Seniors celebrate soppy graduation

Benny Westcott

Pouring rain may have soaked caps and gowns, but it did nothing to dampen the spirits of the 181 Sweet Home High School graduates celebrating Friday evening, June 10, at Husky Field.

“After we leave here today, we are going to be starting an important new journey in our lives,” valedictorian Isabel Sayer said. “Whether it be starting our careers in the workforce, continuing our education at a college or university, or starting a new journey to serve our country, I am so excited to see what all of us will accomplish.”

Sayer was one of eight valedictorians; the others were Chloe Doner, Jacob Ingram, Ashley Morrelli, Olivia Olsen, Zoe Opperman, Jamie Seward and Chloe Tyler. Maddie Harris was salutatorian.

Doner told her fellow graduates, “High school has flown by so fast, and if high school was that fast, life will also go by in the blink of an eye. Make sure to cherish everything around you, and this moment right now.”

Seward and Tyler reflected on the circumstances that made the class of 2022’s journey unique.

“We did not have a normal high-school experience,” Seward said. “We dealt with a lot of inconsistencies. There were constant new guidelines, rescheduled events and cancellations.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time separated over the four years that we’ve been in high school,” Tyler added. “Everyone has made different memories throughout their experience here. Obviously, COVID-19 has played a big hand in our high-school career, but it was amazing to see the community come together and make things happen for all of us.”

“We had to grow and change during the pandemic, and that had a big impact on all of our lives,” she continued. “We always had to be flexible, ask for help and deal with disappointment. This isn’t to say that high school was disappointing to us, because it wasn’t in the slightest. We honestly wouldn’t change a thing. The best memories came from all the struggles.”

She reminisced about a particularly moving moment.

“None of us will ever forget Mr. Thorpe (math teacher Steve Thorpe) singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ in the May Week assembly that was the first back in two years. For many seniors, it was very nostalgic because we did it the last assembly before the pandemic. It felt almost like kissing COVID goodbye, and it was an amazing experience for our last assembly together.”

Sayer looked ahead to future challenges and growth.

“This is a difficult time for us, leaving our friends and families,” she said. “But we will remember these years that we’ve had together and will continue to make great memories with others that we meet along the way.”

Two empty seats sat among the graduates for classmates Johnathon Shobert, who died in April 2020, and Jasper Keeney, lost in January. They received a round of applause, and Doner spoke of both, having consulted their closest friends for background.

“Johnathon was described as having the best bubbly laugh, and a sense of humor that could cheer you up when you needed it,” she said. “He was very positive, and you could trust him with your secrets. Johnathon loved learning new skills, such as music and video games. His friends said that he was always there for them, and each and every one of them felt loved. He was respectful and described as the nicest person they had ever met.

“Jasper Keeney was known for her love of adventuring and her contagious laugh. She was easy to get along with and had many friends that cared for her. Jasper did not care about your background or what you’ve been through. She cared about who you are as a person and made sure you were included. She loved taking drives, being with her dog and climbing trees. Multiple people made sure to point out that you were lucky if you knew her kind soul.”

Opperman shared life advice culled from Sweet Home High School teachers and administration. Among them:

— Social studies teacher Jim Costa: “Find out what your gifts are, and you’ll find happiness. You’ll find that what you’re good at helps others and yourself. Only when you start doing that can you find out what real happiness is.”

— Assistant basic life skills teacher Ryan Hodges: “Find fulfillment and joy wherever you’re at. Even in the most excruciating, brutal times in your life, there are always things to be joyful over.”

— Assistant Principal Nate Tyler: “The science person in me says that if we truly want to separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom, we need to step up our game a little bit and be more human with each other.”

— Assistant Principal Aaron Huff: “You don’t know what people’s backgrounds and stories are. You don’t know what happened this morning or last night. Give that grace.”

— Language arts teacher Tomas Rosa: “People always remember how you make them feel. And if you treat them with respect, they will remember that more than any other interaction you might have with them. How you make people feel is important.”

— Career center/success coordinator Kristin Adams: “There’s always a reason for the storm. And once you get through it, you’ll know it was worth it.”

— Special education teacher Eric Stutzer: “Life is about 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you respond to it. You need to choose to respond appropriately.”

Keynote speaker Blake Manley, the school’s forestry and natural resources teacher, spoke of the difficulties the class of 2022 overcame.

“They endured things that no other public education graduating class has been asked to endure,” he said.

But he struck a positive note for the future.

“Never in the history of public education has your opportunity been better,” he said. “If you’re going on to college, scholarships have never been bigger. If you’re going into the workforce, the dollars have never been bigger, the opportunities never wider, the workforce and employers never more hungry.”

He implored the graduates to be winners.

“Lazy people do a little work and expect to be winning,” he said. “But winners work as hard as possible, and they’re still worried that they’re being lazy. … We’re talking about your every-single-day life. You work as hard as possible to be a winner. Winners go above and beyond all the time. They don’t find reasons not to. A winner will take the first good opportunity that comes their way, and they’ll work with it. Then, because of how hard they work, the next good opportunity will present itself.”

“Opportunity doesn’t always come in every shape and size,” he continued. “It doesn’t always present itself simply. Two years ago, we were asked to educate you like no one has ever asked anyone to do it before. For nine weeks in the spring of 2020, we did something in which we had no clue what we were doing.”

He described how that unprecedented situation led to him launching the “Manley Jobs” video series, initially spawned as an effort to continue educating students in his class during the transition to virtual learning. Now, approximately 4,870 subscribers can watch the 21 videos on his “Blake Manley” YouTube channel, one of which, “Manley Jobs: Logging: Log Truck Driving: EP6,” boasts 547,467 views. Were it not for the pandemic, he added, the series would never have been born.

“We would have never done that otherwise,” he said. “We would have never had cause to do it. We took that opportunity, and we ran with it.”

Manley advised graduates to do the same.

“You don’t know when that opportunity is going to be the best opportunity you have,” he said. “You have to grasp onto it, take it and run with it. You’ve given me the honor of a lifetime to be your friend and teacher.”

He added that he looked ahead to future opportunities for the class of 2022.

“The comfort of Sweet Home – the comfort that some of you have known all of your life – that comfort will become a memory,” he said. “But opportunity will knock on your door. Be ready. Be willing. Be winners.”