Horns honked, cowbells clanged and educators cheered as the Golden Eagle award winners at Venice High School were lauded at the school’s loop Thursday evening.
Less of an academic or athletic award and more for the embodiment of perseverance, the annual award can go to any student, nominated by any Venice High School adult, for their work ethic and spirit.
Traditionally, an event brings together the students, families and educators where stories are shared about the kids and what elevates them to the heights of the award.
With COVID-19, the event was canceled — but the committee in charge wanted to honor the 43 students receiving the honor.
“We were in a Zoom meeting, talking about mailing them, and I said: ‘Why don’t we try to do an outdoor venue?’” Venice High School teacher Christine Botti said. “I kept seeing things in my neighborhood — people celebrating birthdays. I said: ‘Why can’t we do the six-feet apart; masks for those going up to the cars and have the kids come around the loop and get their medals?’”
The committee spoke with the school’s administration who took the most recent CDC and state guidance into consideration and gave an approval.
“No heartache from anybody,” Botti said.
So Thursday night, that event was held.
“We figured out — with all the CDC guidelines — how we could celebrate the kids … because they certainly deserved it,” she said.
The abbreviated ceremony took about 15 minutes as 38 of the 43 students drove through the circle at Venice High School — some with family, some with friends, a few on their own.
Linda Reynolds was pleased a ceremony was held.
“It’s the best thing of the whole year and we didn’t think we were going to be able to have it,” she said.
Reynolds, who teaches freshman English, has been on the committee for 14 years and led it for several. She stepped away from its leadership this year as she prepares to retire at the end of the school year.
For her, the awardees are always students who are inspiring. She has seen kids honored who have overcome losses of parents or arrived at the school from a foreign country and spent a lot of time trying to learn.
It is often about those students who experience hardships or failures and get themselves back up and work again.
These students “worked so hard … it’s inspiring, it’s really inspiring,” she said.
For her, this year’s award was for Zachary Hudson.
“I thought about him all year. I wanted him to have that recognition,” she said. “He’s the hardest working kid I’ve seen in my life. He’s so respectful … he’s just really hard to explain.”
After having gone two months without students in classrooms, Botti said just spending a few moments with them in person was the highlight.
“The nicest part was getting to see the kids,” Botti said, choking up briefly. “A lot of teachers focused on seniors this year because they really got a bum-deal... we really wanted to give them something because they’ve been missing out on so many things.”
Reynolds stood apart from other educators, being the last teacher the awardees saw as they exited the loop at Venice High School on Thursday night.
She said the emotions were obvious, that mix of joy of accomplishment and — in many cases — the twilight of high school careers.
“I saw parents crying as they drove out; I saw kids crying as they drove out,” she said. “Very emotional. It’s not about academics, it’s about kids who have overcome hardship.”
And the class of 2020 has had its share of hardships in its last months. Many of the students were born in the global era of Sept. 11, 2001 and are graduating in the global era of a pandemic.
But for these students, they have this recognition.
“They have the medal with their names engraved in it and get to wear it at graduation,” Reynolds said. “It just leaves us at the end of the year with a really good feeling.”
Graduation is currently penciled in to take place in mid-July.
Venice High School Principal Eric Jackson sent out a note to the senior class in late April.
“Graduation is the most important academic rite of passage for our students and families,” he wrote. “If health and safety guidelines permit, our ceremony which was originally scheduled for May 22 will be scheduled sometime between Thursday, July 16, and Saturday, July 18.”
He said options are being considered for a “live and in-person graduation” at a venue that will allow the event to take place “in a safe and orderly manner.”