‘We should celebrate’: In-person graduations return to New York

In the Bronx, a valedictorian at one high school stepped onto the stage to deliver her speech only months after her grandmother died of COVID-19. In Brooklyn, a high school hosted its celebration at Socceroof, an artificial-turf field in Sunset Park that soon became crowded with students and family members. And at an elementary school in the Bronx, a group of prekindergartners sang “This Little Light of Mine” as onlookers took countless photos.

As New York reopens after more than a year of coronavirus restrictions, students across the city in the past few weeks have celebrated the end of a school year unlike any other. In-person graduation ceremonies have returned for the first time since 2019, marking what students and teachers hope will be the beginning of a return to normalcy.

“We always want to celebrate our children,” said Shana Hewitt, director of early-childhood education at Sheltering Arms Harriet Tubman Early Childhood Education Centre in the Bronx. “We always want to celebrate our families, so why not? It’s the end of the year. Especially this year, it’s been particularly victorious with all that we’ve overcome. We should celebrate.”

Since March, the class of 2021 has had to navigate a rocky road to graduation. Switching to remote learning as the city became the epicentre of the virus in the United States presented substantial challenges, as some students did not have access to reliable internet. A return to classrooms last fall was delayed twice because of public opposition and significant planning challenges. Yet the majority of students — about 600,000 — stayed home.

No official graduations took place last year, but some schools did creative things such as drive-by ceremonies, car parades and diploma drop-offs.

This fall, all students will return to classrooms full time, with no remote learning option available, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in May.

But before the nation’s largest school district returns fully to in-person instruction, schools are taking the time to celebrate their departing students with ceremonies big and small.

Members of the graduating class of Bronxdale High School were like local celebrities as they stepped onto the lavishly decorated football field for their graduation ceremony.

Friends and family behaved like paparazzi, waving and instructing the masked graduates to look their way so they could take the perfect picture. Parents, siblings and other supporters made loud declarations, sometimes with a bullhorn, saying things such as “That’s my baby!” and “We’re so proud of you!” as the graduates made their way to their seats.

A few days after her grandmother’s death in April, Akayla Green, 18, found out that she had gotten into Cornell University on a full scholarship. The moment was bittersweet as her grandmother wasn’t there to hear the news. Soon after that, she learned she would be this year’s valedictorian.

“I knew that I was doing well in classes, but I just assumed other students were doing better just because they were more on top of their work and turning it on time, and I was struggling with that at moments,” she said. “It was exciting telling my family. I didn’t walk into high school saying I was going to be valedictorian, but I did it.”

Green’s whole family was at the graduation, including her proud mother, Kerri Ann Brown Lyons, 44. Beaming, she reminisced on her daughter’s adolescence, saying Green had always been brimming with vigour, even as a young child. Before Lyons’ father died, he had hopes of Green becoming a nurse.

“She said, ‘I’m going to excel. I’m going to become a doctor,’” Lyons said. “For me to be here today seeing that she got a full ride to Cornell, it’s amazing.”

A medication specialist, Lyons is on her way back to school to become a clinical social worker.

“Hopefully I’ll get my PhD before she gets her MD,” she mused.

Terry Parris, 45, father of another Bronxdale graduate, Taylor, said the ceremony was monumental, as not many people have finished high school on either side of the family.

“I try to teach my daughter to look at every opportunity as a chance to grow,” he said. “After the year these kids faced, she definitely listened, and I’m so proud of her.”

Most students and staff members wore masks at the ceremonies. Each event had chairs spaced at least 4 feet apart for social distancing. Despite a drop in virus rates, children are still at risk of infection, as only 8% of those ages 17 and under have been vaccinated, according to city data. (Children 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine.)

At Lillian L Rashkis High School’s ceremony at the Socceroof in Brooklyn, students and their families dressed to the nines to celebrate the occasion. Graduates got creative with caps that had messages reading, “All I do is win!” “Just did it!” and “I won’t remember any of you.”

The school is dedicated to aiding students with significant learning disabilities and mental health and behavioural issues. Nicole Clemente, 17, who said she had dealt with mental health issues since her freshman year, thought she wouldn’t graduate on time.

“I’ve come a long way from when I first joined this program. I’m really grateful for that,” she said. “I’m mainly really grateful for teachers in and outside of the programs that we have here. Those are the people that I really want to thank the most, because they’ve taught me a lot of things and pushed me to get to this point, to challenge myself more.”

Clemente said she would be attending Borough of Manhattan Community College in the fall. She is thinking of majoring in history and wants to become a museum curator.

Her parents, Joan Clemente, 60, and Dominick Clemente, 61, beamed with pride.

“I used to be a New York City schoolteacher, so I’m very proud of her for doing this and making this happen,” Clemente said. “She said it was a challenge learning online, but I never noticed her struggling. She always adapted really well.”

Rashkis had its largest graduating class this year, its staff said, with 50 departing students. Principal Diane Zinn said none of it would have been possible without students and teachers working together.

“I am incredibly proud of my school community that just kept pushing and reaching out to the students and ensuring that we made contact with them every day,” she said. “We didn’t want to lose them throughout this year to get them to this moment. I’m so proud of every single one of them.”

In the Bronx, Sheltering Arms Harriet Tubman, a school for prekindergartners, held its ceremony on the playground. The school celebrated 15 students with an event that felt more like a performance. The prekindergartners remixed the nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques,” changing the lyrics to: “I am special. If you look. You will see. Someone very special. That is me.”

Each student also received an award that summarised his or her personality. Christopher Williams’ 4-year-old daughter, Zayah, received the award for being the most adventurous student. He said that fit her perfectly.

“I’m always going to be proud,” Williams said. “This is my third rodeo as far as graduations are concerned. My kids like the whole school concept, and they make the best do with what they’ve been able to do.”

Williams, 42, a process server, said this year was challenging for his family. Once the pandemic hit, he lost most of his clients. He said it was astonishing to transition from being the boss who paid people to relying on unemployment to keep his family afloat.

“I still got my kids to be concerned about, so I couldn’t really let it tear me apart,” he said. “It brought me down a little bit, it didn’t tear me apart, because they still count on me. Everything is falling back together now. I still have recovery to do, but I don’t wake up stressed out anymore.”

Williams said the graduation wouldn’t be the only celebration for Zayah.

“We’re going to be having a family get-together,” he said. “I’ll take her to see her grandparents. We’ll be doing the cake thing, letting her know we’re proud of her.”

© 2021 New York Times News Service