Vermillion High School Principal R. Jon Frey told members of Vermillion High School Class of 2020 that he was filled with gratitude Saturday morning.

Frey was the keynote speaker at the students’ live graduation exercise, held outdoors at the VHS football field. The event gave the students one last chance to be together, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. They sat apart from one another, socially-distancing in the proper way on the football field’s bleachers.

A “virtual” graduation ceremony had been held last May, back when the COVID-19 pandemic was fairly new to the United States. Saturday’s gathering was the closest to a normal ceremony that school officials could offer as the pandemic continues and positive cases are still being detected in South Dakota and nationwide.

Friends and family sat in lawn chairs they had brought with them or in chairs provided by the high school on the turf of the football field.

“I want you students to know that I’m filled with a great sense of gratitude standing here,” Frey said from behind a podium placed on the bottom floor of the bleachers, not far from a table that contained the graduates’ diplomas. “You are a noteworthy senior class.”

He noted that many of the graduates have planned to immediately enter the workforce, while others are waiting to see what the pandemic may do to alter their plans to enter a technical college or a university this fall. Some have chosen the military to provide an income and vocational training.

“No matter the direction you’re headed, you each come here today looking to place that last check in the check box,” Frey said.

He noted that the class is special to him because it is the first VHS graduating class that he has the honor to introduce to the world as he finishes his first full school year as high school principal here.

“You’ve demonstrated leadership throughout the school year in the classroom, in the performing arts, on the field, court and mat of competition, in the stands as fans supporting your team while demonstrating the class it takes to resist the urge to tear down your opponents,” Frey said. “You attended community functions, Rotary luncheons and as volunteers in the community last fall, you provided an important example to younger students in the building and you challenged yourselves to be all that you could be.”

You have been amazing, the principal told the graduates as he urged the audience to give them a round of applause. Frey also took time to offer a bit of advice to the students as they enter “the real world.”

Life, he said, is all about relationships.

“Please understand that relationships are the foundation of a happy and successful life,” Frey said. “You need them. Nobody gets anywhere in this world by themselves. Your parents have brought you this far. They’re now in a state of both anxious anticipation and complete terror as they prepare to kick you out of the nest to see if you can fly little Tanagers, fly. Do them a favor -- do not fly too far and do not fly immediately back to the nest.

“Your parents love you and will miss you, but they need to know that they’ve done enough to allow you to stand on your own,” he said. “Prove to them that they have done just that.”

Respect, he said, is also important and he told the graduates to show it to their parents and to every individual that has helped them complete their high school education, from family members and teachers, to their pastors and neighbors.

“You demonstrate respect by showing gratitude and heartfelt pride in who you are and those who helped mold you into the individual that you are today,” Frey said. “Let’s not forget about your community. Look around you. This little community may not necessarily be your cup of tea, but for all of the places you go in life -- whether it be another city, another state or another country -- you all have Vermillion High School in common. Take pride in that. You’re going to discover soon enough that good old Verm-town was good enough to produce you and it might not be such a bad option to one day provide for your own offspring.”

Having pride in who you are and where you come from, he said, is another important component to leading a successful life. “I cannot overstate the importance.”

Frey encouraged the graduates to challenge themselves and their opinions about the world.

“The world is changing right now and as I stand around you in the year 2020, this could go down in the world in U.S. history as one of the most disastrous on record or it could be the most incredible,” he said.

Frey talked about pluralism, which refers to a society or a system of government or organization that has different groups that keep their identities while existing with other groups. Pluralism serves as a model of democracy, he said, where different groups can voice their opinions and ideas, adding that the United States is a pluralistic society, comprised of more than one group or entity supporting a great number of ideas.

“This pluralistic society in which you’ve been raised is made up of individuals of varied educational backgrounds, different religious beliefs and a multitude of incredible racial backgrounds,” Frey said. “All of these variables combine to form an incredible society.”

Skeptical individuals might feel that these differences serve to separate us, he said, but it doesn’t have to be the case.

“I challenge you to be the generation that finally gets this right and embraces it,” Frey said. “Each of you is free to form your own opinion about all of the major issues of the day, but I want you to please remember pluralism. The reason that an idea or concept is controversial in society is because there is truth on both sides of the issue. Seek out the truth on the other side. You do not have to agree with it, but you need to accept that there are reasons that others do.

“Be open to more than one idea or interpretation and you will already be a considerate, positive force in a pluralistic society,” he said. “Our country and our world need individuals who are not locked in to just one way of thinking, but are rather open to more than one way of thinking and you folks are the key.”

The graduates may not be returning to high school, but Frey urged them to continue learning.

“I want you to continue to educate yourself by opening your heart and mind to different ideas,” he said. “Keep your minds and opinions sharp and well-informed. Keep your eyes on the road and off your phone … and keep looking up. Your future is bright.”

The year 2020 needs to be remembered as more than a year of a global pandemic and racial strife.

“You have the power to make 2020 stand as a year of growth and renewal … know that we are all excited for what your future holds,” he told the graduates.

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