Jacob James’ presence was certainly felt during Waldron High School’s commencement ceremony.
The senior, who passed away in a car accident in October, was very much a point of focus as 30 graduates, including James, received their diplomas.
James’ family was given his diploma along with the rest of his classmates in a ceremony that took place on Waldron’s soccer field.
With families sitting on the field and the graduates seated in the bleachers, Class Sponsor Chandler Miller acknowledged the impact James had at the school.
The diploma his family received was a testament to all of his achievements, Miller said.
“Jacob was more than loved by classmates and by his school, and is in fact still loved by us all,” he said. “(The diploma) is a statement that he is still with us to this day.”
James would have been the class’s valedictorian, a fact that valedictorian Katie Kuhn and salutatorian Madeline Robinson both acknowledged in their speeches.
One day, Robinson and James were walking to class when they passed the Top-10 list. She glanced at the list, and James saw her.
“Jacob knew what I was looking at, and looked at me and said, ‘not gonna happen,’” Robinson said, drawing laughter. “He knew there was no way I was going to catch up to him. He had a huge impact on my life, as well as many others, and we will never forget.”
The morning after his passing, students woke up wanting to get the day over with because it was the first day back from fall break, she said.
That all changed when they learned the news.
“Jacob? Jacob James?” she said in remembering her response. “No, it can’t be. Our senior class valedictorian, Mohawk mascot, and so much more. That Jacob James?”
After his death, the senior class’s priorities changed.
It became more important to spend time together, she said.
“We knew our time was running out, and soon we would be parting ways, so we knew we needed to make the most of it,” she said.
But a few months later, the second obstacle arrived – COVID-19, and the closure of school as a result.
At first, the school shut down for two days, an “extended break,” Robinson said. Two days turned into a month, but they still expected to finish out the year together.
A month turned into the remainder of the school year.
“Devastation is an understatement of what most of us felt,” she said. “Not just by this senior class. Any senior class. And there was nothing we could do about it.”
Kuhn, who overcame Robinson in the final semester to earn valedictorian honors, said their senior year did not go the way they expected it.
“All those jokes about the Class of 2020 having 20/20 vision were clearly wrong because we never saw any of this coming,” she said.
She said there were things to celebrate prior to COVID-19, such as successful seasons in athletics, homecoming week, the fall formal and Robinson winning the Lilly Endowment scholarship, which prompted their calculus class to put together an impromptu celebration in five minutes.
“Unfortunately, our senior year ended up taking a wrong turn,” she said. “If you didn’t before, you definitely know the feeling of disappointment. But disappointments are not meant to destroy you, they are meant to strengthen you. And that is what is important, is that we have been able to work through this together and discover the strength in us.”
She recognized that James should have been the one giving the valedictorian speech, but said she was grateful for the opportunity.
Robinson told the crowd that she didn’t intend to gather pity in bringing up those two difficult circumstances. She wanted them to see the challenges the class overcame.
And she wanted her classmates to feel proud.
“We were dealt a very difficult hand when it came to finishing our last year,” she said. “Not to mention, the senioritis that had set in around sophomore year.”
Kuhn thanked her classmates for the experiences they shared growing up.
And she encouraged them to remember their senior year when faced with challenging situations in the future.
“That you don’t let those disappointing times define your life, but learn from them and let them strengthen you,” she said. “This moment right now, our graduation ceremony, is proof that there can still be a happy ending. It may seem like we have the worst luck, but being here means the world is on our side.”