Families attend drive-in style graduation following social distance protocols
By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON — It’s amazing what we can get used to.
For decades each June, graduating seniors and their families, teachers and school officials packed Otter Valley’s gymnasium for the area’s biggest coming of age event of the year, high school graduation. It was usually very warm and close in OV’s House of Noise, but that never seemed to dampen the enthusiasm for the day.
Then came 2020, the year of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic that forced the closure of school buildings three months ago and ushered in a ‘new normal” of face masks and social distancing.
As a society, we have adapted, right down to OV’s 2020 graduation, which dawned as cool and breezy on Saturday morning as previous ceremonies were hot and stuffy.
Temperatures held around 60 degrees under cloudy skies as this year’s 65 graduating seniors and school officials pulled of a pandemic graduation, drive-in style. Lined up in alphabetical order in the OV parking lot at 9 a.m., the seniors drove with their families to the football practice field on the south end of the grounds and formed three rows of cars facing a stage and podium under a tent. Many of the cars were decorated with the graduate’s name and congratulations, some with balloons and other decorations.
First up were the speeches, which addressed the current state of affairs. Class salutatorian Livia Bernhardt was eloquent in her assessment.
“While none of us pictured being here in this way for our high school graduation, we are grateful for the cooperation of the faculty members to make this possible,” she said. “Even though we have to look through car windows to see one another, I’m glad we are joined together as a community one last time. This is definitely a moment we will never forget.”
She added that when school buildings closed and spring sports were cancelled, she was stunned.
“I honestly didn’t realize how much I’d miss these little interactions each day, so if we learn anything from this, it is to truly appreciate all of the little things that are offered,” Bernhardt said, “whether it be a simple high-five, hug to a friend or an experience of a lifetime, we can’t forget to appreciate things, because opportunities and experiences will pass us by sooner than we know it.”
Bernhardt quoted Rev. Martin Luther King and Barack Obama in addressing another pressing social issue, racism, and the unrest that has swept the country since the horrific death of a Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis Police custody on May 25.
“(Obama) said it all, as we go out into the world, we need to take the initiative inside ourselves and spark it inside of others,” she said. “This is how we make a difference in society. We all must educate each other and use our voices to express our own beliefs. And even if you don’t see yourself as a leader, remember, it is the followers that create a movement.”
Bernhardt sported a blue gown traditionally reserved for male graduating seniors. Girls usually wear a white gown for the ceremony.
“As our society is continuing to adapt and grow to new perspectives, gender expression is changing and we must move past the old traditions,” she said. “In this century, gender has become very fluid, and our community shouldn’t create a distinguishing color for each gender. It isn’t anyone’s place to force others to choose a color to identify who they are. As members of our community and our society, it is our job to include and make sure all people feel welcomed wherever we are in life. We never know what people might be going through or what’s going on in their world, so we shouldn’t be the ones that make them choose.”
Valedictorian Elinor Ross addressed the unusual circumstances and told her fellow classmates that it would be easy to get discouraged and complain about missing out on all those senior year perks, the class trips, the prom, and spring sports.
“Sitting in your car and complaining is a lot easier than accepting that things didn’t turn out how you wanted them to,” Ross said. “Or, you can make the hard choice. This choice is about growing up and understanding that life isn’t always fair, no matter how hard you work or how much you think you deserve it. If you choose this option, take a look at where you are right now. You’re graduating from high school. You’re celebrating with your classmates and families. Appreciate what you have, because not everyone gets this. Take a moment and make your choice, then move forward.”
That said, Ross admitted that she struggled to find the words for her speech, that she and her classmates would have been happy making history with a sports championship or senior prank, rather than graduating during an unprecedented pandemic.
“I believe that most of us have learned more about life in the past three months than we did through all of our years here,” she said. “We learned to be independent. We learned to be flexible. We learned that life isn’t always fair. But most importantly, I think, we learned to be grateful. I don’t think any lecture or assignment could have shown us how easily everything can be taken away from us. I hope you can take something away from this experience, no matter how small, because it is an opportunity, even if it doesn’t feel like it.”
The first line of graduates then exited their family vehicles in facemasks and gowns and stood six-feet apart as they waited for their name to be called to the podium. There, Principal Jim Avery set a gift bag containing a diploma for each graduate on a table, where they were picked up by the new graduates. After they exited the stage, professional photographer Paul Gamba took photos of each graduate and their families.
It was orderly. After the first row of cars and graduates got their diplomas, that row exited the front and moved to create the back row of cars, and the next row drove up to the front. The whole ceremony lasted about two hours.
When it was over, the graduates and their families were treated to a Pittsford Fire Department and Brandon Police escort to Pittsford for a celebratory graduation parade through town. They then headed back up Route 7 to Brandon, where the Brandon Fire Department took over the escort and led the parade through the downtown to Park Village. Residents emerged to cheer and take photos along the route, smiles all around. It was just the kind of community event that was needed amidst the fear and uncertainty of a pandemic in its third month with no set end.