Joy and pain.
Relief and regret.
Triumph and befuddlement.
The Class of 2020’s no different from the parade of Payson High School graduates through the years — celebrating graduation’s precious rite of passage into an uncertain future.
Except they’re locked down and picking up their diplomas through the rolled-down car window. The graduates are setting off on life’s grand adventure in the long shadow of a pandemic and 20% unemployment.
So fifth-generation Tonto Basin student and PHS valedictorian Michael Cline was the perfect person to record a virtual speech for the Class of 2020.
Just ask coach Jonathan Ball, who advised the scrappy, 5-foot-8-inch tall, son of a bridge-building, pile driver to become a sprinter.
Not doing it, said Cline. Gonna be a shot putter.
Bad idea, said the coach, eyeing Cline’s slender 160-pound frame.
Gonna be a shot putter, said Cline.
And so he became a shot putter and discus thrower, substituting grit for body mass. Year by year, he got better. This year, he would have gone to the state tournament, if the virus hadn’t canceled it.
Nonetheless, he also thanked his coaches — Ball and Denver White — for backing him up even when he ignored their advice.
The Class of 2020 has faced a lot of challenges in the 13 years, wars and pandemics and recessions and slashed budgets and school closures, student debt, global warming, health care crises, environmental worries, toxic political divisions, crashing economies and bull markets.
They’ve also achieved great things already, launching into the Brave New World of the internet, with the explosion of human knowledge and possibility.
The Class of 2020 has already risen to that challenge, said Payson High School Principal Jeff Simon — with the imagination, grit and resilience of superheroes.
Some dual-enrollment students in the class have earned 1,200 college credits, thanks to a program by the MHA Foundation that pays the cost of EAC-Payson classes taught on the high school campus. That includes Cline, who earned his associate of arts degree.
The Class of 2020 will also collect $2.3 million in college scholarship awards, thanks to hard work and persistence, said Simon.
Simon said he’d been inspired by students who’d fought through all kinds of difficulties to lay claim to the education and to their lives. He singled out Germany Hall, who earned an AA degree along with her high school degree and certificates in culinary arts and allied health.
He also made note of Zacary Taylor’s decision to go into the military, with a high score to specialize in intelligence and linguistics.
“I believe the superhero trait is like a coin, one side could lead you to become a superhero while the other side could lead you to become a victim, it is all in how you react to situations. The world today is playing out like a superhero movie with the world pandemic threatening our ways of life. It would be easy to fall victim to our unfortunate circumstances or we can fight, fight like a superhero. Maybe your fight will be finding a cure for pandemics, or working in the medical field and help save lives, maybe become a police officer, firefighter or service member and protect our way of life, becoming a teacher, become a solid member of our society contributing to our civic duties or maybe your superhero role is being a loving, caring father, mother, spouse or family member. These exemplify the traits of a true superhero,” Simon said.
Cline’s story captured all those trends.
He’s an offshoot of the pioneering Cline family — no, not the Payson Clines or the Young Clines, the Tonto Basin Clines.
His father operated the machinery needed to drive the support pillars of bridges down to bedrock, which required travel all over the country. So after the divorce, his dad decided to move back to Tonto Basin — where Michael could live with his grandmother and have a stable home and education.
Most of the year, his father was away. But every night his dad called him and insisted that Michael explain everything he learned that day.
“He was always curious about what I was learning and everything. I had to explain everything I learned that day. I got annoyed — but I really enjoyed it,” said Cline.
Every summer, he would travel with his dad to the job sites. “I learned a lot of stuff on the job. I know the basics of pile driving. He taught me a lot about it. Essentially, it taught me to always look forward. It’ll be better on the other side. Focus on the future more than what happened in the past.”
Of his dad, he said, “he drove me crazy sometimes, but always knew he was there loving and supporting me and encouraging me to make it to this point and move onward and upward. Lord knows, he never expected me to be valedictorian.”
So he worked hard, hurled that 16-pound shot put as far as he could — although most champion level shot putters weigh more than 250 pounds. He always loved fiddling with engines — like his neighbor’s lawnmower. So he decided he’d become a mechanical engineer.
Now he’s got a $72,000 scholarship to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, with a year of classes already under his belt.
In his speech, he celebrated his teachers — especially the tough ones who demanded his best.
“To Mr. Fiala my physics teacher I say thank you as he always encouraged me to question the whys of physics which showed me how to think things through. He also helped me think through and find ways to question my next great adventure.
To Ms. Fowler my English teacher I say thank you for never coming right out and calling my questioning ‘debating everything she said,’ but allowed me to discuss openly with her my thought process on old English literature and let us not forget poetry ... eh, maybe forget the poetry.
And let’s not forget Mr. Meidinger, my math teacher and the only person I’ve seen get mad at us for not talking enough.”
He said he loves Payson and Tonto Basin. He might not find work for a mechanical engineering career here — but he’ll come back, in retirement if nothing else. “I don’t feel like being from Payson is a disadvantage. It’s more about focusing on yourself instead of what others do. People around you won’t bring you down. Kids in Payson just get that rep.”
He said his generation hasn’t gotten a lot of support.
“I feel like what we’re trying to do is worry about the world’s future, not just our future. We’re focused on the long term — and although we’re not getting a lot of support, what they’re doing in some ways is setting us up for success more than anything. We want to focus on being able to save the Earth in a way that will allow our grandkids to actually enjoy the Earth. So like student debt — if they could find some way to lower that efficiently, that would give our kids a better chance for an education.
“I would say our future is something that depends on our kids. You shouldn’t underestimate what they can do in the future — we’re going to be the ones in your shoes, so they should put more effort into the schooling — because everyone comes out better because of it,” he said.
As salutatorian Tara Boyd summed up in her graduation speech, “keep up the good work, everyone. Cheers to the quarantined class of 2020!”