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  The school’s parking lot hosts families in their cars June 2 for a socially distanced graduation  ceremony.

The school’s parking lot hosts families in their cars June 2 for a socially distanced graduation ceremony.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


There’s no stopping the Class of 2020

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 7, 2020

 Bloomfield Hills High School families commemorate the Class of 2020’s graduation with a drive-in ceremony in the school’s parking lot.

Bloomfield Hills High School families commemorate the Class of 2020’s graduation with a drive-in ceremony in the school’s parking lot.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Bloomfield Hills High School graduate Mari Lynn receives her diploma from Principal Charlie Hollerith during a socially distanced event in June.

Bloomfield Hills High School graduate Mari Lynn receives her diploma from Principal Charlie Hollerith during a socially distanced event in June.

Photo provided by Mari Lynn

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BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD — Each year, the Birmingham-Bloomfield Eagle is proud to honor the exceptional senior students graduating in our coverage area.

But in 2020, the honor is even more momentous.

Instead of celebrating their achievements with formal dances, all-night parties and traditional ceremonies, this year’s grads traded their caps and gowns for masks and hand sanitizer amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It wasn’t so bad, if you ask Jaylen Simelane, a 2020 graduate from Birmingham Public Schools’ Lincoln Street Alternative High School.

“I wasn’t really a big fan of the whole graduation ceremony thing anyways. I usually don’t want to be in the spotlight, so not having a graduation impacted a lot of other people, but not really me. I guess I was just expecting to do it for my family,” Simelane said.

Since March, he and his classmates at Lincoln Street Alternative, and across metro Detroit for that matter, have hunkered down to finish their high school experience from home to stay safe from the virus. Online learning can be tough for anyone, but Simelane said he really struggled to make it work.

“I’m not a fan of that. But I think eventually for me and a lot of people, it just came down to, ‘We’ve got to get this done,’” Simelane explained. “It was weird moving to online and Zoom classes instead of regular classes and book assignments.”

It was also a learning experience for Principal David Brooks, who had just moved to Lincoln Street Alternative from Berkshire Middle School, where he was the assistant principal earlier this year. Just as he was getting to know the tight-knit community of parents, students and instructors, the virus moved in, too.

“We had to pause everything we’d ever known and done in education and ask our staff to get creative,” Brooks said. “And they did. They shifted everything to online learning to create a model where students would have access to teachers any time, even though they weren’t meeting face to face. We’ll never take that in-person interaction for granted ever again.”

During the period of virtual learning, the seniors at LSA honed in on one of the school’s signature curriculums: senior seminar. What some young people might refer to as “adulting,” the course walks students through the ins and outs of being a functional citizen, from filing taxes to budgeting and everything in between.

Simelane said the shutdown really showed him how important those skills are, because there are times in life when individuals will need to get by on their own.

“This whole pandemic isn’t over. It’s not totally gone. There might be another senior year experiencing this same thing,” he explained. “If (schools) don’t teach you the kind of stuff like budgeting, you gotta take the time to learn that on your own. It’s really important information.”

But Simelane and Brooks made it, together. And there was no way Brooks said he was going to let the milestone go by without even a small celebration for each of his seniors.

“The teachers and I talked about it and asked ourselves, ‘How do we do right by these kids who have earned this?’” Brooks said. “We went out on June 12, the last day of school. We drove to each senior’s house and presented them with a diploma and a little gift. And some hand sanitizer and toilet paper, because that’s pretty valuable, too, these days.”

Simelane was working at his construction job that day, and Brooks and his team turned up to celebrate him on-site.

For Mari Lynn, a 2020 graduate of Bloomfield Hills High School, the experience was similar: different, but no less special.

“Graduation wasn’t what I was expecting from 13 years ago, seeing my brothers graduate and go to their all-night parties and senior breakfast and stuff,” she said. “But I think what the administration put together for us was really interesting and really unique.”

Bloomfield Hills High School Principal Charlie Hollerith said he, the high school faculty and even the Board of Education scrambled to come up with socially distant ways to salute the Class of 2020. The result was a senior car parade, a small-group diploma ceremony, home visits for cap-and-gown distribution, and finally, a big drive-in commencement with pre-recorded speeches shown on a jumbo video display in the school’s parking lot.

“We had our cars decorated for the parade, and a couple random people showed up and joined. That just goes to show you how good it was,” Lynn said with a laugh.

The West Bloomfield teen will head off to Ohio State University in the fall to study pharmacy, and she said she looks forward to seeing how the Class of 2021 carries the torch of traditions that COVID-19 inadvertently lit.

It seems future generations of graduates will look back at this class and be impressed.

“I think some of those will be new traditions going forward,” Hollerith said. “The fact that the Class of 2020 had to sacrifice a lot of things, and they really lost out on a lot of the activities that we have at the end of the year, I think they’ll be remembered for those sacrifices. They’re part of keeping people healthy.”

At the very least, the quarantine grads will be remembered.

“It will be a cool story to tell my kids one day, for sure,” Lynn said.

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