This Mesa Class of 2020 found a way to celebrate The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

This Mesa Class of 2020 found a way to celebrate

May 23rd, 2020 Mesa Tribune Staff
This Mesa Class of  2020 found a way to celebrate

By Zach Alvira
Tribune Staff Writer

With their big moment reduced to a virtual exercise, a large group of Red Mountain High School seniors gathered last Thursday night to release biodegradable balloons as they celebrated their graduation.

Advertised as “6 Feet to Graduation,” the event was organized by Red Mountain senior Sydney Stang, who wanted a chance for her classmates to gather safely in person.

Stang and the other seniors, wanting more than a virtual slideshow, found a unique way to honor one another together instead of sitting in front of a computer screen.

“Everyone was really upset,” Stang said. “I would love to graduate after going to school for that many years. Having to do it online, it just didn’t feel right. We can’t end our whole year like that.”

The students, dressed in their black graduation caps and gowns, gathered at a park across the street from Red Mountain. They lined up along Brown Road as cars filled with friends, family, regular passersby – and at one point a Mesa Police cruiser – passed them by, displaying signs and honking horns.

The students released the white dove-shaped balloons into the air.

“I’m just so proud, I really am,” said Jenny Khayat, Stang’s mother. “It’s been so hectic with the two of us trying to put this together, in that moment, when they released the balloons, it was all worth it.”

Most districts last week held virtual commencements, though some – including Chandler Unified and Tempe Union – are planning to hold some kind of public commencement celebration next month or in July if social distancing guidelines can be worked out. Meanwhile, Horizon Honors Secondary School, a public charter in Ahwatukee, announced it was postponing graduation altogether until Aug. 1, when it hopes to hold an in-person commencement.

MPS Interim Superintendent Peter Lesar said the uncertainty of how the pandemic will play out over the next few months made planning for a traditional ceremony difficult.

“We are disappointed that our seniors are getting something less than every other graduating class,” Lesar said during the meeting. “The decision we have made, we believe, is the most responsible decision for all of the families we serve in Mesa Public Schools.”

Stang and Khayat brainstormed ideas to host some sort of celebration.

They referenced Hands Across America, an event that saw millions in 1986 join hands to make a human chain.

Stang posted a poll on social media asking whether an in-person ceremony that still promotes social distancing would interest other seniors. A short time later, more than 100 students expressed interest.

The original plan was to light and release lanterns into the sky. But not wanting to risk an accidental fire, they resorted to balloons. Stang and Khayat purchased all of the balloons for the seniors in attendance and passed them out before the ceremony.

They all cheered as the balloons floated into the air. All students were filled with joy, some became emotional.

“We all had the same feeling when graduation was canceled. I mean, who wants to just sit and have their name go across a screen?” said senior Julius Thomas. “It was heartbreaking but I when I heard about this, I knew I had to come out and see everyone one last time.” 

For many seniors in attendance, releasing the balloons signaled the end of a significant chapter in their lives – one met with adversity in a way nobody could have ever imagined when they left for spring break in March and were told they couldn’t return to school.

But it also opened a new chapter.

“I was a little shaky because the future is coming and you don’t really know what it holds for you,” Thomas said. “But it’s also exciting. Especially being able to share this moment with them. It kind of makes me a little teary to be here because I knew a lot of them when we were just kids but now we are adults. I’m really glad Sydney organized this.”

Following the ceremony, the seniors and their families gathered near an SUV that had been brought into the park where a projector screen was set up for them all to watch the virtual ceremony put on by the school.

Many families agreed that while they understood that the district had to resort to a virtual graduation, watching via computer wouldn’t have felt nearly as special.

But even without a stage, fireworks and the traditional throwing of caps in the air, the event Stang put together still allowed seniors to celebrate a significant moment in their lives.

“This is amazing, just having all these kids showing up and having all the parents drive by, it’s amazing,” Stang said, holding back tears. “It makes me happy that I can make other people happy. It makes my heart warm.

“I’m glad we were able to do something memorable like this.” 

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