UPPER ONSLOW – Car horns, balloons, a loud speaker, and one giant mound of gravel.

It may not have been how they envisioned it, but the 2020 graduating class of Cobequid Educational Centre will have one hell of a memory to share in the years to come.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, those graduating high school this year didn’t get the traditional year-end celebrations. But, thanks to Jim and Tricia Lorraine at RiverBreeze Farm and those in the community, the graduates still got a ceremony in front of their friends and family.

A gravel walk-up stage was created, with each student being called forward. They were waiting after stepping out of their vehicle, their immediate family remaining. As if they were in the school auditorium, each student got a chance to walk across their “stage”, diploma in hand, and pose for photos.

Horns honked. Friends and family cheered. And photographs were taken.

But before the students’ names were called, the crowd heard from student council co-presidents Mallory Priest and Clare Boudreau, as well as valedictorian Brayden Gray.

All three students acknowledged Emily Tuck, a fellow graduate who lost her life in the mass shooting in April. Tuck, says Boudreau, had plans to pursue her talent and interest in welding.

“As she was a friend to many at our school, we are honoured to celebrate her time at CEC,” said Boudreau. “To those of you who were affected by the shooting in any way, while this time may not feel quite right without a certain family or friend to celebrate with you, your strength and courage is admirable.”

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Priest offered a quote from Elizabeth Edwards on resilience, and said it resonates with what the graduates are feeling.

“There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and there’s a lot going on in our community. The pandemic, the April shootings, and personal circumstances have affected us all differently. The common factor we have seen demonstrated by many people throughout these events of the past few months is resilience,” she said. “Throughout this all, people have found ways to carry on and share a smile. And then there’s us, the students.”

Some, she said, had to face online classes. All wondered how the end of the year would play out. They had to adapt to cancellations of extracurriculars and sports, as well as the eventual complete closure of school.

“We all managed to put in the work to get ourselves here today, celebrating together.”

Boudreau said the students – almost 400 in the graduating class – learned to persevere but that her fellow classmates were ready for new challenges.

“Our resilience and ability to adapt to new normals gives us the opportunity to try to put together something that’s good in the future,” she said.

It’s not the first, nor will it be the last, time a generation faced a challenge.

“But what we must keep in mind is that every generation faces unique obstacles and that we will find a way to come out of this challenge on our own,” Boudreau said. “From the pandemic, the ingenuity of our generation will shine through and we will not be discouraged by this small, yet mighty portion of our life.

“We want to leave you with this spark of hope, that although things seem incredibly difficult right now, this is not the end. We will overcome every challenge ahead of us and come out stronger than ever before.”

During his valedictory address, Gray said the students started from the bottom, but made it through the hardships, “and now it looks like the whole team is here.”

Many friends and family, he says, told him high school is the quickest three years of one’s life. He didn’t believe them. The first day at CEC felt like yesterday. So did the first class, first football game, and first, second, and even third girlfriends.

“I know each and every one of you here today will never forget the overwhelming feeling of walking into high school for the first time junior year.”

It’s never easy, he said, to try to find oneself. But everyone learns and grows from their experiences day in and day out.

Like everyone else, Gray has been through his own ups and downs, twists and turns.

“We have faced many challenges and have had many obstacles to overcome, not only in our school, but in our communities. We had the largest Canadian shooting in Canadian history outside of our own homes. Twenty-two lives lost, and one in this very grad class, Emily Tuck. I know her spirit is in with us today in attendance.

“Now with the injustices going on in our own country, it has reminded all of us that systemic racism is still prevalent in 2020. Being a person of colour myself, it’s a little scary. On top of everything, we also had to fight through a global pandemic, COVID-19.”

He said making it to their graduation ceremony is a “testament to our perseverance and excellence as individuals and as a family.”

While many will look back at 2020 as an unwelcome year, Gray disagrees, knowing the potential the graduating class has.

“Graduates, you are all destined for amazing things. As I stand in front of you today, I see 381 young adults who can change the world. You have all grown into a group of powerful and intelligent people who will leave a massive footprint on this year. Every single one of you here has something you’re good at and every single one of you here has something to offer. You have the responsibility to yourself to discover what that is.”

After three years of a journey together, Gray told his fellow graduates they’ve reached their destination. It may not be how they imagined it, but “we can at least say our experience together has been like no other and we all fought through it and prevailed as a family.”

As they were soon to part ways, Gray had some words of advice.

“Fly through the turbulence and live life to the fullest. Your time as a caterpillar has expired and your wings are ready.

“And remember, all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.”