• 63°

A proper send-off

WINDSOR – Unpredictable times often call for unpredictable measures. And no one can understand that better than the graduating Class of 2020.

So, with the COVID-19 crisis still incomplete, Bertie High School leaders got together and got creative. The school’s June 13 graduation ceremony may have been unique, and that certainly helped make it memorable.

“We looked at examples from other schools as far back as April and we thought about a drive-thru,” said BHS principal Tony Hoggard. “But we felt like what’s the biggest thing parents want to see, and that’s kids walk across the stage. So that’s when we decided to do a drive-in with some other things added so the parents could see them make that walk just like a normal graduation.”

Members of the Class of 2020 at Bertie High School were chauffeured into the school’s parking lot on June 13. Photo by Amanda Bunch / Bertie County Schools

Saturday morning began with a celebratory procession (with organizers careful not to call it a parade) of the graduates in vehicles at the Bertie campus of Martin Community College in downtown Windsor on Granville Street. Each vehicle had a family member or friend driving and the graduate in the front passenger seat.

The cavalcade then proceeded east and after a left onto King Street, headed north on US-13 to the high school.

After circling the school grounds, vehicles were guided to the Auditorium parking lot, where the graduates were parked in alphabetical order.

Families and dignitaries filled in on the perimeter, and the staff of Bertie High School was gathered on the parking lot sidewalk, or seated six feet apart under the Auditorium entrance.

“Depending on how strategic you are, it worked out where (family members, brother and sister) graduating together had an advantage because they could have multiple vehicles, and one family had three cars,” Hoggard said.

After parking in neat rows, the graduates exited their vehicles. They maintained social distancing requirements by lining up six feet apart and were able to walk across the stage to receive their diploma jackets. The diplomas were conferred by Bertie County Schools Superintendent Dr. Otis L. Smallwood, after which photo snapshots could be taken

“The jacket included some trinkets that were a tribute to them: things like a senior T-shirt, and a CD with pictures taken during the school year,” Hoggard stated.

As the row of seniors turned their tassels, becoming new graduates, they returned to their vehicles and exited the premises. Figuratively, they were riding off not into a proverbial sunset, but into their futures in perhaps a shaky and uncertain world.

Graduates drove off the parking lot, honking their horns as a final salute to fellow classmates and teachers.

In addition to Dr. Smallwood and Principal Hoggard, other on-stage dignitaries included Assistant Principal Stephanie Cottle and Bertie School Board Chairman Tarsha Dudley. All waved goodbye to each graduate with pride and joy, knowing that the seniors got a proper send-off in this unusual time.

While there were no long speeches, the musical refrain of “Pomp and Circumstance” played over loudspeakers while cars were parked. The invocation was given by Jalen Jair Hines while Lindsey Jean Dickens recognized guests and dignitaries and Alyssa Rhea Byrum gave a short commencement address, titled ‘Remembering the Past.’ In all, there were 133 seniors who turned their tassels Saturday morning.

“The Class of 2020 is a generation that came into the world during 911,” Byrum recalled. “And now it’s taking their first steps into the world of work, or further education, during a global pandemic.

Bertie High’s graduation ceremony was streamed via Facebook Live. Footage of the ceremony is available on the Bertie County Schools Facebook page and on the Bertie High School Facebook page.

“This class is so deserving,” said Smallwood. “It was an emotional weekend for all. Thirty-one years ago, I received my diploma from Bertie High School, and today (Saturday), I have the honor and privilege to confer diplomas as Superintendent for a class of graduates which has shown marked resilience, fortitude and determination to see it to the end.

“I am so proud of these students and their accomplishments—not just during the pandemic, but also throughout their entire K-12 educational careers,” Smallwood continued. “I wish them all the best as they go out into the world to make a life for themselves and to impact others along the journey. “Hats off to the Class of 2020: The class that was quarantined.”

For Hoggard, the ceremony capped a busy week for school staff. It included making certain that every graduate received their ‘Senior Sign’ to display in the yard at their homes.

“It took me three whole days,” he exclaimed. “We took off on the first day at 8:30 and didn’t get back until after 4:30. It gave me a picture of how difficult remote learning can be in this county, because I went down some roads I’d never seen before and some roads off of roads, and I realized this is where our kids live and while it may not be the greatest of environments, it was a trip worth taking.”

“This has been a challenge,” Hoggard concluded. “I commend our seniors for being resilient and persevering through it all. I think they learned a lesson that things can be taken from us at any time, but how we adapt and adjust to it will determine our outcome. We just need to have all the resources we need to get it done.”