ORLANDO | When Henry Fortier, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, described the 2020 graduation year, he called it “the most unique in my 25 years in Catholic education.”
This year’s pandemic necessitated distance learning for all schools and left some graduates without a graduation ceremony. But despite obstacles, Catholic schools found a way to celebrate graduation. From kindergarten graduations to senior commencement ceremonies, everyone had their day to celebrate, albeit in unique ways.
“Our schools’ communities have worked tirelessly in recent weeks to make sure the graduates had a meaningful and memorable closure during this unprecedented time in our history,” Fortier said. “The love that has been shared through parades, videos, awards, and graduation ceremonies have truly demonstrated the intimate connection our school communities have, rooted in faith.”
Mark M., valedictorian for Santa Fe Catholic High School in Lakeland, agreed. “Santa Fe never lost its love for its students,” he said. Being surprised by a staff member personally delivering his cap and gown; the weekly movie nights on Zoom, FaceTime calls with friends and game nights with teachers made a difference. He loved that everyone kept their sense of humor.
Mark likened the end of his senior year to owning his favorite pair of shoes in middle school. Heelys, “50% sneaker, 50% roller skate, and 100% what all the cool kids were wearing,” he recalled. As a 12-year-old, he wore his Heelys everywhere and couldn’t imagine the day he wouldn’t. Over the years he wore them less.
“I don’t remember when, but one day, I wore my Heelys for the last time and didn’t even know it.” The same thing happened March 13. When he left campus that Friday for spring break, he had no idea he wouldn’t be coming back.
Reminiscing about his favorite shoes revealed, “There are a lot of ‘lasts’ in life. The most important thing, however, is that we make the most of the opportunities we are given so we can look back at the memories we made and be proud of what we have accomplished,” he said. “Corona could not stop us from making the last few months of our senior year memorable ones.”
Principal Scott Brogan of Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando spoke for many when he said, “Although nothing can replace the activities that have been lost for the Class of 2020, we have made every effort to celebrate this milestone.” The school delivered yard signs and family prayer cards. Using digital platforms, they created keepsake awards and graduation acknowledgements. Allowing only two guests per student, graduation was on campus and livestreamed for those who could not attend. “We have put a great deal of thought and prayer into these preparations because we want their final experience as students to be a lasting and memorable one,” said Brogan said.
While St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School eighth-grader Isabel L. understood activities had to change or be canceled, the class valedictorian said, “I had been looking forward to some of these activities for many years. I was supposed to pass the light to my brother who is in the seventh grade, so I really missed being able to do that.”
St. Andrew Catholic School Principal Latrina Peters-Gipson agreed the “year was one for the record books, and added the eighth-grade class of 2020 will “never forget because they made history as the first graduating class to finish the year in quarantine eLearning.”
Her staff also went all out to make meaningful memories. A surprise call via Zoom informed salutatorian, Rizel K., and valedictorian, Kimberly J., of their honors and the traditional eighth grade lunch occurred with a drive-thru twist. At the end of the year, the school held the end of the year retreat for the May Crowning and Candlelight Ceremony virtually.
“I’ll always remember the staff for never giving up on us, especially Mrs. Gipson and the middle school teachers,” said student Maria A. “St. Andrew will always be remembered as a dedicated school spiritually and academically.”
Resilience is certainly a characteristic of this class, forged by the uncertainty of living through a pandemic. Students have learned to endure the absence of friends, forgo activities for the greater good, to cherish their families even more and discover that faith does not live in a church with four walls. It is the teacher, who works hard to keep classes engaging via Zoom, or the staff member who drove far, and wide to deliver a yard sign or a cap and gown. It is community, transcending time and space and digital boundaries through love of neighbor. Nils P. of St. Andrew felt that community “came together and got through our problems.”
Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach celebrated its commencement at the Daytona Stadium, across from campus. The “drive-in theater” style set-up, enabled families to park close to the stage and witness their student’s graduation from their cars. A large LED screen behind the stage projected the graduation as it unfolded, for ease of viewing from any place in the parking area.
Most primary schools held graduations in their parish sanctuary, cordoning off every other row, and only allowing one family per pew.
Kindergarteners at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic School in Altamonte Springs celebrated their graduation in a car parade. They decorated their families’ vehicles and drove through the school parking lot, while faculty waved and congratulated them.
For some, missed or modified rituals were painful. “I’ve been in Holy Redeemer Catholic School since I was 8, and for all these years I couldn’t wait to graduate eighth grade,” said Lexi T., from Holy Redeemer Catholic School in Kissimmee. As an eighth grader, she said she felt “robbed” of the many special moments she hoped to share with friends, many whom are going to other high schools. She admitted feeling “devastated” and wishing “things could go back to normal.”
This “new normal” stretched school staff and students to think outside the box as they strived to make meaningful memories. Our Saviour Catholic School in Cocoa Beach held a “Virtual Passing of the Candle.” Senior girls at Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala kept traditions alive by painting their skirts and the class planned their final senior tailgate, appropriately distanced. At Sacred Heart Catholic School in New Smyrna Beach, eighth-grade graduates crowned Mary and placed flowers at her feet after graduation, albeit a few weeks late.
Although students were saddened to miss special moments, the experience of quarantine and distance learning broadened their perspective and appreciation for the small things.
“I think that the time we spent in quarantine has given us all the opportunity to reflect back on all the fun times we did have, and to realize that our high school experience was not defined by our fourth quarter of senior year, but by all the small meaningful events — lunches with friends, time spent in the classroom with teachers, and by all the special memories that we will never forget,” said Trinity Catholic valedictorian Bailey M. “Living in such a fast-paced world, we often become caught up with goals, endings, and singular events. It is especially during times like these when we need to realize that there is more to graduation than the events that surround it — it is about cherishing the time we have had with each other, closing this chapter of our lives, and opening another one. Because of the resiliency that our class has, we are able to understand that our high school experience was not determined by what we lost during our last quarter, but by all of the little moments and experiences that we will remember when we’re 40.”
Annabelle W., Trinity’s salutatorian, added, “The Class of 2020 will forever go down in history due to everything that has happened this year and how different our senior year looked than any other. Later in my life, I will tell people about how much I learned from the sudden changes that occurred in the 4th quarter of my senior year. I’ll explain to them how this year has taught me to appreciate being able to live a normal life and have interactions with people. This situation reminded me not to take anything for granted and that not everything is guaranteed, so we have to be ready to adapt to the changing world. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped me to deepen my relationship with God, as I trusted my faith during this time of uncertainty.”
Eighth-grader Isabella F., valedictorian at St. Brendan Catholic School in Ormond Beach reflected on the good. “In anything bad, there is always good. The pandemic has taught us essential and basic information on hygiene, along with responsibility and independence,” she said. “This has also prepared us to face the world and anything difficult that comes along.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, June 17, 2020