Editor's note: In preparation for her upcoming studies at the University of Missouri, where she has secured a journalism scholarship, West Plains High School graduate Faith Schilmoeller has written a series of columns sharing her experience as a senior during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the final installment. Previous columns were published in the July 4 and July 18 issues of the Quill.
It was early April when it became clear that graduation was going to be unique. Prom and graduation were moved to June 5 and 6 respectively. Prom was later postponed further until July 24, but the date of graduation sat stubbornly.
When I heard that it would be a month later than anticipated, I was angry. Not because it was late, like many of my classmates, but because it was so early. Times were too uncertain for me to visualize walking across the stage to get my diploma amid a pandemic.
Rumors immediately started spreading on how the commencement would work. We heard we would be divided into sections with social distancing, and one group of seniors could not accept that. The group attended a school board meeting where Principal Jack Randolph made a stand and supported having a united ceremony. Following the meeting, news spread that we would all graduate together but outside. Each graduate could invite six guests, and we were all to be grouped together and put into distanced boxes on the Zizzer Stadium football field.
In the weeks prior to graduation, we prepared ourselves for this weirdly altered milestone. Seniors received an email that the dress code would be relaxed for summer clothing, yet no word came about wearing face coverings. The precautions they were taking included temperature checks at the gates, the distanced boxes, and a recommendation to socially distance at all times. The regulations already seemed questionable, but hearing my peers talk about how they planned on acting made me even more worried.
Graduation day arrived, and I was correct to be worried. OMC workers who took our temperatures did not wear masks. Neither did school administration. Graduates hugged each other and ignored the boxes until the ceremony began. Administration was too busy setting up to make an effort to enforce social distancing. I could probably count the people wearing masks on my fingers and toes, and most of them would be my own party. Caution was thrown to the wind by almost everybody present. It was a fantastic day of celebration, but it was scary.
My family wore masks. Since each graduate was only allowed one block of six seats, my parents, who live in different states, were forced to be in close proximity. My boyfriend also lives in a different household. It seemed unfair that three separate households had to put each other at risk, but the school could not grant any exceptions to seating and operated under the assumption that all guests would be from one home, apparently. We were not going to make matters worse by neglecting our masks. However, this gained a lot of attention. I felt like an oddball when I walked across that stage in my mask, but that wasn't right.
It bothers me still that our masks were noteworthy at all. We were even on the front page of the Quill as “the family that masks together.” It disturbs me that the people following CDC guidelines were put in the spotlight, whereas the hundreds of people present who were not were seen as normal. I will admit that matching my mask to my outfit was fun, but it seems blasphemous to me when my peers and their families view our face coverings as a fashion statement.
I graduated as a Valedictorian of the Class of 2020, along with three others. I was a graduation speaker. I worked my tail off to walk across that stage with pride. It frustrates me that, to many, I will simply be remembered as the girl who wore a mask to graduation.
I am grateful we were able to have graduation. I know we are lucky. We pushed our luck to the very limit, though. Project Graduation was even worse. I did not attend, as I had no desire to sign a safety waiver and watch as hundreds of teenagers ignored safety procedures. It was eerie to see the crowds of people on social media putting the lives of themselves and their families at risk for the sake of celebration.
And of course, there actually was someone at graduation who tested positive for COVID-19. I had steam coming out of my ears when I read the news, but, luckily, I don't think the spread was too bad. It was frightening, though, because the relaxed policies at graduation would make it hard to contact trace accurately.
Graduation came and went. We will remember its strangeness forever, but I dislike when people say it will all make for a good story. Our class motto was, “Some have a story, but we have a legacy.” COVID-19 changed 12th grade greatly, but I refuse to let it define where we go from here. The pandemic is not our story, and it's certainly not our legacy. All seniors feel that way.
Graduation happened. Our Zizzer Dramatics Theatre Company put on an altered version of our “spring” play “Clue on Stage,” ironically on the football field. Prom was on July 24, and masks were required. My time at West Plains High School comes to a close, and I fear for what next year's seniors will have to face. This battle is not over.
Faith Schilmoeller is an accomplished member of the Zizzer Speech and Debate team, Dramatics Theatre Company, Chess Club and National Honor Society, for which she served in leadership roles, and was named one of four valedictorians in the Class of 2020.