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Drive-thru graduations mark celebratory end of tumultuous year for Memphis district

June 8, 2020
A Kingsbury High School graduate in Memphis participates in the district’s drive-thru celebrations on June 8, 2020.
Malorie Paine/Shelby County Schools

For most high school seniors, this week is the first time in three months they’ll see their teachers in person — to say goodbye.

On Monday, Shelby County Schools kicked off drive-thru graduation celebrations for the class of 2020. The events are planned through Sunday across the city.

Tyler Finley, the valedictorian at East High School, arrived at the school’s front parking lot with his parents and grandma while standing through the car’s sunroof. The principal handed him his diploma and a congratulatory yard sign. He said even in the short time he had with his teachers, they didn’t miss an opportunity to give advice before he headed to Dillard University in the fall.

Tyler Finley, right, receives his diploma at East High School’s class of 2020 drive-thru celebration on June 8, 2020.
Courtesy of Althea Greene

“It was very emotional to see all of my teachers and the people who have basically prepared me for the next four years,” he said. “They just wanted me to remember where home was, and to always carry myself as I always have more to learn, and always leave some word of enlightenment with everyone I meet.”

The events were meant to make up for some of the seniors’ celebrations canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic that closed school buildings for the longest time in recent history.

Memphis schools have taken varying approaches. Teachers and staff made signs and yelled their congratulations in front of the school as cars lined up and drove through. Some students received their diplomas, others got their cap and gown and awards while staying in their cars. Some schools provided graduation-themed backgrounds for students to take photos or a yard sign. At one school, seniors were encouraged to vote for the best-decorated car.

June 8, 2020
Staff from Streets Ministries cheer for Kingsbury High School seniors during the class of 2020 drive-thru celebration on June 8, 2020.
Malorie Paine/Shelby County Schools

In-person graduation ceremonies are still planned for July if current health guidelines remain in place, but will be different than previous years. Guidance from the Shelby County Health Department said schools should use outdoor venues, such as stadiums, at 50% capacity and mark 6 feet in between seats. Schools should also encourage attendees to wear face coverings. Details for in-person Shelby County Schools ceremonies have not been publicly announced yet.

Finley said many of his classmates have told him that even though their senior year was drastically different, they felt they could still celebrate.

“It may not be as you expected, but you completed your task,” he said.

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