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Virtual Graduation Recovers Some of Seniors’ Lost Months

A GLIMPSE behind the camera of The Biscuit Factory’s production shows Katharine Rasmussen, one of two students giving George Mason High School’s valedictory scholar speech outside of Mason’s front entrance. (Photo: Courtesy Molly Hermann/The Biscuit Factory)

The unwelcome truth that “life isn’t fair” often relayed by parents to their feisty children was delivered with a different tone to their glum teenagers this graduation season.

In-person celebrations of the event around the country have been substituted for virtual ones due to concerns of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, taking away much of the pomp and circumstance associated with seniors’ transition into adulthood. But George Mason High School’s class of 2020 proved how grown up they already are by helping organize and participate in a one-of-a-kind graduation that will be a lifelong memento, even if they can’t get the experiences they lost back from school’s early end.

The idea to commemorate this graduation in a unique fashion came about in an innocent conversation over the video conferencing service we all may be just a bit too used to by now, Zoom.

Co-founder Molly Hermann of the Falls Church production company, The Biscuit Factory, was on a call with friends that included Falls Church Education Foundation executive director Debbie Hiscott. Hermann, who has a rising junior at Mason and two younger children in Falls Church City’s school system, shared how missing graduation was hard considering the importance of the occasion and that a virtual ceremony should be held to give the students some form of acknowledgement.

Hiscott liked the idea so much that she pitched it to the school system, which eventually reached out to Hermann and her team to ask if they wanted to be the lead on putting together the production. And just like that, Hermann became responsible for salvaging this crucial milestone.

“The graduation is as much as a normal graduation as we can make it. You’re not going to go downtown to Washington, D.C. and get a chair at [DAR Constitution Hall], but it will be on cable access and live digitally at same time,” Hermann said, adding that the YouTube video of last year’s graduation is what the Biscuit Factory is modelling its production after.

“The rundown, program and music is all similar, and in some way these grads get to walk away with a digital document of their graduation. They get to keep this in a way that is different, they also get to share it widely even though they’re sad it’s not the same as an in-person graduation. The main thing I got from students was they’re happy they have something.”

One positive from the new take on graduation is that the students have greater creative license to receive their diploma however they want.

Accompanying the caps and gowns graduates picked up via drive-thru at Mason in May was a shot list that would be a part of the virtual graduation. Hermann said she asked for the graduates to submit a portrait of themselves in their cap and gown, shots of them receiving their diploma, turning their tassel to the other side and the climax of it with the cap toss.

THE OTHER VALEDICTORIAN, Helen Morris, sports a mask for her senior portrait to be used in the virtual graduation. (Photo: Courtesy Helen Morris)

Members of Mason’s Student Council Association decided to go on location for theirs. Helen Morris ventured out to the Bishop Garden on the National Cathedral grounds for her graduation. Niharika Singhvi had her brother, a fellow Mason grad, pass the diploma off to her near the Washington Monument. And Fiona Howard kept it a bit simpler with her ceremony home, though behind the scenes the family was laboring to get their dog to sit for the diploma shot.

Their classmates had also gotten creative. One of Singhvi’s friends drives a Vespa scooter, and had someone drive the scooter up to her to hand off the diploma. And when it comes to the ringing of the bell, which was a gift of Mason’s class of 1964 and had become a tradition for all new graduates to ring once as they walked off the stage, seniors also opted for the unconventional. Morris said she saw a classmate dunk a basketball over their little brother in the process of ringing their bell at home, while another one shot a lacrosse ball at the bell.

The SCA’s members had the privilege of ringing the actual bell when The Biscuit Factory recorded their valedictory speeches outside of Mason’s front entrances (with thorough cleanings afterward, of course).
It’s been a journey getting to this point.

Prior to The Biscuit Factory’s help in pulling off graduation, the SCA, class sponsors Kenny George and William Snyder along with Mason principal Matt Hills and the school’s director of counseling Ilana Reyes were spitballing ideas about doing a massive webinar, much like how the seniors were conducting some of their college visits during the spring.

Morris said it was interesting being peers with their adult mentors during this time, though all are thankful they had the professionalism of The Biscuit Factory to help steer the ceremony to a more polished form.

Though the one thing the filming can’t replace are those moments leading up to graduation.

There will be no prom, no senior skip day and no day where the future graduates wear their college t-shirts to school.

Spring sports were lost, which was a blow to Morris who was looking forward to being an active leader in her final season on the soccer team. Nor will there be a chance for Howard to try and win the mock trial state championship for Mason that was supposed to take place in late March, soon after the school system moved all its instruction online. And Singhvi won’t get the finality that comes with saying goodbye to all those who experienced high school with her.

“The overarching challenge has just been grappling with that feeling of disappointment, and that knowledge that all these experiences were taken away from you and you’re not going to get them back,” Morris said. “It’s been really hard to accept that and be able to let go at the same time.”

“I missed out on that closure with teachers and seeing everyone for the last time,” Singhvi said. “Being able to have that moment with the people that I’ve spent the last 12 years with is something I’ll miss.”

None of them knew it at the time, but March 12 would be their last day walking Mason’s halls as students. And even if they do manage to get together for an in-person graduation this summer, it won’t replace the crescendo that comes from truly living out the spring of their senior year.

But on the other hand, they get a piece of memorabilia that no class before them — and hopefully, after them — will ever have access to in the form of their virtual graduation.

Mason’s graduation will be broadcast live on FCCTV and YouTube at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 10. Eighth graders’ “Virtual Moving Up Ceremony to Honor the Class of 2024,” which also had its in-person component called off, will be streamed online as well. Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School principal Valerie Hardy emailed Henderson parents a link to view the celebration on June 3, with a link to the ceremony for everyone else to be viewed as a part of the school system’s “Morning Announcements” newsletter today.