Who would have imagined that we’d have to cancel graduation when the second semester started in January of 2020. But no matter how strange the year has turned out, we’ve all learned a little about grace.
“We’ll probably have to cancel graduation,” the principal announced at staff meeting back in March.
“What?” one of the teachers exclaimed. “That’s going to be really hard on the families. For some of them, this is the first kid in their family to ever finish high school.”
We looked at each other soberly, feeling helpless because a virus held us hostage.
“We just don’t know the repercussions of this pandemic, and we can’t take any risks.”
“Will kids still get to graduate?”
“Good question. They still need to do the work. We can’t just give them a diploma if they haven’t earned it.”
We spent hours brainstorming ways to help our students finish the school year. Most of them don’t have timely mail service, computers, or reliable internet connections. Hard to imagine for most of us, but a reality for kids living on a reservation.
The long months of the fourth quarter marched by, and despite our best efforts, we received very little schoolwork from our students. Some kids heard rumors that public schools weren’t making kids do schoolwork, so they didn’t do the work we sent them.
We had to decide how to handle unprecedented situations with just the right combination of accountability and grace.
I wondered how many of our five graduating seniors would actually graduate.
Over the summer and into the fall, the seniors completed their requirements and dropped by to pick up their diplomas. Our dynamic duo of registrar and receptionist made sure to launch an impromptu celebration for each graduate—complete with photos, balloons, a big banner, and kind words from teachers and staff to launch the senior into the world.
That’s not how it was supposed to be. High school graduations should feel like hugs and tears and look like pride and celebration. Not a few full-time staff members handing out balloons to a crowd of five.
Minimalist Graduation Ceremonies
Two weeks ago, our last senior finally finished her work. The congratulations banner looked a little worn around the edges from getting moved and stored between each little ceremony. The registrar and receptionist decided maybe the entire school should get involved in the last graduation.
The young lady in question lives on campus this year, volunteering while finishing up her high school requirements and taking a few classes at the local community college. She expected her mom and dad to show up to celebrate with her, and maybe a few staff members who didn’t have a class to teach at nine in the morning.
Instead, the secretary convinced her to walk over to the church. Her graduation cap and gown hung in the doorway to the sanctuary. As she walked through the door, the staff and students gave her a standing ovation and didn’t stop clapping until she had her cap and gown in place. The notes of Pomp and Circumstance launched her down the aisle and we fell silent as she walked to the front.
She started crying before she made it past the first row of pews. So did I—and a lot of other people, too. We each knew part of her story. A story of hardship, failure, poverty, and circumstances most of us could only imagine.
Her journey through life so far has not been easy. But we celebrated her grit and determination with cheers and balloons, cake and punch. That’s what churches and community are for. Not just places to worship, but places to celebrate redemption stories. I’m pretty sure I heard God cheering, too.
You can cancel graduation, but you can never cancel grace.