Kaetlin Paice shows off her diploma during the Pine Bluffs Junior/Senior High graduation Sunday, May 17, 2020, in Pine Bluffs. Twenty-eight seniors sat in the bleachers, while families gathered on the football field to watch the ceremony. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

PINE BLUFFS – The 28 graduates of Pine Bluffs Junior/Senior High sat six feet apart on the football field’s bleachers for a socially distant ceremony Sunday afternoon.

Their couple-hundred friends and family members were clustered on the field, sitting in lawn chairs, watching their graduates walk across the outdoor stage to accept hard-fought diplomas.

For Daniel Paice, seeing his daughter Kaetlin graduate, was a long-anticipated happy moment amid a year of loss. Earlier this year – before COVID-19 shut down the schools and restaurants – the death of Paice’s wife devastated him and their three children, of which Kaetlin is the eldest.

“When Kaetlin looks into the crowd, there will be someone missing,” Daniel Paice said right before the ceremony started. “But I am so proud of how strong she is – how she’s made it through this year. She gets that from her mom.”

The concept of perseverance – which Kaetlin has demonstrated in the face of grief – underlined the core message of the entire ceremony.

“We’ve learned that disappointment happens and it’s a part of life. It’s not something we should fear. We should welcome it,” said Amber Abrams, the class valedictorian. “I think it’s obvious this isn’t the graduation any of us expected, but I think we’re truly blessed to live in a community that makes sure we know we’re loved.”

The ceremony followed a car parade and weeks of community efforts to hang celebratory banners and send gifts to seniors, who were disappointed about missing out on the end of senior year, which was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the virus – which has infected more than 700 Wyomingites and 1.5 million people nationwide – shut down the schools in March, Kaetlin was freshly grieving her mother’s death.

“It was really hard,” she said. “I figured the rest of the year would give me something to look forward to. I thought I would get to be with all of my classmates – do a senior trip, a senior prank, and get to spend the rest of the year making good memories.”

Principal Todd Sweeter, whose daughter Dylan was among Sunday’s graduates, reassured the senior class that these past three months yield valuable life lessons.

“Life is going to give us challenges. At times, things are going to get tough for a little bit. It’s OK to be disappointed. It’s OK to cry,” said an emotional Sweeter to the graduates. “But I’m awfully proud of you all because you got through it and made the best of the situation.”

In addition to navigating the challenges of remote learning, Kaetlin also grappled with mixed emotions about graduation day.

She’s graduating with good grades and plans to become an art teacher, which is something to celebrate.

“But I’m a little sad knowing that my mom won’t be there, and knowing that it’s our last time together as a group,” said Kaetlin, who has known several of her classmates for many years. “We’re kind of like one big happy family.”

Although she knows better than a lot of people her age that life can change without much warning, she’s optimistic that the Pine Bluffs Class of 2020 will stay in touch after graduation.

In the immediate future, however, she’s anticipating her next chapter – in the dorms of Laramie County Community College and beyond.

“It’s a little overwhelming, knowing that I’ll be on my own,” she said. “But at least I got to graduate knowing I made my mom proud.”

Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kpalmer@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.

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