Graduation is not the end of the world. But it is, make no mistake, the end of a world.
On its surface, graduation is about achievement and celebration, about, oh, all the places students will go. But the reality is that, underneath the cliches, graduation is about loss. It's a funeral with a different dress code.
You toss your cap in the air and by the time it lands four years of your life — your cross country personal records, your elaborate Sadie Hawkins date proposal, the high note in your Les Mis solo, your class-president campaign rap — are flushed away into irrelevance.
No matter how sincere the promises you leave with your yearbook signatures, many of the friendships you spent more than a decade building will effectively end that moment you grab your diploma.
"This could probably be the last time that we're all going to be together," says Elijah Woodward, a graduating senior at Lakeland High School in Rathdrum. "Most people are going to be shipping off in the military or going to colleges across the state. We all started this together. We just want to end it together."
That's the power not only of graduation ceremonies, but of other last-semester rituals like senior prom, senior breakfasts, senior trips and senior all-nighters. They're the climaxes that make the ending of their story feel meaningful, instead of just tragic.
Not this year. This year, the pomp became a victim of the circumstance. COVID closed down the students' schools and stole the students' closure. But in the months since, teachers, administrators, parents, and business leaders have been scrambling for ways to craft a meaningful ending for the class of 2020.
If they can't replace graduation, the thinking goes, then they can at least memorialize it.
Nearly every high school across the nation is facing the same dilemma. Hundreds of school administrators convene on Zoom calls, brainstorming ways to somehow pull off graduation ceremonies in states where large gatherings are still banned.
Spokane Public Schools had an idea: Use Joe Albi, the district's sprawling soon-to-be-demolished football stadium as their graduation venue. You want social distancing? How about an outdoor stadium that seats nearly 30,000? But Gov. Jay Inslee's office nixed the proposal, arguing that it still posed too much of a risk to have that many people gathering.
Instead, they drew up a new plan. They'd effectively hold hundreds of micro-ceremonies for every student, scheduling a moment where students could drive up near an outdoor stage at a high school, hop out, walk across the stage, snag their diploma and then drive off. At the end of it, a videographer would edit the whole thing together into a seamless graduation video.
"We want to honor the kids as best we can," says Ferris High School Principal Ken Schutz.
But he knows it's inadequate — that you can't artificially simulate those final few hours surrounding a normal graduation, when all cliques and pretensions fall away and classmates who'd never be caught dead hanging out find themselves drawn together by the approaching conclusion.
"They want to be together so bad," Schutz says.
Some parents have reacted to that loss by pushing back. In Rathdrum, parents — including Michelle Woodward, Elijah's mom — have been contacting the Panhandle Health District, calling the state board of education and writing letters to Idaho Gov. Brad Little — all calling for a relatively traditional graduation ceremony. If an amusement park like Silverwood could open, she says, why couldn't they hold the kids' graduation outside, socially distant, but together?
And when the letters and phone calls didn't work, they held a small protest outside of the school, holding signs like "Brad hates grads." Elijah picks out a sign with the phrase "Today's grads are tomorrow's voters."
In one sense, with all the deaths, unemployment and shuttered businesses, it's easy to brush off complaints about losing prom and graduation ceremonies. But I can empathize. When I graduated from North Central High School, way back in 2004, the loss of that community — a place where I mattered, where I had purpose — felt like the amputation of part of my identity. I marched across my graduation stage and right into a slough of adult-sized depression.
At age 18, time moves differently. Your emotions — joy, love, grief — are more vibrant, more powerful, more real. It's why, amid all the COVID-related suffering, so many people care about a few thousand high schoolers.
Joel Barbour, the owner of the Great PNW clothing brand, is walking to his truck when he's hit by the weight of what this year's graduates are losing.
"It was wrenching my heart," Barbour says. "They are really missing out on a huge piece of life."
During his own senior year, he remembers nearly getting jailed after breaking onto school grounds and then dumping a truck — wheels removed, spray-painted in Mt. Spokane colors — in the high school courtyard.
So he leapt at the chance to celebrate the 5,000 local seniors who didn't get a traditional graduation. He designed a Spokane class of 2020 brand with a logo and a blue-and-green color scheme and put it on T-shirts, key chain, water bottles and enamel camp mugs that he's selling at spokane2020.com. Part of the revenue will go to a fund at Spokane Teachers Credit Union, and this year's seniors will be able to vote on which local nonprofit the fund will help.
"Our vision is that, wherever our seniors and our families are going around town, they're seeing their community celebrating them."
It's all part of the effort of a larger campaign by the advertising firm Desautel Hege. Michelle Hege, the firm's CEO — who recalls wearing a metallic pink dress to her Lewis and Clark High School prom back in the '80s — set up a weekly call with local school administrators and business leaders to launch a city-wide campaign.
There are plans to paint a skywalk, to hang school flags on Post Street, to convert utility boxes at parks into artwork applauding the class of 2020.
In June, the Riverfront Park's Pavilion — and businesses across Downtown Spokane — will light up with the blue and green of Barbour's logo. TV spots will air featuring local celebrities.
"I would imagine everywhere across the country, communities are doing the same thing," Hege says. "Our vision is that, wherever our seniors and our families are going around town, they're seeing their community celebrating them."
Some gestures are relatively small. At Lakeland High School, other parents have launched an "adopt a senior" page — choosing a senior and giving them gift baskets, flowers, any kind of gesture to show they care.
"Our parents have kind of stepped up and they've done all they can for us," Elijah says.
Other efforts are on a larger scale, literally. Rogers High School art teacher Tom Pettoello spray-painted the school's logo on the football field and then scrawled the name of every single Rogers 2020 graduate on the turf. He's done the same thing at other schools across the country.
The Inlander recruited Pettoello to paint a giant "Hats Off To You, class of 2020" logo in the Clock Tower meadow in Riverfront Park. In the middle of this issue, you'll find a two-page poster of that logo, inviting our readers to post it in their windows. We've made posters in the past when we were all rooting for the Seahawks and the Zags. We're just cheering for a different sort of team today.
Sixteen years ago, I processed my own graduation angst by typing out big heartfelt individualized essays for all my best friends and secret crushes, handing them printed-out copies to stick in their yearbook.
In a way, this Inlander issue is an echo of that. We've handed the mic over to local students and educators to speak to this year's crop of graduates about the present in a way that will define the future.
The class of 2020's ending got erased. Together, we're writing a new one.
The simple fact is, graduation ceremonies themselves are boring. They're not the climax of the movie — they're the interminable scrawl of end credits.
Nobody remembers graduation ceremonies where nothing goes wrong. It's only the unexpected divergences — unapproved profanity in a valedictorian speech, a crowd-surfing blow-up doll, a standing ovation for the senior who let loose a llama in the gymnasium — that leave a legacy.
Traditions and rituals are comforting, in part, because they're cliches, because they're dull. They're soft assurances that everything is normal. This year, that's impossible. But while seniors are missing out on the tradition, they're getting an experience almost no other class has been able to relate to.
Well, almost no one. Schutz, the Ferris principal, remembers graduating from high school 40 years ago in Tekoa, Washington. He remembers the last month of school being canceled. He remembers everyone wearing masks. He remembers the volcanic ash from Mt. St. Helens that fell from the heavens and blanketed the town in gray.
Forget the yearbook. His graduation was part of the history books.
The class of 2020 is blessed with the same curse. Every graduation represents the end of a world. But this time, at least, everybody else is acting like it.
"This is a class who will be remembered always: The seniors who graduated during a pandemic," Hege says. "And who didn't have graduation." ♦