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I don't know how many resources and dollars it took to pull this off, but I would love to see it again

I still remember when the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on Prineville. Overnight, our businesses, churches and special gatherings were mercilessly ripped away from us as a new norm of quarantine and social distancing took hold.

I still remember when the schools closed. One day, kids are going to class, mingling with friends and enjoying extracurricular activities, and the next day it's gone — first for just a month and then for the rest of the school year.

Gone, too, was the possibility of a traditional graduation for the Class of 2020. Would there be a ceremony? What form would it take? Could anybody attend?

I still remember visiting the first of several #bethelight events held on Friday night at Ward Rhoden Stadium, the typical site of Crook County High School graduations — weather permitting. Standing there in the quiet, lighted stadium, watching a sparse collection of students mingle at a safe distance, it suddenly hit me how devastating the whole situation had become.

Understand that up to that point, I felt some sadness for the Class of 2020, but it didn't pack much of an emotional punch. My kids are still years from graduation, so I lacked a personal connection.

But that Friday night felt like a sucker punch, a sudden feeling that something was profoundly wrong and incredibly sad. I stood in the same stadium where I had watched other kids celebrate amid hundreds of friends and families. All those years of school, all that hard work that was supposed to lead up to a final, memorable evening of fanfare taken away by a mysterious virus. Thinking about it was painful — and I can only imagine how hard it was for those seniors and their loved ones.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Though schools were closed and friends were separated, school leaders and parents decided that the seniors needed some kind of send-off. Sure, it wouldn't involve students seated shoulder to shoulder and nobody would pack the stadium bleachers, but there was no way these kids who invested 12 years of their lives were going to conclude high school without some sort of fanfare.

Which brings us to Friday afternoon. To a parade through the town where each student got their moment of recognition in front of a crowd of cheering onlookers. Normally, students get to accessorize their caps — these kids got to decorate an entire vehicle. Typically, the families sit in the stands — this time the families got to ride in the parade rigs with their graduate and soak in the celebration.

Sure, the diploma handoffs were quieter than usual without the crowd, but the drive-up style of the event gave each student a few extra seconds on stage and in the proverbial spotlight. And finally, streaming the whole experience on Facebook gave the graduates an audience that no stadium seating could match.

I couldn't help but think, standing in the parade crowd, that maybe the school district is onto something here. The flags bearing each graduate's name and photo was a touching sight. The parade "floats" highlighting each graduate and the announcers naming each student only sweetened the scene.

I don't know how many resources and dollars it took to pull this off, but I would love to see it again — and I bet other people would too. Could this be a new tradition, a precursor to the more traditional ceremony that hopefully resumes when this pandemic is over?

Who knows, but whatever the future holds, I suspect Crook County High School's Class of 2020 won't forget this graduation. It may not have been a normal ceremony, but it was definitely memorable and the happy ending that the students deserved.


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