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High school seniors mourn loss of graduation rituals

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Town Crier File Photo
Mountain View High School seniors participate in their 2017 graduation ceremony. This year, the coronavirus pandemic has made the traditional end-of-high-school rituals impossible.

Walking across the stage clad in a cap and gown, looking out and seeing his parents in the crowd, receiving his diploma – these images have all been in Isidro Zuniga Vazquez’s mind since his freshman year at Los Altos High School. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has made that traditional graduation ritual impossible.

Zuniga Vazquez’s parents immigrated from Mexico and he and his brother are the first in their family to graduate from high school in the United States. His brother graduated from Los Altos High last year.

“Graduation has a lot of meaning to it,” said Zuniga Vazquez, vice president of the senior class. “Walking the stage and seeing my parents in the crowd, that just carries so much weight to it, so much meaning.”

The plan for graduation at Los Altos High is still being worked out. Students want a video featuring seniors in their graduation regalia with their diplomas and some socially distanced way of viewing that video together, Assistant Principal Suzanne Woolfolk said. Administrators are currently working to determine what will be possible.

For a while, Mountain View High student body president Julia Bennett held out hope things would be back to normal by graduation. However, as the shelter-in-place orders were extended, she said she came to realize they were going to have to make the best of a tough situation.

“It’s also hard, too, because it’s nobody’s fault, nothing can change it,” Bennett said.

It isn’t just graduation that’s changing – other senior events are also being reimagined or canceled outright. At Homestead High School, prom has been called off, but senior Amanda Arana had already picked out her dress – a long white spaghetti-strap gown with a beaded top.

Arana’s graduation plans also were upended. Her grandparents were planning to come from El Salvador to watch her and her cousins graduate. Now, that can’t happen. Homestead is planning to create a video for graduation, which will be posted online.

Graduation was of particular importance to Arana because her parents immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador and she and her older sister are the first in the family to graduate from high school.

“It was really heartbreaking, because I was really excited about it,” Arana said. “I put so much work into graduating. And not being able to walk the stage, it was really sad.”

Of all the events that have been changed or canceled, Los Altos High’s senior class president Kayla Brinkman said graduation has been the hardest. The ceremony gives seniors a sense of closure, she added, and allows them to feel confident taking their next steps.

“It’s just such a special moment that you get to share with your friends and your family,” Brinkman said. “It’s something we’ve been looking
forward to forever.”

Beyond graduation, Los Altos High’s prom has been postponed to Aug. 7, with a backup date of Nov. 25. That could mean seniors end up celebrating prom over Thanksgiving break. Some events, like the annual senior picnic, have been canceled altogether. As it became clear that the rituals were going to be changed or lost, “a lot of tears were shed,” Brinkman said.

“All the changes happened so quickly, which was hard to take in,” she said. “The fact that we’re not really going to be getting the same closure that classes before us have gotten is a hard concept to deal with.”

Lior Kishinevsky, Homestead High’s student body president, similarly said it was a shock just how much things have changed. These last few months of senior year were meant to be a time when seniors come together to celebrate their time in high school, Kishinevsky said, and participate in communal events.

“Those are memories that we’ll never get to make,” he said. “That’s the thing that I’m most sad about.”

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