Ten months ago, Tropical Storm Irene left five feet of water and foul-smelling mud in the Middleburgh Central School cafeteria and surrounding classrooms and even flooded the gymnasium.
But you'd never have known it Friday night, as the 61 members of the Middleburgh High School class of 2012 sat in the summer-warm gym and fanned themselves with their programs. Meanwhile, family and friends filled the bleachers and cheered as each student crossed the wooden floor to receive their diplomas.
Like other high school graduates, the Middleburgh honorees heard predictable bromides about living life to its fullest and graduation being a beginning as well as an end. But make no mistake, the physical and emotional toll Irene took on this Schoharie Valley community was on all the student's minds.
"To say the class of 2012 overcame great obstacles does not begin to describe their endurance," said district Superintendent Michele Weaver.
The Aug. 28 storm caused extensive damage to the school and disrupted the lives of many students. But many of those students, including this year's seniors, pitched in to clean buildings and athletic fields.
The flooding from the Schoharie Creek caused an estimated $5 million in damage to the school, which is located just a short distance from the creek in downtown Middleburgh. The opening bell for the school year was delayed by eight days, forcing students to attend classes on days when other districts were on vacation.
Before the ceremony, the nervous graduates in their green or white gowns mingled and joked in one of the classrooms off the cafeteria that had been badly flooded. Salutatorian Jared Boyles brightened when asked how he felt about the class today.
"I feel really proud of the community and the school," said Boyles, 18, who plans to attend Manhattan College. "The community and the school both had a lot to overcome. We really turned it around 180 degrees since August. I was actually in here mopping things out."
Initially, it looked like the turmoil would make it hard to raise money for the annual class trip, but in the end it happened, said class President Julia Prendergast. And the Shaul family, whose large vegetable farm south of the village was also severely damaged, nevertheless contributed money to help the class purchase caps and gowns for graduation.
"Things really came together toward the end. We all appreciate what we do have a lot more," said Prendergast, who plans to study overseas in the fall.
In some ways, the community crisis brought the class closer than they already had been, after having spent 12 years together in school before the storm hit.
Valedictorian Michael Warner noted the class includes farmers, mechanics, athletes and others.
"In time of trouble, we couldn't find any differences between each other," he said.
Given what they've been through, Superintendent Weaver said this year's graduates are "each amazing."
"I no longer see children. I see the faces of men and women who are ready to go out into the world," she said before the diplomas were handed out.