Graduation 2020

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They came with diplomas. They came with cookies and cameras. They came with a big banner and binders full of art. And they came with a bridge. A five-foot-long arched wooden bridge.

With schools closed, and current guidelines limiting indoor gatherings to 10 and outdoor events to 25, the usual graduation plans are abandoned everywhere. Planning committees are finding ways to honor 2020’s high school and college graduates with pre-recorded speeches and Zoom calls and yard signs. Some seniors will drive through a processional and receive diplomas through car windows.

So what’s a preschool to do?

Before my eldest son graduated from Zion’s Hill Preschool, I was a little skeptical of a graduation ceremony. I taught preschool 20 years ago; my last day was light on the ceremony and heavy on the cleaning. The morning of graduation, however, as my five-year-old waited by the car—his gown, red as a stop sign, askew on his shoulders and his arms swallowed by cavernous sleeves—my cynicism evaporated. There were songs and certificates. There was a slideshow showing tremendous growth. There were words about everything the children had learned, about change, about saying goodbye. And there was a walk across the bridge. What I remember most is that my son, who is exceedingly quiet, glowed. He intuited the importance of the day. He felt celebrated.

This year, as my twin boys progressed through their final year of Zion’s Hill Preschool, I was already anticipating the specialness of graduation by January. I ordered caps and gowns and asked my mother-in-law to mark her calendar. But the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in mid-March, and that closure was extended, and extended again. Against the scope of global suffering, we were fortunate. But we all felt loss. And among the preschool losses, graduation seemed to weigh the heaviest. I hoped my younger sons could feel the same sense of ritual and change their big brother had experienced two years prior.

So I, and, I suspect, every other family of a rising kindergartener, was relieved when ZHPP Director Jessica Joy announced graduation would go on. If the school could not host graduation, the school would bring graduation to us.

Over the course of four days in early June, Jessica, Assistant Director Brenda Marchi, and all the teachers from the Four’s and Five’s classes, visited 31 homes to see 35 preschoolers off to kindergarten. They arrived in separate cars, lined the curb, and fanned out. Brenda opened the back of her beloved red Ford Expedition (215,000+ miles!) and hauled the bridge to wherever each family wanted it. Driveway? Porch? Middle of the yard? Then she draped the bridge with the iconic Zion’s Hill Preschool sign: three children holding hands under a tree.

Of course, holding hands didn’t happen. And air hugs from eight feet away had to suffice. But even with COVID-19 keeping us apart, this year’s ZHPP graduation ceremonies were crafted from every fiber of togetherness and love. Whether wearing hand-made cardboard caps or full graduation ensemble, children listened to Miss Jessica one last time as she congratulated them on completing a unique year. They beamed as their classroom teachers complimented them on their bravery and kindness, on the learning they did at school and at home, and on the particular skill areas in which they are beginning to shine. They stepped across the bridge. My two said on the other side, “I’m in kindergarten now!” as if the walk from one grass patch to another meant they were bigger, stronger, wiser, and readier for the world. They posed for pictures. They—and we—felt uplifted, which I realized in the moment was something we hadn’t felt in a while. And because of the unusual circumstances, each ceremony was tailored to each child.

Thank you Jessica, Brenda, and all the Four’s and Five’s teachers, for finding a way to preserve this moment in June. This moment when children leave the refuge of preschool and launch their K–12 journeys. Despite the virus, despite its worries and constraints, our children feel happy, courageous, and proud to be graduates.

—Suzanne Farrell Smith

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