Class of 2020 Chasing Dreams At A Distance

By Diane White McNaughton

Congratulations, Class of 2020! In the immortal words of a black-capped Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde,” “We did it!”

You read the books, wrote the essays, passed the tests, survived the cafeteria specials. But now, at the hands of a sinister-smart virus, your traditional march down a crowded aisle lined with beaming family members and friends (and a few bored siblings) to the tunes of “Pomp and Circumstance” will be replaced with Graduation, The Home Edition.

Even during a global pandemic, your academic achievements still reign undiminished, and your family members, teachers, and schools remain undeterred in their efforts to dream up creative, quarantine-friendly ways to salute you in socially-distancing style.

They may not be able to overlook an ocean of mortarboard caps, hear random cheers from overly enthusiastic family members, and hug you and your friends like there’s no tomorrow, but most parents, schools and students have risen to the “graduation in quarantine” challenge with a sense of humor, creativity and tech-savvy salutes.

“This class is resilient,” says Angie Durantine, mom to Lower Dauphin High School graduate Elijah. “They were born during 9/11 and graduate during COVID-19.”

Maria Spizzieri, mother of four, including Angelina, a graduate of Bishop McDevitt High School, says many parents are angry at the loss of so many memories and milestones for their seniors. But as the wife of a cardiologist, she and Angelina, a small but mighty powerlifter, have accepted those things they cannot change. Safety comes first.

“We’re all stuck in the same position. Stuck at home,” she says.

Her family is taking a “wait-and-see approach” to parties and making the best of a bad situation by going camping, working out in a hastily constructed home gym, and having Zoom link-ups.

Melissa Gizzi, mother to college senior Katie from Clemson University, along with an older daughter Nichole who earned her master’s degree as a nurse practitioner this year while battling breast cancer, says Clemson made the decision to completely close its campus over spring break.

“There were no hugs, no best wishes, no goodbyes,” Gizzi says. “Clemson is committed to bringing the seniors back to campus for an in-person ceremony this fall, but the opportunity to have those goodbyes are likely to be far less.”

These devoted parents and schools have decided to write a new chapter alongside the Class of 2020.

They have lined the grassy carpet of school campuses and their front lawns with balloons and colorful signs bearing the names of their graduates.

They are still snapping photos of graduates in full cap and gown, sharing their pride and joy on Facebook. Some have even accessorized their snapshots with the coveted toilet paper roll and omnipresent surgical mask.

“Proms” for two or four have been held in backyards transformed with strings of white lights; parades of honking, decorated cars have crawled by graduates’ homes; media outlets have featured outstanding student-athletes; and video salutes set to nostalgic music have still generated many memories, misty eyes, and tear-stained faces.

Like many other schools, the Susquehanna Twp. School District has taken their graduation virtual for the first time ever. According to Outreach Coordinator Takia Colston-Krow, the senior class will walk the stage, decorated with fresh flowers, a banner, and a podium, instead of the typical Farm Show setting. Each senior’s walk in full cap and gown will be photographed and recorded, and these individual videos will be edited to create one virtual procession, to be streamed live in June on the district’s website and Facebook page.

Four family members are permitted to view the iconic walk across the stage, but masks and six-feet-apart seating are a must.  

The name of each graduating senior and their post-graduate plans will be read during the live procession. In addition, the virtual procession will include pre-recorded messages from school administrators, the superintendent, school board president, valedictorian, salutatorian, and senior class president.

Hope still springs eternal. The district is tentatively planning to hold an in-person ceremony this summer, and a junior/senior prom is still on the calendar at the Sheraton Harrisburg/Hershey Hotel.

The school also held a curbside celebration. Seniors donned class T-shirts, decorated their cars and drove through the high school parking lot, surrounded with smiles and cheering staff.

The traditional academic and athletic awards ceremony was replaced with a much quieter posting of names of award winners on the school website and district Facebook page.

Other schools are following suit. Harrisburg University of Science and Technology also went virtual with their graduation, awarding 998 degrees to its largest graduating class.

Commencement was livestreamed, which attracted more than 1,900 viewers from more than 18 countries, and was followed by a virtual dance party.

While addressing her classmates, Tiffany Smith, student body president, says her class represents “the year of adapting and overcoming what the world has thrown at us.” And because of this, Smith says nothing can stand in the way of the Class of 2020.

Mom Angie Durantine says her son Elijah, a competitive swimmer, laments that they left behind their classrooms on March 13, never knowing it would be their last time together, with no face-to-face farewells.

“We are planning a virtual party for graduation and hopefully an in-person party before he heads off to college in August,” Durantine says – if she adds, he heads off to college in Hoboken, New Jersey at Stevens Institute of Technology.

Jen Barrett, mother of Cedar Cliff High School graduate Jake White, who will attend the University of Pittsburgh in the fall, says, “Losing senior year will take time getting over. I was looking forward to a great lacrosse season and walking the stage at graduation in celebration of 13 years of hard work.

“We proudly display our yard signs. He’s also been adopted by two family friends on the ‘Sponsor a Senior 2020: Cedar Cliff and Red Land High School of West Shore’ Facebook page, where they send little encouraging things for him,” Barrett adds.

Trinity High School graduate Michael Soule was able to finish his impressive ice hockey season in late winter, but his dad George is committed to making his son’s abruptly ended senior year special.

When a two-week school closure morphed into a total cancellation of the school year, “the disappointment is evident everyday as he misses friends that he has made throughout the last four years,” Soule says.

Compounding the sadness: Michael’s mom Kelly succumbed to cancer two years ago, and George finds himself at a loss in the party-planning department as a single dad.

“I’ve done the typical stuff. I bought a school brick on the walkway to the football stadium and a Class of 2020 sign. Graduation has been scheduled for July 31 but who really knows? Michael is supposed to participate in a hockey tournament in Virginia Beach in July. If that happens, he asked if he could bring a friend or two, and that will be our party.”

Cedar Cliff Pizza rented a huge video screen and put pictures of the graduates from Cedar Cliff, Trinity, McDevitt and Red Land on it, so he participated in that program as well.

The seniors are still carrying on with many traditions, in socially distancing ways. Spizzieri bought a stunning prom gown and will take pictures with her boyfriend in full formal finery in her backyard. Still, she misses her friends and, even as a future pre-med major, the three animal cadaver dissections in her biology class.

Angelina’s message reflects a wisdom beyond her years: “As a class, we are strong enough to get through it. We have so many more memories as the class that quarantined but also the class that still graduated and got through it.”

Mom and daughter remind themselves: “No one did this to hurt us. Everyone is trying to protect us. It’s for the better.”

The Gizzis tried to create a festive atmosphere on the day that would have been Katie’s graduation ceremony.

They went to a favorite French pastry shop in Lancaster and dined on chocolate croissants and sipped lattes in the car. They surprised Katie with a giant congratulatory sign hung over their front porch. Later, they sat on opposite sides of an outdoor firepit, popped a bottle of champagne and ate pizza.

“We still managed to have a fun day and evening and look forward to a proper celebration when it is safe,” Melissa says.

As these graduates start a new chapter, and earn an added degree in Resilience to their resumes, proud parents send a message with a common theme to the quarantined Class of 2020: Stay strong. Stay positive. Handle what comes at you with the same character and class you showed this year.

Jen Barrett perhaps sums it best: “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to that reality.”

Spizzieri posted a popular meme on her Facebook page: “As your mother, I promise I will always be in one of three places:  in front of you to cheer you on, behind you to have your back, or next to you, so you aren’t walking alone.”

Class of 2020, buoyed by the unconditional love of so many supporters, oh, the places you will go….soon.