Amid a coronavirus cancelation, an Illinois high school got creative: A parade, graduation and reunion rolled into one

Friends, family and graduates of Cary-Grove (Ill.) High School celebrate the Class of 2020 with a unique parade after the coronavirus pandemic scrapped the original plans. (Eric Edholm/Yahoo Sports)

CARY, Ill. — The long motorcade of cars, most with windows and tops down (and high school seniors and hangers-on dangling out of both), stretched a mile and a half each direction, both east and west on Three Oaks Road, with the fissure of traffic sluicing at Cary-Grove High School. 

That was the main artery for Friday night’s alt-sendoff (maybe?) for the Class of 2020 seniors. With the coronavirus pandemic throwing a wrench in graduation ceremonies nationwide, schools all over have had to get creative with replacement events, if they’re even able to do anything at all. After all, social distancing recommendations and large-gathering bans currently reign most places.

Cary-Grove, as well as its three sister high schools in Illinois’ District 155, adopted the idea of having a unique Friday Night Lights parade for seniors and their families at each of the four schools. 

“It was a collaborative effort from the four high schools in the district,” Cary-Grove principal Neil Lesinski said. “The four principals talked about a way to honor our seniors because their commitment to our schools over the past four years has been nothing short of incredible. We just wanted to symbolize the end of their academic career in some way.”

The Cary-Grove version wended cars up through the main drive, twisting through a back parking lot and funneling past the football field and toward the heart of campus. 

Graduation was supposed to take place Saturday. This was a meaningful stand-in the night prior.

A parade — and a reunion for everyone

Students paraded in a slow procession that blended together a mishmash of sounds and sights — people! out together! celebrating! — that have been out of many of our lives for a minute now. There were handmade signs and banners. Flags flew out windows: those of the college destinations for seniors (we saw an Indiana, an LSU, a Xavier and even an Oberlin), that of the Cary-Grove Trojans and even one of the United States.

Some students wore their caps and gowns. Some had painted faces. One girl wore a feathered boa and a cowboy hat. One bro went shirtless. Masks, honestly, were sparse. But for the most part, the passersby kept in their cars and shouted conversations across streets and parking lots, along with finger pointing and honking. Lotta horn leaning here.

It was a fun night. A night to blow off steam. To be happy again. A fair reminder that fun is one cherished thing that hasn’t been banned, even if it feels that way at times. The students looked like they were coming home after a big football road win, of which the Trojans (6A champs in 2018) have had several in recent years. 

Yes, the students here — and almost everywhere — have been robbed of a “normal” graduation. But for the first time in two months, they got to roll through campus and be loud. It was high school again, if only for an hour in a parking lot on a Friday night in May.

“Yeah, they’ve missed out on a lot,” Leskinski said. “But I think we’re all appreciative of all the time we’ve had with those seniors over the past four years. Reflecting on that, I think there’s a lot to be grateful for. I appreciate the perspective of our senior class. It’s been awesome to see.”

Waiting for them in front of the school were more than 90 staff members, teachers, coaches, administrators, the whole lot holding up signs of encouragement while music (likely the school dance mix, based on the selections we heard) and having brief reunions with the passing students. It was far better than connecting by laptop.

“Our seniors have been incredibly mature about this whole thing,” Lesinski said, beaming through his N95 mask. “They’re grateful that they’re healthy and they’re with their families right now. The thing they miss the most are these people right here. Our staff has done an incredible job of keeping in contact with them and keeping those connections alive even though we can’t be together in person.”

Not just for the kids

It was also, of course, a reunion for the staff itself — outside of Zoom chats and the like. The parade lasted from 6 to 7 p.m., but a small group of the C-G friends and coworkers stayed and chatted, smartly distanced from one another, in the parking lot well past sundown after 8 p.m. It was the night everyone at Cary-Grove seemed to need.

Hours after the Class of 2020 parade ended, Cary-Grove High School staff — who haven't seen each other in months — stuck around just to catch up. (Eric Edholm/Yahoo Sports)

“This is the first time we’ve been able to gather as a staff since about January,” Lesinski said. “We’d seen each other in school after that, but not really all together. This has been the first time we’ve seen each other since about March, before spring break. 

“It’s emotional. But it’s family. It’s like being apart from your family for months at a time, and now we get a little reunion tonight.”

Lesinski has been on the job three years (“Or two and a half,” he jokes, given the unexpectedly shortened school year) and admits that they don’t teach the pandemic plan in Principal School. But in that time, he’s become something of a minor celebrity, earning a pocket of internet fame with his now-infamous “Snow Day” Twitter video last January when he announced to the kids that school was canceled the next day.

The video made local headlines and even received a smattering of national attention.

Lesinski makes the kids laugh and smile. He’s the cool principal. But Lesinski also has earned his students’ respect amid tough times. And they have his back, too.

Unprompted — and before we even knew we were going to bump into him later — graduating senior Annabelle Poppe made sure we knew how much Lesinski and the C-G staff had done to make the students’ lives as normal as possible since the school shut down.

“We have an amazing staff and an amazing principal in Neil Lesinski,” said Poppe, who is off to Liberty University in the fall. “They’ve been so amazing throughout, and I love that we have one last chance to see the students and the staff as one last goodbye.”

Class of 2020 graduate Annabelle Poppe (left), boyfriend, Michael, and sister, Faith, are paraded back through Cary-Grove High School by parents, Chris and Jen. (Eric Edholm/Yahoo Sports)

Can they still pull off a real graduation?

The Poppe carload — parents, Jen and Chris; sister, Faith; and boyfriend, Michael — was among the last in the line to cycle through the parade. Many of the seniors had taken a similar driving path through the school earlier in the week, when they picked up their graduation items. And then, like Friday, they were forced to stay in their cars. 

On Monday, students were divvied up, alphabetically, into five groups and given one-hour time slots to drive up, display their first and last name on a sheet of paper in the passenger window and collect their graduation essentials. Parcels of caps, gowns, tassels and such were placed into the cars by school employees through the rear window. Another fairly regimented process the school was forced to conjure up on the fly.

But upon the students’ return Friday, the atmosphere loosened. “We’re baaaack!” a boy shouted from a blue truck. “Yeah! See you in ... two months?” a girl called back from a black car behind it, and yes, it was intoned as a question.

Technically, they still could have their formal graduation. A date for the ceremony tentatively has been set — Saturday, July 25, 2020 — and there’s some cautious optimism mixed with finger crossing that it can still be pulled off. 

“We are hopeful that by late July we can gather, pending guidelines from the Governor, CDC and the Illinois Department of Public Health,” a school-issued missive read, when the original graduation plans had to be scrapped and the parade was announced. 

Added Lesinski: “We’re about ready for anything at this point. We’re basically hoping for the best and planning for the worst. The thing I hope is that the students get the experience they deserve. But at the same time, we understand that public health is way more important than anything else.”

And if not, Poppe said she and most of her fellow seniors would understand.

“I think we all have to get used to what is going on right now,” she said. “We may not have that huge graduation with everyone, which is understandable. But we all wanted something. One way or another I think they’ll have us all gather in some way, whether it’s online or having (another) drive-up graduation.”

Perhaps the drive-up event will stay in some form. And instead of being known as the coronavirus class, Poppe and her fellow Cary-Grove seniors can be remembered as the originator kids who, out of tribulation, helped embrace and forge something positive into a new tradition.

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