Fulton High School's commencement ceremony was a month late — but well worth the wait.
"Congratulations — you made it," commencement speaker Jeremy Washington said to cheers.
Beneath receding storm clouds, the 155 members of FHS Class of 2020 were able to gather one last time Friday. Family members and friends gathered in the bleachers at Robert E. Fisher Jr. Football Stadium while graduates sat in chairs spaced 6 feet apart in the field below.
Emily Schweiss, the senior class speaker, said facing the COVID-19 pandemic had taught her class about two important traits: resilience and empathy.
"These two traits will help our class change the world for the better," she said.
Despite a switch to online-only classes partway through spring semester, she and her classmates still found ways to connect and bond.
"We learned how to sacrifice events and experiences we'd looked forward to for years for the health and safety of our peers and community members, and how to make the most of the situation we were dealt," she said. "We gave up so much, and we still managed to move forward with a smile and a positive attitude."
Schweiss said facing those difficulties now will help her and her classmates deal with struggles and disappointments in the future.
She also nodded toward the political turmoil currently wracking America.
"Empathy is the ability to connect with others on a deep level, to feel their emotions with them," Schweiss said. "It's a way to connect with others in an incredibly profound way. As the world becomes more and more polarized and divisive, this trait is more important than ever."
She urged her classmates not to be discouraged by the state of the world — by politicians who can't reach compromises and citizens who follow their lead.
"Go out of your way to meet people who are different from you, and allow them to share their experiences with you," she encouraged.
Washington also told students not to let the current circumstances get them down. A Fulton High School graduate of the Class of 2000, Washington now serves as a station manager for Zimmer Radio group and sits on Fulton's Planning and Zoning Committee.
He said he was pleasantly shocked to be asked to speak, and he promised to keep his remarks brief.
"Just 20 years ago, I was sitting in your seat, wondering how long this commencement speaker was going to be talked for," he quipped.
Washington took a moment to thank the parents, teachers, administrators and counselors who helped guide the students through to graduation. Then, he told students they shouldn't let "this virus destroy your 2020 vision for success."
"COVID-19 caused us to change direction, but at the end of the day, you still made it," he said, remarking on the same resilience Schweiss highlighted.
He told the Class of 2020 to take pride: "Personal Responsibility in Daily Excellence."
Though this year's graduation was unusual in many respects, seniors still had the chance to take part in time-honored traditions, including processing in to "Pomp and Circumstance," crossing the stage, turning their tassels and tossing their mortarboards into the air.
Washington promised graduates normalcy will return someday.
"On the other side of this virus, you will have a bright future," he said.