It didn't seem like a year had passed since I last lamented the crush of graduation coverage, but last Friday started with a deep breath and a sigh as I headed out to cover Othello and Connell's graduations.
Both schools started their ceremonies at 7 p.m., so my itinerary was the same as when I shot them two years ago. I started at Othello to get photos of the graduates getting ready and left in time to make it to Connell for their ceremony. Othello was very accommodating, but the dinner I grabbed in town started fighting with my lunch in my stomach as I parked and started photographing Connell's commencement. I took that as a bad omen, but was pleasantly surprised when I saw teacher Ann Bohrnsen-Thola inflating a beach ball:
and vice principal Chris Clark tossing one back to Dane Eskildsen, who had reached back to retrieve an errant one:
Then I realized that the two were also handing out cans of silly string after diplomas:
It wasn't long before the kids started battling:
I loved the pocket of light and the look of determination on Francisco Guizar in this shot:
but after some discussion back at the office, we ran this one:
Choosing a photo in which I am part of the moment may seem contradictory to the points I made in last week's column, but rules are made to be broken, and we felt like this frame helped put you in the middle of the silly string scrum.
I tried to get something a little different out of the aftermath, and liked this shot of a kid navigating his way through the strung-up chairs:
I found Connell's approach refreshing. At a different ceremony this year, one graduate told me they had been threatened with 30 hours of community service if they were caught with the standard graduation contraband.
In my experience, that stuffy approach is standard at most high schools around here. The first one I covered as an intern in 2007 included pat downs and angry faculty stomping beach balls flat. Even I was apparently ruining the ceremony. After being told I'd have to shoot from behind the risers that the band was playing on, I ventured forth to where I could actually see something. I photographed a graduate inflating a blow-up sheep doll. After getting her name, somebody grabbed my arm and told me I had to leave because being near the students was wrecking their special day. An administrator confronted me as I was leaving and talked to me like he was about to send me to detention. There are a few incidents in my short career that I now look back on and regret some of my bolder actions.
This is not one of those times, and thankfully, Connell was the exact opposite.
Principal Tim Peterson credits secretary Jennifer Berry with the idea of changing their approach during a meeting after last year's graduation. He says they’ve had problems in years past of balls bouncing around and causing a distraction during the speeches and presentations.
In fact, one of my shots from Connell's commencement two years ago was of Matt Andersen inflating a beach ball:
"Instead of being frustrated that they snuck it in, it lets them know that this is a celebration for them," said Clark after commencement. "This embraces the celebration of our kids' achievements while acknowledging the fact that the speakers have spent a lot of time on their speeches and to be appropriate during their times."
Peterson says they held a parents’ meeting before graduation to explain the new tactic, and that "it was very positively accepted."
I found this interesting because the reason often given for the stuffy affairs is that they want to hold a nice ceremony for the parents.
Superintendent Greg Taylor says they tried to find the right balance — "trying to keep it pomp and circumstance and also a celebration. Our goal was to make sure that they were respectful during the presentations, and that was accomplished. Everything else was just frosting."
All three administrators agreed that the graduates handled themselves well, and while Peterson doesn't consider it the start of a tradition, he thinks they'll continue with this approach.
"If anything, we might just wait a little bit longer to hand out the silly string," says Taylor.
If parents and administrators liked it, I wondered what the graduates thought. Part of the fun at stuffy graduations has got to be sneaking stuff in. I've seen kids retrieve items stashed under their seats to avoid getting caught at the pat down and others proudly showing off their smuggling techniques before commencement. Does removing the thrill of defiance lessen the experience?
I asked Eskildsen, the graduate seen above leaning back for a beach ball. Here's his response via Facebook:
"I thought it was great! Our class was able to make our graduation truly ours. The admins' support of the silly string didn’t take away from the fun, but added to it. I think it allowed us to see that just because we are graduating, that doesn't mean we can't still have a little fun. Even if that thing is as serious as a traditional graduation ceremony. I just enjoyed one last time to mess around with all of my friends in my class."
It seems pretty much everybody liked the new approach. In their post-graduation meeting, Peterson said one board member joked that the school needed to provide silly string for them because they weren't able to return fire, and he says the juniors in the honor guard were excited for their ceremony next year.
"I'm hoping it will continue to be a positive impact on graduations to come," says Peterson.
And while he was referring to future Eagles' ceremonies, I’m hoping local administrators will take note and loosen their strangleholds on a day that should let high school kids be kids before real life drains their exuberance.
Or, if you want to see more of Connell's commencement and the others I covered this year, follow the links below.