By May S. Ruiz
It’s graduation time for high school seniors across America – the culmination of four years of frenetic juggling of school and extra-curricular activities, finishing homework and long-overdue essays, and preparing for the vortex called college admissions. Graduation is a rite-of-passage for teenagers everywhere.
But the coronavirus pandemic deprived the class of 2020 of a proper send-off and graduation. It is a crushing disappointment for the thousands who have been looking forward to this momentous occasion with joyful anticipation. They are a smart and resilient lot, though. Many of them realize that being robbed of senior activities and the opportunity to walk across the stage on graduation day is not a devastating loss in the whole scheme of things. In fact, some of them have taken a philosophical attitude about their last year in high school prematurely ending.
Michelle Dong is the senior class president of Arcadia High School. She, along with the student council, organized various activities for the graduating class much like they would if they had been on campus.
“We have developed several video projects to celebrate and remember the memories of the Class of 2020,” reveals Dong. “First, we recently published a video that celebrated our “snr szn” (senior season) – a common mantra that seniors used during the school year. Senior Council collected videos and pictures from the seniors to highlight our lives as the Class of 2020. I believe this video was a bittersweet reminder that our senior year was beautiful, even if it was cut short.
“The next video we have planned will bring our class through a journey from our childhood to our present selves through pictures submitted by students and parents of baby pictures and memories of grades K-12. Our goal with this video is to commemorate our journey toward reaching a significant milestone.”
Dong says further, “Additionally, we want to uphold a highly anticipated senior activity: Senior Chalking. I have been looking forward to chalking ever since I was a little freshman. As an alternative to this event, we are coordinating a distribution day to give seniors pieces of chalk respective to the colors of their future plans (4-year or 2-year college, technical school, military, etc.). Students will receive the colors they requested prior to the distribution and chalk at the safety of their homes.
“Finally, we are coordinating a ‘Senior Package’ for the seniors. This package will consist of multiple farewell gifts from Senior Council. We have put a lot of time and effort into selecting items that have sentiment and sustainability. I currently do not want to disclose the items because I want it to be a surprise for the seniors!
“We have spent many hours on video calls and text messages trying to come up with the best alternatives to activities we would normally have at school. Hopefully, these efforts will bring our class the closure they deserve.”
I ask Dong to share her thoughts about graduation and she says, “I have felt a bag of mixed emotions ever since the school closed in March. At one end, I felt disappointed that I couldn’t live out the full extent of my senior year, especially since we had a lot of end-of-the-year senior activities. I felt crushed that I couldn’t say a final goodbye to friends in my classes or teachers.
“At the other end, I couldn’t brood over my past and tried to find silver linings amidst quarantine. I have been gifted so much time to work on myself and explore personal interests that I originally didn’t have the time for. I’m also grateful that I can spend so much time with my family before I leave for college. Quarantine has allowed me to be more introspective. Staying home has catalyzed me to make the most out of life when things have settled down. Life isn’t finite, so I am choosing to make the most out of it despite the temporary setbacks I face now, and in the future.”
Arcadia High School’s administrators, likewise, intend to hold a graduation ceremony even as they adapt to the circumstances.
Angie Dillman, Arcadia High School principal, declares, “We’re going to broadcast our graduation for our 793 seniors at 6:30 pm on June 4, the date and time originally scheduled. As with previous graduations, there will be several elements to the rite and the first part is ceremonial in nature – the senior class president, the valedictorian, and I give speeches. This is followed by the official recognition of our salutatorians by the board president Lori Philippi and myself. I then certify that the students have met all graduation requirements and then AUSD Superintendent Dr. David Vannasdall accepts the graduating class.
“The second part is the reading of the students’ names which will be pre-recorded. The caps and gowns, honors cords, the valedictorian’s and salutatorians’ stoles were sent out over the past two weeks. Graduates can submit photos of themselves wearing their cap and gown which will be used in the virtual ceremony. If they weren’t able to submit photos, we will use their yearbook picture. All of this will be live-streamed by our school’s news station and students will watch the virtual ceremony with their families from the safety of their homes.
A stunning event at every Arcadia High School graduation is the moment when all graduates toss their mortarboards up in the air, reflecting the jubilation these young people feel after four years of hard work. And while that image cannot be captured at a virtual graduation, they will approximate the act. Says Dillman, “At the end of the ceremony, I think our valedictorian is going to throw up his cap and ask everyone at home to join him.”
Dillman adds, “Because of the restrictions, the high school administrators were not able to do all the things we would like to celebrate the class of 2020. However, we were able to do one thing – we surprised the valedictorian Braden Wong in his house with the announcement, which we livestreamed. We’re hoping to hold a real graduation ceremony when we’re allowed – maybe in the next couple of months.”
Monrovia High School, which U.S. News and World Report has recently ranked in the top 13 percent of schools in the nation because of the early college and career readiness program that Principal Kirk McGinnis instituted three years ago, will be giving their students a memorable send-off.
The district purchased lawn signs for the class of 2020 which they distributed on April 30 from 10 a.m. to noon. McGinnis says, “That day was super fun – we got to see our seniors as they drove through the campus to pick up their signs. A staff member delivered the sign to the home of any family that could not make it at that time.
“We have a long list of senior celebrations planned as well, including graduation banners, a symbolic lighting of our field lights and the M on the mountain each Wednesday in the month of May at 20:20 (8:20 p.m.) for 20 minutes to honor the class of 2020, and a permanent dedication wall at school for the class of 2020 with handprints and signatures.”
Discloses McGinnis, “We thought about having a community parade but feedback around it was lackluster. Likewise, in planning with the city we also understand that the complexity of having 360 graduates and their families parading through our community poses a significant potential impact to our community. So, we adjusted the graduation plan that will help reach the goal of having students cross the graduation stage while still meeting the guidelines of social distancing.”
“We designed a drive-thru graduation platform in the interior of our campus at a spot where families in their cars will stage so they’re not causing congestion on the public road,” describes McGinnis. “I have them broken down to 40 cars every half hour, from 3 to 7 p.m. Each car will be set far from the platform to allow each graduate to safely get out. Parents and family will have a front row seat in their cars. Graduates, wearing their cap and gown, will walk across the graduation stage where I will be standing. They will pick up their diploma cover from the table, walk off the stage, get back into their vehicle, and then head on their way off campus.”
“The school purchased masks to be worn that day for our staff and graduates. A professional photographer will be on site to capture the image of the student receiving their diploma and moving their tassel from one side to the other. Families can order prints of this memorable event.”
In the works is something that McGinnis says will be distinct to MHS. He says, “Our video production team is working hard to prepare the video component of the graduation ceremony. As students arrive, check in, and prepare to walk across the stage, the school’s team will be queuing each student’s previously prepared graduation stats (awards and recognitions, the school or military branch they will be attending in the fall, as well as their senior portrait) which will be scrolling on the screen below the video of the graduate receiving their diploma. This will all be live-streamed so other relatives of the graduates can watch from the comfort of their own homes, and recorded so they can have it as a keepsake.”
Polytechnic is an independent K-12 school in Pasadena. Established in 1907, it has the proud distinction of being the first independent school in Southern California. Some students in the class of 2020 are ‘lifers’ and have been dreaming of the first graduation they will experience after spending 13 years on campus. They have been eagerly awaiting the flurry of merrymaking at the Upper School during ‘Senior Week.’
Jennifer Fleischer, Upper School director, says, “Ordinarily, we have two weeks of senior week where there are a variety of activities, including the outdoor trip which, unfortunately, had been cancelled. We’re bringing ‘Chalk Day’ to the students. We’re delivering chalk to each house and we’ll come around to photograph the pictures they make. We’ll create a website and some social media presence around the senior celebrations. We’ll try as much as we can to recreate and reimagine celebrations while we’re safer at home. There are about 16 committees – commencement, Honors Day, Senior Weeks, prom, etc. – working on different events and students are a part of each so they are appropriately represented.”
Poly’s 96 seniors will be graduating on June 5. As of this writing, though, Fleischer reports that they “are still pulling together details, pivoting to make sure we are honoring our students and prioritizing safety.”
John Bracker, head of school, says, “It’s a complicated time and our hearts go out to the seniors and ‘lifers’ because of how much they’ve anticipated senior spring and the rites-of-passage – whether it’s the spring musical or the senior class trip on the Colorado River – which aren’t happening.”
“We’re considering different scenarios for graduation because so much runs into the ‘it depends’ category. We might have a car parade or a drive-thru graduation; or we might do something virtual. Another possibility is to spread people around the field. I know some schools are pushing graduation till later but we’ve made a decision to do something on the day to mark it, then plan something for later. We don’t want to keep pushing off graduation later and later and find ourselves in October. We’ll do the best we can with what we’re allowed to do now and think of what we can do later this summer when, hopefully, the restrictions are eased up and we can do something that’s more community-building and celebratory.”
“I don’t think we can pretend that it’s going to be the same,” continues Bracker. “We have to accept that and then plan something that will be the first time in over a 100 years, and maybe the only time in the next 100 years, that we’ll celebrate graduation this way at Poly. There ought to be something important about that and something that will make that memorable – it will be different than we’ve done before, it won’t feel the same. It won’t be the same experience, but it will be historic.”
These are extraordinary times for us all and we’re having to figure out how to navigate uncharted territory as we go along. But teachers, students, and school administrators have all done a remarkable job of quickly adapting to circumstances. And the Class of 2020 will stand out in our memories as the generation that handled their biggest disappointment with uncommon grace.