It was Shakespearean in a way — a dramatic year divided, like all Gaul, into three parts — celebrated in a parking lot, on the rooftops of cars, clutching balloons, a bag of popcorn and a face mask, while watching what used to be a student life flood across an inflatable screen.
Welcome to New Paltz High School Class of 2020’s commencement ceremony, an exercise in resilience, creativity and a desire not to be forgotten.
Senior year came to an abrupt end in mid-March as all schools and non-essential businesses were forced to shut down. Students went from their traditional, centralized, brick-and-mortar education to an ad-hoc, technology-driven curriculum conducted in physical isolation. Contact with teachers, friends and teammates were truncated. The future graduates watched the days slip into months as they lost their spring sports, senior ball, theater productions and concerts. They began to think that graduation would be another lost ritual.
That’s when the school community — students, parents, teachers, advisors, administrators and general supporters — stepped in to create something out of a void to let these kids know that the Class of 2020 had triumphed.
As the social-distancing guidelines were put in place and people began to leave their homes, lawn signs were created to announce the residence of each “NPHS 2020 Graduate.” A survey was sent out, and senior government class officers worked with their advisors, Bonnie Masseo (history teacher) and Joe Dolan (English teacher) on a graduation plan.
Doing something meaningful
“We wanted to do something that was meaningful for the students,” said Dolan as he waved and cheered students who drove around the front of the high school past a parade of teachers last Friday night. “And Bonnie worked like crazy behind the scenes calling the town, the county, the Department of Health, the police department, trying to figure out what we could do given all of the restraints we’re under and those changed every day!”
In fact, Friday marked the phase of the New York reopening plan that allowed gatherings of up to 25 people to take place and graduations were allowed upward of 150 people as long as they adhered to social-distancing guidelines.
“We decided to do it in three parts, which we called Three Acts,” Dolan said. Act 1 involved having all of the seniors drive to the high school and return anything that they needed to like books and sports or music equipment. They then picked up their caps and gowns, which was turned into a mini-celebration “with teachers there and members of the PTA and school board member Teresa Thompson, who had an ice-cream truck,” said Dolan.
Act 2 included filming the commencement speeches by salutatorian Ryan Kelso and valedictorian Wells Willett.
“And then we had all of the graduates pull up to a stage that we had set up by the football field, and they got out of their cars and were able to walk across the stage and pick up their diploma, which was really just their diploma cover,” said art and technology teacher Alexis Mallory. “It was very cool because they were allowed to have two people, either friends or family get out with them and take pictures. I took pictures of each one of them under the arch, which will be part of the video and are also available on Google Drive so they can get them.”
School life on a screen
Brennan Woods, also a art and technology teacher who oversees the NPZ video production class, thought there was no better time to do a student-life video. “We had to use the current circumstances because how could we not?” he said, standing next to his motorcycle cheering the students on.
“He did a phenomenal job,” interjected Mallory. “He put this entire video together, and honestly it has every component of a traditional graduation and more. It’s just on a screen and not in a hot auditorium but outside!”
It was a beautiful summer night. The graduates and their families and friends decorated cars with streamers and balloons and all kinds of washable car-painted salutations to let the grads know how proud their loved ones were of their survival of the twelve-year academic odyssey.
“We’re always a part of graduation,” said teacher Laurene Pountain. “It’s an important milestone and they really deserve to be celebrated. It has been such a crazy, stressful year!”
Once all of the cars were parked and the popcorn passed out and the sun set behind the Shawangunk Mountains, the Class of 2020 commencement film began to play on two large, inflatable screens that looked like drive-in movie screens placed on top of jumpy houses.
All the world’s a stage
The NPZ student life video began with senior Lauren Thompson waking up, brushing her teeth, and getting ready to go to school, which meant opening up her laptop on her dresser. She had a Zoom meeting with her classmates. They decided that it was “too late,” to do anything for graduation, and she went sadly down to her kitchen table for breakfast with her family.
“What’s wrong, Lauren?” asked her father, Doug Thompson. “Senior year was supposed to be the best year of my life,” Lauren replied, staring at her pancake.
And then the video started to roll. It showed senior athletes passing a soccer ball or volleyball or leaping over hurdles alone on the track. There were senior swimmers in caps and goggles standing on a field, and lacrosse players with sticks passing to imaginary teammates.
The music began to pick up. Clips of the 2019-2020 athletic season went into full action with highlights of the football, basketball, Nordic skiing, cross-country skiing, golf, indoor track, soccer and swimming careening towards a crescendo of maroon and white pride from this year’s pep rally.
The video moved to theater and dance and talent shows and marching band and academic vignettes. People were dancing on their cars and then the music stopped. Everything went silent. The camera panned on the closed school building, the vacant parking lots, bare ballfields and the barren track. Images of newscasters came up: Wolf Blitzer from CNN, governor Andrew Cuomo with public-health announcements, Ulster County executive Pat Ryan with his daily briefings.
There were shots of seniors in their bedrooms, closets, windowsills or couches, They answered questions about what they missed most and what they had gained — more time with family members, more time to appreciate what they’ve always had, and where they might want to go when things opened back up.
The speeches were given. The parade of seniors crossing the stage by the football field ended. Cheers rose from the cars and lawn chairs in the parking lot. A graduation had just taken place.