Gilbert High Class of 2020 ‘unified’ through virus, shared tragedy

Taking precautions as the COVID-19 outbreak continues, school officials tested members of the Class of 2020’s temperatures prior to the Gilbert High School graduation ceremonies Thursday. Photo courtesy of Lexington One Schools

The stadium where rival teams come to face Gilbert High School’s intimidating football program is affectionately called “Gilbert America.” On Thursday, the GHS Class of 2020 – with help from modern technology during a global pandemic – celebrated their graduation in a setting that might best be described as “Gilbert World.”

A small gathering of family and friends joined Gilbert High’s graduating class in the Indians’ stadium just after dawn for a brief ceremony that was live-streamed globally to those who could not attend in person. As of Friday afternoon, more than 4,000 viewers had tuned to the video on YouTube.

The Gilbert High graduation was an in-person event, even though at the height of the coronavirus outbreak when schools statewide were shut down, there was worry that a “traditional” live ceremony might be impossible. Still, school officials set up a portable stage against the backdrop of the stadium’s visitor stands – the “Gilbert America” sign on the press box hung high over the proceedings – and graduates did walk the stage in their red caps and gowns to claim their diplomas.

“Certainly the end of your senior year was not how you planned it to go, but you’ve risen above that and made sure that it didn’t redirect your plans,” said Jacob Nelson, Principal at Gilbert High, after he had presented the diplomas.

Mr. Nelson quoted scientist and thinker Albert Einstein, who once said, “Adversity introduces a man to himself.”

“I am willing to guess that you’ve learned a lot about yourselves during this time – how you handle disappointment, uncertainty and challenge,” continued the principal, wearing a facemask emblazoned with the Gilbert Indians tomahawk logo. “Whether you know it or not, this crisis has impacted you, but it has not defined you. In fact, I would argue that it has in some ways made us better. It’s shown us how fragile some things we take for granted are. It’s reminded us of how much we need each other, and how much it hurts when we are apart.”

Not only was the Gilbert High Class of 2020 affected by the COVID-19 disruption but also by the tragic deaths of two of their own, 17-year-old Kyle Kirk and 18-year-old Da’marj Morris. They were remembered by student body president Malory Best in her commencement remarks.

“This year, our school-wide theme is ‘One Tribe Unified.’ I could not think of a better theme to represent our class,” she said. “In the face of adversity, the Class of 2020 and the Gilbert community always come together…While mourning the loss of our classmates, we came together to support and comfort each other. It is in these times that make me truly proud to be a Gilbert Indian and truly understand the meaning of ‘One Tribe Unified.’”

The graduation ceremony had been delayed a week because of inclement weather but went off without a hitch, even as students and loved ones wore masks and sat at least six feet apart because of coronavirus social distancing precautions.

Principal Nelson closed his remarks with a benediction that no doubt was a reference to another national crisis unfolding as the Class of 2020 walked into adulthood: the widespread protests and riots in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer in Minnesota. Mr. Nelson issued a call to action to the new graduates.

“For now, let us appreciate the present for the opportunities it is giving us,” he said to the graduating seniors. “Cherish the past for the lessons it has taught us, and walk forward to a future that we can build to be more equitable, kind and just for all.”

Congratulations, Gilbert High School Class of 2020, and know that, yes, a brighter future for ALL is now yours to create from this day forward.

Gilbert High graduates celebrate after claiming their diplomas.