Washougal grads reflect on facing, defeating challenges

Student body president: 'We kept pushing to make it here to this moment together'

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Washougal High School seniors wear face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and listen to a speech at their high school graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 12, 2021. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Earlier this year, Washougal High School Principal Sheree Clark asked Ethan Mills, the school’s Associated Student Body president, to deliver some “inspiring life advice” to his fellow seniors at the school’s graduation ceremony. Recognizing the challenge in front of him Mills laced his reply with a hint of good-natured sarcasm.

“Absolutely,” he told Clark. “Life advice is easy to give, especially at 18.”

Nevertheless, Mills wrote a speech that resonated with maturity and wisdom. During the ceremony, held under gray but mostly dry skies on Saturday, June 12, at Fishback Stadium, he asked his fellow graduates to embrace something he said they’ve learned well over the past year: “Life sucks — but only sometimes.”

“Yeah, you heard me right,” Mills said. “Tonight, tomorrow, the next day, the day after that, you will still be on top of the world, but by the time (next) year rolls around you will have faced challenges that make you sit down and go, ‘Life sure does suck.'”

“But you shall always remember, ‘Life sucks, but only sometimes.’ You will stand up, you will take those challenges head on, face them and defeat them. Because guess what? You are all resilient people. I mean, take a look around you — we graduated during a pandemic. We are literally history. I know we’ve all had moments this year when we’ve ’embraced the suck’ and kept on pushing to make it here to this moment together.”

Valedictorians Lauren Bennett, Amara Farah, McKenna Jackson, Meryl Keeler, and Daria Walker and salutatorian Mariah Moran also spoke about the pandemic-related challenges the class of 2021 faced during their senior year.

“We have had to learn, change and adapt to our surroundings in ways that we never have before,” said Jackson, who intends to pursue a biology degree and a career as a pediatric surgeon. “And through it all, we have displayed confidence, poise and resilience in overcoming all of our obstacles. All of us have had to fight our own individual battles, but as we are all seated here today, I could say we were victorious. Despite all of our challenges, we made it.”

The challenges “have only demonstrated the strength and resilience this class possesses,” according to Walker.

“Today I am wearing paper cranes on my tassel. In Japanese culture, paper cranes represent luck, peace and recovery,” said Walker, who will attend Western Washington University in Bellingham and study environmental science. “I think we can all agree that, after this year — a year when we faced a global pandemic and fought against long-standing social injustice — we are all in need of healing and peace.”

“Since freshman year, this school has been molding and shaping us into the people we are today, just as my family has been folding those squares of paper into cranes for generations,” Walker said. “We have been enriching our lives with unique experiences that will leave permanent marks on ourselves forever, for better or for worse. Either way, they have prepared us for the future that we’re so abruptly about to walk into.”

Clark implored the 258 graduates to remember the community that “rallied for you when the world changed” in 2020 and “worked to provide you with opportunities we didn’t think you’d have.”

“There was a lot that this pandemic took from us, and from you,” Clark told the graduating seniors. “You have heard ‘no’ countless times. But what it didn’t take was our sense of community, our family, your hope and your determination. Right now, in this moment, my hope is no matter where you go or what you do, you take this sense of community — no, this sense of Washougal community — and share it and empower others with it and look after one another and build bridges, not barriers.”

Clark also highlighted the school’s “small but mighty” first graduating class of Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) students, Clark College graduates, athletes and Cascadia Technical Academy participants, as well as the seniors who entered the workforce in the past year to help provide for their families.

Clark, assistant principals Mark Castle and Gary McGarvie, and counselor Christina Mackey-Greene presented the school’s”Bootstrap” award to Mark Simpson and Briahna Ruth (overcoming adversity), “Citizenship” award to Farah (community service) and “Black and Orange” award to Mills (school spirit).

‘We all have this one thing in common’

Every year, high school students across the United States are stricken by a lack of motivation, a condition colloquially known as “senioritis,” toward the end of their final year of secondary education.

Many Washougal High seniors experienced that feeling for an extended period of time during the emotionally challenging 2020-21 school year. 

“(The school year) was a complete unknown,” said Washougal High senior Charlotte Baker, the school’s Associated Student Body (ASB) treasurer. “No one knew what the next week or the next month was going to be like. We’ve just gone through the motions with what we’ve been told to do. (I’d guess that a lot of seniors) felt disconnected from their classmates and didn’t have any motivation at all to get their work done.”

But somehow, they found the determination they needed to overcome all of the disappointments and challenges and achieve their final goal.

“I’m definitely excited (about graduation), and I know the rest of my class is (excited) and the families are excited because every senior gets four tickets,” said Baker, who will attend Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and major in biology and Spanish. “It’ll probably be our first real event where everyone’s back together with more of a ‘back-to-normal’ feeling. Connecting with one another (has been the biggest challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic). During the past four years we’ve all grown up together, but everyone’s been so disconnected for the past year that when we come together on Saturday for graduation, we’ll see some people for the first time in a year and the last time.”

This definitely wasn’t the kind of senior year the soon-to-be graduates were hoping to experience. Because of the pandemic, they didn’t get a chance to be at the forefront of many traditional activities and events, such as pep assemblies and homecoming. Some of them struggled to learn remotely. Some of them got jobs to support their families and didn’t come back to school on a full-time basis when it reopened. Some of them struggled to apply to colleges and solidify their post-graduation plans in the face of so much uncertainty. And most of them struggled with the fact that they couldn’t see their friends and classmates in their last year together. 

“I think we came in with the expectation that we weren’t going to have much at all, and we actually got more than we figured we would,” said Washougal High senior Brig Griffin, the school’s ASB vice president. “But I think everybody has been kind of just looking ahead to the next chapter. A lot of the seniors are just kind of done. They got jobs and got that taste of the real world, and now they’re just ready for it.”

They haven’t been shy about expressing their feelings, either. 

“A lot of seniors feel that they were robbed,” Mills said. “It definitely feels like it’s unfair, it sucks and there’s nothing that we can really do to change it at this point. We’re just living out the last time we have together, because (after graduation) we probably won’t see most of the people again and we’ll all go down different paths. That’s the sad part about it.”

Clark understands Mills’ feelings. In fact, she’s heard similar thoughts from other seniors during the school year. She said that even though “some things have been really frustrating” for them, they “have been doing the best they can” to not lose hope.

“In some sense I feel that this year has been harder for them than last year because there have been so many changes for such a long period of time, and then you add in the isolation (that they felt) during the first part of the school year,”  she said. “I think they have handled it so well. It’s been really grueling for them, and the fact that they’ve responded in the way that they have and have had a positive manner and just kept after it (was great to see).”

“I think they really have handled it very maturely and very well,” said Washougal High science teacher Brittany Guest, the school’s senior class adviser. “They definitely could’ve taken the easy way out and said, ‘Woe is me,’ but they didn’t. They rose to the occasion, and I definitely think they’re coming out the other side a lot better for it. They found really creative ways to not just celebrate the class of 2021 and the fact that they’re seniors, but do other (positive) things throughout the course of the year.”

The class is “one a big family,” with students who “all care for each other,” according to Griffin.

“Everybody gets along with everybody,” said Griffin, who will attend the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, and study theater. “There’s no cliques. There’s no groups. There’s no status quo. Everybody is just friends (with everybody else).”

“They’re a fun group of kids,” said Washougal High sign language teacher Kyla Ritchey, who served as the students’ class adviser during their freshman and sophomore years. “They like to have fun. They have great ideas. When we have spirit days and assemblies, they get involved. They love getting loud and cheering each other on. A lot of these kids have been together since they were in elementary school, so they love talking about their memories. They all know each other and they will all talk to each other and get along with one another.”

And they believe that their  experiences from the past year have caused their collective bond to grow even stronger. In the future, they will definitely remember their senior year as a period of time in which they overcame an unprecedented obstacle together. 

“We all have this one thing in common,” said Mills, who will attend Washington State University in Pullman and major in computer science. “I think (the shared experience) will definitely keep us together in the coming years during reunions and stuff like that. We faced this one big challenge together, and we made it. I don’t know if it was good or bad. But we made it.”