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TF South seniors graduate at outdoor commencement after unprecedented year


LANSING, Ill. (June 25, 2021) – It was a sight to behold Wednesday evening at TF South’s Padjen Field: 443 graduating seniors in cap and gown with the bleachers on both sides of the field packed with their family and friends.

The Class of 2021 is a remarkable group, having overcome a global pandemic and a sudden shift to remote learning to complete their education and receive their high school diplomas. Learning under the most difficult of circumstances, they arrived on graduation day to a world that had opened up once again, thanks in large part to COVID-19 vaccines.

TF South
Seniors enter Padjen Field for the 63rd Annual Commencement Ceremony. (Photo: Jim Masters)

A bittersweet celebration

A fitting conclusion to a tumultuous year school year, the commencement speeches were a bit out of the ordinary, and appropriate for the occasion. There was much to celebrate, bittersweet as it was for those heavily impacted by the pandemic.

TF South
Graduates are seated on Padjen Field awaiting the start of ceremonies, the bleachers full of family and friends. (Photo: Jim Masters)

After the 25 highest-achieving students stood for recognition, TF South Principal Jacob Gourley opened his remarks to the Class of 2021 with a poignant look at the world they had endured during their senior year.

TF South
Principal Jacob Gourley offers remarks and well wishes in his address to the Class of 2021. “Class of 2021, you will go down in the history books like no other, having endured the most difficult 14-month period in modern history.” (Photo: Jim Masters)

“We are at a finish line that has been uncertain to us since March 13, 2020, when we learned the world around us was about to shut down,” he said. “Class of 2021, you will go down in the history books like no other, having endured the most difficult 14-month period in modern history.”

He continued, “The troubling times brought out the best in us and the worst in us. We witnessed countless stories of those who helped others succeed and strive through some of our darkest days. We saw countless examples of systemic racism and social injustice played out in the worst ways, along with countless examples of our better angels who organized and demanded better from our society.”

Gourley informed the students that life’s challenges still lie ahead, but they are now better prepared to meet those challenges for all that they have endured.

“As you leave the halls of TF South, know you are entering a world that will continue to throw challenges in your path, but also that you have endured and persevered and are so equipped to handle virtually anything,” he said.

Offering some advice for their future, Gourley said, “I can only ask that whatever you choose to do while you spend your days on earth that you spend them doing something you enjoy. Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will succeed.”

TF South
The TF South scoreboard illuminates the occasion for the Class of 2021. (Photo: Jim Masters)

The first graduating class to take the SAT in a mask

District 215 Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Sophia Jones-Redmond, asked everyone to “take a collective breath” following a journey filled with many twists and turns. “We’ve had to pivot, speed up, slow down, wait, hurry up, redo, undo, stop, and start, and then do it all over again,” she said, thanking parents and staff for “going beyond the call of duty.”

“Graduates, you have learned through your high school experience, especially this year, to look for and accept the yeses,” Jones-Redmond said. “Class of 2021, you’re a special class. … no other graduating class in 100 years has gone through an entire academic year in a pandemic, but you have. You have experienced what no one present here today has experienced — a senior year of uncertainty, unrest and simply unclear, but you have. No class has ever had to take the SAT in a mask, but you have.”

Valedictorian and salutatorian address classmates

Offering his congratulations to the Class of 2021, Valedictorian Fernando Lopez reminded them how much they achieved turning such tumultuous times.

Valedictorian Fernando Lopez said despite the hardships of their senior year, the Class of 2021 “Sits before me as a shining example of hope, of light, of love, but most importantly, of what’s yet to come.” (Photo: Jim Masters)

“We, as America, witnessed the public outcry to an already built up tension caused by decades of systemic racism and racial injustice,” he said. “We witnessed not one but two impeachment trials in the span of just little over a year. We watched attacks on our democracy as the Capitol was raided and a fair election was contested spread on by claims by an ex-president. This all unfolded as a pandemic raged on across the world, changing life as we know it. Yet through it all, this class sits before me as a shining example of hope, of light, of love, but most importantly, of what’s yet to come.”

Addressing his classmates, Salutatorian Parth Patel said, “It was a long and tough journey through the four years, but each student here tonight has proved that the journey can be completed. Today marks the end of the journey and the beginning to a new start, which will carve a path that we are expected to walk on.”

Following the awarding of diplomas, Gourley officially presented the Class of 2021. And with that, they graduates joyously tossed their caps in the air.

Watch the TF South Commencement on YouTube

TF South Class of 2021 at a glance

Class officers

  • President, Saniah Johnson
  • Vice President, Janay Smith
  • Secretary, Payton Stachelski
  • Treasurer, Adam Jones

Perfect Attendance Award

  • Gift John Ndon (4 years)

Class song

  • “Through Da Storm” by Polo G

Class colors

  • Red and Gold

Class motto/quote

  • “How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us? We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be — fierce and free. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
    – by Amanda Gorman, Presidential Inaugural Poet

Class flower

  • Amaryllis Red

Senior class sponsor

  • Giena Palmer-Reed

Junior Honor Marshalls

  • Javier Alcantar and Madeline Gann


Jim Masters
Jim Masters
Jim Masters grew up on 191st Street in Lansing. He attended Nathan Hale Elementary, was a member of St. Ann Church, graduated with the first graduating class at Heritage Middle School, and graduated from TF South High School in 1981. Inspired by his journalism teacher Joe Hyde, Jim earned a BA in Journalism from Northern Illinois University. He has more than 25 years of experience as beat reporter, specializing in government, politics, criminal justice, human interest stories, and education.