Unusual graduation ceremony ‘meant something to us’

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  • Nor Bartley Young, on stage, waves to his fellow Amherst Regional graduates after he was the last of eight valedictorians to speak during commencement exercises outside the high school on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional High School graduate Sora Marie Green is applauded as she takes the stage during graduation exercises outside the high school on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2020 2:07:13 PM

AMHERST — As music played and spectators clapped and used various noisemakers, including their car horns, more than 200 Amherst Regional High School seniors made their way across a makeshift stage set up in front of the school Wednesday.

Staying at least six feet apart to maintain proper social distancing during the daylong graduation procession, some of the seniors approached Principal Gene Jones and Assistant Principal Talib Sadiq, imitating a handshake or an elbow bump with the school leaders, before removing their face coverings for a professional snapshot on stage, then heading to the embrace of their families and photos with their loved ones.

The graduation exercises for the class of 2020, coming in the midst of a global pandemic, were unlike any that had come before, even as school officials aimed to bring some normalcy to the proceedings of handing out diplomas.

“It was weird,” senior Julian Cartagena said of the experience. “You had to be extra mindful of social distancing.”

But Cartagena said the ceremony was quick and easy and felt right.

“I’m glad I got to walk the stage and that that wasn’t taken away from me. I’m OK with it,” Cartagena said.

Graduating senior Patricia Sittauer said participating in the unusual ceremony was a sentimental experience, even though it was not how she preferred to have her time in high school end.

“It doesn’t feel like school anymore. It feels like something else entirely,” Sittauer said. “It’s still kind of fun to get our own individual moment.”

She added that she liked that senior photos have been displayed on the Amherst Town Common this week so the community could recognize their achievements. “The photos on the common was a nice touch,” Sittauer said.

That administrators were able to put together a graduation that could be safe for students and their families, while at the same time being meaningful, was appreciated by senior Cenai Collins.

“I really liked it. It was a really good opportunity for us to be here as a community. That meant something to us,” Collins said.

Collins said graduation was the first time he had been able to chat again with some of his classmates, as well as say farewells.

“It was nice to see everybody, including some of my favorite teachers,” Collins said.

“It’s better than I thought it would be,” added senior Patrik Cooper, who was unsure how well the event could be organized.

“I think it’s a good way, in the times right now, to celebrate senior accomplishments,” said Ella Budington, a graduating senior. “I’m glad the school made the effort.”

Because of the spread-out celebration at the edge of the high school parking lot, families were encouraged to decorate their vehicles in a celebratory way. One had a sign on the roof stating “2020 Rocks! Go ’Canes,” while another had “ARHS 2020” strung across the windshield and a third had several posters in the windows, such as “You Did It Class 2020.”

Though not having a normal structure to the graduation, as graduates and their families came and went during the course of the day, speeches were still made by nine valedictorians, the class president, Superintendent Michael Morris and School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald, and others. Each was recorded and will be incorporated into a video that will debut on Amherst Media on June 5, the original graduation date, and also the day when a car parade in honor of the seniors takes place.

Jones said the photos of each of the 222 seniors on stage will be included in a montage that will be part of this graduation video, with other elements including prerecorded music by the choir and dance troupe. He compared putting together the video to how a film is made in segments, and often out of order, and then pieced together into a coherent whole for seniors and their families to watch.

For parents, seeing their children walk on the stage was important.

Shylou Davila, Cartagena’s mother, said her son and fellow seniors deserved to have the ceremony.

“They made the best of the situation, and that’s really sweet,” Davila said.

Davila was joined by others in her family to properly send the graduates off on the right foot. “My heart is so full,” Davila said.

Keisha Dennis, Collins’ mother, was also happy at what she saw.

“This still gave them the opportunity to do the walk and get their diplomas in a way that felt special,” Dennis said. 

Anita Cooper compared the event to the picnic-style gatherings that often take place after a 10K road race, observing that everyone was festive and spirits were high.

“I think this is great,” said Cooper, a former school's choral program director, who noted she has been at 15 graduations at the Mullins Center. “In some ways, this was more exciting because you can congratulate your graduate right after, plus we were never allowed to honk car horns before.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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