Commencement 2020: A Graduation Like No Other

Is it possible, in these times, to hold an in-person graduation that is meaningful, memorable, and—above all—safe? This week, Rivers provided proof positive that the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
Mind you, pulling off the July 21 ceremony, held under an almost cloudless sky on the field in front of The Revers Center, was a formidable feat of planning, logistics, teamwork, and old-fashioned good luck. Working with event-planning firm Liz Page Associates, faculty and staff at Rivers came together to ensure that the live commencement ceremony followed all the necessary protocols and guidelines, as determined by state and local authorities.

The large field, where each family group could be seated the requisite six feet away from others, provided a perfect venue. Masks were required, of course, and strict guidelines dictated parking spots, walking routes, and building use. Handshakes were out (though the occasional elbow bump was spotted).

Head of School Ned Parsons acknowledged the challenges in his opening remarks. “We did not always know this ceremony would come, did we?” he asked the assembled crowd, which consisted of 90 members of the class and their parents. Strict limitations on the allowable number of guests meant that grandparents, siblings, alumni, and other interested parties could not attend in person, but they were treated to a professional livestream feed that effectively gave them a front-row seat for the festivities.

Parsons noted that the ceremony couldn’t be identical to graduations past. By Rivers custom, he said, community gatherings begin with a moment of silence. But this time, he said, “This place has been way too silent for way too long. It’s unnatural how silent it’s been. So can we please make some noise?” The graduates complied with brio.

In other ways, however, commencement hewed to Rivers traditions. As in past years, the audience heard remarks from a faculty speaker and a student speaker, both chosen by the graduates. Math faculty member and twelfth-grade dean Victoria Mizzi did the honors on the faculty side, speaking movingly on the theme of home and concluding that “Rivers will always be one of your homes.”

Senior class co-president George Reinhardt served as student speaker. He lauded his classmates’ successes, acknowledged the challenges of their senior spring, and exhorted them to work on their relationships and ponder how they will carry the good work they began at Rivers into college and beyond.

At Rivers, the head of school traditionally shares some personal thoughts about each and every graduate as they come to the stage to collect their diplomas. This year was no different, despite social-distancing protocols that made the effort into a rather complicated ballet. Students were visibly moved as Parsons lauded their special qualities, each in turn. The graduates were celebrated not just for their academic, athletic, or artistic achievements but for such character traits as compassion, unflappability, charisma, and kindness.

Finally, Parsons shared some closing thoughts, imparting reminders he hoped the graduates would take with them as they head into the wider world. He told them that education is “a call to action, not a mere credential,” adding that the privilege of education carries a weight of responsibility. He tied in the reckoning facing our country and its institutions as we grapple with systemic racism, calling it “the challenge of our age.” His theme, he said, came down to this: What will you do with what you know?

After Parsons concluded his remarks, the graduates and their parents were directed to leave in an orderly and socially distanced fashion. There was no traditional tossing of the caps at the flagpole; there was no mad dash into Nonesuch Pond. The loss of those rituals was surely felt by some, but perhaps the fact that this was a commencement like no other served as a very special consolation prize.

To view a gallery of photos from commencement, click here. To watch a video of the commencement ceremony, click here.