It looked and felt like the most quintessential small-town American high school graduation imaginable.
The seniors filed onto the football field wearing caps and gowns. Their proud parents captured the moment with everything from digital cameras to iPads. The rolling fields of Palouse farmland spread in every direction. And billowing white clouds filled a bright blue sky.
But there was nothing mundane nor normal Saturday afternoon for Freeman High School’s class of 2021.
“Here we are,” Sydney Arnzen, the class president and one of its 11 valedictorians, said from the podium, “triumphant against all odds.”
Like any triumph, the one these students accomplished began with adversity and anguish unlike most people will ever face.
It was a student, police say, wielding first an AR-15 rifle and then a handgun, who killed a classmate and seriously injured three others, just nine days into the class of 2021’s freshman year.
Arnzen was in the upper high school hallway when the rampage happened. So was Ben Chadduck. So were so many of the other 84 students who crossed the stage and received their diplomas on Saturday.
What they saw and experienced that day is impossible for outsiders to imagine.
“I’m certainly not going to pretend like I know what they were going through,” Principal Renee Bailey said. “But the students are incredibly resilient and they feel it’s been tough. They’ve had absolutely unconventional years. … And I think that’s built a lot of confidence in them to take on tough things.”
And while those then 14- and 15-year-old freshman were “fully thrust into pain and fear” beyond their years that day, Ellis Crowley, another valedictorian, said in a recorded speech played during commencement, that wasn’t what defined their high school experience.
“The fact that it was hard isn’t what makes us special,” valedictorian Joshua Werner said in his own speech. “It’s how we handled it.”
How the class handled it, according to students and staff, was by coming together.
The shooting, Arnzen said, is a “main part of why we are so close.”
When a deadly virus that could only be contained through separation arrived in early 2020, the tightknit Freeman class of 2021 was forced apart.
After being sent home from school in the second half of their junior year, Arnzen and her classmates felt the isolation even more acutely than other kids, she said.
“It was definitely harder to be away from the community because we’ve relied on them so much,” Arnzen said.
It’s a testament to their precocious wisdom and hard-won optimism, though, that at least some of the students were able to find a lesson in it all.
Chadduck and Arnzen, speaking in the school gym before the ceremony, said their school’s closure gave them an opportunity to be independent.
“It was a little prep course for living without my Freeman family,” Chadduck said.
“I grew so much during COVID,” Arnzen said. “I’m excited for college now. I can handle being alone.”
Not that they weren’t excited to return to campus, first part time in the fall and then full time after spring break.
The reunion of the Freeman family, they said, was another opportunity to appreciate the uncommon bond their class has forged, and to relish the little time they had left as a single group.
While it would be easy to feel cheated by all the hardship they experienced during their last four years , Arnzen said she and her classmates did their best not to let it get them down.
“We always joke,” Arnzen said, “that we only had sophomore year.”
Despite their losses and hurdles, the group didn’t show any sign of being behind.
“We were forced to grow up the second week of our freshman year,” Crowley said.
And that may have given the class a head start going forward.
Most are heading to college in the fall, and they collectively earned almost $850,000 in scholarships to help pay the way, according to Bailey.
While Arnzen urged her classmates to look forward with “rose-tinted glasses,” no one could ignore the formidable obstacles they’d cleared to arrive at the Freeman football field on Saturday, on the brink of adulthood.
Jordyn Goldsmith was one of the students shot inside her school in September 2017.
She had her diploma in hand on Saturday afternoon and was ready to set off soon on her next adventure, playing volleyball at San Diego State University.
Asked what it meant to be where she was, considering where she’d been, Goldsmith said the obstacles she and her classmates overcame made their graduation that much more meaningful.
“I think it’s definitely more special,” she said, “since we all went through that together and are moving on and overcoming something like that.”
As much as she was ready to move forward, Goldsmith acknowledged she’d be leaving something vital behind at Freeman.
“I think I’m gonna miss the family feeling,” she said.