By Crystal Hayduk
Blue skies and blazing heat greeted nearly 200 members of the Class of 2021 at the commencement ceremony held at the Jerry Niehaus Stadium on the afternoon of June 6.
Accompanied by their faculty escorts, the class processed along the track to the traditional strains of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” piped in through the sound system. Thanks to the State of Michigan’s Gatherings and Face Mask Order that took effect on June 1, an unlimited number of family and friends were present to acknowledge them with wild applause and cheers. Smiles lit up unmasked faces.
Commencement was also livestreamed for those who were unable to attend in person.
Principal Mike Kapolka began his address with the startling fact that it had been 502 days since the entire class had gathered together—in the high school auditorium for a course scheduling meeting as the then-juniors prepared for their senior year.
Kapolka credited the students for the perseverance required to graduate given the challenges of the last year and a half. In addition to the “determination, unconditional love and tireless support” from family, guardians, and district staff, the students have exhibited “persistent spirit, determination and [a] positive attitude.”
The lessons learned during the pandemic to this point will help the graduates transition to post-high school life. Kapolka told the students they understand having things taken away or made inaccessible by uncontrollable circumstances. “You’ve had to learn how to adapt on the fly, become more resourceful than ever, and have focused more on the value of meaningful relationships in your life,” said Kapolka. “You have a clearer understanding of why these connections are so vitally important to your own personal growth and success. You have had to improvise, adapt and overcome the obstacles that were placed before you in order for you to keep moving forward. I cannot tell you how wildly impressive and uniquely special your entire class is to me personally because of this.”
Kapolka cited a lengthy list of individual and collective academic and athletic successes—even more gratifying because of the difficult circumstances. “When you won a district or regional title, or created an independent work, or an amazing art piece was displayed in town, we … found great joy in those moments celebrating you,” he said. “And your successes were our success. … Today isn’t just simply a graduation; this is a celebration for the town of Chelsea, for your families, and most importantly, for all of you. Your class embodies the spirit of this amazing town and the people who contribute to its heartbeat.”
And, just as the community celebrates together, it also grieves together. Kapolka included Shaun Happy in the Class of 2021, who is deeply missed following his death earlier this year. “Shaun had a unique ability to connect with others … due to his affable nature and willingness to help anyone out at any time. … His spirit of service and support to others is another hallmark of why this class will leave behind a footprint that lasts. Shaun’s legacy will live on in the empathy you show to others.” There was a moment of silence to honor Happy’s memory.
Kapolka offered the graduates two pieces of advice: Tend relationships and connections like a garden so they will become healthy and strong; and “preparation, determination, persistence, resiliency mixed in with a little bit of hustle and grind goes a long way. Be humble, yet stay forever hungry.”
Two members of the Class of 2021, Adam Bahri and Margaret “Peggy” Smith, gave humorous speeches. They recalled shared memories, events they will miss, and things they learned.
Bahri’s remarks included thanks to the greater community that helped make him a better student and more mature person. “The community we grew up in—a community of dads that care way too much about their lawns and a community of teachers, parents, and strangers that care just the right amount about our success. … Don’t take life too seriously, stay breezy, have a good time, and see you on the other side.”
Smith said she still doesn’t understand how the pandemic prevented cookies from being served in the cafeteria. Although they missed many things over the past year and a half, “…at least we got to stare at everyone’s black screens on Zoom” … and students learned to “work up the courage to say, ‘Um, hey, you’re muted right now.’ We learned that we can carry what feels like the weight of the world on our shoulders … As high school comes to its bittersweet end, I am confident in every single 2021 graduate that no matter what obstacle or challenge comes their way, they will get through….”
Superintendent Julie Helber certified the successful completion of high school requirements and declared the Class of 2021 to be graduates of Chelsea High School.
Class of 2021:
Class Flower – Sunflower
Class Motto – “You are given one life. Don’t waste it. Embrace it. Love it. Live it.” By Trisha Paytas
Class Song – “Mr. Brightside” by Brandon Flowers
Faculty Escorts – Laura Lutz, Matt Pedlow, Lonnie Mitchell, Laura Naar, and John Zania
Class Advisor – Heather Hugg