Graduating in the class of coronavirus: no exams, no graduation, no applause, no after party

Lanna Sayles, class of 2020 graduate at Prem Tinsulanonda, describes what it was like graduating from school under the coronavirus lockdown.

By | Mon 8 Jun 2020

Dear distant observers of the class of 2020, I imagine you can’t possibly imagine how we graduates of 2020 feel. Some of you may have noticed that some of us are feeling irritated. Irritated, that the most important day of their lives has been taken away. Or maybe you’ve met some of us who are feeling gleeful that we won’t have to walk across a stage in-front of hundreds of strangers. I mean, who wouldn’t be puzzled when confronted by the symphonic mix of emotions we are all facing as we step across this important milestone. For me, as a senior, what I personally feel is a twinge of disappointment. When I describe the feeling to my parents, I tell them to picture an orchestra performing, the orchestra representing the four years I have spent in high school. The high and low notes as memories. As time goes on the orchestra builds to a crescendo. With graduation being cancelled, I feel as though I’m endlessly playing to get to the crescendo…yet it doesn’t come. The performance just ends and the red curtain comes down, indefinitely. I’m suddenly not sure what to feel, or do.

To understand the significance of graduation, I did some Googling into the history of graduation and their cancellations. University graduations in particular, are a part of an 800-year old tradition which stretches way back to the first universities in Europe in the 12th century. Similar to other day-to-day traditions, the gowns worn during graduation were deeply and symbolically linked to religion. According to the University of Canterbury’s study on graduation, gowns and hoods were originally worn by the clergy who were the main body of students at all academic institutions in those days, worn for a number of reasons from keeping warm to covering shaved heads. Obviously, the use of gowns evolved over time, and in recent years gowns began to be used for celebratory ceremonies, caps replacing hoods. As for cancelled graduations, this is the first global-cancellation. It is probably safe to say that the Olympic Games have been cancelled more times than mass graduations!

The flip side, however, is that alongside the cancelled graduations also came the cancellation of exams. Though in the case of exams things differed everywhere, as each institution has a different system of learning. In the case of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, which was what I have been working on for years, all exams were cancelled. Reaction to this has also differed. Some of us were ecstatic that lengthy projects we had been working on for so long were going to be observed over marks on a short exam while others were dismayed that years of ingrained education with a focus on exams have gone to waste. There is also the actual tradition of high school exams which we have missed out on: we were supposed to stuff our faces with Lays chips before falling asleep on our books, wake up late and rush to our exams, hours later emerging to do a postmortem on every question and answer with our friends. Instead, we are now watching Netflix until 4am. The diligently focused nature and quiet buzz of exam season had turned into a mundane routine for almost every student, in not only Chiang Mai but around the world.

As in-person graduation was not attainable this year, most of the schools my friends go to in Chiang Mai had to adapt. As a result, each school approached graduation in a different way. For instance, Lanna International School allowed the seniors to take their gowns around the city to take photos in, Christliche Deutsche Schule Chiang Mai held a small celebration at a hotel with less than 50 attendants, and my school, Prem Tinsulanonda International hosted regular Zoom calls to check in on how seniors are all doing. I must say that Prem took the seniors’ disappointment into immense consideration, and with weeks of planning between the student graduation committee and staff at Prem, a virtual graduation plan was born! Seniors were honoured and student speaker speeches played through a pre-recorded ‘live’ stream. Student and teacher speakers still in Chiang Mai had the opportunity to return to the Prem campus to make recordings, thanks to the Citylife video team.

I got the chance to experience this first hand as I was elected one of the valedictorians to speak for my class. Instead of the one chance to make the perfect speech, we speakers had the opportunity to have multiple takes – silver linings! It was slightly unnerving to speak in front of a camera crew. However, thinking about it now, I think my anxiety most likely prefers a camera crew over the usual 300 faces looking on at graduation. It was a bit bothersome saying “Congratulations to the Class of 2020!” multiple times, making me feel as though I was graduating a dozen times.

The day of graduation went like any other quarantine day, waking up, eating, and scrolling through social media. I felt at ease. I had nothing planned for the day except attending one of the most important events of my life at 4pm. One of the most exciting parts, I think, was actually changing out of my daily quarantine wear of pajamas into a proper shirt and jeans – mother was certainly pleased with the absence of a hoodie and sweatpants. In other parts of the world, my fellow classmates were doing an array of things for our graduation. Some gathering on video call to watch the live stream together, and others watching with their family in the comfort of their living room. It was an exhilarating feeling during the minutes waiting for the livestream to play. It’s not every day you watch yourself give a graduation speech live…it is also not every day that you can press pause on your graduation to go fetch more champagne. There virtual ceremony followed events similar to a real graduation with different pre-recorded performances from the seniors, and heart-felt speeches from the staff and students. When the presentation of awards and diplomas came, I cheered the same as I would if the graduation was in real life. A few tears were shed here and there, yet I kept feeling as though I was watching through a lens. Like I was watching someone else’s graduation. When the ceremony ended, my parents asked me how I felt. They knew that the saturated pixels from a virtual graduation could never compare to the deafening applause of an in-person graduation. I think they wondered if I had felt fulfilled or sad my years in secondary were now over.

After a few seconds of contemplation, I simply said “I’m not sure”.