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Cortez graduates celebrate moment of triumph in year of pandemic challenges

The Class of 2021 lines up to march in to their seats at Panther Stadium. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
138 seniors of the Class of 2021 gained lessons of perseverance and toughness that will endure

On graduation day Thursday, 138 Cortez seniors emerged from a crazy year ripped apart by a historic pandemic to celebrate a fresh future with limitless possibilities.

Several hundred friends and family of the graduates packed Panther Stadium, which was full to capacity. The Re-1 school board attended, as did members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council. The crowd flowed out onto the grass sidelines.

Graduates, along with the crowd, leaned into a stiff wind at Panther Stadium, just as they did all year against the stiff challenges of changing times and uncertainty of a worldwide health crisis.

They came out stronger and wiser, with a renewed hope and appreciation for one another and the wider community.

“They did a fabulous job battling the pandemic and made it through with perseverance and flexibility to adjust to changing situations,” said Montezuma-Cortez High School Principal Eric Chandler, in an interview before the ceremony. “Working through the adversity is a skill they will use the rest of their life, and lead to success in the long run.”

As vaccines flow and relative normalcy begins to return, the Class of 2021 eyes a recovery blessed with better times — embracing that special freedom reserved for young adults forging new paths of adventure, education and success.

Graduates look back at the crowd and wave to their relatives during the M-CHS graduation ceremony.

Inspiring speeches on personal achievements and challenges, and the promise of Generation Z, were given by outgoing Superintendent Laurie Haukeness, M-CHS math teacher Shelley Curtis, valedictorian Robert Hebert and salutatorian Destiny John.

Haukeness offered words of wisdom and encouragement to the graduates.

“You class has already experienced change in the world. You adapted to the challenges and risks of the COVID virus and managed to meet the requirements to graduate. We persevered to the end, even in this wind not one senior has lost a cap!”

Haukeness quoted the philosopher Socrates: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.”

“Adults and students really learned that lesson this year,” Haukeness said.

Curtis, who is head of the math department, followed.

“Your daily lives were disrupted by a global pandemic. But you adapted, persevered, were successful, and hopefully learned some useful coping skills along the way,” said Curtis.

Graduates are heading in different directions, whether it’s college, the workplace, the military or a grand adventure, she said.

“No matter what your path, I challenge you to live life to its fullest. Think of your life as a journey, not a destination,” Curtis said.

Live in the moment, don’t forget to enjoy where you are. Avoid the urge to always be in a hurry to jump into the next phase of life, she said.

Elders often advise youths to participate more because it can lead to fulfillment and character.

“Try new things and take advantage of experiences and opportunities when they occur,” she said.

Try out for the team, join a club, volunteer, study abroad, join a committee, become part of your community, explore what is available, suggested Curtis.

When her college daughter hesitated on taking a trip to Japan because she worried about keeping a job, Curtis encouraged her to take the once-in-a-lifetime trip.

“She had an amazing experience, and a job was there when she returned. You rarely regret the experiences you have, but often regret those you miss.”

Good and bad, experiences will shape you, she said. Too much impatience and longing can be defeating.

“Instead of wishing a current situation away, experience it, enjoy it and learn from it,” Curtis said. “These experiences might even lead you down a path you would have never imagined for yourself. Begin your journey and enjoy this amazing ride called life.”

Valedictorian Robert Hebert gives his speech for the M-CHS graduation. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)

Valedictorian Hebert shared his story of overcoming adversity and the importance of striving forward with purpose and appreciation of life.

The pandemic caused suffering and challenge for the community, and a personal injury made the situation even worse for him.

Hebert said he learned that “life is delicate, be thoughtful with your actions. The second lesson I learned is when life knocks you down, get back up. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

He said the Class of 2021 is tougher because of the pandemic and “showed resilience through adversity.”

People in the crowd have been infected with COVID-19, friends and family have suffered or died, Hebert said.

“We have healed and recovered from this pandemic the best that we can, but the effects will stay with us the rest of our lives,” he said. “We got tough, picked ourselves back up so that we could walk across the stage today and receive our diploma.”

“Today is the beginning of the rest of our lives, and I hope that we take these lessons into consideration as we transition into adulthood,” he added.

Hebert urged fellow graduates to look into the stands or among peers, family, friends and teachers and recognize those you have helped you through high school. As seniors turned to wave to the crowd, a loud, sustained cheer erupted.

“To all the parents in the stands, you must be feeling proud of what your children have achieved, but this is also your achievement,” Hebert said. “Your guidance, support, and love have shaped every graduate into what they are today.”

Hebert plans to pursue a double major in chemical and mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and he credited his teachers and parents for supporting him toward the goal.

“A sincere thank you to all school staff for being here for us this year while the majority of the country and schools were shut down,” he said.

“To all of our friends, whether they are graduating with us or in the stands, you have made high school bearable,” Hebert said. “Whether it be working together on homework or having a fun night out, it is the relationships we make here that ultimately define our high school experience.”

Hebert closed with an inspirational quote from former Navy SEAL William McRaven.

“Life will not be easy. Start each day with a task completed, find someone to help you through life, respect everyone. Know that life is not fair, and you will fail often. But if you take some risks, step up when the times are the toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden, and never ever give up, if you do these things the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.”

The salutatorian for the M-CHS Class of 2021, Destiny John, gives her speech.

Salutatorian John also remarked on the ups and downs of life and academics, and showed gratitude and love for those who supported her and fellow students.

John prides herself on perfection and was shocked one year when she got a B on a precalculus math test.

But her teacher, Susan Wisenbaker, saw it as a learning moment that stuck with John.

“She told me I should be proud of my grade, because it was one of the highest in the class,” John said.

Her teacher then advised that not everything in life will be a success or perfect.

“My initial reaction was 'ouch,' but the more I thought about it the more I realized that even though it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to hear, it was what I needed to hear,” John said.

She beamed in the special moment of graduation, and her classmates reflected back to her that enthusiasm and sense of pride.

“To my fellow classmates, today is an important day for us. This ceremony marks our transition into — as our parents would call it — the “real world,” John said. “While today may be ours, I want to take this time to emphasize the importance of all the people who have taught and inspired us throughout our lives and helped us get to this point. All these guests have impacted us in unique ways, and I strongly believe I speak on behalf of the entire graduating class of 2021 in thanking you all for your time and efforts that you have invested in us.”

John got teary eyed as she thanked her family for supporting her, and for being “my biggest fans.” She thanked friends for “being there and seeing the good in everything.”

Teachers also got many kudos.

“You all have impacted me in some way, shape, or form, and for that I will forever be grateful. Any teacher can educate you and make you a smarter person, but the teachers at M-CHS truly teach and make you a better person. They don’t give up on you whenever you give up on yourself; they’re persistent and dedicated to making good students even better people. What I am today is because of all the wonderful teachers and supportive friends and family I have by my side. So, from the bottom of my heart, I thank each and every one of you.”

Graduates shared a rush of memories of school life.

M-CHS graduates are all smiles as they listen to the speeches for the class of 2021. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)

For John it was Shelley Curtis’ gold stars for perfect scores on tests and worksheets. A teacher stopping class to safe a baby bird in a tree, and the poor artwork of most teachers when they try to illustrate something on the blackboard.

“While this may be the end of one chapter in our lives, it is just the beginning of another,” John said. “I would like to congratulate all the students on receiving their diplomas tonight. It is a great accomplishment and something I am glad to share with all of you. I wish everyone good luck for a bright and happy future.”

The evening was warm and breezy as the sun set. Kids threw the football around, friends mingled, and the crowd enjoyed the ceremony. Applause broke out numerous times and cars and trucks honked as they drove by.

James and Tracie Featherman drove up from Safford, Arizona to see their two grandsons graduate, Austin Featherman and Corey Likes.

Austin is planning to become a fire fighter and will be training in Farmington. Likes is off to college in Iowa, and plans to continue playing baseball.

“Graduating high school is a good start,” said James Featherman. “I’m glad they could have the ceremony this year.”

Sascha Watts was there to see her son, Ernesto Padilla graduate.

Watching him earn his degree “means a lot to the family, it’s very cool,” she said. “His hope and drive got him through. I’m proud of him.”

Padilla played baseball for M-CHS, and has prospects to continue playing the sport in other leagues, Watts said.

“Take the journey and opportunities given to you. Most of all my wish is that you hold a sense of wonder and appreciation for life, for as we all know, life is a gift,” Haukeness said. “See the humor in life, laugh at your mistakes, and hold your family close. As MCHS graduates, your are entitled to the very best life has to offer, so go forth and conquer the world!”


A proud graduate decorated her cap. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)