Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh in the 1970s, I’ll never forget how excited I was when our McDonald’s was getting the first drive-thru in our town. We called it a “pick-up window.” Over 40 years later, as the mom of a high school senior, I can’t say I felt the same enthusiasm when I heard about the drive-thru graduation planned for Glenbrook South High School due to COVID-19.
After four years of hard work, dedication, and some of the best memories we have, I always imagined my family all dressed up and heading to the Rosemont Theatre to enjoy the elaborate three-hour ceremony typically held for the occasion. Instead, my son’s high school graduation—an event I’ve dreamed about his entire life, would consist of him hopping in and out of the car to receive his diploma. It seemed like yet another COVID-19 depressing moment.
Man, was I in for a surprise. On Saturday, June 13th and Sunday, June 14th, in the parking lots of Glenbrook South and Glenbrook North high schools, an estimated 1,150 graduates of the schools participated in a drive-thru style ceremony and guess what? It was amazing!
Here’s how it worked at Glenbrook South, the graduation I attended. Students, dressed in their caps and gowns, were given a time to attend based on alphabetical order. With graduates and their families showing up in cars, vans, and trucks—many vehicles decorated with balloons, banners, cutouts, garland and streamers, the journey began by driving past several signs with inspirational quotes written by members of the graduating class. One that caught my eye read, “Passionate about something? Chase it until you cannot see straight!”
Once you got to the stage, your graduate got out of the car and walked across, as school principal, Dr. Lauren Fagel, read his or her name. The graduate then received the diploma and posed for a professional photograph, which will be sent to each family. The ceremonies were streamed online.
“We were nervous at first because we didn’t know what to expect,” said Fagel, who has been in her position for five years. “But after we got going and saw that it was working, we were so happy and thrilled, and then we started to enjoy it and have fun. It was nothing but a joy to read each of their names. I took a lot of pride in reading them loud and proud.”
It didn’t hurt that the weather was picture perfect—sunny skies and ideal temperatures. According to Fagel, the goal of the graduation was to provide a culminating experience that looked and felt like a graduation, while keeping everyone safe.
“Every student had their moment, whether they had one person in the car with them, two people or a car full of people, and all the family members got a front row seat,” she said.
Graduate, Jack Krasucki participated in the GBS ceremony with his family and dog in the car.
“It was well organized, quick and easy and smooth, but it was a little bittersweet,” said Jack’s mom, Jeannine Krasucki. “But in a way, it was a lot easier and less hectic compared to going to the Rosemont like we did for our daughter. There was no downtime, no waiting, no crazy crowds or looking for parking.”
“We were so grateful to have a way to celebrate,” said Caroline Gau, whose son, Benji graduated from GBN. “I think it was a good way to have closure for the year. They could say good-bye to some of the staff and they could actually get a diploma on stage. A lot of his friends were watching live at home, and they took a snapshot on their screens and sent it to him.”
Fagel said the idea for the drive-thru graduation came from Dr. Mike Tarjan, assistant principal of student activities at GBN.
“I can’t take all the credit because it was a group of teachers who brainstormed ideas and listened to students and parents,” said Tarjan, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership. “One day I was walking through the parking lot and came up with the idea. What if we drop the kids off and give them the opportunity to walk on stage and hear their name read?”
According to Tarjan, the event, which was sponsored by District 225, could not have happened without the support of school staff members, the villages of Glenview and Northbrook, the police departments, the fire departments and the public works department.
“After all the stuff these seniors missed out on: spring fest, prom, awards banquets, this was one thing we really needed to nail,” Tarjan said. “I saw parents in tears, I have never been given so many compliments on a program we put together. It was relaxed and joyful and we really did nail it.”
Speaking of parents in tears, I was a faucet when I heard Dr. Fagel call out my son’s name. Even afterwards, as we drove off, several teachers and staff members were at the exit holding up signs and cheering on all the grads. That support and energy ignited the same emotions I imagine people feel at any graduation ceremony, no matter how large or small.
The bottom line is, despite that our school district and community was faced with the adversity of a horrible pandemic, they still managed to accomplish a warm, loving graduation event that sparked sentimentality, love, and a deep sense of pride.
“This is the most memorable graduation in history,” said Alisha Potter, whose two sons, Michael and John graduated from GBS. “Their grandchildren will be studying COVID-19 and will ask them about it. The way they graduated was non-traditional, but the way they came through it, they got their own moment. It’s one for the history books.”
In closing, I want to acknowledge one of the Glenbrook South staff members who was cheering for the students that day; Mr. Donald Lowery, a paraprofessional at the school. Mr. Lowery passed away a few days after graduation. I will never forget my son rolling down the window to cheer with Lowery. My daughter, who is also a student at GBS told me that when she would see Mr. Lowery, she would say, “Have a good day” and he would always respond, “You have a better one.” Rest in peace Mr. Lowery.
To all the Glenbrook South and Glenbrook North graduates, congratulations on a job well done!
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Jackie Pilossoph is a former television journalist and newspaper features reporter. The author of four novels and the writer of her weekly relationship column, Love Essentially, Pilossoph is also the creator of the divorce support website, Divorced Girl Smiling. Pilossoph holds a Masters degree in journalism and lives in Chicago with her two teenagers.