcoming the faculty, guests, and his fellow graduates.
Mr. Sweet also acknowledged the members of the Craftsbury and Wolcott fire departments, who helped with parking and were ready to lead a celebratory parade through town.
“If I was a betting man, I would have lost a lot of money predicting how our graduation would look,” he went on. “I wish that our class’ 17 could have finished this year together. However, I also believe this unprecedented time allowed the perseverance and work ethic of not just our class, but our school to shine.”
After Mr. Sweet’s welcome, class salutatorian Zachary Rothammer followed him to the podium to share his thoughts on a coming age of technology.
“Knowledge is invaluable, powerful,” he said. “It directs our lives and the lives of all of humanity. A unifying force, it’s considered a tool. For knowledge is a means to a greater end, manifesting the world of technology. Progress is then the advancement of knowledge reflected in technological innovation.”
Mr. Rothammer went on to give examples of technological advances, comparing the power of a cell phone to the much larger and less capable computer that guided Apollo 11 to its landing site on the moon a half century ago.
He brought his audience up to date speaking of the recent launch of a SpaceX rocket that transported two astronauts to the International Space Station only days earlier.
“I place special emphasis on the developments in space because it truly is the final frontier, a frontier in which no human can be enslaved, no one’s home destroyed, a perfectly unifying frontier, a fountain of knowledge and discovery,” Mr. Rothammer said. “If only we would look up, if only we could unite to climb this mountain of burdens to paradise. Imagine our children gazing up at a red sun, looking towards a blue green marble in the far distance. This is the place where the dreams of our ancestors meet reality. This future is exciting. The history of humanity has been harsh, but it has also been beautiful.”
He concluded by saying, “If only we could live for truth and freedom, keeping our eyes fixed on dreams. For remember, our guide is reason and so the manifestations of dreams is confined to such a dimension. However, remember also that everything that is or was began with a dream.”
Valedictorian Sophie Anna Cornelius began her talk by declaring her love of her family and faith in her church and Jesus.
Ms. Cornelius said she is one of only three members of the class of 2020 who went through the Craftsbury school system from kindergarten through her senior year of high school.
She saw the school change, a new gymnasium come into being, old teachers retire, and new ones arrive.
Ms. Cornelius said she saw change in her own life.
“I have not always been liked. I’ve even been pushed down by my peers. I have struggled immensely with school, with family, with friends, and with anxiety for the future and many of my fellow graduates,” she said.
Such anxiety is a hallmark of her generation, Ms. Cornelius told the gathering.
“We are the generation that was born around 911 and we are emerging into adulthood during the world pandemic,” she said. “It is our generation that has had the highest levels of anxiety, depression on record, and our generation facing the unknown future in a world racked by violence, hatred and oppression.”
She acknowledged the struggles of her great grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, her grandparents who saw the civil rights movement, and her parents who, she said, have lived through at least three wars.
Her generation, Ms. Cornelius said, has faced a myriad of its own struggles.
“As cheesy as it sounds, the phrase ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ comes to mind,” she said.
The trials and tribulations she faced made her who she is, Ms. Cornelius said. People should be judged by how they react to their experiences.
“Integrity is doing what is right even when everyone around you is telling you otherwise,” she told her audience. “Strength of character is not determined by how well you fit in, but how well you stand out amongst the storm of trials and struggles and be not moved.”
Ms. Cornelius ended her remarks by telling her classmates, “My strength comes from my family and my religion. I feel in my bones that equality is key. And I know that I am loved, and I know who I am. I could not have achieved this without the integrity and courage I inherited from my parents. So, when trials arise and people around you are telling you, you can’t do something, I invite you to turn around, walk upstream, pull out your shovel and say, watch me.”
When it came time to hand out diplomas, Principal Merri Greenia announced a change in the normal order of business. Since faculty members were not permitted to shake a student’s hand, each student’s awards and diploma were placed in a bag, which his or her parents presented.
In turn, parents received bouquets from their child.
Normally, a large amount of time is taken at a Craftsbury graduation enumerating the many awards presented by community organizations to the seniors. This year, Ms. Greenia said afterward, many of those groups had their activities disrupted by the pandemic and failed to raise money for the awards or could not meet to name recipients.
As a result, only a few endowed prizes were announced.
The 2020 recipient of the Friends of Education award was retiring teacher Bev Thurber, while the Jean Simpson Award for outstanding work and achievement in extracurricular activities went to Wade Bressie.
At every other graduation, the full list of those whose names grace Craftsbury Academy’s highest award, the outstanding student cup, are read aloud and those present are asked to stand. This year was, as in so many other ways, the exception.
Only one name was called out, that of Finn Sweet, this year’s recipient.
With the most important business of the day concluded, there remained only a few details. Ms. Greenia asked the Class of 2020 to stand and move their tassels to the graduate position, then she gently encouraged those who wished to do so to throw their mortarboards into the air.
Once they were tossed and retrieved, the graduates, their families, and friends, lined up behind the fire engines for a loud parade through Craftsbury Village and a circle through town.
They were certain to return, if only for the cupcakes baked by the junior class to send the seniors off properly fed.