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Students To Get Graduation Pomp At Drive-In Theater Despite Circumstances

Kristin Doherty (left) and Gina Kappes, advisers at North Salem High School in New York, performed a skit as part the video announcement that the 2020 graduation ceremony would take place at Four Brothers Drive In Theater next month.
Courtesy of Gina Kappes
Kristin Doherty (left) and Gina Kappes, advisers at North Salem High School in New York, performed a skit as part the video announcement that the 2020 graduation ceremony would take place at Four Brothers Drive In Theater next month.

Amid all the disappointments and cancellations for high school seniors this year because of COVID-19, many schools around the nation are scrambling to salvage at least some sort of graduation for the class of 2020. Many are considering holding ceremonies online or staging some sort of drive-by celebration.

"To not have [graduation] just doesn't seem right to us," says Ken Freeston, schools superintendent in North Salem, N.Y.

North Salem High School Principal Vince DiGrandi agrees.

"Absolutely, they've earned it," he says.

Along with the school's senior class advisers, they started brainstorming last month for ways to get seniors some pomp, despite the circumstance. But the idea of standing 6 feet apart on a football field, or parading graduates past the school for a social-distanced salute didn't cut it. Eventually, they came up with another, more novel idea — to hold graduation at a venue about an hour north of the school.

Within a day, they drove up to visit, fell in love with the place and started negotiating a contract with the owner and hammering out logistics. The school would bring security guards and a custodian to wipe the bathrooms. The venue agreed to a full refund if the state were to change regulations again and make the gathering illegal. And the school insisted it all be kept top secret, for fear that other schools might steal the idea, and the site. They didn't want to spark a bidding war for a place that is one of only a couple of dozen of its kind in all of New York state.

"Not that we're competitive," Freeston said with a chuckle.

As soon as they inked the contract, the school released a video announcing the plan.

On the screen, DiGrandi calls for a drumroll, describes the news as bigger than "Armstrong landing on the moon," and cuts to the two senior class advisers singing along to "Stranded at the Drive-In" from the movie Grease.

Watching it from home, senior Kayley Decina laughed out loud at the scene but was still confused until the advisers, Gina Kappes and Kristin Doherty, spelled it out: North Salem High School graduation 2020 will take place at a drive-in theater on June 22.

"Oh, my God! That's awesome!" Decina squealed, and immediately declared the plan even more fun than a regular graduation.

"It's one literally for the history books," agreed senior Emmet Halton. To actually put on a cap and gown to cap this crazy year is huge, he said. "Considering it's just been a blur the past month or two, I think it's going to be really good that we get that sense of closure."

Decina has been craving it.

"I've literally been crying every day about not having a graduation and not seeing my friends," she said. "So I think having this last hurrah is really going to help. And it means a ton."

Kids are already planning to decorate their cars. They are limited to one per family, and if they have a sunroof they can pop through to cheer and toss their caps.

The valedictorian's speech will blare from the drive-in's 56-foot-wide screen in high definition.

And while North Salem's 103 graduates may not get to walk, DiGrandi plans to march from car to car, passing out diplomas from a proper social distance. He has recruited an old industrial arts teacher to build him a retractable arm to extend at least 6 feet.

"I was thinking one of those alligator grippers like my grandmother would have," he said. "And I would just dip into the car with the diploma. You know, they could take a picture. It would be great."

And after the ceremony, well, they're not going to let a trip to the drive-in go to waste.

It didn't take long to settle on which movie would be most appropriate to show. "Groundhog Day," exclaimed DiGrandi. "Because it kind of feels that way for these kids."

But if all goes according to plan, at least graduation day will feel different. And North Salem High School may well be sending off its seniors with a more memorable lesson than any commencement address could possibly offer: how to roll with life's curveballs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.