Idaho Falls seniors graduate on the big screen

IDAHO FALLS — Dozens of Compass Academy seniors embraced under the hulking drive-in theater screen.

A swarm of caps and gowns, it was the first time several had seen each other since March.

“We left for Spring Break and didn’t realize it would be the last time we’d all be together,” said senior Lexi Hibbert.

The Idaho Falls School District kicked off its series of high school graduation ceremonies at the Motor Vu Drive-in Theater Monday, with a celebration for Emerson High School students. Compass, a magnet school in the district, went Tuesday. Skyline and Idaho Falls high schools will follow suit at the venue Wednesday and Thursday.

Drive-in ceremonies are one way schools are innovating to celebrate 2020 graduates amid the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered schools in March. Seniors at Thunder Ridge High School, in the neighboring Bonneville School District, attended a similar outdoor ceremony on their campus Tuesday.

For Compass’s 85 graduates, Tuesday’s ceremony was different. But at least it was something, several seniors said.

“It’s a little weird,” said Kassi Holbrook, whose cap bore quotes from Disney’s “Finding Nemo” in commemoration of her dad, who had cancer. “At least we get to have a graduation.”

Two rows back, senior Nyomi Merrill and her mom, Kelsi Merrill, posed for pictures together through an SUV sunroof.

“I wasn’t too warm to the idea at first, but it’s better than nothing, ” Nyomi Merrill said of the ceremony. “Some kids are getting their diplomas in the mail.”

Kelsi Merrill agreed. “When you’re this young, it means something. We’re all trying our best here to celebrate these kids.”

A parent shook a cowbell out a nearby car window. Others blew their car horns several rows back.

At 9:15, an image flickered onto the screen, prompting families to tune their radios to 91.3 FM and bearing random tidbits about graduates: the “part-time beat boxer,” the would-be owner of a miniature panda who dips her gummy bears in jalapeño fry sauce, the lover of ketchup over mac and cheese.

Panic! At The Disco’s hit single “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” blared from a makeshift PA system under the screen and from surrounding car stereos.

Soon, students shuffled back to their vehicles to watch Compass English teacher Arik Durfee give life advice in a pre-recorded message on the 40-foot screen. Don’t be a jerk, avoid arguments on Facebook (“You can’t win”) and admit when you’re wrong, Durfee counseled students.

“Find things you enjoy and work really hard to get good at them,” he added.

Student leaders gave pre-recorded speeches on greatness and persistence and thanked others who helped them along the way.

“We’d like to thank the coronavirus for absolutely nothing,” one student joked.

Students then left their cars, one at a time, to accept their diplomas under enormous pictures of themselves on the screen above. Markers on the grass ensured they stayed at least six feet apart.

A quick photo of each student, diploma in hand, and more hugs under the screen ended the ceremony.

But the celebration wasn’t over, said senior Kolbe Lemons. “I don’t think everyone will be following social-distancing guidelines when we leave here.”

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

Devin was formerly a senior reporter and editor for Idaho Education News and now works for INL in communications.

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