Missing senior weighs heavily in Wrenshall graduation
June 2, 2023
The graduation ceremony in Wrenshall Friday afternoon was remarkable in that it wasn't your typical look back on school years or forward to whatever is next. It was grounded in living every moment, in not taking anything for granted.
Salutatorian Wesley Ward told the audience in the gymnasium that memories are precious, like those of last summer when members of the Class of 2023 vowed to stay in touch, get together more often.
"Tomorrow is not guaranteed," he said after mentioning fellow classmate Janae Sjodin, the valedictorian who remains in a hospital after a car crash in March.
"God had a different plan," Ward said.
Ward, like other seniors, wore a mortarboard decorated with pictures of his classmates, with Janae prominent. They also wore cameo-type jewelry with a picture of Sjodin nestled in their tassels. Her presence hung heavy in an often emotional commencement that featured Angela Sjodin speaking in place of her daughter.
The seniors were rapt in attention for the hourlong service, one at which every word said meant something, causing a physical reaction of agreement and simple raw emotion on the seniors' faces.
"Life is short, and it can change in a blink of an eye," Angela said in her speech. "Live every single day to its fullest and don't sweat the small stuff. And realize that pretty much everything is the small stuff."
Kindergarten teacher and coach Anna George said she long ago broke the rule of not getting too close to her students. That's her way, she said. "It's hard to let you go."
She compared seeing graduates leave the school to a mother looking back on a child's life, with "hundreds of pieces of your heart floating around."
"A piece of your heart may be broken," George said, referring to Janae.
It almost caused George to rethink getting so close to her students, a fear of being heartbroken. But love wins, she said.
"And there is a beauty in this ... I mentally cannot put up those walls," she said.
Retiring superintendent Kim Belcastro was feted by guidance counselor Erik Holder during the special awards portion of the ceremony. Her emotions swelled as honor guards Alexis Swanson and Jack Riley presented her with flowers. It made even the most rote of commencement duties fraught with emotion, Belcastro's certification of graduation requirements fulfilled by the 15 graduates. "Oh, my heart," she began.
The past few years have been difficult for Belcastro, a staunch advocate for the Wrenshall district that prides itself on being small but mighty. Divisiveness among school board members, staff and the community has left its mark.
But the journey with Janae, Ward said, has shown that a "level of kindness" prevails in the community. The level of support for the Sjodin family has been profound, from a large fundraiser earlier in the month to the seniors forgoing their senior trip and gifting the money raised for it to the family.
Angela Sjodin channeled her daughter in a direct message to the graduates.
"I pray that Janae will be reading this speech soon, and will tell me what she would have written for this important event in your lives," the mother said. "Janae loves each and every one of you. She would stand here and wish nothing, and I mean nothing, but the very best and most amazing life for each and every one of you."
The crowd rose after her speech, a standing ovation.
The seniors will all be moving on. Some to more education and some to work. Or, as was so prominently reinforced on a bright, late Friday afternoon, to simply the next moment. Janae, to the delight of her mother, was moved Wednesday, May 31, from Duluth to a speciality care facility in Colorado, one that deals with the type of brain trauma the 18-year-old suffered.
One of those moments to take in, after a somber ceremony peppered with the joy of accomplishment, was the levity provided by the school band's exit song for the newly minted graduates. It was "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down," known better as the theme song for the Looney Tunes cartoon franchise.
"That's all, folks."