El Molino High School delivered its final graduating class on Thursday, June 3, capping a year that was historic on both a national and neighborhood level.
The class of 2021 is no stranger to hardship, and in the words of Principal Matt Dunkle, they leave a “highly unusual and challenging four years at El Molino” behind them.
“Indeed, fires, floods, strike, pandemic, pending school closure, it’s not been easy,” he said in his graduation speech to students. “Some have had more of a struggle than others, but what is important is that the class of 2021 has held together and supported one another.”
A procession of about 120 graduates in red and black gowns swept across the athletic field into chairs facing their families crammed in bleachers and rows spilling onto the track.
Though the ceremony appears to be El Molino’s last, graduates spoke of their excitement to start the rest of their life after graduation.
Andrea Onofre said she still felt like a freshman in high school. “It still hasn’t hit yet. I might be in my feels tomorrow, I don’t know. But it’ll probably hit later on,” she said.
Looking back on the unusual and eventful senior year, Onofre said, “It was definitely tough but our community, the teachers, faculty, they were so supporting. I know this sounds really personal, but my therapist helped me a lot.”
She said she’s saddened by the consolidation and hopes it’s not the end for El Molino, but added the shift does not affect her much.
Onofre is headed to the University of San Francisco, hoping to explore a career in music and one day create a community organization that supports mental health in the Latinx community, she said.
“I’m really happy and sad at the same time. But yeah, I can’t wait. What the future holds for me — that’s what I’m looking forward to,” said Yasmin Sierra — specifically, studying viticulture to open a winery one day, with better working conditions for farmworkers.
She said she’ll miss her friends after four years of playing volleyball together, and that her best memories from El Molino are of the Golden Apple Bowl games, bringing the community together.
Sierra said she was heartened that the football teams had the chance to play this year, even if the ongoing pandemic meant fewer could attend.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Lovera said she looks forward to taking a gap year, working and making art. “It’s exciting because I kind of always felt like … the way school was built wasn’t quite the right way for me, so I’m glad to finally have some freedom to do my own thing now,” she said.
As one of El Molino’s last graduates, Lovera said, “It’s kind of weird that it’s happening because everyone kind of thought that it wasn’t going to, and we were pretty hopeful about it, but once the decision was made for real, I started to kind of accept it.”
Graduation caps sailed into the sky and when they came down, the graduates were released to alphabetic stations along the track, where they were swept into the arms of friends and families.
The end of an era
For some school staff lingering after the ceremony, the undercurrent of grief around El Molino’s end was strong.
Librarian Julie McClelland said there was a saying that the El Molino community is showing up for what is essentially a funeral at the end of the year. “We’re sad, really sad. Everyday,” she said.
“And then Analy’s like, ‘Welcome to our school,’ and expecting us to show up for a wedding and be excited about it, and we’re not excited about it. We’re professionals. We do our job. But we’re still grieving,” McClelland said.
Michele Larkin, Spanish teacher and world languages department chair, also said she’s having a hard time. For teachers, she said, “It was sort of this, ‘Okay, this year’s been a really big challenge, we’re all ready for a break,’ but at the same time, we knew that the end meant the end of a lot more than just one school year.”
She said, “I guess there’s a slim chance that it might not still happen, but at least I feel like we have to go forward as if it is. I mean, packing up classrooms and all of that.”
The district is moving to merge El Molino and Analy High School on to Analy’s campus in Sebastopol this fall, with plans to rebrand with a new name, mascot and colors, currently with the working name “West County High School.”
Meanwhile, the fight to preserve El Molino High School in Forestville persists in the form of a lawsuit filed with the district challenging its consolidation decision-making process, and recall campaigns target the three school board trustees who voted to uphold the plan.
Dunkle did not shy from telling the graduates that the journey of building the best versions of themselves will not be without challenges.
“How we choose to blossom through adversity is up to us and we will take different paths but frequently, the paths we take are common and shared among us. We will stumble, we will often fail, but that’s okay,” he said.
He quoted the words of Christopher Robin’s words to Winnie the Pooh, “‘If ever there is tomorrow, when we’re not together, there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.’”
Dunkle finished, “But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart, that together, wherever and forever, we are El Molino.”