Education should teach us how to deal with life’s ups and downs. The past year hammered that lesson into us all, including speakers at local high school graduations.

It was the year of the pandemic, a year of living with danger and safety protocols. It was a weird year.

“So weird,” agreed Janesville Craig High School senior Claudia Fieiras, who plans on pursuing nursing and basketball at Edgewood College in the fall.

“I didn’t even think we were going to be able to have a graduation,” said Parker High School’s Allisyn Rosga, who noted the members of the Class of 2020 had theirs canceled.

The Gazette interviewed and reviewed the speeches of seven local graduation speakers over the past week.

For some, the year started normally but soon student bodies were split into two groups with every-other-day attendance, along with a short burst of online-only schooling as the pandemic intensified during the fall semester.

Students were given work to do on their off days, but the quality of education probably suffered, several grads said.

“It was very hard for me, because I’m a face-to-face learner,” said Fieiras, quickly adding that “all praise” goes to the teachers, who had to adapt quickly.

“It was all kind of thrown at us, and we were all learning together,” Fieiras said.

“I’m very grateful to them. I don’t think I’d have been able to get into Princeton (University) without them,” agreed Ellen Toberman of Milton High School, who was also accepted at Yale. She plans on pursuing civil and environmental engineering.

The graduation speakers all appeared to be high achievers whose lives were different from less advantaged classmates.

Rosga, who plans to study physiology at the University of Arizona with a goal of becoming a medical doctor, said she couldn’t have gotten through the year without her parents’ support.

“I can’t imagine how hard it was for kids whose parents work all the time and can’t help them manage their time or help them with homework. I’m sure that’s crazy,” Rosga said. “This school year would have been a lot harder for them.”

Students said they often missed their friends this year as COVID-19 kept them apart.

Craig High speaker Sean Quinn, who is one of those students who talks a little too much in class, said he missed those interactions with teachers and classmates, and he missed marching onto the football field with the band.

Fieiras, meanwhile, missed the emotional lift she and her teammates got from the band at basketball games.

“It was a part of high school that was gone,” said Quinn, who plans to attend UW-Whitewater at Rock County before transferring to UW-Madison to study history and English.

Quinn said the year’s lesson was that there are things we will never be able to prepare for.

Parker High’s Emma Perry said the roller-coaster pandemic year was a great teacher.

“It’s more the kind of schedule that you would have in college, not having classes every single day and having to manage your time better outside of school to get your work done,” Perry said. “I think it was helpful to see what it would be like to be more independent and being responsible for your education a little bit more than you would have been.”

“If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is this: Nothing is permanent, and we don’t have unlimited control over everything,” Perry wrote in her speech.

Being at home during the week allowed her to work at her own pace, and she could exercise or do other things to keep her mind off negative things such as COVID-19, and focus on what’s important, Parker’s Rosga said.

“Going every other day was nice for seniors because the whole mental aspect of it, I think it helped me relax more and have me be less stressed during such a terrible pandemic,” Rosga said.

A normal school day was more stressful, Perry agreed, especially for an athlete whose day in a normal year could start at 6 a.m. with a club meeting, continue into the evening with away games and finish with homework in the wee hours.

“It was helpful to be able to focus my mind more on the things I wanted to have time for, like working on my college applications, focusing on working so I could save for college. Putting more time into sports and myself was really helpful,” said Perry, who plans to attend UW-Madison.

Some students said little to nothing about the pandemic in their speeches.

“I think that I speak on behalf of all the students at Parker High School and all of the world for that matter when I say that we are tired of talking about the pandemic,” Perry wrote in her speech.

Milton’s Hailee Shores, who is considering a career in medicine and/or dramatic arts as she attends UC-San Diego, said her speech was based on a highly motivational acting teacher in Chicago who said people should take chances.

Shores urged her classmates to be spontaneous and to expect the unexpected in their lives.

“We might fail, but we also might succeed,” Shores wrote. “High school success is going to be nothing compared to college and real-world success. Popularity, sports, even grades are nothing compared to real living, and that’s what we’re about to experience.”

Rock University High’s Berg also focused on failure as a road to success.

“Try out that cool class in college, go in for that interview. Ride on that spontaneous road trip. Stay up late with your friend—even if you have class tomorrow,” wrote Berg, who plans to attend Eastern Kentucky University and major in environmental science. “Maybe next time we get that inevitable failing grade, we’ll see it as a chance to learn more.”

Craig High’s Quinn’s speech focused on those who helped during the pandemic, locally and worldwide.

“I’m sure you have all had people like these throughout your high school career: a friend that stayed by your side in a time of crisis, a teacher that guided you through your struggle, or the kinds words of a person you barely knew,” Quinn wrote. “We all encounter someone with such empathy in our lives. I would encourage you to find one of these people who have helped you along the way and personally thank them.”

Quinn ended with a stirring challenge to his classmates: “Let us jump into the unknown. We’ve faced high school. We’ve faced a pandemic. It’s time we face the world.”

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