‘I’ve never known this place without you’

by Dylan Greene
Sports Editor | June 5, 2020 1:00 AM

CLARK FORK — Not even a pandemic could stop the Clark Fork High School Class of 2020 from accomplishing one of the most important milestones in their lives.

The resilience of the class was on full display during their graduation ceremony Wednesday night. When valedictorian Sara Hathaway took the stage to give her speech she didn’t name off all the moments the class lost over the past few months due to the coronavirus, but instead recognized what every student and teacher did to overcome the challenges they were presented.

“The coronavirus showed us that our community ... has the drive and passion to essentially turn a devastating pandemic into a memorable obstacle,” she said.

The ceremony had a much different look and feel to it due to guidelines laid out by the Panhandle Health District but the school made the most of the situation they were given to honor the 21 CFHS graduates.

Traditionally, the ceremony is held in the school’s gymnasium but this year the school parking lot served as the venue. More than 10 royal blue canopies were setup in the front parking lot stalls closest to the school and lawn chairs were place underneath each one for the 18 students who participated in the ceremony.

Each student had one car filled with close family members parked directly in front of them and about 15 feet away from where they were sitting. The canopies were also personalized with a poster of each graduate.

One by one each student walked across the stage to receive their diploma and principal Phil Kemink turned their tassels to the left. Each family exited their cars — while maintaining proper social distance from others — when their graduates’ name was called to take group photos in a designated area.

The usual claps and loud whistles fit for an indoor setting were replaced with honks, cowbells and air horns. Even a passing semi-truck showed his appreciation for the celebration with a booming honk.

So in the end, the unusual circumstances created a special event that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Salutatorian Aleehia Valliere took the podium for her speech and began by thanking the people who filled her high school experience with a lifetime full of memories.

“I will forever be thankful to grow up in such a loving and supportive community,” she said.

Valliere looked back on the ride the class of 2020 took to get to graduation day. Some of the classmates have been together since preschool and others have joined in along the way.

“This class is sort of like a puzzle,” she said. “We started out with a few pieces and over the years we found more and even lost some ... but here we are now as one complete puzzle. As our puzzle came together, it was clear that the picture it formed was determination.”

Valliere added that although everyone is heading their separate ways, they will forever be a part of the puzzle.

Valliere was looking forward to all the traditional senior year events but acknowledged that the hand they were dealt will make them stronger.

“I think we should be proud of our hard work, our ability to adjust to whatever situation is thrown our way and the fact that we are able to find the good in any situation,” she said.

Hathaway began her speech by reminiscing on the journey she took to move to Clark Fork from Vancouver, Washington, prior to the start of her freshman year in August of 2016.

“Although, I remember being terrified the first time I stepped foot on campus because my first impressions were [Brian] Arthun and his football team,” she joked, “I cannot express to you guys how grateful I am to have made this decision.”

Hathaway said the students and community welcomed her with open arms and she quickly became part of the Clark Fork family.

Hathaway said she enjoyed learning and growing with her classmates and the thing she will remember most is beginning her senior year with the idea that she only had a handful of months left to create memories with her friends. She was eager for the day when she could walk across the CFHS gym floor and receive her diploma, “but unfortunately the world had other plans for the class of 2020.”

However, the unforeseen circumstances didn’t stop the students from achieving their goals and the teachers from doing whatever they could to teach their students in a virtual setting, Hathaway said. That adaptability and drive is what makes Hathaway proud to call herself a Wampus Cat.

“This may not have been the day that we imagined,” she said, “but we are still here receiving our diplomas in our caps and gowns in front of the people who have watched and taught us for the past decade and more.”

Guest speaker and CFHS counselor Leslie Brady acknowledged that this year’s graduation ceremony wasn’t what she envisioned it would look like months ago, but she felt honored to speak to a class that holds a special place in her heart.

“I loved how much I loved being in the classroom with you,” Brady said.

Six years ago, Brady took a job teaching at Clark Fork and the class of 2020 made up her junior high class. She admitted she was nervous coming into a new environment, but all that changed on the first day of school.

“Well when that first bell rang and in walked this group of humans, every nervous feeling I had went out the window,” she said.

One by one, Brady shared a brief thought or memory of every CFHS Class of 2020 graduate. From Charlie Abbott’s contagious laugh to Lucas Decker’s great puns to Chuck Henderson’s maturity, they all had an impact on her.

“To say that I will miss you all is a grave understatement,” Brady said. “I’ve never known this place without you.”

Brady shared an inspirational quote from Maya Angelou and made sure to tell the class to come back to CFHS in the near future.

“I hope as you go on into your adult lives,” she said, “that you will always remember the feeling that you are loved, that you always have people in your corner and that this is always a safe place to come home to.”

Hathaway, Henderson, Valliere, Sophie McMahon and Rebecca Nielsen all graduated with high honors and Ellie Kiebert graduated with honors.

When the final graduate returned to their seat after receiving their diploma, decorated caps soared through the air, fireworks went off and the dozens of people gathered at the fence to the entrance of the school burst out with cheer.

“It truly is a special place to be a part of,” Kemink said.

Valliere said the class of 2020 has always look forward to writing the next chapter of their lives.

“Although our time here at Clark Fork High School may be coming to a close ... keep that 20/20 vision,” she said.

Dylan Green can be reached by email at dgreene@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @DylanDailyBee.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Denzel Kailang smiles as he walks on stage to receive his diploma Wednesday.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Chuck Henderson smiles as he puts his cap back on after throwing it in the area to celebrate graduating.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Isaac Steele walks on stage to receive his diploma.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Sophie McMahon can't hold back a smile after the CFHS graduation ceremony.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Madeline Reuter walks off the stage after receiving her diploma.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Leslie Montgomery walks back to celebrate with her family after the graduation ceremony.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Aleehia Valliere addresses the class of 2020 during her salutatorian speech.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Clark Fork students celebrate after graduation.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Each graduate sat under a canopy during the graduation.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE) Charlie Abbott smiles after receiving his diploma.