Dressed in his cap and gown, Isaiah Brown waited in the shade with his extended family for his turn to walk across a platform set up outside James Monroe High School and receive his diploma.
At the proper moment, drama teacher Mark Wright hit a switch to play a recording of “Pomp and Circumstance” as Brown’s parents sat in chairs near the platform, fingers poised on their cellphones to capture his big moment Tuesday. Grandparents, aunts and uncles clapped and cheered from a cordoned-off area.
“It’s better than a lot of schools right now,” said Brown, noting that some school systems have opted for virtual ceremonies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
His father, Isaiah Brown III, agreed.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he said. “I’d rather he have something than nothing.”
James Monroe’s Class of 2020 was supposed to graduate together in a ceremony May 15, but those plans were upended after Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools just before spring break. Once it was clear that schools wouldn’t reopen before the end of the school year, a committee of JM administrators and teachers began devising a way to celebrate each of the 233 graduating seniors while maintaining social distancing.
They decided to have them sign up for a time slot during a three-day period this week so each one could get their own special moment on stage. Families were directed to drive the loop in front of the school and stop at tents where their senior would be signed in, drop off laptops or other devices they may have borrowed, and then pick up a bag containing anything that they left in their locker on their last day in the building.
Immediate family members were allowed to sit in a special area so they’d have a good view of their senior receiving their diploma, sharing an elbow bump with a mask-wearing Principal Tim Duffy before standing on an “X” marked on the stage so Cyreeta Hall of Lifestoryfoto could photograph them. Afterward, parents were given the chance to turn their senior’s tassel from right to left as up to 10 guests watched from a separate area.
“I’m just glad that we’re able to do something,” senior Allison Kreisman said as she waited her turn Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a bittersweet end. It’s not how we imagined things.”
Her father, Daniel Kreisman, said that he, too, was glad JM graduates got to have a ceremony, although he would have preferred a more traditional one. He flipped his daughter’s tassel to the right and gave her a hug after she got her diploma. Then they, along with Allison’s mom, Emily Kreisman, walked over to a spot under the school’s portico so Andre Williams could take pictures of Allison alone and then with her family.
Allison also got a hug and a big “thank you” from Leslie Leahy, who’d set up a photo booth to honor those who’d participated in the Ceili Leahy Day of Service. She and her husband, John Leahy, established it four years ago in honor of their daughter. Ceili, a JM grad, was 19 when she died of cancer in 2016. Participants have planted 160 trees around the high school, among other projects.
“Go change the world!” Leahy told Allison.
Seniors also got to pick up a T-shirt emblazoned with the school’s yellow jacket mascot wearing a mask, a yard sign and a gift box designed by art teacher Phil Carter. Inside were a glass mug, ornament, graduation program and ticket, along with a message from Superintendent Marci Catlett.
“We’re just thrilled to do this for our students,” Duffy said during a break between ceremonies. “Each student gets individual attention. Things have just gone so well.”
JM will continue the celebration by posting a video featuring photography of all the ceremonies on its Facebook page and YouTube channel June 20.