Hannah Stutz saw a lot of familiar, comforting faces.
Partially hidden behind unfamiliar, disquieting masks.
The eyes, though, told the tale. It's the eyes Hannah will remember the most as her classmates streamed through the area of the Butler Area High School parking lot known to the students as the “banana” Saturday afternoon.
Those eyes popped with recognition. They watered with both joy and heartache.
“It was sad not being able to run up and hug my friends,” Hannah said. “(Saturday) was good, but definitely emotional.”
About 350 of Hannah's 468 senior classmates at Butler came to the school to collect their yard sign, which was printed and donated by IDL Worldwide in East Butler.
The signs, which featured the hashtag #allinthistogether, were a small gesture, but by no means an insignificant one to Hannah and her friends.
“It's really special,” Hannah said. “It supports and uplifts us. We've been through so much and it shows how much they care.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hannah and her fellow seniors have lost so much. Sports seasons are canceled. Prom and graduation are in limbo. Classrooms are now laptops opened on kitchen tables. And friends are fleeting images on a screen and voices on a speaker.
But Saturday, Hannah got to see some of the people with whom she has spent a lifetime.
Emotions ran high and were hard to contain.
Smiles crinkled masks. Tears streamed down cheeks. Laughs mingled with sobs.
Seeing her friends was the highlight of Hannah's day.
“I hadn't seen my friends for weeks,” Hannah said. “Even at a distance, that was the best part.”
So worth it
Hannah's mother, Joy Stutz, got the idea for the signs from something she saw on social media.
Stutz, who works at IDL as an office manager, contacted Joyce Slomers and Meghan Lucas to help and they got to work. Scott Hamilton, the creative director at IDL, designed the yard signs and Stutz, Slomers and Lucas quickly devised the plan to hand them all out.
The trio had something in common and a special reason to want to do something to help; they all have a child who is a senior at Butler.
Slomers is a special education secretary at the school and has a senior son, Zack. Lucas, a K-4 STEAM teacher in the district and head girls volleyball coach for the Golden Tornado, has a senior daughter, Gabby. And Stutz has Hannah, who she has watched struggle with the isolation and reality of life amid a pandemic.
“As you can imagine, this has been difficult for her,” Stutz said. “The unknown, nothing to look forward to, missing her friends. Hopefully these signs will lift her spirits and her classmates' as well. They are a great group.”
Stutz said another block of time has been carved out on Wednesday to hand out signs again. Any senior who has not claimed their sign can come to Emily Brittain Community Partnership and Demonstration School that day between 6 and 7 p.m.
Gabby Lucas was one of the senior volunteers who helped hand out the signs Saturday.
Like Hannah, she, too, was overwhelmed by emotion at times at seeing her friends and the large number of her classmates who came out.
“Oh man, if you could've seen some of my friends' faces when they saw Hannah, Erin (Gianneski) and I,” Gabby said. “It was priceless. Even though it was a bit chilly, we toughed it out and it was so worth it being able to see some of them again.”
Elissa Karenbauer curiously peered out the window of her Chicora home as a white Subaru Outback rolled up.
John Burnett, a health and physical education teacher at Karns City High School, spilled out into the unseasonably frigid spring air Friday morning with a yard sign that read “Senior Strong” in purple and gold.
Elissa strapped on her protective mask and burst outside wearing just her red flower-pattered pajama bottoms and a blue Karns City Class of 2020 T-shirt.
Her smile beamed under that mask.
Elissa was surprised on two accounts: shocked to see Burnett and taken aback at what he had brought with him.
Like at Butler, Karns City teachers and community members decided they wanted to do something to lift the spirits of the 81 seniors at the school and yard signs seemed to fit the bill.
“I think it was really special thing for them to do,” Elissa said. “Our senior year has been messed up, so this was something to help make us smile.”
It made the teachers smile, too.
Several of them volunteered to distribute the signs. They were assigned routes to cover the vast district.
The teachers, who said they are also hurting and struggling with COVID-19 social distancing and isolation, were just as excited about planting the signs in the yards of the seniors as the seniors were about receiving them.
“It's a sign that they're not forgotten,” said Lauren Zanella, a family and consumer science teacher at the school. “It was just great to see them, even if it was from a distance.”
Filling a void
Zanella has a special bond with this senior class.
Most of them came through her fourth-grade classroom at Bruin Elementary eight years ago.
When that school closed, she moved to the high school.
“It was a joy watching them grow up,” she said.
It pains her that she won't get to see them make that final march toward graduation.
“With the year cut short, there are a lot of things we're going to miss,” Zanella said. “There are things at the end of the school year that are not just about being in the classroom.”
That includes the senior class trip, which was supposed to be a three-day excursion to Washington, D.C., over this past weekend.
That was why it was important to Stacie Boris, Karns City senior class adviser, to get the signs out to the students Friday.
“The end of their senior year has kind of been destroyed,” Boris said. “We thought it was a good idea to do something, especially (over the weekend) because that would have been the trip. They should have been in D.C.”
Like Stutz at Butler, Holly Mead, a freelance photographer who shoots for Karns City, hatched the yard sign idea because of something she saw on social media.
She contacted the Michigan company she uses to print her photographs and other materials for her business on Monday. The signs were done in 24 hours.
Mead said she provided the signs to the district at cost.
“What do these seniors have?” Mead said. “We wanted to give them something.”
Handing out smiles
Burnett just wanted to make a difference.
As an athletic trainer at Karns City, he interacts with a great number of students.
He feels their pain.
“This is uncharted territory,” Burnett said. “Everyone is struggling. As an educator, we feel for all of our students, especially the seniors. We wanted to show we love them.”
Burnett said every teacher and student in every district is feeling the same sense of loss.
With personal connections severed for a month now, the reality of quarantine is setting in.
Elissa said she feels that, too.
“It's been really hard not seeing my friends and not learning in a classroom,” Elissa said. “I do better when I'm physically in school. I just miss everyone.”
That's why Friday was so important.
“Hopefully,” Burnett said, “we put smiles on their faces.”
Spot the signs
Hannah looks forward to driving around Butler to play a new game.
Spot the yard signs.
Planted on lawns like a flag to mark territory, these signs are seen as a badge of honor to the senior classes at both Butler and Karns City.
The claim they are staking is to perseverance in an age of scary unknowns.
Gabby found solace in being a normal senior — at least for one day.
Minus the mask, of course.
“(Hannah, Erin and I) were yelling and laughing every time someone recognized us,” Gabby said. “It was a great time.”
Hannah believes the signs will indicate something else.
“I think as people see those signs in all those yards,” she said, “they'll see how many of us are affected.”