‘You are conquerors’ – the centennial class of BLHS celebrates graduation

It was an event 100 years in the making. The Batesburg-Leesville High School Class of 2020 has graduated.

Culminating a school year marked both by the joy of a centennial celebration and the turmoil of a global pandemic, these promising young men and women walked the stage of the high school fine arts center Friday night in their purple caps and gowns and claimed their diplomas. The graduation ceremony – in doubt a month ago because of the coronavirus shutdown and moved indoors only on Thursday because of an inclement weather threat – was a testament to perseverance and hope in the face of adversity.

“Admirably we have taken it all in stride,” said valedictorian Olivia Morgan Price in her traditional address from the Class of 2020’s top academic achiever. “Even the coronavirus couldn’t hold us back from our future. It’s true that several plans had to be marked from the calendar this year, both traditional and new. We never got to plan a senior prank or paint the rock one last time. We began the year with the senior sunrise and planned on closing it with the senior sunset. Although our school year was cut short, it didn’t stop us from making the most of our senior year.”

The ceremony unfolded with the graduates’ invited family and friends scattered around the fine arts center because of COVID-19 social distancing; some of them wore protective face masks. Still, the promise of a brighter future for the Class of 2020 was a recurring theme throughout the commencement.

“Whatever the future throws at us, I believe that the Class of 2020 is prepared to handle it,” Miss Price said. “We have developed a hope and a desire to improve ourselves and the world around us. We don’t want to believe that this is the best and that it’s behind us, because we can and will always work for the tomorrow that we dream about.”

‘You conquered anyway’

High school principal Sonya Bryant called her students “conquerors.” She commended them for facing head-on the challenge of completing their final-year studies through distance learning after the pandemic closed school buildings across South Carolina in mid-March.

“You conquered anyway,” said Mrs. Bryant, her voice cracking as she recalled the last day that students were allowed to study collectively. “You as a class proved that education doesn’t have to look the same way as it always has. You are here tonight proving that Batesburg-Leesville High School is primed and ready to greet the next 100 years.”

The 100th graduating class of BLHS stepped into adulthood with a spirit of hope against the backdrop not just of the COVID-19 outbreak’s ongoing existential threat but with their peaceful unity juxtaposed against national headlines chronicling violent protests across the country in the wake of a tragic police brutality incident in Minnesota. The centennial pride of Panthers honored Friday night is a culturally diverse group of students who beautifully reflect our community’s rich ethnic and socioeconomic tapestry.

In his salutatorian address, Joshua Dayton Tucker spoke of how being part of the school’s award-winning marching band offered him a “feeling of belonging.”

“We can all relate to this feeling, the feeling of fitting in like a piece of a greater puzzle, the feeling of belonging,” he said. “What is interesting is that at Batesburg-Leesville, this feeling is not exclusive to members of a sport, club or other activity, but rather is shared with all student and alumni. We all have this sense of togetherness that allows us to rely on each other in hard times.”

Indeed, the Batesburg Leesville High School Class of 2020 finished this leg of their life journeys in some of the hardest times this nation and our community have seen and shared. In one of his last official acts as Interim Superintendent, Dr. Stephen Hefner – who will hand over leadership to incoming Superintendent Drew “Ashley” Atkinson next month – left the graduates with a charge to go forward from this moment and seize the opportunity to make a lasting difference.

“As you cross the proverbial threshold into adulthood at this time, commit to live a life that matters,” Dr. Hefner said. “Continue to exhibit outstanding character, and concentrate on those things which really matter, that bring genuine sustained happiness.”

The final words of the Class of 2020’s valedictory address offered the promise that this group of young people, in these troubled times, may yet be ready to take up that mantle.

“As Eleanor Roosevelt once remarked, the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” Olivia Price, standing tall and proud in her cap and gown, said. “And for that reason the future is ours. Congratulations, Class of 2020 – we made it to the future!”

And just as the graduates and their loved ones walked out of the fine arts center, into the night and toward the rest of their lives, the rain began to fall.