The Lawrence Free State High School class of 2021 donned mortar boards and face masks under cloudy skies for their commencement Wednesday night.
With smiles beaming behind their masks — required because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — family and friends filled the stands to cheer for the 430 graduates as they entered the school’s football stadium.
At a time when pandemic restrictions are loosening — the Douglas County Commission agreed to allow its area mask mandate to expire at the end of Wednesday — school administrators and student-speakers acknowledged the adversity the class has faced. The global pandemic shut down district schools in March 2020 and has spanned their entire senior year.
The senior class chose two speakers to give farewell addresses: Bryn Perrins, who will attend Brigham Young University, and Yoav Gillath, who’s headed to the University of Southern California in the fall.
Perrins’ address, “To the Stars,” reminded her classmates that success takes determination and perseverance. Perrins noted the state’s motto — Ad Astra per Aspera — which means “to the stars through difficulties.”
There was a point, Perrins said, when finals week or starting ninth grade might have seemed like the hardest times their class might face, but the biggest challenges would come as a surprise. Turmoil filled the last year, Perrins said, noting the pandemic, racial discord, political unrest and natural disasters.
“In these trying times, there have also been moments of triumph as well.”
Perrins told her fellow graduates commencement was both an ending and a beginning.
“Today as we say goodbye, we will also embrace the possibility of good things to come,” Perrins said. “Wherever your path takes you, whatever you become and whatever difficulties you face, Ad Astra, Firebirds.”
Gillath encouraged graduates to help others and contribute to their communities in a speech, “Finding Our Flight.”
“When you’re told … to do what we have always done because we have always done it, don’t give in, because change isn’t some abstract concept. Change is a choice and it’s up to us to make it.”
Wednesday, Superintendent Anthony Lewis was more than a “proud superintendent,” as he often calls himself. Two members of the Lewis family — Sierra Johnson and Anthony Lewis II — belong to the Free State class of 2021.
Lewis said referring to the past 14 months as “challenging” would be an understatement, but the class had accepted the challenges and learned from it. He urged seniors to dream big and work hard, to keep learning and to be respectful of others who are different from themselves.
“Go on and be great. Go change the world. I’m so proud of you,” Lewis said.
Before presenting the class with their diplomas, principal Myron Graber said the senior class had entrenched a legacy of excellence in the classroom, debate and forensics, the arts, athletics and more.
“They have persevered through one of the most challenging and unique times in our history. The lessons learned will bode them well as they move into the next phase of their lives.”
Graduate Thayu Kimori told the Times in a message before the ceremony she felt “very relieved and excited to move on to the next chapter.”
“Despite the challenges of balancing school with all four years of sports, social life, family time, and the pandemic, I look back with gratitude. It was all pretty exhausting but truly a blessing to have made it this far. Without my faith in God, I didn’t think that I would feel this optimistic about what’s in store for me. I believe that there are many good things in store for me.”
Kimori will attend Kansas Wesleyan University, major in nursing and play for the women’s tennis team.
The senior class voted Jeff Haas the 2021 Educator of the Year.
Graduates across the city of Lawrence planned to converge at the Douglas County Fairgrounds for the annual Project Graduation party from 9 p.m. to midnight Wednesday.
The ceremony was livestreamed on UclickTV. A replay can be found here.FSHS-program