Long before an order from the governor’s office closed the doors to Flathead High School, before prom was canceled, extracurriculars were cut short and even before the novel coronavirus reached the shores of the United States, Michele Paine had a class yearbook on her desk.
It was the yearbook celebrating the class of 1920, a group of long-ago Montanans who graduated from Flathead High School just a year after the Spanish flu had ravaged the country, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and just two years after the end of the first World War. The class of 1920 survived all that only to see the arrival of the Great Depression less than a decade later, and another World War not long after that, before persevering to reach one of the most prosperous periods of American history midway through the 20th century.
Fast forward 100 years and Paine, Flathead’s current principal, has spent the last 10 weeks with that yearbook at her desk and an eerie sense of déjà vu. Spring is supposed to be one of the best times of her year, she said, but in empty hallways and classrooms nothing has felt right. In the final weeks of their high school careers, Paine said, seniors begin to appreciate the gravity of the transition they are making, and the educators get a chance to see the fruits of their work of the last 13 or so years.
“It’s that culmination of public education, that transition into adulthood,” Paine said. “It’s just such a defining moment … and so to have missed that, it’s hard. It’s been hard on all of us.”
Paine and her fellow educators watched the senior class of 2020 walk out the door on their way to the weekend on Friday, March 13, only to never see them return. Gov. Steve Bullock’s order suspending in-person education would eventually give way to the school district’s decision to keep the doors closed, and as students in all grades adjusted to remote learning, the class of 2020 grappled with the sudden and unwelcome end to their high school careers.
Then, on Friday, May 29, the fates aligned at Legends Stadium as Paine looked out on a sea of graduates, seated together — albeit six feet apart — for the first time in more than two months. She delivered a brief message of strength and resilience, then stepped aside as the students crossed the dais one by one, collected their diplomas, and walked off into a world of staggering unknowns.
Jacob Hattel had proven his resiliency long before the coronavirus turned things upside down.
“It’s a really long story of my personal life,” the 18-year-old Glacier High School graduate says, before sharing the details of a family divided by addiction. He was raised by his grandparents, Kellie and Dean, without whom, he says, he would be “living on the streets.”
Hattel was in Bozeman on March 13, cheering on the Wolfpack’s girls basketball team at the Class AA state tournament as part of the school’s pep band when he first worried that his time as a traditional student at Glacier was over. The state basketball tournament would be canceled before the end of the day, and by the end of the weekend, the governor had made his proclamation.
An all-state musician, Hattel had spent the prior few months preparing for the biggest event of his high school career, April’s district music festivals and the state festival, which would have been the first week of May. Both performances were canceled, of course, swept up in the vast coronavirus-related closures, as was Hattel’s senior prom and the rest of the celebrations and hijinks that accompany the traditional end of a senior year. Like many students, though, Hattel found a way to adjust to learning from home, used social media to stay in touch with his friends and classmates, and settled into a new normal with minimal disruption.
But there is still sadness, or maybe grief, at how his life growing up in Kalispell came to an end.
“Honestly, at first I was a little frustrated because it felt like we busted our butts off for 12 years,” Hattel said. “But as time went on, (I realize) this has been something that’s made our class unique, and has shown we can go through anything we could possibly go through. We’ve been granted a lot of opportunities no classes have.”
Hattel graduated on Saturday with a fine arts distinction and will continue his education in Bozeman, where he will study mechanical engineering at Montana State University. A two-sport athlete as well — Hattel played football and wrestled for the Wolfpack — his journey made an impact on Keith Johnson, a school counselor at Glacier who worked with Hattel’s class for four years.
“He’s incredible,” Johnsons said. “A nice kid to everybody; he’s had challenges and keeps doing positive things.”
That is the hope, as well, for the class of 2020: to face challenges and continue doing positive things. Johnson talked about “Glacier grit,” the tenacity the school tries to instill in its students that became an even more appropriate mantra this spring. Some seniors had to pick up jobs to support struggling families or become de facto childcare during the height of Montana’s virus-related restrictions, and still others grappled with unavailable or inadequate technology at home. And even those who had none of those challenges needed to quickly adapt to independent learning, practicing enough self-discipline to stay on-task with a sea of distractions around them and, in many cases, no authority figure over their shoulder.
“It occurred to me that the ‘G’ word I’ve been thinking about is grace,” Johnson, the school counselor, said. “I’ve seen so much grace in all directions. Everyone seems to know that everyone is doing their best.”
Beyond the challenges that remote learning presented, teachers, students and administrators universally acknowledged an equally important piece of the high school experience that has been lost the last two months. School is a social outlet, for teachers and administrators as well as students, and for some it is one of the only social outlets they have. Social media has helped bridge some gaps, while administrators say remote classes were a critical tool for keeping students connected to their teachers and each other.
One Flathead teacher, Paine said, reported that her students told her “it’s just so good to hear your voice” after she posted one of her regular lectures online.
So it was that last weekend’s high school graduations took on added significance. Kalispell students got to experience something few others around the country have when they got to meet, as a group, one final time at Legends Stadium, Flathead’s class on Friday evening and Glacier’s on Saturday morning. The ceremonies were unusual, with most speeches prerecorded and available online, the students’ chairs spaced out from one another and ticketing and seating restrictions in place for guests, but at the end of the day what mattered was standing together one last time.
“I met with the senior leadership the last week of April and we talked about all the various ideas,” Paine said, mentioning that even a drive-up graduation, like has been held in other states, was on the table. “And they just wanted to be together.”
Now those students enter the adult world together and a future that seems to grow hazier by the day. In just the last few months, a deadly virus has killed tens of thousands and cratered the American economy, and pent-up anger and frustration over police brutality erupted in fiery protests the same weekend the graduates donned their caps and gowns.
“I always talk about challenges and obstacles in life helping us grow, and hoping you can learn to be better,” Johnson said. “I (tell students) you have a really important year you’re graduating in; you’re graduating into this thing we haven’t experienced before. It’s a powerful time to learn how to rely on each other.”
It’s a lesson their ancestors were forced to learn along the way, and one that Paine keeps being reminded of by the book on her desk. The class of 1920 could not have imagined what was to come next, but somewhere along the line they were prepared and, to Paine’s great comfort, they persevered.
“I keep going back (to the yearbook) and you think, ‘Gosh, the class of 2020, where are they headed?’” Paine said. “This spring has reinforced for me that they’re able to roll with it. They are. They’ve grown and matured and I’m so proud of them.”