The power of graduating during a pandemic
As a long-time college professor, I've seen my share of commencement ceremonies.
Given that I have been a teacher at George Fox University for 20 years, and attended most every fall and spring semester graduation, my tally of commencements stands at about 40, give or take, plus a few of my own, and another dozen or so for family and friends. I am a connoisseur of commencements, astute in my judgement of graduation speakers, an expert in the pomp and the circumstance.
And yet, the Newberg High School graduation for 2020 was far and away the best graduation ceremony I have ever attended.
Of course, I may have some definite biases, since both my sons were NHS seniors this year and both participated in the drive-thru graduation last weekend. Additionally, my husband is a Newberg school board member and was on the dais when my sons received their diplomas. Hopefully, these personal connections will not erode my credibility when I proclaim this year's graduation the best, most thoughtful, most personal ceremony I have ever attended.
When Covid-19 shut down schools in mid-March, I worried that my kids' senior years had ended without any kind of celebration. I imagined we would be compelled to concoct some approximation of a graduation ceremony, a tinny tape recording of Pomp and Circumstance playing in our cul-de-sac while grandparents and neighbors looked on from way down the street.
By April, Newberg High School was promising parents that they would create some kind of memorable experience for NHS seniors, even if they had no idea what that experience might look like. The buzz on social media was that the planned event would never make up for everything the graduates had lost, and that only a traditional ceremony would be good enough for kids who would miss their senior prom, their sports seasons and performing arts trips, their last months with friends and classmates.
Through the significant challenges of planning during a pandemic, high school administrators, staff and faculty pulled off an extraordinary event. From the moment we pulled our car onto campus last Friday, and with our extended family trailing in cars behind us, my boys were celebrated, their accomplishments cheered on by folks who had nurtured them through four years of high school.
After driving through a gauntlet of cheering staff members, my boys exited the car and were able to walk across the stage to cheers from surrounding administrators, faculty and family. The assistant principal who had been an ally to my sons, who had advocated for them this past year when they needed it most, read their names over a loud speaker. There were tears, and cheering, and a sense that my sons and their accomplishments were truly being celebrated.
In other words, the drive-thru graduation was like a traditional graduation ceremony — only better, because each and every young person who graduated had an extended moment in the spotlight when they could be cherished by people who had helped them reach this significant milestone. Once they'd received their diplomas, students had ample time to linger with friends and families in the parking lot, take pictures, exalt in finishing a milestone 13 years in the making.
Sometimes, our educators become a lightning rod for a community's angst and we've all heard plenty of complaints about how our school system is failing our children. The Newberg High School graduation was, for my family, emblematic of all that has been right and good about our journey with Newberg schools, when hard-working, dedicated people make the most of less-than-ideal circumstances, simply because they love children and are committed to this community's flourishing.
While I'm sure there are ways this graduation was less satisfying than the commencements we've long come to expect, with its processionals and speeches and collective cheering, Newberg High School gave its students and their families something far more enduring: both a reminder of the pandemic that ended their senior year and of a vibrant community that still wanted to celebrate them, no matter what.
Melanie Springer Mock is a professor in the Department of English at George Fox University
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