Graduations at Massachusetts high schools return to normal traditions — the inspirational and the hilarious

As Jayden Leighty walked across the stage at The Big E Coliseum during the West Springfield High School graduation, he paused, threw off his cap and gown and posed like a bodybuilder.

For the personal trainer and soon-to-be Westfield State student majoring in exercise science, Leighty felt it important to incorporate his passion into the last few minutes of his high school career.

Leighty said he wanted to “hype up all the people in the student body that supported me and my personal goals of bodybuilding.”

The poses got applause from the audience and laughs from those on the stage, including West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt.

Leighty isnt alone in his unique walk across stage.

Jake Thibeault, a Milton Academy hockey player who was paralyzed after a severe injury, made headlines when he walked across the stage. A Brigham Young University student went viral when she changed the inside of her gown to include a pride flag as protest to her school, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. And Farrah Flores received more than 2.7 million likes on TikTok for a video of her changing from a black gown to a pink one as she walked across the stage.

Other graduation traditions also continued across the state.

After years of no graduation or socially distanced graduations, many students returned to their usual venues, including students in Springfield who were able to walk across the stage at Symphony Hall. Many students were able to sit next to their classmates as they graduated and loved ones gathered together in the audience.

In 2021, many graduations in Massachusetts were able to be held but were oftentimes still socially distanced, masked, had limited seating or other precautions. Still, that year some schools choose to not hold an in-person graduation. And after two years of unusual graduations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many looked forward to the normalcy.

“I think for people to feel we’re getting back to normal, it is important,” said Dustin Miller, a clinical assistant professor of educational studies at The Ohio State University and a former high school principal. “It’s that tradition of, this is what we do when we graduate from high school. This is the arena. This is the ceremony and the pomp and circumstance. And I think that means a lot.”

But for many students, it’s too late.

“I think more research is going to be done to truly understand what students lost, especially in the spring of 2020,” said Miller. “They lost that communal sense of being together.”

Miller said all the traditions that go with the end of senior year, including graduation ceremonies, senior picnics and class trips, is a rite of passage — something some seniors never got due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s just that feeling that, ‘We want to be in the stadium or in the arena, dressed in our gowns, just like my older siblings,'” he said.

He said he gives a lot of credit to schools who tried to replace graduations with safer options. But it’s not the same.

“Even though that was a nice gesture, when you’re the kiddo that doesn’t get to sit in that arena in your cap and gown like everyone else, there’s just no making up for it,” Miller said.

The loss continued to follow many students into college with being unable to move into freshmen dorm rooms or have the usual college experience. For some, college graduation next year might have an even greater meaning due to the pandemic.

“I think they’re going to be excited to feel like we’re back. I didn’t get my high school graduation, so now I at least get to have the full on college graduation ceremony in the stadium,” Miller said.

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