There was not an empty seat in the house Friday, June 4, as Esko High School and community members gathered to celebrate 2021 graduates during a traditional ceremony.

The event was held in the school’s varsity gymnasium and included a send-off by Esko teachers, senior band and choir performances, several speeches and the distribution of diplomas.

Despite a crippling high temperature of 93 degrees, graduates and their families said they were happy to have a seemingly normal end to an abnormal year.

“I was super excited that we got to have a ceremony,” graduate Lily Hanson said. “It’s like the first normal thing in … all of this craziness.”

Class speaker Jason Amireault addresses a gymnasium full of Esko High School graduates and community members during the school's graduation ceremony on Friday, June 4, 2021. Amireault was one of four graduating seniors to speak, using his time in front of the microphone to bring a sort of nostalgia into the room with his speech "Memories." (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)
Class speaker Jason Amireault addresses a gymnasium full of Esko High School graduates and community members during the school's graduation ceremony on Friday, June 4, 2021. Amireault was one of four graduating seniors to speak, using his time in front of the microphone to bring a sort of nostalgia into the room with his speech "Memories." (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)

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Due to the recent loosening of COVID-19 restrictions by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and the fact the ceremony took place after school hours, people were permitted to attend Friday’s graduation unmasked and without any social distancing or capacity restrictions.

“It’s weird to see everyone smile,” Hanson said.

2021 Esko High School graduate Haily Miller beams as teachers line the halls to clap for her and her classmates prior to their graduation ceremony on Friday, June 4, 2021. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)
2021 Esko High School graduate Haily Miller beams as teachers line the halls to clap for her and her classmates prior to their graduation ceremony on Friday, June 4, 2021. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)

Many graduates and their families expressed joy over being able to go maskless with no capacity limitations for the ceremony.

“It's a big relief,” Esko resident George Knapper said.

Knapper was present on Friday to watch his niece graduate and shared that in the previous months he didn't have much hope for a normal graduation ceremony.

“I’m just happy that my family can come,” Esko graduate Mallory Sunnarborg said. “I (am) happy that we are all here together.”

Esko High School graduates sit in the center of a jam-packed gymnasium during their graduation ceremony on Friday, June 4, 2021. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)
Esko High School graduates sit in the center of a jam-packed gymnasium during their graduation ceremony on Friday, June 4, 2021. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)

Sunnarborg spent her entire senior year taking college courses at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College through Esko’s Postsecondary Enrollment Options program, so this was her first time seeing many of her classmates in over a year.

“It’s good, but it’s pretty overwhelming,” she said.

Prior to Friday's ceremony, graduates also experienced other Esko traditions, such as a campus-wide send off on their final day of classes, and a brief, intimate ceremony in the school theater to present the academic top 10% of students with gold tassels.

Esko High School seniors interact with elementary students and staff during a senior send-off parade Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Esko High School seniors interact with elementary students and staff during a senior send-off parade Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

According to Principal Greg Hexum, the class of 2021 had a 100% graduation rate, despite spending more than a year learning during a pandemic.

Parent Jaime Scott shared that the last year was challenging for her daughter and described her feeling about Friday’s event with one word: grateful.

Esko High School graduates gather in the high school theater prior to their graduation ceremony on Friday, June 4, 2021. It is tradition for the senior class advisors to take this time to recognize the top 10% of students with the highest academic records by awarding them with gold-colored tassels. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)
Esko High School graduates gather in the high school theater prior to their graduation ceremony on Friday, June 4, 2021. It is tradition for the senior class advisors to take this time to recognize the top 10% of students with the highest academic records by awarding them with gold-colored tassels. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)

Taking time to recognize the teachers seated behind graduates at the ceremony, Hexum explained that while the last year has been messy, the Esko community and its graduates have found ways to make it through.

“The Esko High School class of 2021 showed me, showed us, that life is good and beautiful, even when the planet is in crisis,” he said.

Esko High School graduate Charlotte Hansmeyer poses for a photo after receiving her diploma on Friday, June 4, 2021. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)
Esko High School graduate Charlotte Hansmeyer poses for a photo after receiving her diploma on Friday, June 4, 2021. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)

Following the ceremony, Esko’s party continued well into the night as the graduates met with their loved ones on the school lawn for a reception and then headed to the Esko bus garage following the ceremony for their All Night Grad Party.