Engines revved and horns honked as vehicles decked out in blue and white graduation decor drove around the track at Brainerd International Raceway for an unconventional high school commencement celebration.
To ease some of the pain felt by the impossibility of an in-person graduation ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic, parents of Brainerd High School seniors threw together a somewhat last-minute car parade Friday, May 22, to celebrate their graduates as best they could.
The result was even better than organizers could have hoped for.
Hundreds of vehicles — possibly more than 300, judging by a rough count from BHS Principal Andrea Rusk — lined up in packed rows, covered in colorful paint, message boards and ribbons, like a garlanded traffic jam. Occasionally, somebody would honk their horn, inspiring others to join in a crescendo of horns and revving engines.
Seniors, clad in their Warrior blue caps and gowns, hopped out their vehicles one by one as they passed photo stations to get their pictures taken with a backdrop of “class of 2020” balloons and regalia.
Superintendent Laine Larson and Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn, sporting protective masks, made their way along the line of graduates in cars waiting to have their names announced, waving as they went.
Each car was equipped with the graduates’ names, which were read aloud as they drove past announcers. The event was broadcast over Cool 103.5 FM.
Rusk personally congratulated each senior as she held a walkie talkie to communicate the correct pronunciation of the approaching graduate to announcers.
Some graduates said the experience was more fun than a traditional ceremony and is a memory they will carry on well into the future.
As for Rusk, Friday’s unorthodox celebration served as a high point after months of frustration and setbacks as a school, community and country. Even when Mother Nature seemed determined to ruin this last hurrah with rain showers, the overcast clouds held and seniors were able to enjoy their graduation during a balmy afternoon on the raceway.
“I'm really proud of our community and the parents who stepped up to volunteer for this event. Volunteers put in a lot of time and then of course have to be grateful to BIR for allowing us to host this event,” Rusk said as she circled back from the finish line and consulted assistants by the race track. “I didn't know what to expect. But really, yeah, I was really pleased with the participation. Thankfully the weather held out so that we could all be outside to enjoy it.”
Unusual graduation ceremonies aside, the class of 2020 has a unique place in the history of the United States, as its graduates were born close to 9/11 and then graduated during the coronavirus pandemic. As such, the beginning and end of their childhood is bookended by two crises that stand as paradigm shifts in the history of the country.
Rusk expressed sympathy for those who experienced hardship during such upheaval, but also praised the class of 2020 for their toughness and pointed to the pandemic as a point of personal growth.
“For some of us that are older and remember 9/11, I think we can see the significance in it,” Rusk said of the historical parallels. “These young adults are going off into the world. They've faced some adversity in many different ways, from 9/11 to our country being affected right now again, sharing this worldwide pandemic. And so I feel like it's only gonna strengthen them, because they are really a very gritty class and a very resilient class.”
After circling around the track, cars came back around and lined up on the pro pad as each graduate got out of the car for a unified balloon release. Hundreds of vehicles lined up in rows, like a solitaire board, and while everyone waited for the rest to arrive, graduates in their blue gowns climbed on top of truck beds, or poked their heads out of sunroofs and windows. There, they chatted like it was lunch hour, or stared off into the distance, reminiscing.
And there, in the end, they christened their graduation with a cloud of balloons rising into the sky.
BHS virtual graduation
Don’t miss Monday’s edition of the Brainerd Dispatch for coverage of Brainerd High School’s virtual graduation ceremony.