FORT KNOX, Ky. — Sixty-four Fort Knox Middle High School students walked across a stage at McAdams Stadium May 29 to the cheers of friends, families and fellow students.
The graduates left a topsy-turvy year of uncertainty and restrictions on the field to start the next chapter of their lives.
“It’s not often that you get the opportunity to have a graduation,” said high school Principal Lonnie Gilmore. “We’re proud of your successes, but we want you to know that this is not the end. It’s the beginning.”
Gilmore explained how the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 at the start of the school year served to galvanize the students’ determination to succeed.
“It’s fitting that we talk about the beginning because not everyone got the opportunity to be here today,” said Gilmore. “We started out the school year with a faculty member, who was beloved and cherished here at Fort Knox Middle High School — tragically, we lost Ms. Pam Harris.”
Gilmore pointed to an empty chair on the stage and called for 21 seconds of silence in honor of Harris, who lost her life to the virus. Harris was a guidance counselor at the school.
“For those who did not know her, she was a veteran of the United States Army. She was a mother of three sons, and a grandmother,” said Gilmore. “Ms. Harris was always the life of the party.”
Salutatorian Sachaly Rosario Rivera said she was proud of what her fellow students were able to accomplish in the midst of a difficult year.
“This graduation serves as a testament to the struggles we have faced, and the strength of our willpower,” said Rivera. “I know my peers and I have worked earnestly to get here. When we reached this school year, even doing the bare minimum felt like it was taking all our energy.”
The students’ efforts have resulted in a graduation rate of 98.4%, 35 students receiving college acceptances, a military academy appointment, four ROTC scholarships and 10 enlistments into the military. The total amount of scholarships earned, including from the GI Bill, amounts to nearly $2 million.
Valedictorian class vice president Kristen Kolasheski, who will be attending Harvard University in the fall, introduced herself and told the class that since she had spent the bulk of her time as a virtual student, she would defer her time to the class president, Jenna Chancellor.
“We made it!” said Chancellor. “You should be proud of what we have accomplished, especially during a time like this. … I do not think any of us knew what this day was going to look like after March 12, 2020.”
The guest speaker of the ceremony, local businessman, military dependent and Army veteran Christopher Watts, shared with the students what he has learned since graduating from North Hardin High School several years ago — a path that took him through combat in Iraq 2007-2008 where he earned a Purple Heart, to a security contractor position in Afghanistan, and more recently as a winner of The Rock’s Titan Games.
“I believe creativity and goals come from exposure,” said Watts. “Because of that lack of exposure — exposure to the world, exposure to the people, exposure to new and exciting experiences, exposure to what the world had to offer me — it took me three years in the Army and four years of private contracting to discover that in this life I was determined to help people.
“I love helping people.”
Watts encouraged the students to grab hold of the life they have and experience it now rather than later.
“I encourage you to use that life that you have in front of you to get healthy, stay active, flood yourself with anything that crosses your path, take chances and seek opportunities,” said Watts; “and possibly grow your hair out.”
Rivera said she is confident in the successes that the Class of 21 has waiting for them after the ceremony.
“We are going to walk this stage, collect our diplomas, and start a new adventure; an adventure that will be filled with grueling and seemingly unmovable obstacles, and folks trying to get the best of you,” said Rivera. “But in-between those will be wonderful, beautiful memories just waiting to be made.
“I can say my peers are a determined and stubborn group of individuals.”