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One New York School Plans To Hold Its Graduation Ceremony At A Drive-In Movie Theater

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For the high school class of 2020, this senior year has been a series of disappointing cancellations due to the pandemic - first, classes, then prom and now graduation. Some schools are trying out video conference graduation ceremonies, and then there are the schools that are trying something a little different. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: For the millions of high school seniors who've been robbed of their capstone year, their last season on varsity teams, senior prom, awards night, it's been hard to let go of graduation, too.

KEN FREESTON: To not have one just doesn't seem right to us.

VINCE DIGRANDI: Absolutely. They've earned it. That's where I'm coming from.

SMITH: In North Salem, N.Y., Superintendent Ken Freeston and Principal Vince DiGrandi started brainstorming last month for ways to get their seniors some pomp despite the circumstance, and they called a nearby venue.

DIGRANDI: John, where we're at is my two crazy advisers drove up there and absolutely love the place.

SMITH: Within days, they were on a conference call negotiating a contract and hammering out logistics.

DIGRANDI: We will bring a security guard with us. We will bring a custodian for the wipe-down of the restrooms.

SMITH: They kept it all top-secret so other schools wouldn't steal their idea and their site. It's one of only a couple dozen of its kind in all of New York state.

FREESTON: Not that we're competitive, but - (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIGRANDI: Drumroll, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMROLL)

SMITH: Last night, they finally announced it online to their seniors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIGRANDI: There was Armstrong landing on the moon. Then there's this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALONE AT A DRIVE-IN MOVIE")

JOHN TRAVOLTA: (Singing) Stranded at the drive-in, branded...

SMITH: Senior Kayley Decina watched from home with her family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Your graduation will be taking place at Four Brothers Drive-In Theater on Route 22.

KAYLEY DECINA: Oh, my God. That's awesome.

(CROSSTALK)

DECINA: I was going to say I think that is better.

EMMET HALTON: One literally for the history books.

SMITH: Another senior, Emmet Halton, agrees to actually put on a cap and gown to cap this crazy year is huge.

HALTON: Considering it's been a blur the past month or two, I think it's going to be really good that we do get that sense of closure.

SMITH: Decina has been craving it.

DECINA: I've been crying, like, every day about not having a graduation, so I think having this last hurrah is really going to help. And it means a ton.

SMITH: Kids are already planning to decorate their cars, preferably ones with a sunroof they can pop through to cheer and throw their caps. The valedictorian speech will blare from the drive-in's 56-foot-wide screen in high def. And while the 103 graduates may not get to walk, DiGrandi will from car to car, passing out diplomas from a proper social distance. He has recruited an old industrial arts teacher to build him a retractable arm to extend at least six feet.

DIGRANDI: I was thinking one of those, like, alligator grippers that, like, my grandmother would have. And I would just dip into the car with the diploma. You know, they could take a picture. It'd be great.

SMITH: And after the ceremony, well, they're not going to let a trip to the drive-in go to waste.

DIGRANDI: So we're like, well, what movie would be appropriate for this? So of course, what did we come up with?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GROUNDHOG DAY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Groundhog Day.

DIGRANDI: Exactly. Why not? It kind of feels that way for these kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GROUNDHOG DAY")

BILL MURRAY: (As Phil Connors) I'm reliving the same day over and over.

SMITH: If all goes according to plan, at least graduation day will feel different, and North Salem may well be sending off their students with a more memorable message than any commencement address could possibly offer - that is, how to roll with life's curveballs.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.