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East senior implores School Board, commissioners to salvage graduation

East Henderson High School senior Lauren Wilkie called on the School Board to allow a graduation ceremony. East Henderson High School senior Lauren Wilkie called on the School Board to allow a graduation ceremony.

While Henderson County school leaders say they're doing everything they can to honor high school seniors at a time when mass gatherings are prohibited, at least one county commissioner endorsed the idea of a graduation ceremony later on.


Commissioner Charlie Messer on Monday night referred to a letter by East Henderson High School senior Lauren Wilkie, who appealed to the commissioners and School Board to allow a compromise graduation. She suggested scheduling the ceremony when restrictions are lifted, limiting the number of guests senior could invite or dividing the graduating class into smaller groups.

"It's an outstanding letter and we the Henderson County commissioners are also concerned," Messer said at Monday's regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners. "I'm sure the School Board is. Once everything gets lifted we're going to make plans or let y'all make the plans for all four of our high schools. This is an important time for the seniors. We understand that. It's bad enough that the junior-senior prom got lifted. It is on our radar and we will do what we can when we can to make anything possible. It's really touching. When you read stuff like this... it's crying time."

The granddaughter of Carroll and Bette Anne Wilkie, both of whom served in the state Senate, Lauren pointed out that the N.C. School of Science & Math and UNC Asheville had postponed rather than cancel commencement ceremonies. She and her classmates "would rather adjust traditional graduation than have it taken away," she wrote.

Here is the complete text of Lauren's letter:

Dear Henderson County Commissioners and Henderson County School Board,
My name is Lauren Wilkie and I am graduating from East Henderson High School this year. I
have spent my entire school life in Henderson County Public Schools, and this school system is extremely important to me.
One of the constants in my life was always school—whether it was East Henderson High, Flat Rock Middle, or Dana Elementary, it was a stable part of my life and I loved it from the very beginning. As a child, and now an adult, I always loved school—and I loved doing well in school. From a young age, putting effort into my education was my coping mechanism for managing everything that went on in my home life, and I always knew that I was working towards a finish line: "graduation."
Like many other students, I was looking forward to enjoying my senior year. Most importantly, I was looking forward to graduation, to the Top Scholars luncheon, to my senior night, to my final season of competitive dance, and to many other memories. However, that optimism was shattered when my grandfather passed away the August before I started my senior year. My grandfather, who I called Pops, and I were extremely close. His death took a toll on me in an unimaginable way. My senior year was very difficult to get through; there were many times I wanted to stop, but I remembered the end goal of being able to walk across the stage in June. Unfortunately, the goal I had been working toward for thirteen years has suddenly been ripped from my hands by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, that is just my story.
In comparison to my peers, I would consider myself lucky. I have classmates who have dealt with
the death of a parent. I have classmates who ​became​ parents. I have classmates who suffered through addiction. I have classmates who experienced homelessness. I have classmates who have been abused—whether it was sexually, verbally, mentally, or physically. I have classmates who have lived through poverty. I have classmates who have suffered from mental health conditions, and I have classmates who even attempted to take their own life.

But we are all here today, and my fellow classmates and I ​did not​ allow adversity to stand in our way. For all students, walking across the stage marks a significant accomplishment, and is a moment
that they will remember for the rest of their life. For some, graduating from high school may be one of the biggest accomplishments they hold. For some, it may be more than a high school diploma; it may be a defeat of a personal obstacle that could have easily overtaken them. Each student has faced their own personal hardships throughout their life, and was able to overcome them knowing that there was an end in sight and a moment to be celebrated for everything they have worked for. Each found the strength to keep going when they were on the verge of giving up.
I am reaching out to ​you, ​Henderson County, to reconsider graduation plans for the Class of 2020. For all students, this change of plans is understating their accomplishments that they have arrived to achieve for thirteen years, and to many, it feels that no one seems to care and that the county is failing to take into consideration that students do need recognition, because the recognition they deserve goes beyond a simple diploma. While I understand we cannot hold a formal graduation ceremony until the COVID-19 orders are lifted, the class of 2020 would prefer that Henderson County consider holding a postponed ceremony rather than forgoing graduation altogether. The North Carolina School of Science and Math, as well as several UNC System universities, have postponed​ ​their commencement ceremonies rather than canceling them; for example, UNC Asheville is holding a full commencement ceremony this August to honor their Spring 2020 graduates. If true “traditional” graduation cannot be held, we would rather adjust traditional graduation than have it taken away. Some ideal alternatives could be to limit the number of guests for each graduate. Rather than each graduate having ten guests, each graduate may only be permitted to have two guests. Another alternative, although not ideal, would be to have each high school divide their graduating class into groups and have smaller ceremonies.
My fellow classmates and I have worked immensely hard in our public school career. To not be honored with a formal graduation ceremony feels as if our accomplishments from the past thirteen years have no value. High school graduation is a huge milestone in every student’s life, and just like previous and future graduating classes, the Class of 2020 deserves nothing less.
Lauren Wilkie