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On to the next adventure

After turning their tassels to signify they were officially graduates of Pocahontas County High School, members of the Class of 2021 celebrates by tossing their caps in the air and setting off confetti and smoke cannons. Principal Joe Riley, far right, watches from the stage as the class celebrates. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Making it to the end of your primary education – after 13 years of lessons, tests, achievements and failures – is an arduous journey, but for the Pocahontas County High School Class of 2021, there was the added hurdle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which greatly changed their last two years at PCHS.

Despite the obstacles, the class persevered and on Sunday, May 30, the seniors received their high school diplomas in the second graduation in PCHS history to be held on the football field.

The students walked across a gooseneck trailer which was a perfect substitute for a stage. The sky was overcast, but the day was brightened by the excitement of families and friends who gathered safely on the football field and in the stands to congratulate the graduates.

Salutatorian Jennalee Meck opened the ceremony with a prayer, and valedictorian Autumn Lane followed with remarks on behalf of her classmates.

“High school has been an unforgettable journey preparing us for our futures and teaching us about ourselves,” she said. “The last four years have influenced and shaped us into who we are today. I am filled with excitement as the next stage of our lives begins. Some of us will continue our education by going to college or trade school, some will enter the workforce and some will join the military.

“As our paths lead us to different destinations, we will all be connected by being the class of 2021 from Pocahontas County High School.”

The five valedictorians and three salutatorians took turns reflecting on the past four years at PCHS and recalled anecdotes from their formative years as Warriors.

“We got to see a rare solar eclipse while eating Moon Pies and [drinking] Sunkist,” valedictorian Silas Riley said. “Even though freshman year we felt as if we were bobbing in the current of the hallways in PCHS with no direction, we were actually on our own path that was shoving us toward this very moment and whatever might come after we leave this day behind.

“So remember, even if in the years to come you feel like your wheels are spinning in the mud, you aren’t stuck,” he continued. “You’re just beginning your next adventure.”

Salutatorian Savannah McMillion reflected on sophomore year which ensured that every member of the class will never forget how to spell “sophomore.”

“Flash back to homecoming, and we can see it was a train wreck – but looking back now – quite comical,” she said. “We had the best hallway but we were cheated out of the win. Powderpuff was a letdown, falling to the juniors in the first game and when the spirit stick rolled our way, we failed to spell sophomores correctly.”

The class’s sophomore year was most memorable not for the firsts the students experienced, but the lasts they didn’t realize were lasts.

“Sophomore year was the last full year of normality,” McMillion said. “Not a lot happened, but we experienced many lasts that should have come our senior year. We had our last athletic banquet, last Elf Auction, last Sadie Hawkins Day, last talent show, last normal sports season and many other lasts.”

Although their junior year began like any normal school year, valedictorian Chloe Hardesty reminded everyone what happened in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the schools – county, state, country and world.

“As the year progressed, we had the sole distinction of going to the state basketball tournament, only to be turned around before the players even touched the hardwood,” she said. “Who would have thought they would be canceled? Certainly not us.

“Who would have thought the rest of the school year would have been canceled? Most certainly not us. We went from being thrilled about having an extended break to ‘how long can this possibly go on?’ Turns out, the rest of the year.”

With the pandemic came many changes – changes the class was able to adapt to, even if it did take some time.

“Going virtual led us to discovering the world of Zoom and Microsoft Teams,” Hardesty said. “Nobody knew how to work these applications at first, and it was hard to adjust to online learning, but we worked together with our teachers to try to end the school year the best way that we could. Finals were canceled and we finished the year wondering what our senior year was going to look like.”

Salutatorian Alan Gibson, valedictorian Sienna Bir-cher, Meck, Lane, Hardesty, McMillion, Riley and valedictorian Emmalee Dean all spoke about the one-of-a-kind senior year that saw them going virtual and returning to school, experiencing some sports and activities, but still not having the full senior year they anticipated as freshmen.

“As freshmen we set high expectations for a memorable senior year, imagining the best spirit week, powderpuff domination, homecoming, prom, senior pranks and ultimately, graduation,” Gibson said.

“In reality, we faced many disappointments, though we were able to overcome and make the best of our senior year,” Bircher added.

Even with the restrictions set forth by the state, the seniors were able to have a successful prom at Camp Twin Creeks. The class even managed to find time for a rather large senior prank and started a new tradition with a senior cookout.

“Inching toward our last few days, our class pulled together for one last cause,” McMillion said. “With the majority of the class, we accomplished an incredible prank. Forking the lawn, TP-ing the school, hanging banners, thousands of cups of water in the halls, a classroom on the roof, mattresses on the roof, square bales barricading the doors, for sale signs outside the school and so much more made memorable experiences that will never be forgotten by faculty or our class.”

“For our last week we decided we wanted to hang out and have some fun in the sun,” Riley said. “Out of this idea our parking lot cookout was born. People brought out food, drinks, chairs and a grill. We also got out various games, such as cornhole and spike ball and some very competitive games broke out throughout the day.

“Then out of left field, water balloons were unveiled and the war was on,” he continued. “During the chaos of water balloons flying and random innocents becoming victims of the conflict, we were able to achieve a little bit of the fun senior year is supposed to be.”

After reflecting on their time at PCHS, it was time for a little inspiration.

Bircher began by asking the crowd a very familiar question – Why did the chicken cross the road? While most would say “to get to the other side,” Bircher found deeper meaning which she imparted to her classmates.

“The road in this story symbolizes a crossing point between current life and the possibilities that lie ahead,” she said. “Crossing the road can be scary, but we may find that the world on the other side is more epic and beautiful than we could have ever imagined.

“I believe we all encounter a road at some point in our lives – maybe multiple roads – but we cannot let the road, no matter how bumpy or how much traffic, keep us from crossing,” she continued. “By crossing the road, I believe we allow ourselves to become the people we were meant to be. I realize now that I have crossed multiple roads in my life and they all helped morph me into the person I am today.”

Throughout life, we all encounter roads which we must cross, Bircher explained, adding that the class of 2021 is currently standing at the edge of a road which will lead them to bright futures.

“Now I am sure we have all crossed roads in our life already, but the biggest, most challenging road of all is approaching and it is the road that will lead us into college, technical school, the military or the workforce. No matter what path you choose, I hope you all strive to be like the chicken who crossed the road because that chicken was brave enough to step out of its comfort zone and achieve what everyone else thought was impossible.

“As you all start your life journey, I hope you have the strength and courage to cross the roads you encounter because the other side will lead you to the rest of your life,” she concluded.

As he addressed his classmates, Gibson reflected on how they all survived such a difficult time with the pandemic, and came out the other side stronger and ready to conquer what is ahead of them.

“We are the class of 2021,” he said. “We are part of a young generation that has faced challenges and hardships that no other class before us ever has.

“Each of us will take different paths,” he continued. “Regardless which route we go, we all have equally important roles. Each of us has the ability to improve the world and the ability to direct our own lives. Thanks to our hard work, dedicated teachers, supportive family and community, we now have the opportunity to go into the world and succeed. So – let’s go. It is time to enjoy our new-found freedom and make the most of what life has to offer. Let us work hard, forgive quickly, love truly, learn continually and embrace happiness.”

Dean shared the class’ appreciation to all those who helped them reach graduation day – the school staff who shaped them these past 13 years, the families who raised them and the communities who supported them. She also thanked her classmates who made it all a great experience because they did it together.

“Thank you to the class of 2021 for the priceless memories that we can take with us forever,” she said. “The unity and bond we have found in our mutual struggles has brought us closer than before. Thank you for persevering through these trying times and giving senior year your all. Thank you for lifting each other up when needed and being the first ones there to celebrate our every achievement.

“These past four years have been a wild ride, but we finally did it,” she added. “Thank you all for sharing this journey with me.”

After the class received their diplomas, principal Joe Riley gave the graduates his final pearls of wisdom before sending them on their way into the world.

Riley brought a shoebox with him to the podium and said instead of talking to the students about how they are ships in the sea, he wanted to talk about boxes.

“Starting tomorrow, what I want you to do is, I want you to take that box and open it up,” he said. “Get outside of it a little bit. Then what I want you to do is take the box and tear the lid off and throw it away.”

Riley ripped the box lid off and threw it to the ground. He then ripped the sides off the box, threw the remaining pieces on the stage and stomped on them.

“I’ll tell you what boxes are going to do,” he said. “I want you to start thinking outside the box. Boxes are going to confine your creativity, your problem solving and your happiness. Step outside the box.

“Don’t worry if you fail because sometimes we fail when we step outside that box,” he continued. “As Denzel Washington said, ‘To get something you have never had, you need to do something you’ve never done.’ In life as you move forward, think about that box. Don’t be confined in a box.”

Several years ago, Riley started a new tradition of telling the graduates how many students have graduated from PCHS. In 1971, 125 students made up the first class of PCHS.

The class of 2021 added 68 names to that list which now totals to 5,078 graduates. As he revealed the number, Riley asked all PCHS alumni in the crowd to stand to be recognized.

In closing, Riley gave the graduates four pieces of advice.

“ One, invest in yourself. Surround yourself with people who make you happy, especially your spouse. Get a job that makes you happy. Have hobbies and do things that make you happy.

“Two, call your parents or the people who raised you because it doesn’t matter whether you’re five or fifty, they want to know what you’re doing and how you’re spending your money.

“Three, remember where you came from. You are Appalachian kids. You have grown up in one of the greatest places on Earth. There are people who would love to know the things you know, experience the things you’ve experienced and learn the culture you all had growing up.

“Four, if you need anything from here on out, all you need to do is pick up the phone, dial 304-799-6564, and there will be a person who will answer on the other end who will say, ‘Good morning, this is Pocahontas County High School, this is Cindy, how can I help you?’

“Don’t be afraid to ask.”

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