In 2003, I had a 3-year-old and a 18-month-old when then-principal Dr. Ray Martin agreed for me to be the senior sponsor at Northside High School. That confidence he had in me started a 17-year journey of work, creativity and exhaustion but, most of all, a harvest of blessings. Carrying out the job of senior sponsor meant my babies grew up as Grizzlies and, in 2018, that once 3-year-old walked across the field as a graduate. This year, that baby girl walking across the stage at Mayo-Thompson Stadium would signal my last act as sponsor.
Yes, special events such as the senior walk through elementary schools, prom, color wars, parking spot painting, back-to-school bashes, senior picture day have been memory makers for our seniors each year, but there is nothing like graduation day. I am forever the optimist, so when the coronavirus started hitting the news, I never imagined we would be here. My senior athletes in soccer, baseball and softball were days away from conference play and the overnight decision was made. The devastation hit them on Friday, March 13. I don’t like the helpless feeling and that is where I have found myself looking at all 576 of these Grizzlies.
A day in the life of a sponsor on graduation day goes something like this. Arrive on campus to see the sun rising over the bandstands with a breezy feel to the air at 6:30 a.m. Unload the large cookie cakes to be devoured after practice. By 8 a.m., my co-sponsor Aimee Brinkley and I, plus various students, are taping individual names to the practice chairs in the activity center. By 9, we are unloading extra shirts and other senior items to the bleachers for the early birds to choose what they want and I visit with the maintenance staff that has worked tirelessly the entire week. By 10, we are greeting the seniors and begin the hour and half practice for them to be informed of the evening's events. After practice, they pick up their senior grades, sign up for final transcript mailings and pick up senior posters and cap toppers. All the while seniors are practicing, the teachers that help me are guiding, directing and coaching them through nerves. I head back outside at 4:30 p.m. I check that the flowers have been delivered, the extra caps and gowns for emergencies are moved to the activity center, the programs are brought out for distribution. There is a team of teachers that makes sure everything runs smoothly like the pre-show slideshow and music, checking in seniors as they arrive, checking for dress code, etc. But, the real fun begins at 5:30 when the pictures and the hugs begin. The phrase, “You made a difference in my life,” is said between students and teachers. Teachers that walk at graduation take the time to share how this year and this class has impacted them. The traditional tunnel of teachers that we form for the graduates to process through is composed of elementary teachers, junior high teachers and, of course, our NHS faculty.
As we sit down at 7:15, I finally take a breath and realize these kids did it. They made it and the excitement is palpable. When the diploma distribution begins, I stand to help them keep pace and that one job of ALL the jobs as senior sponsor is the very best. There is no containing emotions for them. It’s their spotlight. Their dreams, plans and hopes are all right in front of them, tangible.
Even though this job has required countless hours planning and creating, it has been the one job at NHS that has brought me the most blessings. There is something about the energy of NHS seniors. The relationships I have built is so valuable to me. There is such joy seeing past presidents and senior council members flourish as adults. I have had some go on through medical school, some flight attendants capturing all the world and some have become teachers right here in Fort Smith.
Friendships with Aimee Brinkley and our principals is another harvest that has been reaped because of the work. Aimee and I could spend hours talking about the craziness of this job. But, we have been a good combo, one of which I couldn’t have done the job without.
Each year, there are stories of seniors that overcome obstacles. One young lady had to go into DHS custody toward the end of her senior year. She was an AP student and managed to keep it together academically despite her family dynamics and was a commencement speaker that year. Another is a very gifted artist that found herself homeless during her senior year. She never let her circumstances derail her dreams of pursuing a four-year degree in graphic design and freelance photographer. She is set to graduate this year from the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. This type of resilience is all around us at NHS and, on graduation day, those resilient 18-year-olds show so much pride in what they have overcome. Many use it as fuel to be better citizens, to be more kind and compassionate. The class of 2020 will be paramount in using obstacles to make them better. Graduation night has energy that is indescribable between teachers, administration, counselors, coaches and the seniors. As the alma mater plays for the class of 2020 and the confetti canons fire with billowing red smoke, resiliency will be the theme for this class. May the graduates rise and toss their caps in celebration that they overcame the sadness of this terrible pandemic.
The Northside motto is, “We are one. We are family. We are Northside.” Graduation night is our night to showcase that motto, that belief, to our community. Thank you to Fort Smith Public Schools for making the celebration a priority.
Leigh Ann Hasley is Northside High School digital commercial photography instructor and retiring senior council sponsor.
My personal disdain against this current worldwide pandemic is that it stole my right of passage as an adult entering the world. It stole my one night to feel like a princess in a country of democracy, and it stole what was left of my senior year.
I have taken much time during this “Corona Break” to assess damages the Covid-19 virus has inflicted upon seniors in high school. Going into this year – after ending my junior year with a flood that canceled our May classes – I was excited to finish strong. The seniors from 2019 didn’t miss out on their last day of school, their elementary walk, their cap and gown pictures, prom or walking across a stage receiving a piece of paper saying they completed what can be considered the most formative and challenging years of their lives. We, however, will be missing out on all of the opportunities listed above, or they will be readjusted to a schedule to which people we love can’t attend. It’s frustrating to watch as millions of people before you get to experience these once-in-a-lifetime events and millions behind you anticipate these moments, just for them to be stripped away right in front of you with absolutely no time for face-to-face closure.
Collectively, as seniors at Northside High School, we have been disappointed waiting to hear about the adjustments to our last few events of senior year. I believe parents don’t truly understand what their seniors are going through, seeing as how they had their senior year. Students not a part of the 2020 class don’t pay any thought to how this impacts us. The only ones who understand our frustration are my fellow graduates.
I regret not living my senior year to the fullest. I regret my decision to skip out on events I had the option to attend and I regret not appreciating what I had when I had it. Due to this corona outbreak, I am no longer allowed to finish my senior year at school. I wish I could experience prom on May 2 and experience graduation day on May 12. Knowing those two important events in my life will be canceled or postponed due to this pandemic, I have to come to terms with the fact that I will never get to see some of my friends that are going into the military, colleges in other states, staying in Fort Smith or just doing something with their lives that doesn’t involve me.
The only silver lining to this pandemic is that it has given me wisdom on how to appreciate everything in my life. We had graduation, prom, senior walk and cap and gown pictures to look forward to – and to say our goodbyes.
There are friends I will dearly miss and people I will never see again. My last day of high school was the last chance I got to see them. Little did I know it was going to be Friday, March 13.
Northside senior Addy Hasley was 18 months old when her mother, Leigh Ann, took the position of senior council sponsor at the school.