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Choices and options for the Evanston Township High School Class of 2021 were limited by a global pandemic that upended their senior year and required them to adapt and adjust to an unprecedented time in education.

Amid the vaccine roll-out in early spring, the options for graduating seniors were expanded by a dedicated ETHS staff to include in-person and virtual ceremonies for a senior class that demonstrated remarkable resilience and fortitude throughout the academic year.

The plan was set in motion, with fingers crossed for good weather. Together, staff and students made it happen, with six in-person Commencement ceremonies on May 21 and a Virtual Commencement on May 23. All the events were live streamed on the ETHS YouTube channel.

The optional in-person commencement ceremonies were held at the school’s Lazier Field on a beautiful, warm, sunny day.

The 60-minute graduation programs accommodated students and their families in the safest way possible, which included physical distancing and wearing masks. Each senior received five tickets to gain access to the event.

“It was a great feeling. To just be here and celebrating is a great opportunity, and I won’t take it for granted,” graduate Adrian Cyrus told the RoundTable.

Adrian and fellow graduate Oren Davidson joined their families after receiving their diplomas at the first ceremony of the day.

“I did not think that we were going to have a graduation in-person. This has been very nice. I’m very happy,” said Oren.

The ETHS 2020 Commencement was an all-virtual event, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was declared a National Emergency on March 13, 2020.

“Graduation from ETHS is perfect in the stadium. We have the perfect weather, and it’s just a great day to be a Wildkit!” said Ellen Donovan, ETHS Special Education Department, as she assisted graduates with check-in at the 11 a.m. ceremony.

“We are so happy to be here today, and we are thrilled that we were able to do it in person. I think the kids have had a pretty tough go of it the last year. So it’s really nice to see them come together and celebrate their accomplishments…” said Ilham Algayed, mother of graduating senior Adeline Galich.

“This is a culmination of that ETHS family-community feeling that we’ve had for all four years, despite the pandemic,” said Ms. Algayed.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon and Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell addressed the graduates at every in-person ceremony throughout the day.

Dr. Campbell asked the graduates and guests to take a moment of silence to acknowledge “family and friends, and those in our Wildkit family who are no longer with us.”

“I don’t think it can be stated enough that this has been a difficult year. No one could predict that, as you would graduate from ETHS, we would be impacted by a once-in-a-century global pandemic. The last year has been filled with pain and racial unrest, our democracy being tested, and we’ve seen our economy crumble… This year has been filled with loss, trauma, sadness, confusion, anxiety, anger and disbelief.

“But you, Class of 2021, you persevered. You were resilient. You were flexible, you were adaptable, and you did your best. So from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply proud to be your principal. I am full of gratitude and pride as you end your tenure at ETHS and begin to pursue your passion and your dreams. … Know that your ETHS family will always be here for you no matter where you go or what you do,” said Dr. Campbell, who concluded his remarks with a quote from poet Maya Angelou:

“‘I encourage you to live with life. Be courageous, adventurous. Give us a tomorrow, more than we deserve.’”

“Class of 2021, you are a historic class,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon.

“Many of you have spent your entire year taking your classes remotely, and all of you have spent most of your senior year taking your classes remotely. Nobody wanted their senior year to be this way. I sure didn’t. But we all understood that this pandemic is a life and death matter. … Nonetheless, you have made the most of a terrible situation.

“You attended your classes. You have applied yourselves academically. … You participated in extracurricular activities and sports whenever possible… You’ve shown your appreciation for the unimaginably hard work your teachers, counselors, social workers, and all the staff at ETHS have been doing to support you to make your senior year as successful as possible…

“What I really admire about the Class of 2021 is how you have all pulled together with a Wildkit spirit that is strong and determined. And even though this pandemic turned your world and ETHS upside down, you looked for and found the silver lining in your senior year… You’ve gone above and beyond to make many good things happen to complete your senior year with much success…

“I’m so sorry that Dr. Campbell and I and the staff here at ETHS could not share your senior year with you in person. … But I am so proud of you for how you have persisted, how you have adapted, how you have made the most of your senior year – a senior year unlike any ETHS seniors have ever experienced in the 138-year history of Evanston Township High School.

“So never forget… You’ve gained confidence in what you’re capable of doing. Take that confidence in yourself throughout your life… And remember that you can handle adversity, and continue to grow and succeed. You will, forever more, be part of the Wildkit family.

The Virtual Commencement on May 23 at 10 a.m. succeeded in rounding out the celebration of the Class of 2021 with additional musical selections, speeches, and recognition of academic accomplishments.

The ceremony began with “Pomp and Circumstance,”  by the ETHS Symphonic Band under the direction of Matt Bufis and Haley Nichol.

The band’s performance of the famous processional captured the bittersweet mix of anticipation for the future and the sadness that closing a chapter can bring.

The Senior Vocal Ensemble sang the “Star Spangled Banner” written by Francis Scott Key, arranged by Sarah Zegree, and “We Won’t Stop Dreaming,” by Pink Zebra, under the direction of Ms. Zegree.

Although there was no audible applause, the prestige and passion of an in-person commencement was amplified by the performers, speakers and graduates, whose names were read out as their photos appeared during the live stream ceremony.

Two dynamic student leaders, Jamar Smith and Alana Stone, welcomed their fellow graduating seniors and asked viewers to take a moment of silence to acknowledge all loved ones who have died.

Nora Miller was selected to deliver Class Remarks based on her submitted writing.

“The book doesn’t end if you don’t finish it, right?  Thank you to the Evanston students, families and faculty members who could join us today as we celebrate the graduates of the ETHS Class of 2021.

“My name is Nora Miller and I have an exceedingly complicated relationship with endings. Endings are what cause me to collapse into the seats of a movie theater. They are what allow me to pull out the Ben & Jerry’s. They are what force me to throw a worn out book across the room. Sometimes I wish endings didn’t happen at all.

“Epilogues, season finales, and last songs are so grueling that I would rather stop before having to experience them. The irony was, to say the least, palpable last April and May when it finally settled in that high school as we knew it ended on March 13, 2020. Our education may have continued, but the COVID-19 network cancelled our show a season early.

“The challenges we saw and faced have altered the trajectory of our entire generation. At the ages of 16, 17 and 18, instead of singing the Fight Song in our Senior Section, we witnessed a horrendously deadly, isolating, min-eclipsing global pandemic and national reckoning with racism in our country.

“Instead of trying on prom dresses we witnessed the wielding of a community, the mobilization of young people. … We revelled in the re-imagination of ourselves and our peers despite our physical distance. … We traded in the pain of losing the one year everyone talks so much about for the safety of our entire Evanston family.

“Today we are slowly starting to grasp the arms of our loved ones and the keys to our stadiums and stages. We have safely re-opened the doors to our beloved school.

“Now, as we set off into society, we are given a unique opportunity to help mend a deeply gruesome period in our nation’s history. So yes, maybe Corona closed our book a chapter too soon. But the connections we made at ETHS remain. They are the moments that allowed us to persevere through the pandemic in the first place. …”

Nora’s words highlight the Wildkit fire and determination to carry on in the face of adversity. They can be heard in their entirety on the school’s YouTube channel.

Cassidy Hubbarth, ETHS Class of 2003, delivered the commencement Address with humor, grace and an unmatched Wildkit spirit. Ms. Hubbarth launched her career shortly after completing her studies at Northwestern University. She joined the ESPN Network in 2010 and became their studio anchor and a host for college football. She also covered the National Basketball Association (NBA) and college basketball for EPN3.

“Congratulations Class of 2021. You did it. Now I know this is not what you had envisioned when you thought of your high school graduation. … And I know it may not feel real at this moment. But, in time, you all will realize all that you have conquered during this pandemic, and what being in the Class of 2021 represents,” begins Ms. Hubbarth.

The words of Ms. Hubbarth and Ms. Miller can be heard in their entirety on the school’s YouTube channel.

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.