Milestones deserve a celebration, which is why in the coming weeks a procession of students may just parade across your social feeds. Or, if you are the Clinton High School Class of 2020, you’ll see it at your local drive-in.
It’s graduation season, and while COVID-19 is preventing a lot of the pomp and circumstance of a formal commencement ceremony, across the country, many students are getting their own special recognition. Facebook campaigns are popping up to “Adopt a Senior,” a way for people to share their congratulations, well wishes and even gifts for graduating seniors in their communities. Yard signs and banners are popping up, too, with exclamations like “Proud home of a Wellington High School senior.”
But a tiny town in the Ozark foothills of Arkansas is doing those one better and commemorating its seniors in a very big way.
Social distancing will keep this year’s graduating class of 97 seniors from being together as a student body one last time. Thanks to technology, though, the impossible will seem, well, almost possible, in a Hollywood-special-effects sort of way.
The last week of April, Clinton High seniors will dress in caps and gowns, and, in 15-minute intervals, one-by-one, return to school to receive their diplomas. The valedictorian, salutatorian and class president deliver their speeches. A handful of family members can attend the small event, all of which will be recorded and edited by a film company in the area.
And all of that was important for Brook Bradford, the salutatorian who said her class is a particularly close bunch, with many of them connected since kindergarten.
“Attending the same school district for 13 years, you get to know everyone — the teachers, counselors, janitors, bus drivers, coaches. This past year, we got a new principal,” she said. “Students were skeptical, but thought we’d give him a chance to change our minds. It turned out to be a good call.”
That principal is Tim Smith, who showed up to his first day of school last year sporting an “ambassador of quan” shirt, a phrase made famous in the movie Jerry Maguire. A former college basketball coach, Smith wanted to create a culture based on respect and love. So he gave the faculty an assignment, according to a report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time: They were to do random acts of kindness for an hour and video them. That made an immediate impact on the faculty as well as the students.
Smith has also gone from being a relative neophyte when it comes to social media to now posting near-daily video messages to students on Facebook.
Then Smith, the school superintendent and the school secretary arranged what would become the biggest act of kindness of all, a bright spot in a spring that has already seen its share of disappointments — no prom, no senior trip, no cookout, no awards ceremony.
And yet — there will be a graduation after all. A feature-length film of it, in fact, shown on the big screen of the Kenda Drive-in just a day after the original graduation was to take place. Each student will receive two car tickets for the theater experience so small groups of family and friends can be together, while still at a distance.
“It’s not normal by any means, but they will remember this for a lifetime,” said Smith. “It was a way that we could still get everyone together and still do something because with seniors, graduation is the last time they will be together as a whole group.”
Bradford said students are appreciative of the gesture, even if emotions did get the best of her as she filmed her speech.
“I grew up going to that drive-in,” she said. “I never thought my face would be 40-feet high, crying up on the screen.”
Smith, who has heard from fellow educators from as far away as New Jersey, said an in-person graduation is still in the works for July.
“We’re making the best of what we have in the current situation,” Smith said. “This is a way we can still celebrate now, in a safe way.”