by KATE SHUNNEY
A football field of wet grass marked off in grids, families under umbrellas and graduates mingling on the bleachers above it all – that’s what the Berkeley Springs High School graduation looked like for the Class of 2020 on Thursday night.
A storm system pushed the start of the July 30 commencement ceremonies from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Heavy rains fell across Berkeley Springs earlier in the evening, but tapered off to a drizzle as families lined up to get onto the Berkeley Springs High School football field and set up lawn chairs. Guests were told to keep family units six feet apart and many wore face coverings for the evening outdoor graduation.
Seniors were directed to the main bleachers on the west side of the field, where they talked and laughed, taking photos and catching up before their walk across the stage.
So started the 131st Commencement of Berkeley Springs High School, celebrating the 140 members of the graduating class of 2020.
Following a standing tribute to the flag to the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Senior Class President Hannah Burton welcomed guests to the ceremony. Standing under a tent to deflect the drizzle, Burton said she will always recall her English teacher walking the halls of the school, singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Burton said it’s an apt memory for this year.
Whether grads decide to go to college, start a family or enter the workforce, Burton said she believes her class will succeed.
“We were born in the chaos of 9/11 and here we are in a pandemic,” she said.
“I know each and every one of you will be successful if you follow your heart,” said Burton.
Senior Class Vice President Serenity Parsell added her thoughts on the historic school year before introducing class speaker Joshua Rider.
She thanked families and guests for attending “our truly one-of-a- kind graduation ceremony.”
Parsell said many graduating students first got to know Rider when he taught sixth grade at Warm Springs Middle School. Rider, himself a 2005 graduate of Berkeley Springs, earned degrees in elementary education and is working on a doctorate through Liberty University.
“He said we were the class that taught him the most about being a teacher,” Parsell said.
Rider praised those in and entering the military for their service. He specifically mentioned Dominic Rider, a senior, who was not able to attend because he is already in basic training with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Rider offered three lessons to the graduates looking not just to change the world, but “to change the world for the better.”
He said life has not always been fair to him, “but I have learned a great deal about how to make the best of it.”
“You will mess up and that’s a fact,” Rider said. “Do not beat yourself up too much over mistakes you make.”
He said graduates should learn how to move forward after they mess up.
“Instead of believing the people who you couldn’t, listen to the people who said you could,” Rider said. “Believing that you can will get you further than saying you can’t.”
Finally, Rider told graduates not to forget where they come from. He said many seniors are eager to leave Berkeley Springs behind as they head out on their journey, and that’s okay. But he urged them to remember who supported them along their path in life.
“Never forget the loving people who shaped you,” Rider said.
“I am so proud of the young men and women you’ve become,” Rider said. “I look forward to hearing about the wonderful things that you do.”
Principal Mitch Nida said he was grateful that current public health guidelines let the school and class have a “more traditional group ceremony” for the end of their high school careers.
Earlier in the summer, graduates and limited family members were led through individual diploma ceremonies at the school.
“I know this is not how you imagined our graduation ceremony,” Salutatorian Kierstyn Wise told her classmates, their families and guests.
She thanked her parents and brother, friends and teachers for the role in getting her to graduation. Wise plans to attend Washington and Lee University to study political science.
“I realized we have a choice to focus on the past, of what we missed, or to look forward,” Wise told her class.
“We missed our prom and our last day of school was in March,” Wise said. But she urged classmates to look, instead, at the future ahead.
“Do something that makes you happy. Focusing on what we missed won’t help accomplish anything,” she said.
Valedictorian Jaymie Adkins also reflected on the usual senior year handed to the Class of 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know this year has been less than ideal, but we made it,” she said. “Life really does have a sense of humor.”
For Adkins, one of the lessons of the year has been to realize how precious life is, and to not take things for granted.
“I didn’t realize March 13 would be my last day walking the halls of my school,” she said.
Her class, however, has persevered through difficult times, including the death of classmate Jeffrey Messersmith. The class honored him with a banner at the graduation ceremonies.
Adkins thanked the community for decorating and honoring graduates with banners and signs throughout town in May and June, when they would have graduated under normal circumstances.
“I love this class,” Adkins said. “This group will change the world.”
At the end of the drizzly ceremony, the Class of 2020 graduates exited the bleachers, loudly singing along to their class song, “Take Me Home Country Roads.”
A photo gallery from the graduation is online here.