May and June are graduation season in America; everywhere, students mark their high school and university graduations with all-important rites of passage including the senior prom, a walk across a stage wearing a cap and gown, and lots and lots of parties.
I remember Older Son’s graduation from a large university in Baltimore entailed military levels of organization and coordination. We gathered in a massive indoor arena with thousands of other proud family members; endured endless speeches and hours of watching not-my-kid walking up to the stage; and finally cheered loudly for ten seconds as his name was called and Older Son got to do The Walk.
But not this year. So, how do Americans celebrate graduation Covid-19 style? By invoking that most American of icons, the car.
Our neighbor’s daughter just graduated from a University about 150 miles away. Her aunties, who all live nearby and love absolutely any excuse for a big family get-together, are not the types to be thwarted by a mere pandemic and they decided this event needed to be marked. So, they put together a parade down our street. Led off by a police car, about a dozen cars drove by, all honking horns and filled with cheering family members, with a fire truck bringing up the rear. The young graduate was suitably surprised and moved (and probably a bit embarrassed). These pics are swiped from her mum’s Facebook post (with permission).
Yes, that’s the proud dad perched on the ladder filming.
A number of houses in the area have personalized signs like this at a friend’s house, marking her son’s graduation from university.
Many friends have been posting camp-and-gown pics on deserted campuses.
But I think this is probably toughest for all the soon-to-be-high-school-graduates, whose final weeks of senior year are supposed to be full of the kinds of events that you remember for the rest of your life. Let’s face it, angst about The Prom is a staple of just about every US high-school based movie ever made. Last week I got a sad text from the mother of one of Younger Son’s long-time friends: “She’s missing her 18th birthday, senior prom, and high school graduation, so friends, please send video messages that we will compile for her to mark this time of her life.” Not a lot of movie potential in that.
The SUV Color Day
Which takes us to one of our local high school rituals that had to be marked very differently this year.
The last Monday in May is Memorial Day in the US, a bank holiday in memory of those who died serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day weekend also marks the start of summer. In our small town, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend is Color Day—a school sports day where all the kids are split into two teams, red or blue, and spend the morning doing jump rope relay races and other goofy games straight out of a 1950s playbook.
School sports days are standard in America, but our school district is so small that the entire school community takes part in one big competition. Each grade has an event, from the five-year old kindergarteners all the way up to the 18-year old seniors, along with track races for the middle and high schoolers. Each win racks up points for the team color.
This pic is from one of Younger Son’s Color Days; I think they’re doing the wet sponge relay race. You can see the school assembled on the stands in the background (around 600 kids aged 5-18), waiting to be called down for each class event.
In this small town, when your kid is first enrolled at the school, they are assigned red or blue—and they stay that color for life. Literally for life. Subsequent siblings keep the same color and parents identify as either red or blue, even passing on their color to their own kids if they stay here. The local bakery even sells red and blue bagels for Color Day.
The night before Color Day many houses are decorated with balloons and streamers, and gangs of kids roam the streets attacking rival-color houses with chalk graffiti and throwing toilet paper. The occasional rogue street sign also shows up.
The morning starts with a parade of the entire school population, led by the youngest kids, with blue on one side of the street and red on the other. Our sons would head off to school that morning sporting blue paint from head to toe. Spouse and I would don our blue shirts and walk down to the school to stand and cheer on the blue side of the street as the kids marched past, all singing and chanting, then hurry over to the high school football field to watch the events. Even after all their kids have graduated, many parents still go to see the parade.
After the final event is run and the numbers are added up, the winning team races to the corner of the football field and paints the big bell that stands there either red or blue.
So, you get what a big deal Color Day is for our little town.
But for the high school juniors and seniors, the day is not over. They now hurry home, wash all the paint out of their hair, then get primped and polished ready for the prom that evening. Prom starts with an hour or so of milling about and taking pictures at the house of one of the graduating seniors. (In neighboring school districts with more kids in a graduating class than we have in our entire school system, prom pictures usually take place at some outdoor venue like a particularly scenic park.) It’s breathtaking to see the morning’s mob of rowdy, sweaty kids suddenly transformed into elegant young men and women in tuxedoes and long dresses. Most schools have separate junior and senior proms—with an average of only 50 kids in each grade, ours combines the two into one event, held at a nearby country club.
About a week or so later comes the graduation ceremony for the seniors, also on the football field (or in the gym if it’s raining). This time it’s the families who sit in the stands while the graduating class marches across the field. Our little town even does high school graduation differently. There are no caps and gowns; instead, the boys all wear tuxedoes (with a red or blue tie, of course) and the girls wear long white dresses and carry large bouquets of red roses tied with blue ribbon.
This is Younger Son’s entire graduating class a couple of years ago assembled on the front steps of the school, before their ceremony got underway.
But the class of 2020 had none of this. No Color Day, no prom, no graduation.
Instead, our town combined all three events into a car parade for the seniors on what would have been Color Day.
Over the course of a couple of hours, with one family in each car, all of the seniors drove a carefully designed route around the town that covered almost every street and all of the seniors’ homes, escorted by fire trucks and police cars. We all stood out front and cheered and waved as they drove by.
Parents commented in the local community Facebook page that their students were surprised and delighted at the amount of support they got from the town. There was even a brief segment about it on the local TV news station.
Does all of this make up for missing your prom and graduation? I doubt it.
Welcome to adulthood, kids.