Hastings High School senior Trevor Zeyen was in the midst of his graduation speech.
"Thank you class of 2019 for being here, otherwise this speech would be quite strange in front of a crowd of empty chairs," he said and waved his hand in front of him. "Let's give it up for us."
But it was weird. Outside of five seats in a small classroom at Hastings High School, there was no one in the seats in front of him. It was the fourth week of almost daily graduation speech practice for Zeyen, and three other senior students - Deanna Small, Kathy Blissenbach and Allison Amy - speaking at the ceremony.
In the final week before the ceremony, the four were fine tuning their speeches, working on pauses, hand motions, pacing and other aspects. However, unlike the tradition of a school's top-ranked student giving the address, these students don't necessarily follow the typical criteria.
Each of the four did not automatically qualify by academic standing, but rather were selected through an audition process curated by the school's graduation speech coach Darlene Olson and selected by a committee of their peers.
It's a unique high school graduation speech process and Olson speculated that Hastings was one of the few that handled it solely through this process.
"Typically the very generic kind of speech isn't embraced so much by the peer judges," Olson said. "Rather the speeches that really are unique [get picked.]"
A 30-year tradition
Olson started the audition-for-speaking process in 1980, she said. She worked as the school's speech coach then and the school's administration reached out to her - they wanted better speakers at graduation.
Drawing on her experience from speech tournaments, she modeled it after them. She added in a graduation-specific wrinkle though - their fellow graduating seniors would select the speakers.
"The thing that's important to me is that their peers selected them," Olson said.
The peer audition process this year went across two days, with about 10 students auditioning and nine judges. The hopefuls rehearse their speech in front of the group, and the four selected use the same speech for the graduation ceremony.
Little has changed this year in the roughly five-minute speeches, the speakers said. Instead, they're focusing on small changes and memorization.
"None of us really had to do any massive corrections," Small said. "We've been ahead of schedule for awhile."
Since being implemented in 1980, the process has stayed the same. Olson no longer works at the school district, but still returns annually to coach graduation speakers.
Over the years, the speech types have changed as the generations have changed, she said.
"They are speeches that speak to this community, to this class, and that makes them really unique," Olson said.
'When I was the last name, I screamed'
Allison Amy was in ceramics class and told her classmates to stop talking when the speaker announcement came.
The first three names came: Blissenbach, Small and Zeyen. Then, Amy heard her name.
"When I was the last name, I screamed," she said. "I hugged my friend who was standing next to me."
Each of this year's speakers had different reasons for wanting to do it. Blissenbach said she felt she had a lot of insight to share, being the youngest of seven in her family. She follows in her brother Billy's footsteps, who spoke at his graduation too.
"I've watched my siblings go through life basically," she said. "So I'm seeing how they've struggled and what they've told me over the past years ... I feel like I have an obligation to share that with everyone else."
Zeyen is following his mother, who also spoke and was coached under Olson, he said.
Amy said she was intrigued and that "I have a lot to say." While Small felt it was "a nice way to round off four years by getting to do something really special."
The four chosen described the opportunity as an honor and that the unique peer-selection process behind it as something that helped their confidence.
"They trusted you to represent the rest of the class," Small said.