North Shore Country Day’s Class of 2020 missed out on many of their senior milestones because of the COVID-19 pandemic—spring sports, senior prom, the Royal Breakfast with their kindergarten buddies. They had no idea when they left school on March 12 for spring break that it would be the last time they would set foot on campus as students until last Friday.

That’s when Commencement occured— live and in person. It was the one thing the school was determined to make sure the seniors didn’t lose. With guidance from faculty and 12th grade parents, administrators designed a unique, creative and festive experience—yet socially distanced and safe—to celebrate NSCD’s 101st graduating class. It was an exhilarating end to a complicated spring.

“We pride ourselves in the power of our community and our ability to be creative problem-solvers,” explained Head of School Tom Flemma. “To me, that demanded we think outside the box to prioritize the community our students and teachers have built together and have been missing this spring.”

Luckily, the School’s small graduating class of 52 seniors and its expansive, 16-acre campus opened up options as administrators figured out the best way to honor the class while following state and local guidelines regarding social distancing and large gatherings. They settled on an outdoor ceremony in the spirit of a drive-in movie theater. They built a large stage on the southeast corner of the playing fields in front of the School’s iconic Auditorium and projected everything onto a screen. Guests could tune their car radios to a local station for the audio, and the entire event was also live streamed for those who couldn’t be there in person because of capacity restrictions. 

The evening of Friday, June 5, seniors and their immediate families drove their cars onto the field and formed neat rows in pre-marked spaces.  While the ceremony was slightly pared down from a typical year, omitting a traditional processional, chorus performances and the ringing of the School bell to close out the evening, many of the important elements remained. 

Senior Kali Pfannerstill gave a moving speech that honored her late mother, former Upper School Science Teacher Jennifer Pfannerstill, and highlighted the resilience of the Class of 2020. 

 “After my mom passed on July 2, 2018, I thought about all of my final moments with her: our last fight, our last hug, and the biggest of all, our last goodbye. I wanted to forget these,” Pfannerstill explained. “They made me too sad or angry. At the time I thought I should only remember the fun or normal days we spent together. Little did I know then, that was never going to work because no matter how hard we try to cherish our first experiences and hate the lasts, there is an undisguised beauty in both. All of these memories, no matter where they fit in on our timeline, have all shaped us into the intelligent and wonderful people that are graduating today.”

Upper School Social Studies Teacher Tim Curren also touched on the class’s strength and resilience as he addressed the crowd. He drew connections between the Class of 2020 and North Shore students who had come before them who also faced uncertainty as their high school careers drew to a close—whether because of the stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression or because of the onset of World War II—and he talked about the importance of community in the face of challenge.

“North Shore teaches us that no matter what happens, we don’t have to face the future alone,” Curren explained. “We reinforce the importance of community so frequently here that, perhaps to you, it’s become a cliché … but that doesn’t take away from the fundamental truth that a strong community supports all of its members.”

In a typical year, the entire senior class is seated on the stage during the ceremony, but this year, seniors stayed in their cars until it was time for them to receive their diplomas. At that time, students exited their cars individually,  stood in a socially distant queue, picked their diploma up from a table, and walked across the stage to cheers and honks from the assembled crowd.  

Flemma, continuing his tradition of wearing one of his father’s colorful sport coats, addressed the class for the final time. He talked about 20/20 vision and explained that the experiences they’ve had to face in their formative years—from global pandemics to civil unrest—have the power to give them insight into the world and how it works. He exhorted them to bring both analysis and empathy to the world as they worked to make it a better place.

“You have been tested in remarkable ways and you have done amazing things,” he said. “Keep your faith in each other and your world. You have put your mark on this place forever, do the same when you leave here.”

Before the graduates drove off, faculty and staff waited in the front parking lot to cheer them on and wave goodbye from a distance. “Honestly, it was magical—one of the most special days in my career as an educator,” Flemma said. “The parents were raving about it afterward, and some even said it was the best graduation they had ever seen. It was just so special, to honor a special class.”

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