Commentaries

Commentary on Not Having a Traditional High School Graduation Ceremony

COVID-19 canceled celebrations, graduation speeches, prom, and other events for the class of 2020. When they will attend their 25th high school reunion in 2045, what will these students remember of their senior year? 

For most high school seniors, the first week of June usually means walking at graduation and completing the traditional rites of passage that culminate their kindergarten to 12th-grade academic career. For the class of 2020, however, these events will not occur. The Coronavirus pandemic rewrote the master plan, canceling graduation, and all the events leading to it. Suddenly, Senior Awards ceremonies and the Prom dissipated, blown away with the debris of the cancellations from school calendars around the world.

By now, perhaps most students have put aside the sharp disappointment they felt in mid-March when schools closed for the remainder of the year because of the pandemic. Without warning, classrooms became frozen in time; lockers remained to protect students’ books and other belongings. Sweatshirts and notebooks left on windowsills wait to be reclaimed, all surrounded by a deafening silence in buildings which, unexpectedly, lost their purpose.

Since then, most school districts and other officials have strived to provide alternative celebrations to recognize 2020 graduates. For example, a rolling car parade, like the one that took place on Saturday morning to celebrate Boston North End graduating seniors, organized by State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, brightens the day for students and their families. The multitude of messages delivered by famous athletes and national leaders on social media and TV programs congratulate the students and wish them well in their future endeavors. In past years, students equated caps, gowns, tassels, and bittersweet moments with longtime classmates, to the much-anticipated instant at the very end of the ceremony when they would enthusiastically toss their caps in the air, and finally, launch into adulthood.

The range of emotions and expectations during those last few weeks of senior year can be whelming for students. They know that at the end of August, going back to high school is not an option. Their parents planned their life from kindergarten to 12th grade; each year was like climbing the rungs of a ladder, looking forward to arriving at the top and finally seeing what awaited them. At last, the long-awaited freedom that graduating from high school would afford is theirs.

Graduation ceremonies are commencements. The dictionary definition of commencement is: “an act, instance, or time of commencing, from Vulgar Latin cominitiare, from Latin initiare to begin, the beginning of a new phase in life.” Perhaps high school graduation has always been the time when eighteen-year-olds learn that every ending is intrinsically a new beginning. The Coronavirus pandemic has had an undeniable impact on the class of 2020 at this significant moment as they end one phase and begin another. For seniors in other years, the words pandemic and epidemiology may have been new vocabulary they learned for the SAT, but this class internalized the meaning of these words because they lived them.

 The members of this class did not get to dress up in elegant garb and celebrate in a place that was not the high school gym. They may still attend graduation later in the summer, but it may not be the same, their minds will already be on their college selves. Often, memorable commencement speeches advise students not to forget the critical values they learned from home and school until this day. They encourage the graduates to do the right thing, even when it’s not easy, they remind them not to take loved ones for granted, to show their love and respect for them, to practice gratitude and humility, and to be responsible citizens. Strangely, the unprecedented experiences brought about by COVID-19 may have inspired these young people as much as the hopeful remarks they missed.

 Because of the pandemic, these students now possess a deep understanding of how essential empathetic leadership is in times of crisis, and how compassion and courage are hallmarks of true healthcare professionals. This knowledge will make them better future leaders, parents, doctors, teachers, and epidemiologists. Besides, they will know how adaptability is a remarkable life- skill; it can help to nimbly, successfully, change course, like going from preparing to attend large gatherings like the Prom, graduation, and parties, to being quarantined and taking classes from home on Zoom. 

For these students, the iconic milestones they were looking forward to this spring did not materialize. They were not regaled with inspiring speeches, did not dress up in elegant dresses or tuxedos for a culminating celebration. What will they recall about their senior year at their 10th or 25th high school reunion? Based on what has transpired in the past few months, perhaps they will reminisce about how the global pandemic impacted them. They may recall how they learned that family members need and depend on each other, and also how it’s possible to meaningfully fill hours of unplanned free time for a few months. They could discuss how they learned to spend time alone and be more reflective, something challenging to do before the pandemic when they filled their days with school and co-curricular activities. 

In 2045, at their 25th reunion, the members of the class of 2020 will remember inside jokes, laugh, and recall how young they were during the COVID-19 pandemic. They will talk about how they were not able to go to Prom and walk at traditional graduation. There will be comments on how they know people from across the globe who were similarly affected by the pandemic. Everyone was. Most importantly, though, they will share with their former classmates the many promenades and walks they took in their own life since graduating from high school. And they will be happy for each other because these walks and promenades lead them to happy celebrations of momentous milestones that are as memorable and poignant as high school graduation and Prom are. They now know that going forward, they will experience many more joyous, notable milestones. Congratulations, Class of 2020!

Addendum

In our state, on Thursday, May 21, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) sent school districts guidelines about high school graduation ceremonies (download). These were developed in conjunction with the Department of Public Health. Here is a summary of the guidelines for conducting ceremonies:

Between May 22 and July 18, ceremonies should be held virtually, and on July 19 they may take place outside under the standards the DESE provided and assuming that the public health data supports continuing the reopening in Mass. DESE is celebrating the accomplishments of the Class of 2020, and it hopes to feature a rotating display of photos of the class of 2020 taken before the school closures and welcomes photo submissions from schools and districts here

In addition, Governor Charlie Baker, in partnership with WGBH, will deliver a commencement address to the Class of 2020 as part of a celebration for graduating seniors that will be broadcast on Tuesday, June 9 at 7:30 pm. In addition to the Governor’s remarks, the event will feature congratulatory messages from local celebrities, a performance by members of the Boston Pops Orchestra, and a speech by students.

Iolanda Volpe has recently retired from teaching at the high school level.  She aspires to continue being a learner, an observer and an interpreter of life. A former North End resident, she now resides in Charlestown.


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