Keeping the secret was hard, but Georgina Wigton thought it would be worth it.
She took the phone calls in other rooms of the house hoping her 18-year-old son, Highline High School senior William Stagi, couldn’t hear her through the walls. She found roundabout ways to ask when exactly Stagi’s dad was going to drop him off at her house on the morning of May 28.
It was a good secret to keep. Under the cover of night on May 27, Wigton’s front yard was flocked, filled with a fleet of flamingos courtesy of West Seattle-based company Westside Flockers. They stood alongside two signs congratulating Stagi on finishing high school, with one bearing the slogan “The One Where We Were Quarantined.”
The pink plastic pilgrimage does not begin to make up for the graduation her son was supposed to have, not to mention the summer trip the family had planned to see Wigton’s sister in Barcelona. But the flocking, inspired by online searching for substitute celebrations, was something.
After school districts nationwide canceled graduation ceremonies out of caution during the coronavirus pandemic, Wigton is one of many parents of high school graduates who has devised alternative ways to commemorate the milestone moment while abiding by social distancing.
“As parents, it’s really, really sad not to be able to kind of see the culmination of all the work that he has done,” Wigton said of her son. “He’s really a good student.”
Stagi is heading to the University of Washington this fall. His mom, a Peruvian immigrant, says she’s really proud of him because he’s part of the first generation of her family to go to college.
High school graduation is a pivotal moment for any teenager. It’s both a significant milestone and a recognition of a new phase of life. Tears are shed. Sentimental copies of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” are gifted. Young people walk across a stage, collect a piece of paper and go toward whatever’s next.
But as the pandemic closed classrooms across the country and canceled most large public events, the tradition became a potentially hazardous one. An auditorium teeming with supportive family members, some having traveled to support their graduate, would be a pathogenic nightmare.
So now, the class of 2020 sits at home, never to walk across the stage with all their peers at once, their diplomas in the mail.
Treasure Barrett, a senior at Wilson High School in Tacoma, says she sobbed when she read her school’s email announcing modified graduation plans, which include a drive-thru station to pick up commemorative yard signs and a slideshow composed of photos of graduates in their caps and gowns.
Barrett’s mom photographed her in cap and gown, standing in their garden. A neighbor said “congratulations” as she walked past, and another honked their horn a few times as they drove by. Later, her mom showed her the photos.
“I look really sad,” she said. “It’s hard to fake a smile when you’re not really happy about what you’re doing.”
It’s not the same, but families and schools are doing what they can to recognize graduates within the scope of public health guidelines. But many traditions — such as speeches from high-achieving students — are now land mines to be carefully navigated.
While passing a microphone back and forth in a typical onstage scenario isn’t an option anymore, the administration at Port Townsend High School devised a way to let the students speak.
For the school’s socially distanced graduation ceremony on June 12, a parade of graduates and their families in cars will wind its way through town before ending at the Wheel-In Motor Movie drive-in theater. The drive-in’s owner went to the high school and volunteered the use of his space for free.
After an introduction from Principal Carrie Ehrhardt and some comments from Superintendent John Polm Jr., the audience of car-bound graduates will hear speeches from the valedictorian, the salutatorian, a class speaker, a faculty speaker and the student body president.
One at a time, the student speakers will exit their vehicles, walk onstage and deliver a speech to classmates while wearing a face mask, cap and gown. Between each speech, the microphone will be thoroughly sanitized.
“We’re being very careful to make sure everybody feels safe,” Ehrhardt said. “We’re being mindful of the regulations and expectations put in place by not only the governor’s office, but by the state Department of Health. The most important thing is the safety and well-being of the students, families, staff and community.”
Jefferson County, in which Port Townsend is located, was recently cleared to begin Phase 2 in Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase plan to reopen Washington state.
Ehrhardt has been the principal at Port Townsend for 19 years, and she’s been busy these days, planning graduation and handling the schools’ transition to digital learning. She still goes into her office at the high school, alone except for at least one secretary maintaining social distance. She said without the energy from students and teachers in the hallways, it just doesn’t feel right.
Next week, 83 students will graduate from Port Townsend High School, and Ehrhardt will call out each name at graduation. In previous years when she’s said a name and watched a graduate cross the stage, she thinks about each one as they walk.
“When you just take a moment to reflect on that student, what you know about them, what they’ve been through during their years in high school, it just really stirs up a lot of pride,” she said.
This year, she will maintain the tradition of calling out each graduate’s name. But instead of walking across a stage, each student will accept quick congratulations and diploma covers from glove-wearing faculty and staff. Many students will wear caps and gowns, but it’s not a requirement.
Instead of a typical buttoned-up ceremony, Port Townsend’s graduation is usually an informal event with student performances and recognitions that lasts up to three hours. The administration thinks this year’s modified ceremony will go 45 minutes at most.
Ehrhardt said she’s heard disappointment over the plan, but with that many students, during such an emotional time, she just doesn’t see a way to maintain social distancing practices within the framework of a traditional ceremony.
Barrett is still holding out hope that things might improve enough for the school district to agree to postpone graduation.
She started a Change.org petition asking for Tacoma Public Schools’ graduations to be postponed or reimagined. It’s been signed by 973 people as of June 1, and Barrett says she has yet to receive a response from the school system.
“I’m willing to wait until August for graduation to happen normally,” Barrett said. “But if we could do a modified graduation with social distancing, we could do that sooner.”
In the days leading up to the secret celebratory flamingo flocking, Wigton suggested to her son that they get brunch upon his return from a night at his father’s house, to celebrate his graduation. Stagi’s dad dropped him off at his mom’s at 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday to a bevy of faux flamingos.
Georgina, her husband Scott Wigton, and Stagi’s 12-year-old sister, Amaya, were standing outside waiting for him.
Wigton had kept the secret well. Stagi had no idea what was going on.
“I had a lot of questions immediately,” he said.
Once he saw the yard signs, it clicked. He got out of the car and walked over to his family. After his mom explained what she did, he hugged her. Later that morning, they ate brunch after all — delivered to their house.
“I’m definitely missing some of the things that I was looking forward to, and so I really appreciate that my mom went out and did this,” Stagi said.
It’s not quite a traditional graduation ceremony, but, it was something fun, and different — at a time when everyone needs a little levity in their lives.
Earlier that morning, when Wigton and daughter Amaya were looking at the flamingos before the drop-off, Wigton said her daughter seemed jealous of the replacement celebration.
“I want something like that for me,” she told her mom.