COLUMBIA CITY — Columbia City High School’s first graduation ceremony in the new building was both emotional and historic as members of the community celebrated the Class of 2021 last week.

Columbia City’s Class of 2021 has seen its fair share of adversity — persevering through a pandemic and the loss of two classmates.

“Through all the uncertainty that has come with the pandemic, you have modeled determination and resilience — well done,” Superintendent Laura McDermott said.

Nearly every seat in front of the stage in the new gymnasium was filled — except for two glaringly empty seats on the floor, among the graduates — seats that would have been filled had the class not lost two of its own.

The Class of 2021 lost classmate Payton Tenney in 2016, while the group was in middle school, and within the last month lost classmate Easton Adkins in a tragic car accident.

Several who took the stage made note of their absence, including Valedictorian Abby Price, who, rather than touting the class’s awards won and records broken, put more focus on character.

“I want our class to be remembered for how kind we were,” Price said. “We banded together to raise money for one of our own students who had cancer. We’ve served over 1,935 hours to better our community. We’ve lived through a worldwide pandemic and continued to pursue education.

“Most of all, I want them to recall our love. Love for those who aren’t here today and should have been. Our love for Payton and our love for Easton in those empty chairs. Not only has our love for those individuals been evident, but also our love for each other as we walk through these intense moments of overwhelming grief. I am confident that this love will be the lasting legacy of this class.”

Adkins’ accident took place at the end of the school year, and the school honored his graduation by announcing his name and giving his diploma to his sister, who walked the stage to receive it — a moment met with a standing ovation and many tear-filled eyes.

“Your graduation comes at the end of an incredibly long and difficult year — a year which ended tragically for one of your own,” wrote teacher Joe Urschel, whose words were delivered by faculty speaker Todd Armstrong. “The joy that you feel in the presence of your friends and family is understandably diminished by the absence of Easton. This ceremony cannot capture the impact that Easton had on others — we must remember that this day celebrates his graduation as well.”

Armstrong, a social studies teacher at CCHS, was selected as faculty speaker last year as well, making him the last speaker at the old school and the first speaker at the new facility.

He gave valuable advice to the class and spoke to the group about its ability to overcome.

“You guys might be the first class that says, ‘When we were in school, we didn’t have school,’” Armstrong said.

Though many were faced with unexpected quarantines, unpredictability and changed practices when they returned to school last fall, the group made its way through the school year.

“It was great to get back in the classroom and see people face-to-face,” Armstrong said. “Life is precious and shouldn’t be taken for granted. The challenges of 2020-21 are entering the rearview mirror — but we’ll have new ones approaching. Embrace what we learned this year.”

The event concluded with the disbursement of diplomas and turning of tassels.

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