Culture / Newsy

Houston High School Seniors Get Halfway Normal Graduations and Proms — What It’s Like to Walk in 2021

Restrictions and Limitations Remain, But It's Better Than 2020

BY // 06.09.21
photography Liz Junell

Across Houston, graduating high school seniors are still facing COVID-19 challenges as they try to celebrate graduation. Grad parties may take place outside in the sweltering Texas heat or exclude favorite classmates. But they’re happening, which is an improvement over 2020.

Stratford High School senior Caroline Ashley, like many other Houston seniors, is still celebrating her senior year with prom and grad parties.

Just not quite as she expected. Thanks, COVID.

I think COVID affects the feel of the parties because you don’t have all of the people that you would like to be celebrating,” says Ashley, who is headed to the University of Texas at Austin. “That, or you are outside sweating in May. But at least the party is still happening.

“Although we don’t get our prom at a super fun location, we are still getting it out in the parking lot of Stratford.”

Yes, many proms are happening in parking lots or other unusual outdoor locales.

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As a high school senior myself, I can relate. During the graduation tea party I had (outdoors of course), I needed to move a couple tables into the shade. Otherwise, my friends and I would have melted into our tea.

Restricted Graduations

While COVID restrictions may have loosened in many areas of life, graduation ceremonies largely remain restricted. The number of family and friends allowed at area high school graduations are limited. For Stratford, that means only six family members and friends total are allowed to attend for each graduate. St. John’s School allows even less people. Each graduate only gets four tickets to the ceremony. Extended family — grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins — receive a Zoom link and can only watch virtually. At Stratford, there is no stream.

Kinkaid senior and soon-to-be Rice University freshman Michelle Sekili is still feeling the reality of COVID travel risks.

I am hoping that my grandparents can come down from Chicago,” Sekili says. “That’s still up in the air since they are very old and with COVID, it’s not very safe. If not, we will bring some family and friends and we’ll send them the link to the stream.”

Luckily for Kinkaid graduates, each one gets eight tickets to disperse to family and friends. 

Caroline Ashley and B. Rob (Photo by Liz Junell)
Stratford senior Caroline Ashley and Kinkaid senior Bradyn Robertson. (Photo by Liz Junell)

Houston seniors are getting bits and pieces of a real graduation in 2021. Some of their family members (but not all) will watch them walk to receive their diplomas. However, they are not sent off their high school stage and out into the world with handshakes and hugs from their headmasters and teachers.

“Yeah, it’s not as much contact,” St. John’s senior and soon-to-be University of Chicago freshman Margaux Marinelli says. “All of our teachers used to line up and shake hands with us. And we would hug some of our favorite teachers. But now it’s basically just a thumbs up from our headmaster and then we walk away.”

Despite missing out on some traditional moments, Sekili still appreciates what seniors do have at their graduation ceremonies. Sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, friends and family.

I won’t get to thank all of my family in person and hug them and see them,” Sekili says. “I haven’t seen many of my family members in a long time because of COVID and I still won’t get to because they’ll just be watching it online.

“Really though, all I’m looking forward to is a hug from my sister at graduation and then I’ll know I’m done with high school.”

Episcopal senior and soon-to-be TCU freshman Bailey Junell’s graduation will be nearly normal. Episcopal is holding graduation on the campus’ football field with a generous limit of 10 guests per graduate.

It’s gonna be very fun and it will be pretty much normal except for masks and social distancing,” Junell says.

A Halfway Weird Senior Year

From beginning strictly with virtual school and streamed football games to ending with halfway normal, in-person classes and baseball games with full stands, senior year was just as much of a mixed bag of normalcy and irregularity as graduation ceremonies.

All students can attest: Zoom school zaps the energy out of you. Your teacher could be Neil deGrasse Tyson himself, but because technology reduces reality to intangible pixels on your screen, your mind still feels fuzzy. No matter if the subject is calculus or the cosmos.

Eventually, St. John’s, Episcopal and Kinkaid all migrated back to in-person classes (save for a few students who remained virtual.) However, Stratford had a 75-to-25 percent split in students who attended class either in-person or virtual (with the majority attending in-person.)

Graduation Tea Party (Photo by Liz Junell)
Senior Bradyn Robertson decided to celebrate her graduation with tea and crumpets. (Photo by Liz Junell)

Stratford teachers worked through plexiglass and masks to educate their in-person students and shared screens and used clipped-on microphones to teach their virtual students. In order for all students to remain engaged with assignments and for teachers to keep their classes as organized as possible, all tests and quizzes were done online — and paperless.

The most difficult part about this year was learning to do everything online that you would usually do on paper, like taking a math test or editing an English paper,” Caroline Ashley says.

On a computer, you can’t write out your mental math or underline sentences to circle back to something. It’s all done in your head, which makes online school even more of an exhausting mind game.

Even some sports practices suffered the drags of online school. Zoom muted some Kinkaid sports teams’ spirits.

A lot of people are very shy over Zoom,” volleyball standout Michelle Sekili says. “You have to physically click a button to speak on Zoom so it just discourages people even more from reaching out. Plus, there was no way for us to physically work in person as a team.”

For Kinkaid and St. John’s sports teams, students could not attend games in person until the spring, limiting crowds to parents only. No cowbells and whistles, no cheers, no friends allowed. At football games, not even Kinkaid’s school band was not allowed in.

“It was very difficult to generate energy for games because a huge portion of our energy comes from the cheers from the audience,” Sekili says. “But it definitely gave the team more opportunities for communication because you could hear what your teammates were saying. It was nice to have that opportunity for team bonding, too, since we barely got any at the beginning of the year.”

Finding School Spirit

Fall sport seniors such as Sekili lost the joy of sharing their final high school games with friends in the crowd. Students in theatre and other arts groups also suffered from not having audiences.

“COVID has taught me a lot of patience,” Ashley says. “It’s showed me how to go with the flow. You never know if a plan will change because some administrator was exposed to COVID. But you do know to be flexible and work around whatever wrench gets thrown your way. So yeah, COVID has taught me persistence and patience.”

Still, almost everyone recognized this is not ideal.

“Honestly I wish COVID never happened,” Junell says. “Although I wish it didn’t have to happen this way, I think the pandemic has really forced you to look back on your life and realize what’s the most important part of your life. And who the most important people are in your life — your family.”

There were some unexpected side benefits, though, to a year in COVID limbo.

With my sister zooming into Baylor University from home, I got to spend way more time with her than I originally thought,” Sekili notes. “It was like she almost never left, which is amazing because she’s my best friend. I remember playing card games during the week with my family because everyone was home.

“We stayed up til 2 am dancing to Footloose one night. We really got to have a lot of family bonding time that we otherwise would not have gotten because we are all usually super busy humans.”

Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that this was not a typical senior year, the one many seniors have imagined for a long time.

“This year was not my favorite experience,” Margaux Marinelli says. “We lost out on a lot of traditions. At least we had in person classes and got to spend time in person as a grade. We played a lot of spikeball and foosball together outside in the free time we had at school.

“My high was either getting into college or when our student body could go to baseball games again because we were able to come together and feel more like a school again. All in all, we definitely missed out. But it was still fun for what it was.”

Through virtual school, plexiglass, masks, lost games and halfway normal celebrations, Houston seniors discovered flexibility, the importance of family and the joy of rejoicing with friends. Seniors will carry these lessons with them, even when the world no longer needs Zoom and social distancing.

For better and for worse, this was a senior year like no other.

Bradyn Robertson is a senior at The Kinkaid School who is interning at PaperCity. 

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