GRADUATION 2023: ‘Embrace the abnormal’: West Stanly graduates discuss overcoming obstacles, living in the moment

Living in the moment and embracing the abnormal were the ongoing themes for commencement of the West Stanly High School Class of 2023 on Friday night.

First student speaker Rebecca Clark acknowledged how “our world was turned upside down due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” as the Class of 2023 only had one semester that did not include the global pandemic.

“I’m sure [our parents] loved having us home for the majority of the week,” she said, adding that “this time made us realize just how much we rely on each other as a class.”

Graduation speaker Rebecca Clark addresses the gathering at West Stanly High School Friday night. (Photo by KRICKET MORTON)

West Stanly Players director and drama teacher Wes Tucker, marking his 26 years at West, was the guest speaker. He used the forum to talk about moments.

“Life is made up of a series of moments that make us who we are,” he said. “This is one of those special moments.

“You have so many moments that make memories that will last forever.”

Recalling of sitting on the graduation stage 32 years ago as a member of the West Stanly Class of 1991, Tucker said he swore he would never be a teacher and that he would never come back to Stanly County.

But he did become a teacher, taking over in 1997 for his mentor, the late Jim Kennedy, as director of the Players.

“You have always had teachers that believed in you,” he said. “Each of you are special. As a teacher it is not just our goal to get you here, but to watch you shine out there.

“Everything those teachers did was to get you to this moment,” he added. “What do you do with all this blood, sweat and tears that have been poured into you over these 13 years?”

Eli Toole, the final commencement speaker, combined the themes of Clark and Tucker as he spoke of how abnormal moments filled the last four years.

“Abnormal,” Toole said. “Wow. I don’t think there is a more fitting word to describe the past four years.

“March 13, 2020 is a day that haunts my mind like a lingering nightmare. I vividly recall Ms. Eudy informing my biomedical technology class of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Later that day I joined the JV baseball team as we traveled to Pinecrest High School for our second, and final, game of the season.

“After that day, nobody knew that the two weeks to slow the spread would evolve into the longest spring break ever. As freshmen who were developing their sense of self and finding their place in high school, we were left to fend for ourselves in quarantine.”

Eli Toole touched on the abnormal life led by the Class of 2023 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by KRICKET MORTON)

Their sophomore year included social distancing, mask wearing and Google Meets.

“Additionally we navigated national racial unrest, an intense presidential election and the totally frightening murder hornets,” he said.

Junior year brought some normalcy back to the class, through testing and more in-person learning, but the pandemic was still present.

“Looking back on the Class of 2023’s high school years, it is quite evident we have not lived a normal year of high school,” Toole said.

“Despite the constant obstacles that were thrown our way, we have taken it as a challenge to push through and truly embrace the abnormal, and that is what I believe the Class of 2023 can be signified by. Even with our unique circumstances, our class has flourished academically, athletically and artistically in these abnormal conditions.”

Using the pandemic as an example for the abnormal, Toole urged his fellow graduates to “be unapologetically yourself.”

“Starting today, I challenge each and every one one of you to be more like the class of 2023 and embrace the abnormal — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year (or 366 days every leap year),” he said. “The great Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, ‘to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ Each of us come with uniquely different life experiences, view points and ideas that can change and shape our families, communities and the world that would be lost if we all decided to be ‘normal.’ Be unapologetically yourself, wear your quirks on your sleeve and show off your individuality with pride in opposition to what social media and society demands from you. It can be rather effortless to get caught up in the vanity and façade that we see others put on, but there is only one you, and this world needs your authenticity despite the abnormalities you suspect you hold.”

He also asked the class to be better.

“Kindness, compassion, empathy, respect and love are needles in society’s haystack of hate, anger and prejudice,” he said. “This is the legacy I truly believe we have the power to leave on West Stanly High School and one that we can hopefully carry into our future careers, marriages and family lives.

“If you can navigate high school during a global pandemic you can overcome anything that comes your way,” he added. “I hope you never forget to embrace the abnormal and everything that comes with it.”

The Class of 2023, which totaled more than 150 graduates, received more than $3 million in college scholarships.