WADENA — When graduation day comes May 27 for seniors at Wadena-Deer Creek High School they will experience a whirlwind of emotions, whether they know it or not now.
Not only will the 86 seniors of the Class of 2011 experience what all high school seniors will on graduation day — the last day these students will all be together, ending their schooling they’ve known and lived for the past 13 years.
Graduation is a time when it will hit students that they won’t see their friends at school day each day or meet them after school for activities. This is a time when they may be packing up for college and leaving a home they’ve always known, and entering a time that will be the first day of the rest of their lives.
But, the Wadena senior class has much more to face. These seniors, unlike their predecessors, will not graduate in their high school, a building that many had called home. Instead, they’ll be graduating at the elementary school in Wadena. All the students will at least be together as they walk down the aisle and accept their diplomas, but it won’t be on a turf that they can call their own.
Then when they finish with the commencement ceremony on May 27 and walk outside — at a distance — will be a reminder of how the devastating June 17 tornado destroyed their high school and changed their senior year forever. All that remains today is a construction site of level dirt awaiting the construction of the high school that is slated to open in the school fall year of 2013.
The Wolverines have had to deal with a lot of changes this school year. Seniors have been housed at the elementary school in Wadena and the Minnesota State Community and Technical College-Wadena.
W-DC High School principal Tyler Church said school administrators tried to keep things the same, but it wasn’t possible. Church said every teacher has a rolling cart that carries their education materials, as they have to take their items out of the class when they’re done because they share the room with the college instructors. Church said the teachers cannot create any bulletin board displays or hang up any posters because it’s not their rooms.
Church said he has his own office, but it also serves as a conference room.
“I had to leave my office four times today,” he said because other staff members needed the space.
Church said the biggest challenge for the school was finding gym space for the extra-curricular activities. The former high school had two gyms that accommodated four physical education stations and the school lost its hockey arena that was in the community center.
Church said hockey players this year were bused to Long Prairie and that was tough. Church said the students didn’t get home until 9 p.m. after practice. Church said the school had to adjust all the coaches’ practice schedules because they all shared the gym at the two elementary schools.
Church said another challenge was losing computer space. The old high school had six computer labs and there’s only one at the college that has to be shared.
“You understand right away that you have good people,” said Church. “With all the changes the school had to do, if we didn’t have good people it wouldn’t have worked. Staff had to monitor their time and they’ve adjusted well, as have the students.
“A school year has gone by and this is not an ideal situation, but we’ve had no major issues.”
Church said the seniors want to have the graduation ceremony at the football field, but school officials decided to have it in the elementary school gymnasium so they don’t have to worry about the weather.
“It’s going to be different,” said Bryan Silvers, one of the top three students at W-DC. “I’m used to seeing students graduate in the high school.”
“I’m going to be an emotional wreck,” said Keeley Timm, another senior in the top three. “We’ll be walking in there (elementary school) and it won’t feel like we’ll be graduating.”
Silvers and Timm and three other seniors — Dylan Anderson, Elena Roggenkamp and Amanda Perkins — talked in late April about how their senior year went and about the upcoming graduation.
Roggenkamp has a mixture of emotions about graduation.
“Summer will be here and we’ll have to leave our friends and family,” said Roggenkamp. “And when we come back we won’t even have a school to visit, to see our old classrooms. It’s not supposed to be that way.
“We have a lot of memories of the tornado.”
Silvers said, “Last summer was ruined and this one will be short ... We felt like we had to help (with the tornado clean-up.)”
Timm said, “We couldn’t take a breather last summer. We had no where to go.”
When the tornado hit Timm was working as a lifeguard at the community center that was destroyed from the tornado. Timm said her dad called and told her to get out of the pool because of the storm. Timm, the other lifeguards, a mother and her two daughters ran to one of the lifeguard’s home that was close to the center and got into the basement.
“We could feel it,” Timm said of the storm. “It sounded like a freight train going by. We got over the two girls and the mom threw blankets over us. We could see a light ... It was scary.”
Perkins was in Bemidji competing in a volleyball tournament. Perkins said there was a timeout and the coach was told that her farm was gone from a tornado. Perkins said the tournament ended and the girls went to the locker room, but she had no reception on her cellphone to find out what was happening at her home and with her friends.
“Not knowing what was going on was the hardest,” said Perkins. “I was a little freaked out from all the rumors. We heard the school was gone, but we weren’t sure of the extent of the damage.”
Anderson was working at Pizza Hut and he watched the storm through the windows and saw things flying around. He said there were shingles in the parking lot. Otherwise there was no damage in that part of town.
Afterwards, he said, “it was crazy, people kept calling in orders and I was like how are you going to come in to get it? But people drove in and got their pizza, it was ridiculous.”
Silvers and Roggenkamp were both home at the time, and said the areas they live in weren’t damaged.
Roggenkamp said she gets worried during storms and her mother told her to relax.
“I heard the noise like the freight train sound that people talk about, but I managed to fall asleep,” said Roggenkamp. “I woke up when my brother came home and he told us how bad it was. He told me that the school was gone. I tried to call people and I panicked because I couldn’t get through.”
Anderson said after the storm he thought about going post-secondary because the high school was gone, but he decided against it.
“I’m glad that I stayed,” said Anderson.
“We lost a lot of senior privledges,” said Roggenkamp, talking about the senior parking and other traditional things the seniors do in Wadena. She said for the past 10 years, during homecoming week, seniors would wear black, while playfully yelling and banging on the lockers and run down the hallways.
The students said even though they don’t feel comfortable at the college or elementary school, they’re grateful that the buildings exist and that they’re allowed to be there.
“The college kids are real nice and are considerate of us,” said Timm.
Anderson said the senior class is much tighter than any other class because of their experience. Silvers said not only is there a stronger bond between the seniors, but the entire community is closer after the tornado.
“Knowing what could have happened ...” said Silvers. “We’re lucky no one was killed. It’s amazing no one died.”
The senior class also learned a little about themselves from the tornado.
“I cherish the little things in life,” said Timm. “Some people lost everything. I just lost a car.”
Roggenkamp said she learned how to adapt.
“Everything can change in a second,” said Roggenkamp. “You work with what you have and you learn to go without.”
Anderson said he learned that things might change, but people don’t have to.
So what’s next for these students?
Anderson, the son of Jim Anderson and Karen Anderson, is attending St. John’s University for biology and pre-dental; Perkins, the daughter of Wayne and Lisa Perkins, is attending Bemidji State University for either psychology or social work; Roggenkamp, the daughter of Kelly and Susan Roggensamp, is attending Concordia College, Moorhead, for music; Silvers, the son of Joe and Michelle Silvers, is attending North Dakota State University for engineering; and Timm, the daughter of Tom and Jana Timm, is attending College of St. Benedict for physical therapy.