Marshall High School Principal Eugene Syvrud said he likes to end each announcement at the school with a rousing cheer of “Go Cardinals!” but on Saturday afternoon, the tone of the signature phrase was softer.

“Go, Cardinals,” he said to the class of 2021 after the group had accepted the diplomas but before tassels were turned.

It was a day the Marshall High School seniors were not sure would literally occur. As Public Health Madison & Dane County continued to change its gathering restrictions and masking requirements due to coronavirus, there was no guarantee the ceremony would be able to occur in a traditional format or that it would even get to be held in the community.

“None of us could have ever predicted that half of your high school experience would be changed so dramatically because of a pandemic,” said Superintendent Dan Grady. “I am reminded of how you modeled resilience, optimism, perseverance and kindness as a class and as caring individuals.”

He urged the seniors to, “dream, set goals, work hard. Don’t stop learning; read books, take time to participate in the things you pursue, live and share your passions with others, find time to always give more of yourself and make time to spend with family.”

Staff speaker social studies teacher Chris Seep told the attendees he had written a speech for the ceremony a few days ago, then tossed it out after seeing the students at Friday’s graduation practice.

As Seep was returning to his classroom after joking around with some of the students, he spotted senior Joey Crawford and felt sad.

“Don’t get me wrong, I like Joey and seeing him doesn’t make me sad, but it had been so long since I’d seen Joey,” the teacher said. “When you guys went out last March, it was the last time I saw some of you since yesterday. Some of you were in my classroom on the screen, some of you guys were remote the entire year and to see all of you yesterday was great.”

This is what prompted Seep to rewrite his speech. He noted it all seemed to have happened so fast and it just didn’t feel like it should be the class of 2021’s graduation just yet.

He recalled seeing them come in a bit scared as freshmen. Seep remembered giving many of the students’ nicknames, the teens’ obsession with Fortnite during their first year of high school and figuring out what cartoon character each freshman most resembled. After that first year, Seep would continue to see the students either in his classroom or around the school.

Then, in March of 2020 it was determined the school would be all virtual for the remainder of the year.

“I missed you guys,” Seep said, noting how he continued to stay in contact with the students while classes were conducted online. “When you came back to school February 22, I was so happy to see you.”

The teacher said he was very proud of the class of 2021 and urged them to come back and visit.

“You know where you’ll find me,” Seep said.Peyton Shelton and Laura Nickel addressed their peers together and reflected on the collective past of the seniors. Shelton talked about the excitement of being able to see their classmates and teachers once in-person instruction resumed in February, nearly a year after they had left the building for the last time.

Nickel said the class of 2021 was now going through a time similar to when they entered 4-year-old kindergarten – they were excited for the future but didn’t want to admit they were also a bit scared.

Class speaker Chase Zimmerman talked about the memories from high school. One of his favorite memories of high school was Feb. 22, the day students were allowed back into the buildings for classes.

“The second students were back in the building, seniors started plotting, I mean planning, for a possible prom – one last hurrah,” he said, adding the 2021 prom was also one of his favorite memories from high school.The senior pointed out that if the students could get through a year like they had just encountered, they can get through anything.

The final student speaker, Maeve Hall, reminded everyone that despite the fact they may have uttered their displeasure with school, that getting an education is a privilege and opportunity not afforded to everyone.

She spoke about how the graduates still have a lot to figure out and pointed out there is no right or wrong way to go through life after high school.

“Whatever your plans are, they are your plans, Hall said. “This is your future, your journey, your life – not your parents’, not your siblings’, not your friends’ and not your significant others’.”

She told her classmates that they do not need to follow the traditional path; they each have their own timelines and, unlike in school, there are no prescribed levels that need to be met by a certain point.

“The adjustment will take time, but we’ll figure it out,” Hall said.

Before declaring the class of 2021 as official graduates, Syvrud told the teenagers to seize opportunities to make the world a better place, take advantage of the skills and knowledge that have been shared with them, and be the best version of themselves they can be.

“What will the class of 2021’s legacy be? I don’t know, but I do know, it has the potential to be great, powerful and strong,” he said.

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