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A unique commencement

Hailey Cavan shows her diploma to her family as she crossed the stage during the South Hamilton commencement ceremony Sunday.

JEWELL — When the 58 members of the South Hamilton Class of 2020 began their senior year last August, no one ever envisioned a scenario in which it culminated with a drivethrough graduation ceremony in the high school south parking lot as rain cascaded down from the sky.

That’s exactly what happened Sunday afternoon though, as South Hamilton recognized its seniors in an hour-long ceremony that included plenty of car horns and coronavirus mentions, as well as speeches from class members Logan Austin and Cade Balvanz.

“Let’s give them another round of horn honking,” South Hamilton principal Scott Dryer joked following the speeches.

The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools in mid-March and forced districts to retool their graduation plans. South Hamilton opted to keep its regular date for graduation rather than postpone the ceremony until June or July. Potential scheduling conflicts played a critical role in the school’s decision, Dryer said.

“The longer we talked about it, the more we were hearing that later in the summer wasn’t going to work,” he said. “It became clear to us that if we were going to do something meaningful for our seniors, it was going to have to take place on the 17th (of May).”

South Hamilton Senior Logan Austin addresses his classmates during the commencement ceremony held Sunday in Jewell.

Enter the unique ceremony with only the seniors and their immediate family members. Cars filed into the lot and were parked in alphabetical order, and students remained in their vehicles until they were called to the stage to receive their diplomas.

Dryer said the drive-through concept was possible only because the seniors bought into the experience — one they’re likely to never forget.

“They were extremely receptive,” Dryer said. “After our practice (last Tuesday), we had parents come up to us and say thank you, and we got a lot of those from the kids too. They wanted the opportunity to have some kind of commencement on our actual date.”

Following opening remarks from Dryer and Dr. Ken Howard, the South Hamilton superintendent, Class President Hailey Cavan took the stage to introduce Austin and Balvanz.

Austin, a Governor’s Scholar Award winner, gave a poignant speech about living in the moment. He kept his emotions in check as he delivered his final remarks to his classmates.

Brooklyn George collects her diploma at the appropriate social distance from Superintendent Ken Howard Sunday afternoon. A unique slide delivered the diploma to the students.

“Right now, I want to be glad in the present,” Austin said.

As for the future, Austin told his classmates: “We have to be able to make the right decisions without someone telling us what those right decisions are.”

Balvanz offered up a lighter speech, full of “coronacation” references, but closed with words of wisdom for his classmates as they enter the next chapter of their lives.

“It is our job now to make the world a better place than it was previously,” Balvanz said.

“We need to become the heroes the world knows our generation is meant to be.”

Brooke Gordon holds her diploma following the South Hamilton Commencement Sunday afternoon.

Dryer followed with his own remarks and ended with a quote from none other than Winnie the Pooh: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”

The ceremony ended with each of the seniors making the walk to the stage to receive his or her diploma as the rain transitioned from a mist to a downpour. Colored circles were placed on the sidewalk to ensure students adhered to social distancing. A wooden ramp was built so that Dr. Howard could drop the diploma in from the top and the individual students could scoop it up at the bottom.

Following the ceremony, the students and their families embarked on a short parade around town.

“I could not be prouder of our seniors and their parents and the position they put their kids in to be successful in the most uncommon of circumstances,” Dryer said. “I would say the same of my teachers and staff. Everybody dove in right away and put the kids first. Everybody has filled a role.”

Following the commencement, the seniors went on a short parade around Jewell.

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