Days before his final graduation as principal of E.C. Glass High School, Jeffrey Garrett stood on the stage in the empty auditorium at the school and delivered his speech to a video camera.
Garrett said he wrote his graduation speech before schools were closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The central message in his speech, he said, is to encourage seniors to persevere through life no matter the obstacles in their path. The message became even stronger in light of recent events, he said.
While the division’s traditional graduation ceremonies were canceled as large group gatherings have been discouraged, division administrators in Lynchburg City Schools planned virtual graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020 at Heritage and E.C. Glass high schools.
Heritage High School’s video premieres on the division’s YouTube channel at 9 a.m. Sunday and for E.C. Glass’ at 2 p.m.
On May 22, Garrett, unable to address Glass' senior class in person, donned his graduation gown and hood and stood under on the stage in the school's empty auditorium. Austin Journey, video and media producer for the school division, manned a video camera.
“It was tough,” Garrett said. “I think I was more nervous in front of the camera than I typically am on the stage with the students.”
He wished to look out into the seats to see emotional parents. He wished to see the excitement on the graduates’ faces.
While he wishes he could be more involved in his students’ big day, Garrett said he is “pleased” with the plan for the virtual ceremony and a drive-thru diploma pickup Sunday morning.
Journey was tasked with editing the virtual ceremony. For the past few weeks, he has met with school staff to record speeches and audio for the ceremony, and connected with student speakers to facilitate their speeches from their homes.
Journey said the goal was to make the virtual ceremony as similar to a traditional ceremony as possible. That means including speeches by Superintendent Crystal Edwards, staff and students, programs, music, and calling each graduates’ name.
Timothy Beatty, principal of Heritage High School, said he wanted to encourage his graduating seniors to have a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset. While these are difficult times, he said, the concept of achievement has not gone away.
“This is an unforgettable milestone for these students, especially under these circumstances,” Beatty said.
Beatty said it was “tough” giving his speech — which he referred to as more of a “pep-talk” — to an empty room rather than to students before they line up to receive their diplomas.
“To be in the auditorium and not have them there, not feel their energy, and not see their excitement and enthusiasm, it was very disappointing because I know how much this day means to them,” Beatty said. “The silence was deafening.”
That feeling extended across the city as student speakers recorded their speeches alone from their homes. There’s a common theme graduation speakers want to reiterate to their fellow classmates at both E.C. Glass and Heritage: resilience.
Skylar Anderson, Heritage High School graduating senior, will give the welcome speech during the school’s virtual ceremony. On May 22, adorned in her cap and gown, standing in front of a borrowed podium in the dining room of her home, Anderson looked into an iPhone camera and reminisced on her senior year.
Anderson said the speech-writing and recording processes were bittersweet.
“It just reminded me of the memories we had during the times we were still in school,” Anderson said. “It was tough sharing those memories with a camera — I would much rather have given this speech in person.”
Heritage graduating senior Victoria Johnson was elected by her fellow classmates to give a speech at graduation. Even though she hasn’t seen them in months, Johnson said she reached out to several members of the senior class to ask what they would want to hear during their graduation day.
“I got a lot of people’s input,” Johnson said. “I really wanted to make this about us and what we’ve accomplished over the past four years.”
Johnson said she hopes the Class of 2020 is remembered for its academic and athletic accomplishments, rather than simply labeled as the “quarantine class.”
E.C. Glass graduating seniors Alicia Jackson and Pierson Blount will give speeches during E.C. Glass’ virtual graduation ceremony.
While controversy over the location of the 2020 ceremony sparked earlier this year, Jackson said she never imagined this is how it would end up. Venues for both schools changed several times prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It was a rollercoaster,” Jackson said. “One minute we got the graduation we wanted, the next it changed.”
But, she said, the past four years have been like a rollercoaster, too. In her speech, Jackson said she encourages her fellow graduates to be resilient and persevere through the good times and bad.
Blount said he is a member of the E.C. Glass Chamber Singers, so he recorded his graduation speech at home, as well as a music number.
Each member of the group recorded themselves singing the school’s Alma Mater, Blount said. Journey then edited their voices together to play during the virtual ceremony, bringing a bit more normalcy to the abnormal event.
Heritage valedictorian Georgia Helein began attending the school during her junior year, was captain of the girls soccer team, and participated in various clubs and activities.
When she found out she was the school’s valedictorian around the middle of May, Helein said she didn’t mind that the graduation would be virtual. She admitted she’s not the biggest fan of public speaking, and liked the idea of not having to grace the stage in front of her classmates and hundreds of guests.
“This is something I’ve worked toward for a long time,” Helein said. “I wish we could all be together, but I’m just excited to recognize this great community of students and teachers at Heritage.”
Just days after finding out she had secured the top spot in her graduating class, Helein took her cell phone and her written speech to the basement of her home. Using common basement items — plastic drawers, storage boxes and a small painting easel — Helein created a makeshift tripod to steady her cell phone on.
Aside from prime parking spots and other small perks, Helein said, the valedictorian’s largest honor is getting the opportunity to address the senior class at graduation.
“It’s different because I don’t get to talk to my classmates, I’m talking to a camera,” Helein said.
Helein said she recorded and rerecorded her speech several times before she got a take she was comfortable sending in.
Helein hopes her classmates participate in the virtual graduation because, she said, “it’s the best we can get.” Heritage plans to distribute diplomas to seniors at the school beginning Monday, and Helein said she hopes to connect with her classmates during then.
“It is disappointing to know that we aren’t going to get a traditional graduation where we can all be together,” Helein said. “I think that’s what we all want. We’ve gone through so much together, so we wanted to do this together, too.”
Journey has helped live-stream the schools’ graduations in past years, and said he knows the energy will be different. Recording speeches without the buzz and excitement from the students was strange, Journey said. But, he hopes the virtual ceremony feels like an ending to this chapter of their lives.
“Hopefully the students and the families will feel that this is a fitting tribute to their LCS education experience,” Journey said. “I want them to feel like this virtual graduation does honor them and their accomplishments over the past 13 years.”
Jamey Cross covers education. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.
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