After a year that culminated in so much disappointment for many Maricopa High School graduates, the Class of 2020 and its accomplishments were celebrated Thursday during a drive-thru diploma distribution.
Amid blowing of car horns, thumping music, blowing balloons and cheers of congratulations, graduates clad in red caps and gowns were presented diplomas in their cars in a driveway at the high school, accompanied by family and friends. It began at 10:30 a.m. and was scheduled to last about four hours.
It was an effort by teachers, staff and administrators to give this year’s class of 512 graduates the best send-off they could – for now – as social distancing remains important during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Tracey Lopeman, superintendent of the Maricopa Unified School District, was helping to cheer on graduates in a year that they had virtually none of the traditional trappings of senior year.
“We’re trying to let our Maricopa Rams know how proud we are of them, and that we know that this is not what we had hoped for, but it’s only just the beginning, and their best is yet to come,” she said, greeting cars as they rolled toward the diploma distribution station.
“I would like for them to use their horns more so we can wake up the neighborhood, and make this the proper moment,” she said. “We’ve got to let them know: the Rams are graduating. We’re proud of them.”
“Make some noise,” she yelled to one car. “Congratulations!”
Many graduates were grateful for the show of support.
“I think what they did was pretty nice, because currently we have to keep social distancing from each other,” said Alexandra Cuellar, 18, as she and her family waited to take photos at one of the backdrops set up in the student parking lot.
“The drive-thru was pretty nice, having the support of our staff and our teachers. It was nice to see them at least one last time,” she said. “Then, putting up these booths to take a picture with our families in front of our school, I thought that was really thoughtful and good of them.”
Her dad, Ricardo Cuellar, said he agreed with his daughter about the festivities, adding simply: “I am very proud.”
As he waited to take pictures with his family, Derek Blakely, 17, wore his red gown and mortarboard over a T-shirt and black Converse sneakers. He wore a tassel on his cap given to him by his sister, Rachel, who graduated from Maricopa High School in 2017. “I just broke the ’17 off,” he said, laughing.
He said the school year was a bit surreal.
“It was pretty weird,” Blakely said. “The weekend that we started spring break was the weekend that Disney and everything shut down and it all felt real. The whole coronavirus thing.
“For a while, it just felt like we never came back from break. At one point, we were going to come back, but then we just don’t.”
He said he was grateful for the pomp around the diploma drive-thru – attended by his parents, grandparents, his sister and her boyfriend – but conceded it was bittersweet in some ways.
“It’s so almost-something, you know,” he said. “It’s like a reminder about how real it could have been.”
“Like it’s nice and I appreciate it, obviously. You can see how much effort and love everyone put into this,” he said, before adding it was also “a reminder that, oh yeah, I didn’t get senior week, I didn’t get prom, I didn’t get so many things….”
Quick and patient, with social distancing
Before 10:30 a.m., vehicles were lined up along North Taft Street and back onto Honeycutt Avenue in front of the school. Teachers and staff cheered from stations under canopies as cars waited. As the students entered the school grounds, they were greeted by a DJ blaring “Hey Ya” by Outkast and “Fire Burning on the Dance Floor” by Sean Kingston.
Many cars were decorated in black-and-red, with messages of congratulations and good luck next to their graduate’s name. Some were festooned with red, black and Spongebob balloons.
As graduates took their diplomas, they could move into the student lot to take photos at one of three backdrops to digitize the memory. The most popular backdrop, featuring a pattern of recurring MHS Rams and Adidas logos, was set up under a tree. A sign reminded: “Please be quick. Be patient. Respect Social Distancing.”
Most families were following the rules, taking their photos quickly and moving aside for the next group. Patience looked to be in good supply.
Nearby, two signs on cars summed up the difficult year, their traditional messages carrying more meaning this time around.
One read: “Class 2020 Class that Made History.”
The other: “The Tassle Was Worth The Hassle 2020 You Did It!”
‘Doing as much as they can’
The school’s efforts to make Diploma Day special did not go unnoticed.
“I appreciate it. It’s better than nothing,” said Nadia Chacon, 17, sitting in the passenger seat of a Chevy Traverse as she moved through the line. “They could have just sent me my diploma.”
Yvanira Kelly Barbosa, 17, was taking a positive view on a challenging year.
“It was a good year,” she said, simply. “It was fine.”
Her father, Jose Barbosa, said he appreciated the celebration being put on by the high school.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “The kids can come in and enjoy. I mean, they work all year. This is what we do for them.”
Graduate Aidan Di Maria picked up his diploma with two friends, Isaac Barrett and Brandon Ortega, who had much different experiences when they graduated in 2019.
“It just sucks that we can’t even have a trip, which I get,” he said. ““They are doing everything right. They can’t do much, so they are doing as much as they can.”
The group wondered, though, if spreading out the distribution over a couple of days would have allowed graduates the opportunity to have more friends and family join them.
“There was other options than a drive-thru,” his mother noted. “And not in December.”
Outgoing principal Brian Winter greeted graduates, passing along his congratulations before radioing the student’s name 70 feet down the driveway to the folks grabbing diplomas and handing them out.
He said the event had one focus: the students.
“It’s about the kids,” he said. “It’s a difficult time, obviously. This group has lost a lot. And so anything that we can do to help celebrate the situation we want to do. And obviously the full-blown ceremony in December is going to be important as well.”
Then he turned to greet another car, another one of his graduates: “Congratulations!”