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Thorpe graduation at raceway a winner

Up until a few weeks ago, members of the Jim Thorpe Area High School Class of 2020 were unsure if they would get to celebrate their graduation together amid a global pandemic.

Few could have predicted that it would happen at Pocono Raceway. But Thursday night, the students donned caps and gowns and accepted their diplomas - not on a stage, but on the track’s start-finish line.

“We thought we weren’t going to have one and that was kind of it. But then the parents and our administration pulled one together. It really showed us all that they really cared about us,” said 2020 graduate Makena Boger.

The unique graduation ceremony took place entirely on the track, normally reserved for 180 mph NASCAR races. Students lined up at the entrance to Turn 3 and waited to hear their name before driving up to the line, parking, and retrieving their diploma. Speeches by the valedictorian, salutatorian and class president were projected 20 feet high on the track’s video boards, as well as a message from NASCAR driver Kyle Busch.

The last time the Class of 2020 was all together before Thursday, they had no idea they would lose the final three months of their senior year. First, schools closed for two weeks. Then another two. They kept in touch through social media and text messages. Eventually, in-person classes were canceled for the year.

“They told us on the last day ‘bring what you need home’ we expected to come back that Monday, and we didn’t but we got through it and we’re here,” said 2020 graduate James Adames.

In his remarks to the graduates, Principal Tom Lesisko told the graduates that they will remember their unique graduation forever. And by overcoming the pandemic to complete their studies, they will be stronger for doing it. He said they can check “pandemic” off their bucket list, and hopefully never have to experience it again.

“This tiny virus has given you a three-month journey of a lifetime. You learned lessons that will guide you for the rest of your lives,” he said.

The student speakers, who recorded their messages, spoke frankly about giving up senior traditions which most graduates take for granted. But they said it has strengthened them for what comes next in their lives.

Class President Cobe Frycklund said the Class of 2020 sacrificed so much from their senior year when schools closed due to the coronavirus, but they also accomplished so much in the time they had together.

While the prom, all-night party, spring sports and school play were lost, the senior class racked up an impressive resume over the last 12 months.

Frycklund shouted out the football, soccer, wrestling, cheer, volleyball, tennis, basketball and scholastic scrimmage teams for their efforts in the 2019-20 school year. He also noted his classmates’ efforts to raise money for local charities.

“Let us not be defined by the virus that surrounds us, but by the future that awaits us and the legacy left behind us. But wherever we go, the one thing that we will always share in common for the rest of our lives is that we were here, we made it, and we are, and always will be, Olympians,” Frycklund said.

Salutatorian Victoria DeFazio said the coronavirus strengthened a resolve that was already present in the Class of 2020. As students, they spent late nights studying, and tired mornings paying for it. As a generation, they’ve been determined to create a brighter future.

She said there’s been a lot of fun too, like dances, overnight trips and popcorn chicken bowls in the cafeteria.

When the Class of 2020 was forced apart by the coronavirus, classmates continued to work hard, stayed in touch and finished strong. DeFazio encouraged them to continue that strength as they go out into the world.

“Let’s keep this momentum going. I am asking all of you to take the Olympian spirit with you in your future endeavors. In the years ahead, let’s continue to set an example of how to overcome and remain strong,” she said.

Valedictorian Raymond O’Neil said the Class of 2020 has learned much from their parents, teachers and administrators.

“I choose to believe that we as a class will persevere and make the most out of a bad situation. All of us will hopefully be able to continue down our path and find success wherever we go after high school,” O’Neil said.

The recording artist Matthew Wilder, who wrote the 1983 hit “Break My Stride,” even had a video message for the class.

At the end of the ceremony the graduates all drove a lap around the track together. The rains which held off for most of the evening finally came.

In the background played their class song: a one-hit wonder written before they were born, but one that was fitting for the occasion. “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my stride, Nobody gonna slow me down, oh no I got to keep on movin’.”

Students from the Jim Thorpe Class of 2020 line up next to their vehicles for a group photo on the track at Pocono Raceway before their graduation ceremony. See a photo gallery online at tnonline.com BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS