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Pandemic's lessons carry over into commencements

The first day this year’s senior classes were all together at their schools was likely the last day they’ll be all together.

It’s been that kind of school year – unexpected, unprecedented and, at times, unnerving. Since the academic year begin Aug. 17, LCPS progressed through four reopening plans – from five weeks of remote learning for everyone, to two different blends of in-person and remote learning, to a four-day schedule that by last month had brought more than 70 percent of the district’s students back into the classroom.

Diplomas awarded at South LenoirBut for a brief time this week – the one-hour graduation exercises at North Lenoir High School on Thursday evening and South Lenoir and Kinston high school commencements Friday morning – the unity that comes with spending 13 year pursuing the same goal, celebrating the same school achievements and, because of the pandemic, enduring the same struggles felt like an element of survival, an important piece of the legacy of the Class of 2021.

Even on an occasion dedicated to new beginnings, the recent past was too significant to be ignored. North Lenoir principal Gil Respess, in recalling some lines from past commencement speeches about how much he enjoyed mingling and talking with his students in the halls and cafeteria, became emotional when it must have occurred to him that such relationship building was not so much a part of this last school year.

In the message to North Lenoir graduating seniors from one of the state’s top prosecuting attorneys and from top students who served as commencement speakers at South Lenoir and Kinston, the ordeals wrought by coronavirus occupied the opening lines. But there followed this lesson: It was tough, we endured it, now let’s go make a life for ourselves.

“It’s been a year like no other, and you all deserve praise for making it here tonight,” said keynote speaker Lisa Coltrain, a 1997 graduate of North Lenoir who currently serves as the Homicide and Arson Prosecutor for the State of North Carolina’s Conference of District Attorneys.

Coltrain urged the 202 North Lenoir graduates to identify that gift that is unique to them, whether it’s intelligence or empathy or a winning personality or a calm spirit or a knack for mechanics. “What is your gift and what are you going to do with it?” she asked.

“We are about to unleash you into this craze, confusing, complicated and beautiful world and whether you go off to college or you move across the globe or you go to work tomorrow in La Grange, you’re going to be confronted with people and ideas you’ve never considered before and you’re going to find out that you’re not special,” she said. “You’re one person in a world of almost 8 billion persons and you’re not special; but there is something special about you. And not just special but exceptional. You have been given a gift that no one else has and now you can give that gift to the world.”

Ashlynn Holloman, who keynoted the South Lenoir graduation with classmate Lydia Walston, saw commencement as something of a reunion. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other walking the halls or having class together,” she said. “I think we can all agree that this year has been a challenge physically, mentally and emotionally; but I want to spend a few minutes to tell you that I’m proud of each and every one of you.”

Heading to East Carolina University on a Centennial Fellow Honors College Scholarship, Ashlynn projected a future brighter than the recent past for her classmates. “I wish every single one of you a farewell to the next stage of life and hope you look back with no regrets. In this new chapter, remember to be yourself, chase your dreams and do your best.”

Lydia, accepted directly into the College of Engineering at N.C. State University, told her Class of 2021 they were prepared to succeed, not only because of the education they received at South Lenoir but also because of the difficult times they navigated.

“We have had to endure more than most other classes and have worked hard to overcome these challenges. Our junior year was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic and we missed out on many normal activities that come along with junior year. We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to graduate together here today.

“This perfect day belongs to just us. We deserve this and so much more.”

kellan bryant at podiumAt Kinston High, principal Kellan Bryant praised the Class of 2021 as “special.”

“This group of seniors before you today is special. They have something special collectively and individually,” Bryant said. “I am so proud of each and every one of you. Your senior year was not mapped out for you the way you expected it to be or like the graduates before you. But maybe it wasn’t supposed to me. I believe that this year gave each of you the opportunity through all of the uncertainty, the setbacks, heartbreaks, the challenges, and the successes to stop and remember what is most important in our life, to bring clarity and perspective to what you wanted from your educational experience and to give you an opportunity to grow as individuals.”

The Viking commencement was keynoted by top students Mekaylind Kilpatrick and Yasmine Perry, winner of the Viking Academic Scholar Award that goes to the student with the highest GPA.

“We all have a village,” Mekaylind said. “As shown throughout this school year, we have faced adversity in this pandemic and have been deprived of a normal senior year. Having been faced with the pandemic, here are some words of inspiration: There’s good, there’s bad and there’s right now. Yesterday is not coming back to look for you and tomorrow has already made up its mind. In other words, do it now.”