Graduation for the Mitchell High School class of 2020 Sunday had most of the appearances of a typical commencement ceremony.

School administrators called the names of the senior students and they walked across the stage at the Mitchell High School Performing Arts Center to receive their diplomas. Soloists performed musical numbers, and members of the class delivered addresses that reflected on their time coming of age in the Mitchell School District.

But this commencement ceremony was a first of its kind for the district. Similar to the live in-person classes that were all moved to an eLearning format due to the COVID-19 outbreak that turned the world upside down in March, this year’s graduation ceremony was held in a pre-recorded, virtual format produced over the course of several days by faculty, administrators and students.

It was a plan hatched from talks between school leaders and members of the senior class, who elected to have a virtual graduation ceremony in lieu of being able to hold a traditional live event due to the pandemic.

A nontraditional tradition

Joe Childs, principal for Mitchell High School, who helped coordinate the event, said despite never having done something like this before, the event came off as smoothly as could be expected.

“We were tremendously happy with the graduation done virtually,” Childs said. “I thought it went very well, and we saw nearly every one of the students in a two-day period.”

The video was compiled by having graduating seniors book a small block of time at the PAC, where they would don a graduation robe and mortar, have their photo taken and would then wait for their name to be called to receive their diploma on the decorated stage. Each student was recorded individually in the mostly-empty venue, and the process continued for each successive student.

The recordings took about two busy days to complete, including time to record vocal soloists and for administrators and school board members to make remarks. Most of the 159 graduates in the class took part in the event, Childs said.

The process lacked the close energy usually associated with events like graduation, but Childs said it was the best process to acknowledge the graduating seniors while also ensuring a high level of safety for everyone involved.

“The thing we wanted to do was just to make it the best experience we could with the current situation. We wanted to make sure everyone felt special, because they are, and the day is special,” Childs said. “It took a lot of hands and Mitchell High School has many capable people that made those two days special.”

Bruce Mastel, a longtime math and computer teacher at Mitchell High School, was one of those who put in time creating the video, which was released Sunday, May 17 at 2 p.m., the exact time and date of the originally-scheduled live commencement ceremony.

Mastel said the process went amazingly well for a group who had never done an event this large in this type of format. He spent two full days recording students one at a time as they came in, with two video cameras running simultaneously for redundancy.

After he had the students recorded, he had to edit them together to form a cohesive video. He said one of the bigger challenges in the process was organizing the students alphabetically by name. The students had booked their time to be recorded based on what worked best for them, meaning they were recorded out of sequence.

“They signed up in their own time frame, and that’s not alphabetical,” Mastel said with a chuckle. “So I uploaded the clips, opened them up, named them and alphabetized them all.”

While the final video is no substitute for an actual live event, Mastel said it did have its advantages. Musical performances could be reshot if something did not go to the performers liking or a speaker missed a line, and Childs said he enjoyed having a short conversation with students as they took part in the recording, something there isn’t much time for during a live event.

Mastel said he likely put in over 20 hours in editing the footage, which he labored over with a technical eye. He lamented that he couldn’t get his camera and tripod back into the exact same position and angle after taking it home the previous night to download his material. Others who saw the footage assured him it looked great, but he admits the perfectionist in him needled him about the discrepancy.

“When I got back I couldn’t put the camera back exactly like it was, it was off by a degree or two,” Mastel said.

Still, in the end, the everyone involved in the project came through, and despite the unusual circumstances surrounding the graduation of the class of 2020, Mastel hopes students and families will find their graduation ceremony as unique and one to remember.

“This way it’s going to be a digital version that will be out there as a file if they ever want a copy, so that’s nice. And we had so many people at the school that were helping. They did a great job of what we needed to make it all flow,” Mastel said.

Striving for perfect vision

A decorated stage, the music of Pomp and Circumstance and school officials and students in graduation robes greeted viewers of the 2020 Mitchell High School graduation ceremony Sunday, emanating from computer screens around the community as the pre-recorded virtual event was made available for viewing.

Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District, greeted the audience, noting that the event they were watching was the culmination of years of hard work by the graduating seniors before he introduced the student commencement speakers for the afternoon.

“Mitchell High School has a long tradition of student speakers in commencements. While many things are different this year, that tradition will hold, as well it should,” Graves said.

Rebecca Bechen, vice-president for the student body, urged her fellow classmates to take a moment to reflect on the lessons of the past and how they have helped mold them into the latest Mitchell High School class ready to enter the world.

“Before we can look forward, we need to recognize everything that has gotten us this far. We are here today because of our parents, teachers, classmates and ourselves,” Bechen said. “I want to start by taking a moment to congratulate our parents and teachers. Congratulations! We graduated!”

Bechen praised the support system that guided the class from kindergarten to the graduation stage, saying they could not have done it without them. But she also said members of the class should be proud of their own accomplishments. Each member of the class had to navigate their high school careers on their own terms, and that is no small accomplishment, she said.

“Now I want to congratulate the graduating class of 2020. Although the support from our parents and teachers was needed, you are the reason for your success,” Bechen said. “You are the ones who got yourselves here today. Not only did you do your classwork, you balanced it with a personal life and other school activities. Not only did you create your own success, you supported those around you.”

It is time for a new chapter in their lives, she said, and she knows members of the class will face the new challenges and opportunities head on.

“From a young age, we’ve always been asked what we wanted to do with our lives. Now I look back and realize that our lives were already beginning, and looking forward I see a wealth of opportunities waiting for us,” Bechen said.

Kelsey Dahme, president of the student body, said she was reminded of the Alone, Together mantra that has been embraced since the global pandemic. She also reflected on a descriptive term the class selected for itself when they were just starting their high school careers.

“As incoming freshmen, we picked a word to represent our class, and we chose ‘visionary’,” Dahme said. “How fitting for the class of 2020! Perfect vision. But none of us could have seen this coming. Alone together is not how I envisioned my graduation.”

Though the pandemic may have prompted an early exit from their familiar school building and classrooms, she said it served as a reminder that life sometimes throws a wrench into the best-laid plans. That shouldn’t be discouraging, she said. It should be an opportunity.

“We had no idea that would be the last time we would walk the halls we have called home for the last four years,” Dahme said, remembering when district school buildings were closed and classes moved to an online format. “As unfortunate as the circumstances were, it shows us that life is not always what we had pictured. We can use this quarantine as a lesson to cherish the small things in life and be grateful for all the memories we have together. This reminds us that we need to make the most of every day with the people who mean the most to us.”

She mentioned former Mitchell High School teacher Jeff Hoffman, who taught agriculture from 2008 to 2019 before passing away in August after a six-year fight with cancer. She said Hoffman was an excellent example of soldiering on when life plans change unexpectedly.

“I’m sure his perfect vision in life did not include getting cancer. But he serves as an example of how you have the opportunity to not give up when faced with uncertainty and adversity,” Dahme said. “He continued to have a positive attitude and devoted his life to making a difference in the lives of so many of us for as long as he lived. Mr. Hoffman taught us when faced with adversity, you cannot draw on the past, but live for the future and keep moving forward.”

The class of 2020 would do well to take Hoffman’s attitude with them as they press forward with their lives, she said.

“Although our senior year has been riddled with adversity, and anything but a perfect vision, I think we have all learned a valuable lesson that it is better to be stronger together than alone together,” Dahme said.

Members of the Mitchell Board of Education also provided remarks for the graduating class.

Neil Putnam, who was attending his 20th commencement ceremony as a member of the board, noted it was a particularly special event after what the class had gone through during the school year, and also because his daughter Kelsey was among the graduates.

“I’m proud of her, and also proud of you all. Best wishes in your future endeavors,” Putnam said.

Lindsey Musick, another member of the board, said the tenacity of the class in the face of unusual times will ensure the class of 2020 is one that will be remembered.

“We want you to know we’re sorry you missed out on some things, but we also know that you are resilient. Speaking (for myself) and for the board as well, this class will never be forgotten,” Musick said.

Kevin Kenkel encouraged the class to take their experiences from their last year of high school and apply them in the next phase of their lives.

“I challenge you to take your unique experiences and make it work for you. You’ve navigated a new, weird reality among modern high school graduates,” Kenkel said. “Keep right on moving forward.”

Matthew Christiensen closed the video ceremony by congratulating the graduates on their successes and their continuation of a long line of Mitchell High School graduates.

“140 years of success and achievements. 140 years of persistence and resilience. (I’m) wishing each of you in the class of 2020 good luck in your individual journeys,” Christiensen said. “We know you will enjoy the same success and achievement as those who have gone before. You will have a positive impact on the world, because you are intelligent, persistent and resilient.”