The city of Palo Alto showed up to celebrate its high school seniors on Wednesday evening.
On the night that would have been the class of 2020's traditional graduation ceremonies, Palo Alto's sidewalks and street corners were instead full of people cheering, waving, banging pots and pans and holding congratulatory signs as seniors and their families drove in an ebullient car parade around the city.
After a citywide "shout-out" at 5:30 p.m., graduates from Palo Alto, Gunn, Castilleja and Kehillah high schools wearing their caps and gowns piled into cars decorated with giant 2020 balloons and messages such as "just graduated" and "congrats to all SIP graduates." They leaned out windows and sunroofs of honking cars and took pictures of the throngs of people cheering them on.
"The fact that Palo Alto organized all of this for seniors ... I feel really grateful and it really means a lot that they're acknowledging the loss that we've all had," Castilleja senior Bridget Sullivan said. "It definitely makes up for it that the community started coming together."
In interviews, graduates were at once excited, nostalgic and somber about the current moment. They're graduating in the midst of a global pandemic, after three months of quarantine, with their city under curfew amid unrest stemming from the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. Many cars in the parade were also decorated with references to Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.
"It's a crazy time of history to live through," Gunn graduate Tess Anderson said. "It's definitely made my senior year more memorable."
Anderson, barefoot but wearing her black cap and gown, stood in her driveway surrounded by family (including her older sister, who is graduating from college) and neighbors cheering loudly and using noisemakers. She's considering taking gap year after learning her college, the University of British Columbia, plans to offer online-only instruction in the fall.
She said she's still looking forward to all the typical things a newly graduated senior would: "to make some decisions about where to go in life ... to learn new things and see new places."
In one Midtown cul-de-sac, parents of graduating seniors organized a makeshift graduation ceremony before the car parade. Paly seniors Kaillee Correll, Sophie Stier and Ivory Tang walked in a loop down their block while "Pomp and Circumstance" played. Neighbors came outside to cheer and bang pots and pans, and a young girl handed them each a bouquet of flowers. At the end of the loop, they tossed their caps into the air.
Correll is planning to attend Northeastern University in Boston in the fall. She said she's going to miss seeing her friends every day at school and the journalism program, where she wrote for C Magazine, Paly's arts and culture magazine.
With so much unrest and uncertainty, she said she's trying to "just live in the moment right now."
Tania Nanevicz's backyard was also set up for a mini commencement ceremony on Wednesday for her two daughters, one graduating from Paly and the other from The Girls' Middle School. A tent was strung with a "class of 2020" banner and tables were covered in confetti.
Nanevicz said her daughter has made the most of the unexpected ending to her senior year, reminding her mother that they're fortunate to have their health and safety. She asked her mother not to post any graduation photos to social media on Wednesday, worrying it would detract from the George Floyd protests.
"The resilience of the kids who have had so many things canceled ... so many things that they looked forward to and not having it, and still they're keeping their heads up," Nanevicz said.
For Paly graduate Kayla Stitt, the parade helped make taking the step out of high school feel more tangible and official. Neighbors formed a socially distanced get-together in front of her house in Leland Manor with a table of snacks and lawn chairs to congratulate Paly's class of 2020.
"It hasn't really hit me yet," Stitt said. "I feel older, but that's about it. Maybe more independent. My dad drove me to school when I was a freshman and now I'm driving myself."
At Paly, Stitt was captain of the lacrosse team, though due to the school closures she didn't play a single game this semester. She's headed to California Polytechnic State University in the fall and plans to live on campus regardless of whether there are in-person classes or not.
"I would love to be a teacher," she said, adding that she wants to pursue a liberal studies program and minor in Spanish as a pathway to a bilingual teaching credential.
Gunn Principal Kathie Laurence was stationed at a prominent corner outside the school as cars poured by, surrounded by cheering teachers and staff. She helped organize the event just in the last week or so after Santa Clara County gave the green light for car parade graduations.
"I'm just so proud of them all and the way they handled the loss and disappointment," she said of this year's seniors.
Students weren't the only ones saying goodbye to high school. Letitia Burton, who has taught living skills at Paly since 2000, stood at the corner of Embarcadero Road and El Camino Real to see her last graduation ceremony before she retires. Burton was wearing a traditional West African robe in Paly green and graduation stole made out of Kente cloth. She waved a tambourine to passing students, some of whom reached their hands out to her or shouted "thank you, Ms. Burton," as they turned the corner onto Embarcadero Road.
Burton said she always attends her students' graduations.
"Graduation is like one of the big rites of passages that we have and it's important to our kids, the community and the family," she said.
Especially in these times, Burton added, "we need to celebrate."
Superintendent Don Austin spent the parade standing outside the district office with senior administrators. He said the event made him unexpectedly emotional.
"It caught me part way through how much I've missed seeing smiling kids," he said. "To see so many smiling kids and parents and even just people lining the streets, some of whom had no current connection to school or our students — it was the community event that I had hoped could happen."
The school district is still planning to host an in-person graduation for the class of 2020 in December, but the parade felt so positive there was discussion Wednesday about whether it could become a permanent, additional tradition in years to come.
"It was a high point in a year that needed a high point," he said.
Editorial Assistant Lloyd Lee contributed to this report.
Visit graduation central, our hub of stories, photos and lists of this year's graduates from local high schools.