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Cloquet seniors pass the four-year test, graduate

Cloquet High School principal Steve Battaglia made a pretty big announcement at Friday's commencement: for the first time in at least recent memory, every senior was graduating.

"We have zero seniors that walked the halls who aren't graduating tonight. Everybody is graduating," he said, as the crowd erupted in applause.

There is an asterisk to go with that statement. He meant every senior who was on campus this year. He wasn't including students who moved away, went to other schools or never came back to school after Covid.

This year's graduates got to finish and end their high school careers in a relatively normal fashion - in person with their classmates - but the Covid-19 pandemic still had an outsized impact on that seminal experience.

"Look around, these are the last few moments of high school," senior class president Jordyn Sorenson told her classmates. "A pretty large chunk of that high school experience was taken from us by a global pandemic, but as each challenge arose, we beat it. We helped each other grow up. Everyone in a purple cap and gown has persisted through it all."

Class speaker Hannah Sandman also touched on the pandemic.

"We went away for a while, then came back and people changed," she said. "It's like we had to get to know each other all over again."

Sorenson encouraged her classmates to remember who got them to that moment in the gym - each other - and the lessons they learned from one another: patience, grace, forgiveness.

"Don't take for granted the seemingly inconsequential relationships," she said. "Oftentimes we learn the most from people who aren't trying to teach us something."

It was standing room only in the large gymnasium Friday, with chairs on the floor and the bleachers filled with graduates, their family and friends, and others who came to share the moment. It was the first indoor graduation for Cloquet since the pandemic inspired school officials to move the program to the football field in 2021. It was also a warm day, so summer dresses were plentiful and many of the graduating seniors were wearing shorts under their purple gowns, some with sandals.

Sandman pointed out that the Class of 2023 was the last class to attend the old middle school as sixth-graders, and one of the first in the new building.

She spoke of a lesson learned from history teacher Chris Swanson, who told them to "mind the dash," referring to the dash between the birth and death dates on a headstone.

"The dash symbolizes the life the person has led," she said. "There's only one dash. ... The dash is there to tell a story and guess what, we get to write it. It's our responsibility to make it the best dash it can be."

Principal Battaglia recognized senior class officers, executive board members, honors students and 20 students who earned Honors of Distinction by maintaining a 4.0 GPA all four years of high school, along with their parents. He also recognized students on the principal's honor list, who achieved a 3.5 GPA their senior year or a cumulative 3.5 GPA for four years. Upward Bound students and students heading into construction careers or various branches of the military were also asked to stand.

He also thanked the graduating seniors for "gracefully" leading CHS through the 2022-23 school year.

"Our school goes where its senior class leads us," he said. "This year things were done right and done well."

Battaglia encouraged the graduating seniors to remain optimistic through life's challenges.

"The whole point of education is to prepare yourselves for unforeseen circumstances. You're going to find yourselves in a few of those as life unfolds," he said. "You can't always control what happens to you but you can control how you react to it. Your high school experience is a test and every single one of you sitting there in a cap and gown passed that test."