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Shawn Vestal: At graduation, Freeman Class of 2018 remembers, and looks to the future

It was as much a celebration of what’s to come as a remembrance of what has been.

That’s true for all graduation ceremonies, of course. But on this particular rainy afternoon – for 80-plus young people and their families, their teachers and administrators, the members of the Freeman High School family filling the floor and the stands in the school’s blue gym – the celebration of the graduating Class of 2018 was made all the more poignant by the weight of what they’d been through together, and how they had responded with kindness and community and grit and love.

It was not about what had happened to them.

It was about how they’d answered it.

“Every single one of us did something extraordinary following that day,” said Konner Freudenthal, the student body president, turning to address his fellow graduates. “Every single one of us took on the role of leader. … Everyone in the Class of 2018 did their part to get us through the darkest times we’ve ever seen.”

What happened at Freeman High School on Sept. 13 is very well-known. And the tales of how the students and others in the Freeman family rallied around each other – #FreemanStrong – have become increasingly familiar over the past nine months.

But there’s much more to know about these kids standing on the verge of their adult lives, and so much of it was on wonderful if achingly ordinary display Saturday afternoon. Every graduation season cliché, every truism about how to live and life’s preciousness, all the bright talk about the great days behind and the great days to come – all of it seemed freshly made, illuminated and intensified by lessons that came too soon for the Freeman Class of 2018.

“Remember that life is precious,” Jackson Clark, student body vice president, told his classmates. “So live.”

In many ways, it was like other graduation ceremonies. Families filled the stands and the folding chairs on the gym floor, holding bouquets of flowers and squirming toddlers, raising cellphones and cameras to capture their graduates’ moments. The grads wore their caps and gowns proudly, many adorned with stoles and cords signifying honors.

In speeches, the leaders and valedictorians poked fun at teachers, joked about shared memories, celebrated the remarkable success that Freeman achieved in so many arenas this year, from winning a state baseball title to sending 87 percent of its graduates on to college. They quoted Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, joked about the “bathroom rave,” talked about the time “Mr. P went down the slip-and-slide.”

They talked about the difficulty of moving from the place you love into the wide-open future.

“These four years,” said Abby Ofenloch, one of the valedictorians, “have been the best years of my life, and I’m not ready to leave.”

This year’s graduates are off to attend college in Boise and Bellingham and Spokane and Pullman and Provo. They are set to start working as firefighters or welders, ready to start playing collegiate basketball or baseball, or join the military, or head off on Mormon missions. They want to be police officers and psychologists and accountants and biologists and nurses.

They will go everywhere, be everything.

Randy Russell, district superintendent, gave a speech in which he identified the words he and the school board decided most represented this class: Kind, Resilient, Diligent, Undefeated, Passionate, Inspirational.

“As we reflect on your leadership,” Russell said, choking up, “we are constantly amazed, impressed and in awe of how each of you rose up and tackled one of the most difficult challenges any could ever imagine in their life.”

Mostly, the events of “that September day” were referred to obliquely, if at all. Clark mentioned the three girls who were injured in the shooting, freshmen Emma Nees, Jordyn Goldsmith and Gracie Jensen, as well as Sam Strahan, who died while trying to intervene. But the overarching theme was the kindness that students had shown each other in the aftermath, and the strength they’d found to go on.

“We took the sourest of lemons that life had to offer, and we made some pretty darn good lemonade,” Clark said.

After the ceremony, the rain let up briefly, and the graduates, friends and families crowded outside, holding flowers and balloons, posing for pictures. Grandmothers hugged grandsons. Girlfriends kissed boyfriends. Graduates posed for photo after photo, made plans for the celebrations to continue.

Like any graduation anywhere, buzzing with the intensity of the future dancing with the past. Like any graduation anywhere, where students get ready to take what they’ve learned and leap toward the unknown.

Like any graduation anywhere, except in the ways it was like none other.

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