High School Graduations Brought Joy This Year, Even If They Weren't Back To Normal
On a Thursday in mid-June, senior Alex Lozowski-Pierce walked into Reynolds High School in his cap and gown, with 10 family members in tow, for his own personal graduation ceremony. Instead of hosting one commencement, his Troutdale, Ore., school hosted about 600 individual ceremonies to allow for social distancing.
For the big day, Lozowski-Pierce's mother gave him two leis: one to ward off bad spirits, and the other for good luck in the future.
"I'm really proud that I got this far," he said. "It meant the world to me."
By the end of this school year, the vast majority of American school children had access to in-person learning, according to the organization Burbio. But high school graduations haven't quite gotten back to normal yet. NPR attended ceremonies in Oregon, Louisiana and Maryland, and each had its own pandemic twist.
In Troutdale, Lozowski-Pierce and his family picked up his diploma in a mostly empty high school gym, one of four "graduation stations" scattered across campus. He posed for pictures — first alone, then with family — while "Pomp and Circumstance" played in the background and an announcer read a short bio: honor roll, a job as a barista, dreams of attending culinary arts school. His family cheered; Lozowski-Pierce picked up a gift bag and a rose – and then it was over.
Proud mom Crystal Lozowski-Pierce said, while the ceremony was quick, it was a big moment for the family, and for her son, who has autism.
"This was a very long road for him, and something we both — we didn't know how it was going to turn out," she said. "We're both really proud that he did this."
The graduate called the day a "dream come true."
A New Orleans celebration ends in a spontaneous second line parade
After a year of hybrid learning, school leaders at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans wanted to give their seniors a normal graduation — or as normal as possible. So they split the graduating class in half to allow for social distancing, and held identical indoor ceremonies at the Pontchartrain Convention & Civic Center, half an hour away.
The first ceremony celebrated students whose last names start with the letters A through J. The valedictorian gave a speech and a guest speaker offered words of encouragement; diplomas were awarded and tassels moved. Then, as soon as the first ceremony wrapped, the sequence of events started all over again.
Valedictorian Ashanti Aaron gave her speech twice.
"I was very more relaxed the second time around, but I still had the little jitters," she said.
Graduation was extra special for Aaron because it was the first and only time she got to see her entire graduating class this year. While New Orleans public schools were open for most of the school year, about 50% of high school students chose to remain entirely virtual.
"Even though it wasn't all of us together I feel like it was the best we could do and I'm happy to have seen everybody," Aaron said. "Some familiar faces. Some unfamiliar faces. It was just amazing."
New Orleans families frequently go all out for high school graduations. It's common for parents of graduates to design and wear custom t-shirts, their chests emblazoned with large photos of their children. This year, matching face masks completed many spirited ensembles.
Outside the civic center, Edna Karr parent Heather Morris said the COVID precautions didn't make graduation any less special for her and her daughter, Taylor.
"However it was gonna be, I was gonna be here regardless ... Rain, hailstorms, high waters — I'm coming and I'm here and we did it."
Taylor's aunt also came, with a rolling boombox that transformed the parking lot into a dance party. Within minutes, the dancing proved infectious. The family snaked their way through the crowd, and other students and families joined in. They hoisted umbrellas overhead, rocking their bodies to the loose and jazzy music.
It was a second line parade of sorts, the type of rolling dance party that had largely been missing from the city since the pandemic began. A New Orleans staple at funerals, weddings and graduations, for many, it's a celebration of life and a sign of better times ahead.
A D.C. school returns to the drive-in
Washington Latin Public Charter School sits in a residential neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C. — but graduation was held about 50 miles away, at Bengies Drive-In Theatre east of Baltimore.
Families piled into cars and vans for the trip, arriving early with lawn chairs and picnic blankets for a pre-ceremony tailgate. Graduating senior Amaya Tatum, 17, posed for photos with friends in her cardinal red cap and gown, a white stole draped on her shoulders.
It was the first time Tatum had seen her entire class together all school year. (Even after Washington Latin started offering in-person classes, Tatum, and many others, opted to stay home.) Her classmates chose her to be this year's graduation speaker, and she said her speech revolves around one message: "We survived a pandemic. We are survivors, and if we're able to survive a pandemic, then we shouldn't let the smaller things get to us."
This was the second year Washington Latin held graduation at Bengies Drive-In. Head of school Peter Anderson said they wanted to find a space where students could gather in person and socially distance in a more laid-back environment.
"What you're seeing here today is that in the midst of all the challenges, in the midst of all the chaos, there was still joy," Anderson said.
After sunset, it was showtime. Anderson laid down some ground rules (kazoos and cheering were welcome; honking was not) before speakers addressed the crowd, and the first small group of students approached the stage. A live feed on the drive-in movie screen showed graduates walking across the stage and accepting their diplomas.
Sarah Ce'Taya Hamlett, whose family arrived early for front-row seats, said she missed being with her friends at school this year, and cheering at basketball games. But she felt grateful to be able to accept her diploma in person.
"I feel very proud of myself because this was a very, very rough year."
In the fall, she'll become the first person in her family to go to college.
In the middle of the ceremony, lightning flashed across a dark sky and the graduates were thrown yet another curve ball. Principal Diana Smith came over the loudspeaker to announce that the ceremony would be delayed 20 minutes, because of the weather.
She returned a short while later to officially cut the evening short. The area was under a severe thunderstorm watch, and the rest of the graduates would get their diplomas in the morning, back at the school.
"The natural world, once again, seems to have this class in its crosshairs," Smith told the crowd. "This is a fitting end to this year."
Elizabeth Miller covers education at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Debbie Truong is an education reporter at WAMU in Washington, D.C., and Aubri Juhasz covers education at WWNO in New Orleans.
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