High schools send graduates off with parades, drive-in ceremonies

Caleb Moore waves as the Winooski High School mobile graduation procession pulls into his neighborhood on Saturday, June 13, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

WINOOSKI — A small band atop a two-wheel flatbed trailer launched into “Pomp and Circumstance” as they pulled up to Sara Schmoll’s house Saturday morning.

After the music died down, a pre-recorded message to the 2020 high school graduate began to play.

“Without you, the actors would have been in the dark, on a blank stage, and I would have been left juggling projectors, with no one to help me or laugh with me about it later,” Heather Win, the school’s theatre and creative arts teacher, told Schmoll. “Your consistency, calm, dedication and unique perspective on all things creative and collaborative will serve you beautifully in whatever path you choose.”

With Vermonters expected to avoid large gatherings to keep Covid-19 from spreading, Winooski High brought a graduation ceremony directly to each senior’s home.

The pandemic has made the hallmarks of traditional graduation ceremonies — crowds, hugs, and handshakes — verboten for now. So schools have gotten creative, adapting the conventional script to create coronavirus-appropriate pomp and circumstance to mark the moment. 

Some have held fully virtual ceremonies and hosted graduations on the now-ubiquitous Zoom app. But many have found ways to create socially distant in-person experiences — like Winooski’s citywide procession, or Essex High’s ceremony inspired by drive-in theatres of yesteryear.

“I think senior year is hard enough without a global pandemic happening but I’m really proud of my peers for accomplishing everything that they have,” Winooski graduate Cyphrain Daud said.

The ceremony began outside of Winooski High just before 10 a.m., and wound its way through the streets of the Onion City, making 18 stops over the course of three hours. Each graduate received an individualized, pre-recorded message from a favorite teacher or counselor and a live rendition of the opening notes of the traditional graduation song, and was instructed to turn their tassels at the close by Winooski co-principal Jean Berthiaume.

School board members, a police escort, and community members followed on bikes or in cars. The event might have been confused for a small parade, although school officials emphasized that, since that would have required a permit, the celebration should only be referred to as a “mobile graduation procession.”

Clad in green robes and surrounded by family and friends, Winooski graduates picked up their diplomas and two white roses from a small wooden folding table standing on the curb or sidewalk, as neighbors and onlookers cheered. 

Many graduates said they appreciated the extra effort and the opportunity to celebrate with family and close friends, particularly after so many missed or canceled milestones, like prom, the slog of online learning, and the extended isolation of quarantine.

“It’s been really hard to stay positive in the past couple months,” said Schmoll, whose teacher celebrated her participation in the school’s theater program. “But I feel like every once in a while there’s that one jolt of good news that kind of pushes you forward.”

Maryam Alchaderchi, another Winooski graduate, said she initially didn’t like the idea, expecting a perfunctory hand-off by school officials. But then she decorated her car and her family showered her with confetti. She said she particularly appreciated the speech from her teacher.

“It was very special,” she said. “And I liked that I was surrounded by my family and my friends.”

Later on Saturday, Essex High School sent off its more than 300 graduates at a massive drive-in ceremony held outside at the Champlain Valley Exposition.

The speakers on the stage, barely audible from outside, could be heard loud and clear from inside hundreds of parked cars – adorned with blue and gold streamers and balloons, or giant poster board portraits of individual graduates  – where families tuned in using their radios. Instead of clapping between speeches, or as graduates strode across the stage, masked and 6 feet apart, cars instead raucously honked their horns. In addition to the standard blue and gold graduation kit, many wore face coverings emblazoned with “HORNETS 2020” — a reference to the school’s mascot.

“I’m glad we’re able to be out here and actually walk. Obviously it’s like not the graduation we imagined. But I’m still happy with it,” said Aki Aboukhalil, one Essex graduate.

Covid-19 was not the only massive upheaval to alter the landscape of this year’s ceremonies. Saturday’s graduations took place at the same time as some 200 volunteers painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in giant yellow letters on the street across from the Statehouse in Montpelier, and as Vermonters held rallies calling for racial justice and police accountability for the third weekend in a row.

Henry Wu smiles after leaving the stage during Essex High School graduation at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction on Saturday, June 13, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Many cars in Winooski that accompanied the graduation procession — or that simply drove by, honking and cheering — bore signs congratulating the graduates and declaring their support for the movement.

At the Essex fairgrounds, several speeches mentioned the renewed calls, nationwide, for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who died when a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Henry Wu, a student speaker, mentioned by name several black Americans — Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery — killed by police in high-profile incidents over the last several months. He announced that, to support the movement, the Class of 2020 Council had decided to make a donation to further equity initiatives at the school. A portion would go to Essex’s multicultural help desk, he said, and another would pay for the creation of a mural celebrating the school’s growing diversity.

Livia Ball, an Essex High graduate, said she was glad speakers mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I think it’s important not to ignore, like, what’s going on in the world even though we’re having a celebration right now,” she said.

Seniors line up to receive their diplomas during Essex High School graduation at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction on Saturday, June 13, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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