The most surreal commencement in the long history of Huntington High School played out last Friday night on the grass athletic fields. A drive-in graduation, complete with a huge screen that was erected for the event near the Oakwood Road side of the property, drew nearly 400 cars as the Class of 2020 was celebrated during a 90 minute ceremony that was broadcast on the radio over 87.9 FM.
Huntington’s first class of six seniors graduated in 1862, but there has never been a scene like last Friday night in any of the previous 158 commencements. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the traditional ceremony from being held this year, but school officials worked hard to give the nearly 400 graduates and their families something special and worth remembering.
Families waited patiently in their cars for the skies to darken on a gorgeous evening. Once the ceremony got underway at about 8:55 p.m. it held everyone’s attention.
Keenan Lyons and Abby Semelsberger were spectacular as the event’s masters of ceremony. They carried out their roles with pizzazz and helped make the evening fun for everyone.
Huntington High School band and orchestra underclassmen virtually performed a stirring rendition of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1” and the chamber choir sang the “Star Spangled Banner” and Huntington’s alma mater arranged by Bill Baker.
Class of 2020 President Daniela Ramos Campos announced the graduating seniors are planning to fund one final celebration as soon as COVID-19 pandemic “rules” will allow for it. The possibilities include a field day and barbecue, a semi-formal dinner dance or possibly dinner and a movie night. When any of this will be possible is up in the air, but the seniors are determined pull it off as soon as they can swing it.
No senior class has every experienced a year quite like this one. The group missed out on a long list of time honored events, including the spring athletic season and school musical, concerts, awards nights, the 2020 prom, field day, art show, fashion show, robotics championships and so many others, but they managed to keep their composure and their heads held high.
“I’ve seen firsthand how you have handled these last few months with poise and grace,” Principal Brenden Cusack told the teenagers. “You are the ones who are in the best position to provide us all with a great deal of comfort. Perhaps without even knowing it, you are already leading the way to a better future. You and your generation as a whole already have many of the answers within you. We have seen how you adjusted to new ways of learning, interacting and functioning in society. We have seen your efforts for change in the face of racism and injustice. We have seen your ability to adapt and grow within these days of historic challenge. And it comforts us. It calms me to see that you all have many of the tools required and the fortitude to go forward and make things better than they are now.”
Huntington’s Class of 2020 is headed to many of America’s finest colleges and universities and even overseas, with Alice Bradford planning to study at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain.
“As someone who will be pursuing music, I like to think of my high school experience as one giant symphony that has been continuously playing until this moment,” said salutatorian Julien Rentsch, who will be attending Northwestern University. He went on to describe each year of high school as a movement in that symphony.
“Now, as our symphony comes to an end, so do our days as high school students,” Mr. Rentsch told his classmates. “It’s a melancholy feeling, to have the rest of our lives ahead of us, but also having to leave behind teachers and friends we’ve grown up with. I’m excited for the future and yet I will still miss coming to school every morning and seeing all of you. But if there’s one thing I am certain about Huntington, it’s that we will always be one big Blue Devil family. I am thankful to be a part of a class that isn’t afraid to speak up; a class that stands up to injustice; a class that bands together through tough times and laughs through happy times; and a class that always has each other’s backs. You have all made a lasting imprint on me and I hope to have done the same for many of you.”
Some of the graduates have opted to study at colleges on Long Island until they more clearly discern their career interests. Several have already secured employment and others will be entering vocational and technical training programs.
Carnegie Mellon University bound valedictorian Andrew Knowles spoke to his classmates from his heart. He urged fellow seniors to take risks and not be afraid of encountering setbacks along the way.
“Huntington might not have taught us everything we need to know, but it has taught us how to learn,” Mr. Knowles said. “We will all encounter failure at some point in our futures, but by learning and growing from these failures, the ‘real world’ becomes a little less intimidating. Remember that even if it feels difficult to recover from failure, or a challenge seems too difficult to take on alone, we will always have Huntington friends and family to support us.”
The seniors are comprised of a proverbial melting pot of races, creeds and ethnic backgrounds, but they blended remarkably well into a tightknit group academically, artistically, musically and athletically.
“I met so many of you back in 2011 as eager, bright-eyed primary schoolers who had so much more to learn and so much growth in store,” Superintendent James W. Polansky told the seniors during his address. “To be honest, I remember some of that more than what happened just this morning. Fast forward, however, to the brilliant, charismatic, humble and caring young adults that you’ve become.
“You will be remembered for it all, but most certainly for the incredible fortitude you have demonstrated during the past few months. In brief, you have endured a global pandemic; yes, a global pandemic. Through it, your patience, hope and resilience have been shining lights. In recent weeks, you have witnessed national events that unfortunately reek of racism and bias. In response, your voices have been loud and constructive and your desire for social justice has been clear.”
Class of 2020 faculty advisors Paige Furman and Kristin Fortunato read off the names of the graduates as photos of each of the nearly 400 seniors flashed on the huge screen to cheers, flashing lights and honking horns.
“‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans,’” Huntington School Board President Jennifer Hebert told the graduates. “This Reader’s Digest quote was made famous by John Lennon when he used it as a song lyric. It’s always been a favorite of mine, but it’s never seemed more pertinent than it does right now. I’m quite certain that all of you spent your high school years making plans; plans to do well in school, plans to make that team or lead that club, plans to find a career or go to college. And now you’re learning first hand that some of the best laid plans, despite all our best efforts, can go astray. So I’m here, on your graduation day, to remind you to keep focused on what's important to you, so you can live your best life. Your best life, not someone else’s definition of what that is.”
Saturday proved to be another special day for the seniors. Over the course of about seven hours, they were dropped off at the high school’s main entrance to the cheers of teachers and district officials. Wearing caps and gowns, the seniors walked on a blue carpet into the building and down a decorated hallway where they picked up their respective diploma and then posed for photos outdoors before departing with their parents. To maintain proper distancing, a schedule was devised to spread the 400 members out over the morning and afternoon hours.
The Class of 2020 received millions of dollars in scholarship monies. Members of the group earned honors in every academic discipline as well as in the fine and performing arts and in the athletic arena.
“Thank you for being an awesome group of individuals who were never shy about expressing yourselves and pursuing your passions,” Mr. Polansky told the seniors last Friday night. “We will always be grateful and you will always be the Huntington High School Class of 2020 – one who experienced something that no other class experienced before you. We are more than excited to see where you’ll go and what you’ll do next. Know that the world is already a better place because you are all in it.”