Topaz: Looking again at St. Helens' unique graduation
Last week, it was graduation in St. Helens.
Not the traditional graduation celebration, but a modified one. Because of the virus and the people spacing required, the high school auditorium could not be used. No rows of seats for the graduates and families, no flowers on the stage, no boring traditional speeches, no relatives taking pictures — the graduating class would not get the traditional send-off.
A "kind-of" graduation ceremony was put together on the steps of the county courthouse, a drive-through with some people in the plaza. Well, it was something; better than nothing.
A billboard with all of the graduating students' names was put up over the front portico of the courthouse by a group of maintenance workers from the county and city in an act that looked like a Keystone Cops movie. Yes, there would be some kind of graduation celebration.
At this moment it is time to "look again." The school auditorium only holds so many people, some of the relatives could not go, the graduating students would be bunched together, and the stage, well, we have gotten to know the stage over the last four years — it's nothing special. This auditorium has been replaced with our town plaza, a public "people" place. Yes, the virus made it necessary to put limits on the number of people attending, but it was in a public "people" place.
That billboard had all the names of the graduates that were to receive their diplomas and be recognized. The Keystone Cops, the maintenance workers from the county and the city, worked together to get something done right. When have we ever seen that before? There were official signs hung up over streets, commercial signs put up by businesses, sandwich boards, handmade signs in the hands of residents, all cheering the students as they drove to the plaza. There was even a spot on the local news channel.
Somehow, with the ceremony in a public place, the whole town became part of the graduation. There were groups of people sitting along the streets and groups of fancy car collectors cheering the students as they drove by separately to be recognized, not hidden in a single procession of black gowns to the graduation ceremony. Many of the cars were decorated with balloons and flags — definitely not the somber drive with the relatives to the usual graduation celebration!
At one moment, I saw a single young lady in her graduation gown get out of a white pickup truck to greet some of the people sitting by the road cheering, standing by herself between the truck and the group on a public street, not hidden in a crowd for few to see, and no one complained that the truck was in the middle of the road. The people of the city honored her and every single student.
There was another event, a young woman was climbing the stairs of the courthouse, a student to receive her diploma and descend as a graduate. Not the ordinary stairs on the stage, but stairs that have seen history made on them — Bobby Kennedy's speech, the last public hanging in Oregon, people going to court, to be married. Now her footprints were adding to that continuing history.
Yes, this graduation was not traditional, but when you "look again," it was more powerful than the usual, expected ones because the whole town was part of it. How many of the other little things that are done in St. Helens should be "looked at again?"
Stephen Topaz, St. Helens
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