History was made Saturday as Lewiston High School said goodbye to a school and the Class of 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.
Led by police and fire trucks, a parade of about 350 vehicles filled with seniors and their families slowly made its way from Lewis-Clark State College to the new high school in the Orchards, marking the end of an era in Lewiston.
The commencement caravan featured the last group of Bengals who will ever attend the old high school, and the first LHS class in modern history that was awarded diplomas during a global pandemic.
Nothing about the ceremony was ordinary, because of a ban on large gatherings, but that’s what made it so special, several people said. Instead of sitting in the Lewis-Clark State College Activity Center for hours, the seniors were hanging out of sunroofs, riding in the back of trucks and waving to people along the parade route.
Wearing her purple cap and gown, Yzabella Ahlstrom, 18, celebrated with bubbles and family members before the vehicles began moving.
“At first I was disappointed we weren’t having a regular graduation, but now that it’s happening, I’m having a lot of fun,” she said with a big smile. “It was my Mom’s idea to bring bubbles.”
Ahlstrom plans to follow in her family’s footsteps and pursue a nursing degree at LCSC. Her mother, Marita Torrentes-Ahlstrom, is a nurse at the Idaho State Veterans Home, and her sister, Janine Lawrence, works at Pullman Regional Hospital.
“This is remarkable,” Torrentes-Ahlstrom said of the parade. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, and everyone is in good spirits. I’m glad it’s happening. I call all of these kids the ‘Ronas,’ and tell them they will never forget this.”
Camille Teats, the 18-year-old daughter of Brent and Darcie Teats, attended Lewiston schools the past 12 years and remains close friends with many of the kids she met in kindergarten. Between being the last class to attend the old high school and all of the coronavirus curve balls, she and her classmates have been coping the best they can, Teats said.
“At first, I was a little disappointed because graduation wasn’t what we expected,” Teats said. “But after time went on, I think it’s super special, and I’m excited about it. We are going to go down in history, and be different than any other class, which is really cool.”
Like many other seniors, her parents and grandparents also attended LHS on Normal Hill. Her younger brother is a sophomore, so he will get a taste of both schools before graduating from the new building under construction on Cecil Andrus Way.
“This year has been so crazy,” Teats said. “I feel like the first major thing happened when we got excused from our senior projects. A lot of us had been working on those. It’s kind of sad being a senior at this time because we didn’t really have the opportunity to say goodbye, and it seems like a lot of unfinished business didn’t get taken care of. I’ll just miss being around people I’ve known my whole life.”
Even with the loss of dances, spring sporting events and other school activities, Teats and other seniors were impressed with the send-off organized on their behalf. Excitement was in the air Saturday as they gathered, at a distance, one last time.
COVID-19 has forced communities across the nation to come up with innovative ways to celebrate the rite of passage. Officials from the city of Lewiston and school worked together to pull off the parade, said Superintendent Bob Donaldson.
“I have to give credit to the high school administration for bringing forward the graduation ideas,” Donaldson said, “and the city was truly instrumental in having a procession this long.”
Educators have done a good job of “thinking outside the box” ever since in-person classes were canceled, the superintendent said.
“Through all of this, I think the most important thing for us, beyond typical instruction, was making sure our kids were OK, and letting them know we were here for them,” Donaldson said. “The human side of it was probably the most important step we took. Our seniors didn’t have a prom or spring sporting events, and it’s been hard on those kids. This graduation is not traditional, but it’s one they’ll never forget.”
KOZE radio broadcast pre-recorded speeches and the names of the graduates as the parade cruised by Bengal Field and other schools in the district. With temperatures reaching the 90s, people looked for shade and cheered as the long line of cars came into view. Honking horns and sirens could be heard throughout the community.
The vehicles were as varied as the students inside. Classic cars, convertibles, pickup-trucks and minivans were decorated with balloons, window paint and other purple-and-gold adornments.
Some kept it simple, such as Sara O’Connor, the 17-year-old daughter of Kerri and Shawn O’Connor. She was the lone occupant in an undecorated Pontiac Vibe, while her parents watched the procession at an intersection in the Orchards.
“I felt it would be more memorable if I drove alone,” she said. “Instead of other people saying congratulations to me, I am saying it to myself. This is about me and my day.”
Senior Elizabeth Buckley had several family members in her car, including her two grandmothers who said they were excited about the unique experience. Her mother, Sara Lind, attended virtually from North Carolina on a cellphone.
“The utter ridiculousness of this is actually pulling people together,” Lind said via Facetime.
Jonathan Buckley, father of the graduate, said he thinks it’s a shame the coronavirus has caused so much disruption to everyone’s lives.
“It’s insane we are doing this,” Buckley said at the staging area. “Where is the threat? But at least we’re doing something and keeping some sense of community.”
The outdoor atmosphere was one of the few traditional scenes as kids posed for photos and greeted friends before the event. After being cooped up for a couple of months, many said they were delighted to be out and about and seeing classmates.
When the vehicles reached the new high school, each senior was announced as a school board member handed over a diploma. As they left the campus, parents from the Safe and Sober organization dispensed gifts to the new grads.
As the unusual school year comes to an end, Lewiston High School Principal Kevin Driskill said he’s especially proud of the Class of 2020.
“This pandemic threw those kids into the perseverance fire,” Driskill said. “Some are fine, but a lot of them are emotional over missing prom, the senior banquet and other traditions. I’m really proud of them. They came in last week to turn in their books and pick up their caps and gowns, and it was the best day we’ve had there in six weeks - having kids on our campus with smiles on their faces.”
District wide, the staff has done a “fantastic” job during this unprecedented season, Driskill said.
“I think everyone has made the best out of a terrible situation,” he said. “These kids were forced to grow up a little quicker, but they will go down in the history of LHS as doing something no one has ever done before. I hope this was a really neat celebration for our kids and staff.”
Sandaine can be reached at (509) 552-1137 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri