SULLIVAN — Even in an era that’s seen large gatherings in tight spaces become taboo, Sumner Memorial High School still found a way to make graduation a ceremonious occasion.
No, there were no packed gymnasium bleachers or mass tossings of caps this year, but this June day was no less important to Sumner seniors and their family and community members. The setting was a bit different, but thanks to a few tweaks and extra precautions, the decorations, joyous moments and conferring of diplomas made this year’s graduation ceremonies as memorable as ever.
Sumner sent off the Class of 2020 in style Saturday afternoon with a modified graduation ceremony held outdoors. The event allowed this year’s graduates to experience the memorable moments enjoyed by classes before them while ensuring a safe environment that adhered to social distancing guidelines.
“We wanted to give them that same opportunity to be recognized on stage and in front of their families,” Sumner Principal Ty Thurlow said. “We wanted to find a way to do that and not have to do something where they were in their cars or not having [a ceremony] at all.”
The event saw all but two members of the school’s graduating class of 46 participate in festivities. Mask-wearing seniors and their families were led into a tent on the school soccer field in parties of two at a time throughout the afternoon and relatively late into the evening.
In each session, Thurlow and Regional School Unit 24 Superintendent Michael Eastman spoke of the graduates’ doggedness and determination in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic and its resulting challenges. Vern Campbell, a longtime teacher, then presented graduates with their high school diplomas as they walked across a small stage and posed for photos.
“In light of the situation you are in today with this pandemic, your perseverance and your drive to succeed have been evident,” Eastman said. “If you take anything away from the last couple of months, let it be how well our school community and all of the adults in your life have modeled how to deal with adversity: tackling it head on with grit, with pride and as a family. That is the Sumner way.”
The event was originally scheduled to be held last Thursday, but a downpour that began mid-morning and continued through the afternoon hours forced the school to postpone it 48 hours. Although the ceremonies ran from noon-7 p.m., planners arrived at 8 a.m. to finish preparations and didn’t leave until approximately 10 p.m.
Sumner faculty members had been planning the event for two months after it became evident that the school would not be able to hold its traditional graduation ceremonies. Everybody, Thurlow said, pitched in to help.
“Whenever graduation time comes, we become these mini-event planners,” Thurlow said. “We weren’t able to do it in the gymnasium this year, so we decided to create this celebration that stretches all over our campus.”
From the tent on the soccer field to a designated photo area on the front lawn to families gathering to tailgate in the gravel parking lot, this was, indeed, a campus-wide celebration. Even the Regional School Unit 24 office building a mile and a half away was adorned with balloons and streamers to signify the occasion.
Whereas students and families left freely throughout the day as their turns on stage came and went, Sumner staffers stuck around for all 14-plus hours. Yet even if the hours were long, honoring a graduating class that’s missed out on many of the traditional rites of passage that come with senior year made every second worthwhile.
“So many of their final events of senior year were compromised as a result of this pandemic,” Thurlow said. “Being able to do something like this to give them this experience, it’s definitely worth it.”