Graduation 1

Stillwater Area High School Principal Robert Bach congratulates students as they leave the stage at the SAHS graduation ceremony at Roy Wilkins Auditorium, St. Paul on Saturday June 4. (Photo by Carissa Keister)

BY Bayard Godsave

THE GAZETTE

ST. PAUL—On Saturday, June 4, the 146th graduating class of Stillwater seniors, garbed in scarlet caps and gowns, crossed the stage at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium to receive their diplomas. There to cheer them on were parents and siblings, grandmothers and grandfathers, and teachers past and present who had been with them, some, from the day they began in the district.

Masks, though far from universal, dotted the crowd, worn by graduates and audience members both. It was a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over. The Stillwater Class of ‘22, like the two graduating classes before it, and like graduating classes all across the country, has had an educational experience marked by the pandemic. It is remarkable to consider that for next decade-plus, it could likely be said of every graduating class that their experience, too, was marked by this pandemic.

Still, there is something different about the class of ’22. As several of Saturday’s speakers pointed out, unlike the two classes that preceded it, and despite the fact that the pandemic is still with us, this is a class whose academic journey had not been cut short or disrupted by Covid, but has instead passed through it.

As Superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt pointed out when she addressed the class, these students had a normal freshman year, experienced an abrupt switch to distance learning their sophomore year, saw changes from distance learning to in-person learning through their junior year with more days spent out of school than in school, then returned to comparative normalcy, quarantining and supply shortage issues aside, their senior year.

Principal of the Stillwater Area High School Robert Bach told his students from the podium that “adapting to these changing circumstances has prepared you for the future.”

Under the direction of Choir Director Angela Mitchell and Orchestra Director Ryan Jensen, the Stillwater Area High School Choirs and Concert Orchestra performed “Hail to Thee Stillwater High.” Later on, Principal Bach referred to Stillwater’s musical program as the “best in Minnesota” and hearing the students perform their school’s song on Saturday it seemed those were more than just the words of a proud principal.

Among the nearly 600 red gowns before the stage were black gowned faculty and staff, chosen by the students in recognition for all they had done to help the class of ’22 get to that point. Alongside students were seated another group of teachers, also chosen by students, representing the Stillwater Area School District’s elementary and middle schools.

Two students were chosen to speak at the ceremony. The first was graduating senior Ava Karlstad. “I am so proud to be a part of a school where students balance freedom of expression with a mutual respect for one another,” Karlstad said.

Karlstad, like many of the day’s speakers, mentioned the pandemic, and all of the changes students and faculty were forced to make in response to it.

“If the only guarantee in life is change, then what is there to hold onto?” she asked. “I’ve slowly come to appreciate the obvious answer: let’s be prepared for the excitement and all the change to come.”

“My uncle used to tease me about being a Pony, not because of the mascot but because everyone who is from Stillwater has excessive pride for their school,” she continued. “Greatest part of being at (Stillwater High School) was that it taught each of us the importance of discovering our individuality.”

Karlstad likened the pride she has as a Stillwater student to a fire, kindled by teachers and fellow students. As she closed, Karlstad addressed the seniors. “My fellow Ponies, always keep that fire burning bright as your guide in a world of constant unpredictability.”

When the second student speaker, Ryan Potter, took to the podium, he evoked the historic events that have loomed over the students’ last few years. “This class is especially significant because of all the challenges and adversities we have been forced to confront and overcome,” he said. “From adopting entirely new systems of learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, to becoming first person spectators and participants in the global fight for equality and justice, we have truly been through a lot.”

Later, Potter considered what it meant to have pony for a mascot. “Ponies need the herd,” he said. “At first it may seem strange that our mascot is a pony. Why not a stallion or a mustang or a Trojan? If school mascots are supposed to be feared or intimidating then let’s face it, being a pony is mid at best. But if mascots are supposed to be something more than their face value then everyone sitting inside this room today is very fitting of being called a Pony. Ponies are social animals and they never exist alone for long in the wild. As Ponies we depend on the strength of each and every one of our members.”

Closing his speech, Potter told the class of ’22, “When opportunity presents itself, you run at it. And no matter where you end up you can always take pride in the fact that no one outruns a pony.”

Addressing the students, Stillwater Area School District School Board Chairperson Alison Sherman, who is also a parent of one of the graduates, said of the moment, “Don’t grieve the end of something, but look ahead at the rest of the story that is yet to be written.”

With those words, the class of ’22 took to the stage, high school students no more, graduates now, and Ponies forever.

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