Balloons everywhere, the creaking of gymnasium bleachers or auditorium seats, and the unmistakable first notes of Pomp and Circumstance — the usual trappings of a graduation ceremony are hard to miss. So what happens when you take most of that away? What are graduates of 2020 left with?
A lot, as it turns out.
By turning the traditional commencement ceremony on its head, the novel coronavirus pandemic might have accidentally given graduates a day more memorable than that experienced by any of their recent predecessors.
Across the country, with school buildings shuttered, learning shifted online and no hope of a final prom, seniors have had to do a lot of adapting. Nowhere is that more apparent than in copious creative and alternative commencement ceremonies schools and communities have come up with to honor this year’s graduates in a time when a hug and a handshake are off the table.
In Homer, that looked different across the board. From an intimate ceremony flanked by fog and mountains on the Homer Spit, to a large production and procession through the middle of town, graduates of the Homer area got their moment to shine on Monday.
Homer High School conducted a drive-through commencement ceremony. A temporary stage was constructed outside in front of the main school entrance. Each graduate loaded into a vehicle with family members and close friends and was given an assigned space in the high school parking lot.
When their name was called, each graduate was chauffeured up to the top of the parking lot — a true Homer motorcade of Subarus, pickup trucks, vintage cars and beaters with heaters — where they hopped out and waited their turn to cross the stage and collect their diploma before getting back into their vehicles and being whisked away.
Following the ceremony, which was still recognizable as a graduation with commencement speeches and addresses from the valedictorian and salutatorian, graduates were driven through town in a procession for the community.
Principal Doug Waclawski gave a special nod to the teachers of Homer High, who “turned on a dime” this year to ensure continued high quality education for their students.
“No one is going to forget this year,” Waclawski said. “Hopefully no one will forget this ceremony. We’re saddened that we can’t recognize the class of 2020 in a traditional way for students, that all Homer students have been able to do for the last 50 years.”
Waclawski said he knows some may be grieving their old way of life or the way they thought graduation would be, but that a pandemic couldn’t stop the community from celebrating the seniors in style.
Clayton Smith, a special education aide, and teacher Pam Rugloski shared the honor of the commencement address. They recounted fond memories and encounters with the members of the 2020 class, and said how much they’ve enjoyed getting to watch them grow.
Smith in particular highlighted how interconnected a community can be — he listed off several students who he knew before he even met them, through their deep family roots in Homer.
“As you can see, throughout our lifetimes, we each play a role in our community that begins long before we were born and continues beyond our years lived,” Smith said. “I was blessed when you first arrived at Homer High with the role of the guy in your hallway who keeps talking to you.”
He joked that the students might be tired of hearing him talk after four long years.
“And here I am, still talking,” Smith said. “I talk because you are part of my community, some of you with very deep roots in my life that you weren’t aware of. Now we have new connections.”
Smith said he and the graduates have become good friends over the years. As a community, they look out for and care for one another. At the same time, people’s perspectives can be widely different in a small community, and Smith said it’s unreasonable to think that the graduates will agree with others all the time. Smith wondered aloud whether any of the graduates would have thought of him differently if he’d been more open about his political views or spiritual beliefs.
“It may have,” he said. “But what I think is more important is that we built relationships on the things we’ve shared in common. We love the arts and sports — the view from Baycrest on a clear day. Exploring nature across the bay, beach walks at Diamond Creek, bonfires at Bishop’s Beach, fishing on the ocean and the rivers, and myriad of other things.”
Rugloski said this year’s graduating class has set a high bar for those following after them.
“Thank you for being literally the lit-est class to ever walk these halls,” she said.
“I borrowed that from Daisy Kettle,” she added. “Thanks, Daisy.”
Rugloski spoke to the graduates about the power of gratitude. It’s one of the most important things they can practice, she said.
“Practicing is what turns it into routine,” she said. “Just like all those shots on goal, those swings in the batting cage, practicing your speech or debate, or practicing your lines for the play.”
Valedictorian Ruby Allen and salutatorian Daisy Kettle used their combined speech to take graduates and families on a tour of a day in the life of a 2020 senior. Through the halls, through interactions with favorite teachers and through all the typical shenanigans high schoolers get into on a given day.
“We gradually made our way up the pecking order of Homer High,” Allen said. “At the same time, the world outside of our fuzzy bubble of love kept spinning. During freshman year, a new president was elected, Brexit was first announced, Pokemon Go was released and most importantly, Fidget Spinners became the most legendary innovation to ever grace world markets.”
She described even more changes in the graduates’ senior year.
“But among all of this, Homer has remained a haven for us to grow and flourish,” Kettle said. “Through all of our late-night breakdowns, the Spit Road has been there for us to drive out while blasting Post Malone, and through our lunchtime cravings Two Sisters has kept selling bagels with cream cheese for $2.31. Whether it be playing hockey, working, going to trade school, traveling, attending college or taking care of baby goats — Alec, we see you bro — our community has supported and encouraged our many different passions as we venture off to find what we love.”
One by one, the graduates crossed the stage, took their diploma from Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board member Mike Illg, moved their tassel, posed for a photo by a professional photographer, and got back into their vehicles. When the graduates had been accepted, they took off down Pioneer Avenue where they were greeted by members of the community lining the streets through town for a celebratory procession.
Some people waved signs, and others threw candy to the graduates as if it were a parade. Graduates hung out of windows and sunroofs, waving to the members of the community that has supported them.
Waclawski perhaps best summed up the commencement his opening remarks.
“This is Homer,” he said. “And this is how we do things.”