Ely’s ballpark graduation

High School Class of ’21 bids farewell with outdoor ceremony

by Tom Coombe
Ely Memorial High School’s graduating class of 2021 mixed old traditions with new as they bid a fond farewell.
Commencement ceremonies were held outdoors, at Veterans Memorial Field, rather than inside at Washington Auditorium.
The graduates also took part in a parade through town after the event, continuing a tradition started only last year.
Yet the ceremonies themselves, minus the change of venue, resembled those of recent years and even decades ago.
The class was small in number, with 37 earning diplomas and 34 taking part in the commencement amid unseasonably warm temperatures.
Several hundred people watched from the stadium grandstand and the paved pavilion area at the historic ballpark, with the graduates, in full regalia, sitting in chairs on either side of home plate.
They gathered together at the end of an at-times bizarre school years, disrupted and altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Principal Megan Anderson noted that the group spent only 15 weeks of the 2020-21 school year with regular in-person learning, with the remainder either in distance learning or a hybrid model in which students split up into groups and attended two days each week.
Even when together in school, the students were further divided into cohorts and mandated to wear masks, and the pandemic forced the cancellation of numerous activities and changed many others.
Yet Anderson praised the group as a whole, saying “I see a group of young men and women who chose to make the best” of difficult circumstances and were not “defined by COVID masks, COVID restrictions.”
The end of the school year also brought rays of hope and a pandemic that seems to be fading away, with the end of mask mandates and the return of activities including prom, the junior/senior banquet, and a more traditional graduation ceremony.
Graduating senior McKenna Coughlin, selected to speak on behalf of the class and named valedictorian that evening, said her years in the Ely school system - which began in middle school -are filled with fond memories and forming bonds with lifetime friends.
She also thanked “teachers and administrators who have worked so hard to make the best” of the difficulties related to COVID-19, which scrapped the last two-and-a-half months of the 2019-20 school year and led to an arena parking lot, drive-through graduation ceremony.
High school band teacher Sarah Mason delivered the commencement address, noting that she has developed a bond with many seniors, teaching those in band each year since seventh grade.
Mason added that unlike many teachers, she was able to develop relationships with students outside the classroom by chaperoning trips, supervising the pep band, and serving as the DJ for numerous school dances.
“They’ve shared with me their passion, their goals and aspirations,” Mason said.
Mason also offered words of advice for the seniors as they move on from simple messages to “be kind” and “embrace failure” to advice as they further education and career goals.
“You don’t have to accomplish everything in a straight line,” Mason told the graduates. “If you have second thoughts (about college majors or career choices), it’s seriously not a big deal. Don’t stress.”
The ceremony also included the announcement of the class academic awards, with Coughlin being named valedictorian and Desiray Lawrence salutatorian.
They were two of the better than dozen students in the class who carried a 3.50 grade point average or better.
Diplomas were presented by school board chairman Ray Marsnik, and following the ceremonies the graduates were led by Ely police on a parade that went east to Highway 1, back to Sheridan Street and west to Third Avenue East and back to the school.