As a principal, Jeff Reaves always tries to do something nice for each graduating class at his Florida high school. But this year, his fourth year working at Matanzas High, he wanted to do something extra special for the students who were freshmen when he first started the job.
From the end of March up until graduation earlier this month, Reaves spent his spare time crafting handwritten notes for all 459 members of the graduating class of the school in Palm Coast, Fla. To personalize each one, he pored through yearbooks, student files and transcripts, and reflected on conversations and relationships he'd built with students in the school's hallways over the past four years.
For Reaves, it was important to congratulate the students on making it through a particularly difficult year-and-a-half. The class had persevered through virtual learning, seeing loved ones become sick and planning their futures during a period of many unknowns.
"You saw these students demonstrate tremendous energy and effort and enthusiasm, and persevere," he said. "I wanted to acknowledge that and to encourage them that life goes on. Be positive and stay the course and stay focused on your goals and dreams."
One of this year's seniors was Lovie Haley, who said she was surprised to find notes covering the chairs facing the stage when she walked into the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach to graduate alongside her classmates. After receiving their diplomas, the notes were all opened at the same time.
Haley, who will attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the fall, had the chance to speak during graduation as a member of the National Honor Society. She said her principal was the first person she made sure to thank during her speech.
"He's just so involved with all the students," she said. "We made it pretty far in our softball this year, and he always came. And it was just so thoughtful, and I've seen him at so many other students' games. In my speech, I actually said, he optimizes the student experience."
Written on cards that read "From the desk of the Principal," Reaves wrote to each student about their academic achievements and involvements. Whether congratulating them on their community service hours, athletics, performances in the school theater program, or their plans after graduation, he made sure each piece of a student's academic career had been woven into the note.
"I am so impressed with all your accomplishments throughout your high school career!" he wrote on Haley's note. "The Wall of Fame, your AA degree (with) high honors, prom queen, accepted to ERAU... keep up the great work and never stop believing!"
Reaves called the experience of seeing the students open their notes both humbling and wonderful.
"There's educators across the country doing amazing things for students all the time. Shout out to those that persevere through the pandemic to see that kids are still learning," he said. "I like to think I'm one of many that found ways to communicate and validate our students that are stepping out into the world."
Josie Fischels is an intern on NPR's News Desk.
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