Niles High School graduates class of 2020

Correction: In an earlier publishing of this piece, we misquoted Michael Kauffman in his remarks before presenting the class of 2020 gift to Niles High School. We apologize for the error and are happy to correct it.

NILES — Cars and trucks lined up in rows in the Niles High School, 1441 Eagle St., parking lot on Thursday evening. After a cloudy day that began with rain, the sun was shining on the Viking graduates arriving for their graduation ceremony. Due to COVID-19 mandates on gatherings, the Vikings administration opted for a drive-in style ceremony to commemorate the seniors as they finished out their unique school year. The graduates and administration were set to commemorate and finish out a school year marked with sudden changes, finally together.

The school administration and staff all wore face masks as they organized car placements and staging areas in the parking lot. Next to a stage was a large screen showing each member of the graduating class and their plans for after graduation. The traditional commencement venue, the football field, was in view in the background.

“This is Plan Z,” said Molly Brawley, principal of Niles High School. “Plan A was going to be a full ceremony on the football field. It all came together fairly fast when we didn’t move to Phase 5 [in Michigan’s COVID-19 reopening plan]. It took a lot of people to make this happen.”

Brawley said the graduates and their families were instructed to arrive in a single vehicle and stay in their cars. The front row of cars included the top 10 students, who would graduate first and in order. After the top 10, the graduates were to be dismissed from their vehicles by row by staff and faculty directing each row, to walk up to the stage and receive their diplomas.

Despite being hosted in the student parking lot, the Niles High School commencement program held true to many other traditions. As 7 p.m. arrived, “Pomp and Circumstance” played over the speakers and into the car radios of attendees who tuned their dials to listen in to the broadcast from the stage.

Graduate Drew Gourlay welcomed the class of 2020 and instructed them to step out of their cars for the national anthem. The “Star Spangled Banner” played through the speakers, as an American flag was shown on the big screen in front of the attending audience.

A recording of “I’m Standing with You” played over the speakers next, performed by Chrissy Metz. Brawley took the podium after the song ended to address the class.

“As I saw some of you coming in, I felt like I hadn’t seen you in forever,” Brawley said. “It seems like it’s been forever since March 13 happened, and we didn’t see you after that. To say we have waited for this day forever is an understatement.”

Brawley spoke of the first time she met the class of 2020, when they were in sixth grade. She highlighted the class of 178 graduates’ achievements, including over 25 students achieving higher than a 4.0 GPA, athletic achievements, and a National Merit Scholar finalist in the class.

“The class of 2020 had a remarkable finish with 100 percent of seniors graduating after our closure on March 13,” she said. “I am so proud of the resiliency that you showed to get it done. The class of 2020 has made history to be the first class to ever graduate in the student parking lot.”

Following Brawley’s speech, there were to be three guest speakers from the class of 2020. The first, Jaiden Mangold, was unable to speak in person at the graduation, but would have a speech included in a recorded version of the ceremony at a later date.

Maeli Rogers addressed the graduating class first.

“We won’t always be able to control the chaos around us, but when we focus on moving forward we gain ownership of our lives,” Rogers said. “We just finished high school and thus begins the next wave of decisions. Our choices will determine who we are and where we will go. Be kind and continue to do that and work towards goals.”

After a round of honks as applause from the attendees, the next speaker took to the podium.

“We can foresee the future and make it a better place,” said speaker Willow Brawley. “I believe this because we have all experienced lessons over the last four years that I believe we should carry for the rest of our lives. The lesson is that our community must come together at the time of tragedies that no person is left behind.”

Willow remembered the Niles community pulling together when the St. Joseph River flooded downtown in 2018, and how the Polar Vortex affected families in 2019.  She saw her community pull together to help one another. She spoke about the social injustices she saw in the world and how the class of 2020 could make a difference.

“The Class of 2020 will not be defeated, nor will we be defined by what we have lost to this virus [COVID-19],” she said. “Instead we will be remembered by how we rose above the hardship and took it as a lesson to be the change we definitely wanted to see in the world.”

As the Vikings exited their vehicles to line up in small groups to cross the stage, the excitement to see one another showed as they smiled at one another.

The graduates had cards to hand to the officiant, 2020 graduate David Lamonte Haynes Jr., to read off.

After reading 177 names, Haynes handed his name card to a faculty member who announced his name as he crossed the stage himself.

Top of the graduating class, Michael Kaufmann, presented the class of 2020 gift to the school. He started by remembering his past experiences.

“I’ve been to eight schools across four states,” Kaufmann said, smiling. “Honestly, this is the most support I have ever seen at any of these schools. I really would like to thank you, I’m really proud to be a Niles graduate.”

Kaufmann presented the senior gift to the school’s administrators. The quote, “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot,” from Michael Altshuler, will be placed within the walls of Niles High School from the class of 2020.

Graduating senior Oswaldo Moreno directed the class in the turning of their tassels, to finalize the commencement ceremony.

The decorated cars and excited graduates exited the parking lot slowly in an unofficial parade. The fresh graduates stood out of sunroofs and sat on window ledges to wave as they left the school parking lot, this time as alum.

“These are absolutely great kids,” said Niles Community Schools superintendent Dan Applegate after the ceremony. “They’re phenomenal and very talented. We brag about them all the time.”

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