Unprecedented virtual graduations take place due to coronavirus pandemic

Einav Tsach

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Photo by Einav Tsach

WJ math teacher Laura Brager introduces WJ’s virtual graduation stage party. Brager served in the Class of 2020 Leadership Team as the Faculty Sponsor.

High school seniors all across the country have celebrated their graduations in a historic virtual format in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and MCPS is no exception. On June 7, the county held a virtual system-wide graduation ceremony hosted by NBC News 4 anchor Leon Harris, and featured Chef José Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen, as the keynote speaker.

“Pomp and Circumstance” started the event off, with pictures of seniors from around the county as well as their high schools. The powerful performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung and interpreted to ASL by MCPS students.

Dr. Jack Smith is the MCPS Superintendent. In his speech, he spoke to graduates about the importance of being able to face the unexpected situations in life, like the one we are currently facing.

“Life is like that. There are often times that things come that are unexpected. Things that we don’t choose. So I encourage you to look for serendipity in life,” he said.

County leaders, including SMOB Nate Tinbite, spoke to congratulate the Class of 2020.

“We are angry and confused about the situation we are in right now, and of what the next few months may hold. But if there’s one thing that these past two months have taught us, it is that through courage and hope, we will rise beyond this circumstance,” Tinbite said.

Chef José Andrés was the keynote speaker of the ceremony. He founded World Central Kitchen, which according to its website, envisions “a world where there is always a warm meal, an encouraging word, and a helping hand in hard times”. Andrés reminded students to keep their spirits up during these challenging times and treasure the moment of graduating high school.

“Let me tell you something. Don’t let anyone or anything take away from your day of celebration for everything you have worked for. Congratulations to you, the Class of 2020! You did this!” he said.

WJ, like all other MCPS high schools, held its own virtual graduation ceremony separately, on June 11. The event was originally set to take place at UMBC for the first time. This has led to mixed opinions from the community, given the school has normally conducted its ceremony at Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland, and earlier, at DAR in DC. WJ math teacher (and WJ alumnus herself) Laura Brager was the Master of Ceremonies for the event. She told seniors that there is something good and positive in every situation.

“I wish I could tell you that in 10 years, you won’t care that this is what your graduation looked like, but I can’t. I wish I could tell you that in two years, the world will look like it did six months ago, but I can’t. And you know what? How great is that! And I know you’re probably thinking, ‘what do you mean great, Ms. Brager,’ but hear me out. I can’t tell you your future, because I have no say in it. It’s on you. You get to make your own future, and more than ever, you, the Graduating Class of 2020, get to make the whole world’s future,” Brager said.

Senior Jonathan Rotman said he was glad that even during the pandemic, the school was able to recognize the seniors’ hard work.

“It was obviously not the ideal graduation we were hoping for, but it still meant a lot to be recognized even through these tough times,” he said.

Senior Diya Thangada also appreciated the ceremony and wished it would have taken place as it was supposed to.

“I thought it was really thoughtful of them and I liked the speeches. But it sucked that we couldn’t get a real one,” she said.

Brager wanted the graduates to take away 3 important pieces of advice as they step into the next stage of their lives.

“Choose kindness, choose happiness, choose action,” she said.

In a tribute to Jonathan Bos, a WJ English teacher who died in March in a car accident, and the Class of 2020, the Walter Johnson High School Choir performed “To Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan.

Senior Class President Colleen Besche encouraged the graduates to remember that they could face even the toughest of challenges.

“You’re about to be thrown into new and uncomfortable situations. Don’t be scared. Trust yourself. Trust who you’ve been for the last 18 years,” she said.

WJ Principal Jennifer Baker applauded the seniors for getting through this difficult moment in time.

“You have not dwelled on the celebrations and activities lost, but you’ve moved on to think about your bright futures. I hope you know that you can do whatever you believe you will accomplish, so continue to dream big,” she said.

Both ceremonies are available to watch on the MCPSTV YouTube channel.