Albany Options School class of 2021 'a part of history now'
As Albany Options School Counselor Anna Harryman moved students into position for a class photo before Monday's commencement ceremony, Debra Fewless had some advice.
"You guys, don't hide your faces," the front office manager urged. "I'm here to say this is the greatest moment of your life!"
Maybe, maybe not — but some of the members of the class of 2021 agreed it was definitely among the greatest moments of an otherwise stressful and solitary academic year.
The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools for much of the year, forcing classes online and canceling most traditional activities. When activities did resume, they were often in hybrid form; sometimes on, sometimes off.
"Oh my gosh, this year has been crazy, from COVID messing up everything to learning how to work on (the online program) Canvas — don't even get me started on Canvas," said Madison Alderin, chosen by Principal Mark Hannan to be the senior class speaker.
It felt wonderful, she said, to gather with her classmates for a full in-person celebration.
"I am so excited," she said. "I feel bad for the students who couldn't. I actually get to experience the whole hurrah of being a senior and getting to graduate."
In pre-pandemic times, AOS held graduation in the Russell Tripp Performing Arts Center at Linn-Benton Community College. But even had indoor spaces been available for the ceremony, the graduation total has grown to the point where the sheer number of friends and family no longer fit.
Last year, with infection numbers spiking and no vaccine yet in sight, AOS held a socially-distanced event in late August in the parking lot of the Linn County Fair & Expo Center. Graduates wore masks and families watched from cars or streamed the event online.
This year, family members were invited to pull up folding chairs on the West Albany High School football field to clap for the 45 of 53 graduates who came to the ceremony in person. The stadium lights flickered disco-style and Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" blasted from speakers as members of the graduating class tossed graduation caps into the air.
"I'm just so excited we were able to put a graduation together that's kind of traditional," Hannan said. "It was a difficult year. But this makes it all worthwhile."
In her speech to the class, Alderin agreed. "I am so proud of each of us," she said. "Congratulations, Class of 2021, we did it!"
Besides Alderin, speakers for this year's ceremony included Hannan, Harryman, Jennifer Ward of the Albany School Board and Maria Bellando, who teaches Language Arts at the school.
Ward compared the Albany Options experience to the boxes of fudge she would receive as gifts from her grandmother and later, her mother — each different, like the students themselves and their backgrounds; each sweet and rich, like the life experiences gained at AOS; and each meant for sharing.
She urged graduates to share their lived experiences with the world. "Share it wide, my AOS friends," she encouraged. "Share it far and share it deep."
Bellando told the students she hoped AOS had been a safe place where all of them had felt loved and cared for, and where mentors and friends were available for help and support. She added that she hoped "that you felt seen, even if all you were comfortable with was a black box on the screen."