Brunswick High Principal Michael Dillman opened the Class of 2021 graduation by putting a cardboard circle with the letter “M” in front of his face.

This, he said, is how he saw most of the students over the course of the past year as they met in Google Meets with their cameras off. After a moment, he put down the piece of cardboard to show his face once again.

“We are so happy to be able to have you in front of us today ... No longer do we need to worry about these little Skittle dots in front of us, because the view that I see today is amazing,” Dillman said. “It is so nice to have you back in person and smiling at us once again.”

During Wednesday’s graduation ceremony, students and faculty frequently called back to the pandemic that shaped the past 15 months of the Class of 2021’s experience. For student speaker Alana Gantley, missing out on senior traditions was hard. But she also said the class learned a lot through the crisis.

“Despite the challenges our class has faced, our Brunswick High School legacy will not only be known as the first virtual school year and graduating during a pandemic,” Gantley said, “but more importantly as a class that has shown their perseverance and resilience.”

Board of Education member Sue Johnson also spoke to the growth students have achieved through the past year of virtual classes and hybrid learning.

“Remember, your success is no accident,” Johnson said. “Believe in yourself the same way that your teachers your family and supporters believe in you.”

Mia Martinez, the student member of the Board of Education, was among the graduates. While the past year was not what she expected of her tenure on the board, she was proud to make an impact by voicing the concerns of her classmates.

“If it wasn’t for the senior class wanting to go back, wanting to go back to sports, voicing their opinions, then I wouldn’t have had as much of a voice on the board,” Martinez said.

Martinez had originally planned to visit schools in person to discuss concerns with students and administrators, but the pandemic stopped her from doing that.

In January, Brunswick let students start coming back two days a week in two different cohorts. Martinez said she chose to go all virtual because balancing the two kinds of learning was difficult.

That stress was weighing on the minds of other seniors.

Allyssa Albright said she would rank the stress of online classes a “10 out of 10.” Her friend Makayla Longerbeam said that while it was nice to not have to leave her bedroom to go to class, she missed seeing her friends.

The stress and loneliness also transferred to planning for the future. Enrique DeAnda Zavala said he only toured the University of Maryland campus online before deciding to go.

Still, there were bright spots. Gantley said the unofficial senior events like prom, sunrise and a campout helped the class of approximately 180 students feel more connected.

In his closing remarks, Dillman said the challenges of the past 15 months have given the Class of 2021 the strength they will need to make big decisions in the future as they continue their education, start careers or join the military.

“The difference is ... all of these people sitting on the sides of you, in most cases, will not be there immediately to help you make that decision, it now falls on your shoulders,” Dillman said. “But what we will have is strength, and that memory of experience.”

Follow Erika Riley on Twitter: @ej_riley

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