At the edges of the pomp and circumstance, you could see the pandemic.
Masked high school teachers waving cars to assigned rows in a parking lot, principals taking to the mic to ask seniors to return to their cars, spray painted Xs showing students where and how far apart to stand when they received their diploma.
The graduation ceremonies had been radically changed by the coronavirus and the efforts to mitigate its spread. Several hundred Kelly Walsh, Roosevelt and Natrona County seniors graduated in a parking lot, not in the Casper Events Center behind them. Most speeches — filled with famous quotes, memories and “we did it!”s — were prerecorded and played on the radio. The ceremonies were the first time the classes of 2020 had congregated in any meaningful way since they last met in school in mid-March, a Friday the 13th “that never ended,” Roosevelt Principal Shawna Trujillo said.
But at its heart, Casper’s graduation ceremonies on Thursday and Friday were still the parties and celebrations that such events are envisioned to be, even if that vision had passed through a kaleidoscope. Students still embraced each other and mugged for parents’ cameras, posing with their backs turned and their decorated caps facing the lens. Seniors in caps and gowns played cornhole as friends packed a Mercedes van with its doors thrown open.
Two cars featured giant caps on their roofs. One Kelly Walsh kid had a tiny sombrero atop his cap. Girlfriends sat with boyfriends as a message from NC principal Shannon Harris lamented missed proms and senior sendoffs. The parking lot was so thick with students and parents, lawn chairs and snacks, colors and energy, it felt like a tailgate.
In between the celebration and the pandemic was the blur, the acknowledgement of the virus and its collision with a seminal moment for most American 18-year-olds. Every speech mentioned it — how couldn’t they? — alongside the same platitudes you might remember from your high school graduation. A Kelly Walsh truck flew a flag bearing the image of a man in a cap and hook-nosed plague mask, clutching a diploma. Another car — in a nod to the TV show “Friends” — bore a sign that said “Seniors 2020: The one where they were quarantined.”
An NC student walked in a full white hazmat suit, complete with a gas mask and blue foot covers. School district officials, normally seated on the stage, were arranged in spaced chairs to either side, like red squares on a checkers board. Everywhere, at every ceremony, students and classmates and family joked about not being able to hug because of social distancing, before embracing in the way that you only do when you graduate.
One Kelly Walsh senior walked across the stage with a white train cascading from her cap. At the bottom of the ramp, diploma and flower in hand, she bent a leg, swept an arm and bowed, like a swan inclining its head, as the line behind her backed up, straining at the 6-foot distance.
KW principal Mike Britt twice asked seniors to return to their cars. Before NC’s graduation, each car was offered masks and a little orange leaflet reminding families of the rules: Stay in your cars, stay apart, stay masked (a valiant, if unsuccessful, effort). At Roosevelt’s ceremony Friday afternoon, staff waved graduates off the stage and into a cone-marked path that led down a sidewalk and emptied back into the parking lot.
As the students followed the spray-painted yellow Xs away from the stage, retiring Roosevelt teacher Susan Griffith congratulated them. She’d started at the alternative high school 34 years ago, back when it was called the Roosevelt Learning and Assessment Center. On Friday afternoon, she gave the commencement address for Roosevelt’s 71-member class. As students exited the stage, she still had advice to give. As one student filed past, she chased him. “Don’t forget about Texas Tech! It has a great … “
These were celebrations with a mask strapped to them. Green and white balloons, black and orange masks and gloves, black and blue flowers, hugging staff members wearing reflective vests and face coverings.
And at the end, the Roosevelt students followed the carefully spaced Xs. The Natrona County and Kelly Walsh kids followed painted white arrows that swooped them back and away from those still waiting. All of them picked up their diplomas themselves, in front of an administrator wearing protective gear. And as the students walked across the stage, they looked relieved, happy, joyful, bored, vacant, relaxed, bewildered, overwhelmed.
They looked like high schoolers.