SLHS graduates on silver screen
GABRIELS — Instead of the usual formal event in the civic center, the Saranac Lake High School commencement was a drive-in movie in a farm field.
Rather than sitting at the front of the hockey arena, with their families watching from behind, graduates sat with their families in cars, in the beds of pickup trucks and sometimes on the roofs to get a better view of the screen.
Instead of wearing caps and gowns, ties and high heels, several wore class sweatshirts, given out a few weeks ago, with spiky coronavirus circles replacing the zeros in “Class of 2020.”
The virus will forever mark this year’s graduates. It canceled their prom and all kinds of special senior events, and forced an overhaul of their commencement ceremony. But according to their principal, Josh Dann, “If there were ever a class that saw a pandemic as an opportunity, it would be this class. Finding the light at the end of the tunnel and doing things your way, that’s what I really cherish and love about you.”
The seniors and speakers had individually recorded their parts weeks before, and Good Guy Productions of Bloomingdale had edited it all together into a two-hour video. Friday night was the world premiere, but it’s also now posted on the SLHS website, http://highschool.slcs.org.
“As cool as it can be”
It was perfect summer evening weather, and the field at Tucker Farms in Gabriels was full of smiles and laughter as people waited for showtime. Students and parents were supposed to stay in their vehicles, but many milled about and visited — not enough to prompt enforcement by school administrators but enough to scratch the itch for social interaction after more than three months of COVID-19 shutdown.
Twin sisters Olivia and Molly Bell said they had looked forward to taking pictures with their friends at a traditional graduation, but they seemed to have accepted this new reality.
“It kind of sucks, but it’s good,” Olivia said as she waited for showtime. “It’s nice that they’re doing this.”
“They’re making it as cool as it can be,” said their mother Christine Bell, who works as one of the high school’s guidance counselors. “It’ll be something to remember for sure, right?”
Showtime was late, 9:30 p.m. It had to get dark first, and these are the longest days of the year.
Keynote speaker Kathy McHugh works out of the high school office as registrar for the Saranac Lake Central School District, and her four sons went through the Saranac Lake school system. She offered an assortment of advice: “Stay curious. … It’s hobbies that make people interesting. … Tell the people who are important to you that they are important to you; don’t leave them guessing. … Learn to listen. … Treat others well. … In this life, you get what you give, so give back goodness. … Always search for the joy, and when you find it, share it. … And don’t forget to call your mother.”
“Worst class ever”
Salutatorian Rosemary Crowley noted that the pandemic is not the first time this class has had to be resilient.
“Over the years, we have always been the class that has missed out on stuff,” she said. “We missed out on going to the water park in eighth grade, we spent time missing out on the senior lounge, and now we’re missing out on the rest of our senior year and everything that comes with it. To sum it up, our class is cursed. Nevertheless, we’ve stuck together and found other ways to have fun together in high school.”
She had asked classmates to share their favorite high school memories, and she read them in her speech — from funny interactions with teachers and classmates to the thrill of sports victories.
“Despite everything our middle school teachers told us, we are winners,” she said. “Do you know how many (sports) banners we won this year, even though it was cut short? I don’t, but I do know it was a lot. We also have the most school spirit by far and are known to always dress up, support each other at sporting events, and cheer the loudest. Altogether, that’s pretty impressive for the ‘worst class ever.’
“You don’t have to listen to what other people say you are. For years we have been told that we are the absolute worst, but I don’t think that any of us actually feel that way, and I personally believe that we have proved them wrong.”
If that felt a little defiant, it was nothing compared with the speech that followed, in which valedictorian Francine Newman spoke frankly about racism she has endured from classmates and teachers for being Asian. (See accompanying story.)
“Your own beat”
Dann noted the “worst class ever” label, too, but said he saw them as independent.
“Since you were in first grade, you have always danced to your own beat,” he said. “Your choices and decisions were never influenced by past practices or past classes. You made decisions that were best for your classmates, and you stuck to your beliefs.”
They are ready to be spontaneous, he said, noting that more than half the class made appearances on the “cheesy” (his word) video show he did every morning during the pandemic with Dean of Students Lynda Peer, in place of announcements. Also, he said, “I’ve never received so many emails or texts from any other class in my career.”
“Bottom line, when this class wants something, they show up with heart, and they get it done.”
Horns honked and people cheered as scholarships were announced and every senior was shown walking across the stage and hugging family members — prerecorded in early June. Meanwhile, teachers went around to cars and handed each graduate an envelope. Inside each was that student’s diploma and scholarship certificates — plus a ticket to Water Safari in Old Forge, site of their canceled eighth-grade class trip.
(Full disclosure: Rosemary Crowley is the daughter of Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley, who wrote this article.)