When it comes to milestone events, it feels impossible to speak about them without a cliché. Graduations are typically no exception to this, but what happens when your child’s graduation is anything BUT typical?
Yavneh Academy has been a second home to my children ever since my oldest began kindergarten. As I write this, that once chubby-cheeked 4-year-old, now taller than me, is making room on his bedroom shelf for his diploma, having officially graduated from Yavneh in a most memorable, creative and meaningful ceremony earlier this week.
On paper, this graduation was far from normal: It took place in a parking lot, instead of an auditorium. The beautiful and heartfelt speeches were not delivered live, but were largely pre-recorded. The mandatory graduate uniform included not only a gown, but a Yavneh face mask. Instead of clapping, a chorus of car horns punctuated key moments. It was definitely far from a normal graduation—it was better.
With cheers, decorated cars and an enormous movie screen, the parking lot of Garden State Plaza transformed into a Yavneh “drive-in,” and filled with excited graduates and their proud families this past Sunday. The radio tuned to 87.9FM let graduates and their families follow the action safely from their cars, and Yavneh Academy’s YouTube channel broadcast the ceremony live for friends and family at home.
Time is elastic. In some ways, the last three months have felt longer than the past nine years we spent at Yavneh. Although it feels like a lifetime ago, there was a day in the not-too-distant past when these kids were all together at school, laughing, smiling, talking—and they didn’t know it was the last time they would ever do that as a grade. Because the impact of the coronavirus hit our community so quickly, we had so many “lasts” that passed us by before we had a chance to realize they were happening—important, special, poignant moments, many of which only became so through the benefit of hindsight.
This clarity made the graduation that much more meaningful—that we could, in our own way, safely celebrate together. After so many months apart, and so many milestones, events and everyday life moments canceled and deferred, it felt momentous that this event was the comeback. The simple act of being literally present felt suffused with meaning. As Yavneh’s Class of 2020 gathered, together/apart, for one more time, each of us there was focused, acutely aware of the day’s significance, and fully taking in this very special “last.”
A graduation is a rite of passage, of course, but here, in this moment, it was also a special celebration—an affirmation of resilience, adaptability and dedication. Our kids, separated for so many months, were here, together, because Yavneh worked tirelessly to make it happen. Our beloved Head of School Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, made his way down the row of lined-up cars, joyfully greeting and congratulating each graduate. The teachers and administrators were literally dancing in the “aisles.” Graduates, families and our school celebrated each other and the miracle of this moment, in a way and at a level that would never have come to pass without the experience of the past few months. For this last time as a class, the distance felt like it fell away, and there was nothing but the feeling of togetherness in the air. The outdoor setting felt not like a fallback, but rather, a providence—there was no other way for this to be; a building would not have contained our collective simcha and achdut.
Graduations can have a sense of a handoff—they can also (and should) be a testament to your individual child’s achievement. This, however, felt more like a family reunion and a gift to everyone fortunate to experience it. After months apart, the happiness as all were once again together felt palpable, and the sheer joy of the administration and teachers at seeing “their” kids was a sight to behold. The cheers and honking that echoed throughout the parking lot as the graduates took their (distanced, masked) walks up to receive their diplomas, was a beautiful chorus—the love felt tangible, and the pride was shared. “The way you responded inspired US,” Rabbi Knapp had said to the class earlier in the program, referencing how this amazing group of kids led the way. And what a blessing that we could all look around—together—and see how true that was. When Rabbi Knapp thanked the teachers, a thunderous roar of grateful car horns from the crowd became a stunning, poignant and wordless tribute.
A socially distant graduation isn’t what anyone envisioned when our children let go of our hands to take their first steps into school so many years ago. We have been reminded that there are many things we cannot control, but what truly matters is how we respond to it. These kids have learned to adjust; that life will be imperfect and throw unexpected things at you, but you adapt, you shift, you keep going and perhaps, like with this beautiful graduation, it will turn out to be even better than anything you could have envisioned. I can’t think of a more meaningful lesson for this class to carry with them.
And so, instead of concluding with clichés about blinking and time going too fast, I offer my profound gratitude to Yavneh Academy for making the best of this unimaginable situation. Thank you for giving our kids a most special, memorable and joy-filled graduation—together—and for giving each of these kids the strong and unique foundation they will carry with them as they each take their next steps forward. And to all members of the Class of 2020, my sincere and heartfelt congratulations. Whatever comes next, these kids are ready for it and this graduation was a stunning, fitting conclusion to their time at school.
Leyna Goro is a Yavneh Academy parent.