Mt. Juliet High School’s Class of 2020 celebrated its graduation with an outdoor commencement at the Elzie B. Patton Stadium on Thursday, ending a semester of struggles on a high note.

The March 3 tornado hit close to home for many Golden Bears, and since COVID-19 kept them from coming back to school the ceremony doubled as a class reunion. Students were split into two groups to maintain social distancing and offered a limited number of tickets for friends and family.

“It’s honestly kind of surreal,” graduate Zoe Hayes said. “I didn’t expect to get to have a graduation ceremony, and so it’s like I actually get to walk across the stage with some of my best friends again I want to make as many memories with my close friends as possible before we all go our separate ways.”

Hayes plans to attend Western Kentucky University to study psychology and eventually become an occupational therapist for children. She celebrated her graduation alongside her friend and classmate Joshua Hoover.

“I’m hoping to go to ETSU in the fall, and I’m going to study elementary education,” he said. “I want to work with kids from kindergarten to third grade. I’m really excited for it, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Hoover said he was nervous about the ceremony at first but was excited to reconnect with friends after having the semester upended. Another student, Adeline Bell, said she looks forward to having in-person instruction again at Lipscomb University.

“I wasn’t impacted by the tornado, thankfully, and I took dual enrollment classes so my schedule wasn’t affected much either,” she said. “But it was definitely an adjustment as far as having to stay motivated and keep on top of assignments.”

Bell plans to carry that motivation onto college by double majoring in business management and marketing.

“Eventually I want to have my own cosmetics line,” she said. “I’ve been doing makeup since I was in fifth grade, and I love to do it for other people and give them tips.”

Bell’s parents Karen and Peter were among those who supported her as she walked the stage, and said it was emotional to see their daughter earn a diploma.

“It was like taking a long sigh of relief,” Peter Bell said. “The road it took to get here was long and filled with many obstacles, and I’m glad we were able to come out … finally, she’s able to celebrate all her hard work.”

Principal Leigh Anne Rainey, who is retiring to accept a job in Collierville’s school system, said it was exciting to see the Class of 2020 gather after all the semester’s uncertainty.

“It’s almost relieving, because we hadn’t known for sure that we were going to do this,” she said. “For them to be able to have a ceremony and get that closure is really important. We’re very proud of them, and they worked so hard to get here.”

Students also received support from their classmates, including valedictorian Cade Hampton and salutatorian Joseph Helmy.

“This is a happy day, we finally made it,” Hampton said in his address. “Sure, our senior year ended with unprecedented circumstances … we still made it, our class and our community persevered through all this madness to get us here and I could not be more thankful for that.”

Helmy said that although the school year had unique challenges, it also had unique lessons for the Class of 2020.

“We learned the value of people around us,” he said. “We learned how much our teachers meant to us when we started wishing to have just one more class with them. We learned to be thankful for the small things, like driving around with our friends, going out to eat or going to watch a movie … although this year split us apart physically, it brought us all together in a way that almost nobody, and especially no senior class, has ever seen. So when you think of your senior year 20 or 30 years down the line, don’t think about what we didn’t experience, rather, on the unique senior year that we did experience.”

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