On Saturday night, the gym at Freeman High School was filled with streamers and balloons and the roof-raising sound of hip-hop.
It also overflowed with love from the teachers and classmates who wanted to give their best to the class of 2021.
And it didn’t matter a bit that everyone was socially distanced and compelled to wear a mask.
“I’m just excited to have one more moment with my friends,” senior Andrew Knight said earlier in the week.
Most schools in Spokane County aren’t even holding a prom. Others are looking the other way while parents organize off-campus events.
Not so at Freeman, a community on the northern fringe of the Palouse that has held its kids a little closer since the morning of Sept. 13, 2017.
Their freshman naiveté shattered by the death of a classmate and the wounding of three others, the class of 2021 has tried to move on.
While others complain about losing the “old normal,” the Freeman seniors never had one.
But they had each other. “Freeman Strong,” the signs still proclaim on roadsides.
“My heart goes out to this group,” said Principal Renee Bailey, who arrived in the fall of 2018 for what would be the only seminormal year in the last four.
Then came COVID-19, which pushed kids out the door with only a few days’ notice.
“That was the day we were going to have our spring mixer,” Bailey said.
Again the community rallied behind its seniors. While other schools settled for virtual graduation ceremonies, the class of 2020 and their families drove their cars and trucks through Rockford and Valleyford and back to the football field.
With a police escort, of course.
“We just wanted to make it special,” said Superintendent Randy Russell.
Senior year began with the same restrictions, but the class of 2021 persevered, Freeman Strong in every situation.
“Their resilience is incredible,” said Bailey, whose volleyball and basketball teams had the talent to compete for state titles yet never got the chance.
“But you never heard them complain, even when some of them have to speak with lawyers,” Bailey said of the ongoing prosecution stemming from 2017.
“You wouldn’t know that they’re facing that, because they come to school every day and they have a smile on their face.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the gym showed no hints of a prom in the making. Because of social distancing requirements, lunch was eaten on the bleachers as well as the hallways.
As Bailey walked in, she gently reminded the crowd to wear their masks while they weren’t eating.
Then she introduced junior class president Kaylie Smith, who couldn’t wait to get to work Saturday morning.
“It’s going to be a super-awesome event that everyone’s going to remember,” said Smith, who is mature enough to know that this is about more than music and lights.
“This means we have a sense of normalcy,” Smith said. “I feel that’s something that we’re all craving right now.
“And it’s great that we’re doing this for the seniors, especially, because they’ve had a rough high school career, and we want to make this the best prom they can have.”
It was whimsical too.
A few moments later, classmate Abbey Wigen walked up with a mask. It was black as the night with big teeth, but friendly looking all the same.
“It’s a wolf mask,” said Wigen, who spent hours crafting the mask but promised to make more.
She doesn’t have a choice, because the theme – so appropriate for the times – is “Mask-querade.”
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Wigen said.
Gracie Jensen was there too, wearing a wide smile that no mask could hide.
“I’m just excited for prom because it will give us some normalcy and let us kind of round out our year together,” said Jensen.
Reflecting on the last four years, Jensen recalled that “some of the stuff was really good, but some was really rough.
“But we got through all of it together.”
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