The notes of "Pomp and Circumstance" could barely be heard over the crowd's whooping and shouting as the North Community High School class of 2021 filed into the auditorium Thursday for its commencement ceremony.
The celebratory milestone and march into adulthood came with extra significance for the Minneapolis students this year. The classmates of 2021 spent most of their senior year in distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them juggled jobs and caring for younger siblings while trying to keep up with schoolwork. Their final high school years also included the murder of George Floyd and the resulting unrest in Minneapolis, as well as a swelling wave of gun violence that touched their North Side neighborhoods.
"The level of emotion within me, within this room right now, within each of you right now is at an all time high," Principal Mauri Melander Friestleben said to the students and their family members. "What you have today is absolute brilliance, resilience, strength, courage, perseverance, patience, dedication, commitment and now the product of your hard work."
The class of 2021's ability to face and overcome adversity is not to be underestimated, Friestleben said. Neither is their optimism, she added.
Family members waved signs and threw confetti and cheered as the students walked — and often danced — across the stage at the Minneapolis Convention Center, many of them taking cellphone videos with one hand and holding onto their cap with the other.
"It's really exciting to actually be here," said Destiny He Does It, one of the nearly 100 graduates from North. After struggling with distance learning, she said she wasn't sure she'd make it to graduation.
"Now it's hitting me and I'm really proud and grateful," she said.
"This was a really tough year," said her mom, Jane Zamora. "But it proved her own perseverance."
Monaea Upton said this year brought its own kind of sadness at first. Instead of walking the hallways with her friends, she was on her laptop at home. But that forced her to learn about time management and self-motivation — lessons she knows she'll need when she heads to Atlanta's Spelman College in the fall. She plans to study political science and hopes to one day become a human rights lawyer. This past year fueled her activism.
For weeks after the riots following Floyd's death, Upton sat at a table in her front yard in north Minneapolis, offering food and personal items to the community. Since then, she's gotten involved with the NAACP, speaking on various panels and at several protests.
Now, as she sees new headlines about gun violence in her community, she feels herself a little torn.
"On one side, I feel like I'm letting my community down," she said. "But I also feel like if I do leave, I can come back better and with more experience and knowledge. ... My work here isn't done."
Jamario Roberson, also a graduating North senior, said the last 12 months felt much longer. It took him awhile to adjust to not having in-person teacher support. He collected his peers' cellphone numbers and encouraged them to stay in touch about assignments or anything they were worried about.
"It was about support and just having that fight mentality," he said.
Roberson, a first-generation college student, is headed to York College in Nebraska on a wrestling and performing arts scholarship. He hopes to become a special education teacher.
Tom Lachermeier, a history teacher at North, spoke during the ceremony and reminded the students that their ability to push through difficult times will help them long after high school.
"You were forced to take your education and your destiny in your own hands," he said.
Edward Jones Sr. posed for photos with his newly graduated son and said he teared up during the ceremony.
"For these kids to make it through, it's amazing," he said. His son Edward Jones Jr. worked sometimes 30 hours a week at Burger King and helped out with his younger brothers, all while completing his distance learning.
"I'm really proud," Jones Sr. said of his son, who plans to join the National Guard. "There was no normal for more than a year, but these kids did it."
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440