Socially-distanced graduations held at Stanhope Elmore, Wetumpka and Holtville brought the 2019-20 school year to a close last week.

As a result, several hundred graduating seniors from the Class of 2020 can now say they persevered in the face of adversity commonly known as COVID-19.

Principals, valedictorians and salutatorians from these three schools shared their thoughts on what it took for the class of 2020 in Elmore County to graduate.

Wetumpka principal Dr. Robbie Slater said the WHS class of 2020 overcame adversity to achieve their goals.

“Just the way of dealing with complications of finishing the school year the way they did was impressive,” he said. “There were so many events that they were used to having in previous years. That right there, just having to overcome adversity and trying to work through that.”

Isaac Stubbs, the school’s valedictorian and son of Troy and Jenny Stubbs, said the abbreviated normal school year was never promised.

“My initial reaction to the shutdown was there is nothing that is going to keep those things from happening,” he said. “You have to realize that those things are not a given. They are privileges. I think it helped us realized the significance of everything else.”

He credited his parents for his success in high school.

“They are definitely my No. 1 support system,” he said. “I could not have done anything without them. They are an amazing example of expecting a lot from me, but also loving me no matter what. That is such a crucial combination.”

In addition to earning valedictorian at WHS, Stubbs recently found out he was selected as a U.S. Presidential Scholar. Stubbs is one of 161 high school seniors in America and only one of three from Alabama to receive the honor.

Stubbs will serve a two-year mission to Ukraine and has plans to attend Brigham Young University and major in neuroscience and computer science.

“I want to be on the cutting edge of Artificial Intelligence,” he said. “I think that is so important to the future of automation and kind of cool stuff like self-driving cars will become the normal before we know it.”

Jon Tessier, Wetumpka’s salutatorian and son of Julia and Joshua Tessier, said the school year was bittersweet.

“There were a lot of things we didn’t get to do and there were things we didn’t have to do,” he said. 

He credits his teachers and challenging classes as the reasons for his success in the classroom.

“To do well in those (harder) classes you have to really work with your teachers,” he said. “They can help you a lot. Also, communication with other students helps.”

He said while taking online classes was not a major challenge, he said the physical interaction of being in class with fellow students and his teachers was a downside to learning online.

“I enjoyed all of my classes not just because of the content, but also because of the people and teachers in those classes,” he said. “I mainly liked my physics class because of the people who were in it.”

Tessier plans to attend Troy University this fall and major in computer science which he said fits his personality.

“I have always liked to game and during senior year took a computer class,” he said. “I’m a very logical person with a math centered mind. I like solving problems.”

Slater said while many students may not prefer going to high school online doing so has benefits.

“Those two-year and four-year colleges and tech schools have online courses,” he said. “Even for those students going into the workforce, there may be online training courses.”

Slater was impressed with Stubbs’ and Tessier’s achievements.

“Isaac is a great overall young man,” he said. “He reestablished our school’s government club. He just always has something going on every time you turn around.

“Jon is very impressive with everything he does with his classes. He took five or six AP classes this year. He’s going to do well getting into college and pursuing his major.”

Flexibility and resiliency are two words that Holtville principal Kyle Futral used to describe the high school’s Class of 2020.

“You never know what the world is going to be like when you wake up tomorrow so you have to be flexible and willing to adapt to make things work,” he said. “When things do not work the way you think they should the first time you have to be resilient and keep on until you get it figured out.”

Futral said that sums up the end of the school year and planning the school’s graduation ceremony.

Jackson Hand, Holtville’s valedictorian and son of Cheryl and Donnie Hand, said he will miss the friendships when he moves to Auburn University this fall to study civil engineering.

“Right now, I am more nervous about giving my speech than the thought of leaving high school,” he said before the graduation started. “I will take with me to Auburn those friendships I’ve made and try to keep in touch with everyone.”

Hand said it was elbow grease rather than book smarts that earned him Holtville’s top academic title.

“I am not the smartest one but I probably worked the hardest,” he said. “I think that’s a key to doing well just working hard and staying focused.”

For Blakley White, Holtville’s salutatorian and daughter of Wendy and Robbie White, she said the COVID-19 virus made her step back and really pay attention to the here and now.

“Live in the moment,” she said. “If I could give myself advice when I was in 9th grade it would be to live in the moment. We rushed to be seniors.”

While she said she was also nervous to give her speech, she has a person close to her who earned the school’s salutatorian title.

“My sister Brantley was salutatorian in 2018 so she’s given me some advice for preparing my speech,” she said.

White will attend Central Alabama Community College this fall and has plans to transfer to either Auburn University at Montgomery or University of Alabama at Birmingham and major in elementary education.

Futral said the word that best describes Hand and White is excellence.

“Excellence is the word that comes to mind with Jackson and Blakley,” Futral said. “They are great all around. They serve, they lead, they are the total package and outstanding kids.”

Stanhope Elmore principal Ewell Fuller was thankful the county’s public school administrators allowed the schools to finish the year with a socially-distanced graduation.

“I was thankful (superintendent) Mr. (Richard) Dennis allowed the leadership of the schools to handle graduation under the current guidelines we had at the time,” he said.

Fuller said the Class of 2020 faced down numerous challenges during its last quarter of high school.

“Obviously, this year has been unprecedented,” he said. “The challenges they faced academically, athletically, socially, emotionally, just the whole nine yards, but they persevered.”

Mildred Dukes, Stanhope’s valedictorian and daughter of Karron and Steve Dukes, said resilient is a word that best describes the school’s graduating seniors.

“Even though we didn’t know what was happening these last few months, we just had to continue to push through,” she said.

She considers the company one keeps as a key to academic success.

“I would have to say surrounding yourself with people who want you to succeed is a key,” she said. “Since the fifth grade, I’ve been in pre-AP classes so I’ve surrounded myself around other students who want to make good grades and make good decisions.”

As for her future, she will attend the University of Alabama and major in economics.

She has this fall she will find herself on campus at the fabled university this fall.

“I wish everything would go back to normal and it would be a normal college experience, but that’s probably unlikely,” she said. “I would like for to be as normal as possible, but still safe.”

Fuller said Dukes is a dependable leader.

“She is very dedicated to Stanhope Elmore,” he said. “She’s a leader and anything you ask her to get done gets done and is done right.”

Stanhope’s Connor Matthews, salutatorian and son of Joy and Charlie Matthews, said all high school seniors throughout the country will always share a common bond.

“All of us in the Class of 2020 are united,” he said. “I have that respect for all seniors who went through this. We all went through the same thing. We went out the weirdest way possible.”

He will attend Troy University and plans to become a crime scene investigator. He said he wants a career where his work will help people.

“I want to make the world a better place somehow, someway,” he said. 

As for what it took to earn the school’s salutatorian designation, it really came down to support of his fellow students, he said.

“It’s more than the family bonds; it really was the bonds with my friends,” he said.

While Matthews took academics seriously, he still managed to have fun while on campus. 

During Matthews’ graduation speech he informed the audience he took the principal’s golf cart for a joy ride without anyone knowing.

“Me and a friend were in shop and the cart was sitting there with its battery being charged,” Matthews said. 

He thought maybe a modified plastic fork would serve as a key. 

It did.

“Fuller did not know anything about this until the night of graduation,” he said. “We didn’t drive it too far. It’s not how far we drove. It’s the speed at which we drove it that would have gotten us in the most trouble.”

Fuller summed up Mathews’ personality.

“Connor is a hard worker,” Fuller said. “I was a little shocked he stole my golf cart with a plastic fork and then admitted it during his speech (at graduation). I was sitting there and was like, ‘Did I just hear him say he stole my golf cart?’ 

“When you steal the principal’s golf cart with a plastic fork you have to be somewhat creative. His personality is second to none and he’s always a pleasure to be around.”

Editor’s Note: This does not include Edgewood or Elmore County valedictorians and salutatorians. See a story about ECHS’ top class members on Page B11 inside today and a story on Edgewood’s in next week’s Herald.