‘Headed to another part of life’: High school graduates walk in Pottstown, alone and adored

Listen 2:53
Melissa Coleman walks toward the stage at Pottstown High School to the sound of Pomp and Circumstance. Four members of her family were allowed to attend the mini-cermony, which was repeated for each member of the graduating class. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Melissa Coleman walks toward the stage at Pottstown High School to the sound of Pomp and Circumstance. Four members of her family were allowed to attend the mini-cermony, which was repeated for each member of the graduating class. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It was not the graduation they were looking forward to at the beginning of their senior year.

Normally, graduations at Pottstown High School would be in the gymnasium with a full marching band playing “Pomp and Circumstance,” where a couple thousand friends and family cheer for the graduates, each called by name to walk across the stage.

This year is a quieter affair. The graduate enters an empty auditorium in cap and gown, with the principal and four family members down at the stage. A spotlight catches them proceeding down the aisle as a tape of the school marching band plays, false notes and all, recorded in 2008. To make it sound fuller the sound guy mixed in some canned audience cheers.

In this audience there are no people, only 230 lawn signs propped up on the seats, each with the name and photo of a graduate.

Pottstown High School seniors graduate one at a time before an audience of lawn signs representing their classmates. The ceremony will take six days. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

After a quick stop at a table for a pump of hand sanitizer, Principal Danielle McCoy calls the graduate name, and he or she walks across the aisle to pick up their diploma, then pause again at the other end of the stage for a photo. No handshake. The graduate and their family are ushered out the side door to a family photo station.

The usher gets on his radio to signal that the graduate has left the building, and the next one can enter the auditorium. This goes on and on, every 15 minutes, until all 230 graduates have walked. It takes six days.

The coronavirus pandemic may have robbed these graduates of the pomp they are due, but Principal Danielle McCoy refused to stage a virtual, online event like many other high schools are planning.

“I did not consider that,” she said. “The superintendent did, but I was looking for any other option.”

McCoy said her school serves a community with a lot of poverty, and feels an obligation to properly acknowledge this substantial life moment for graduates.

“For some of our students, this may be the only big celebration they have,” she said. “Some don’t go to college. They don’t have big weddings. It’s important to have one big celebration that’s about them.”

To maintain a sense of formality, McCoy normally enforces a strict dress code at graduation: the boys must wear black pants and shoes under their gowns, the girls must wear white. They may not write or draw on their mortarboards. This year she loosened the rules slightly, because of the unusual situation.

Pottstown High School graduate Sensair Wesley decorated his mortarboard with a self-portrait. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Even with the reduced ceremonial circumstance, a graduation is still a graduation, brimming with feelings of pride, with the excitement of what’s to come and the sadness of what will be left behind.

“I was nervous up there. I don’t know why,” said Sensair Wesley, who will be going to King’s College in Wilkes-Barre to play football and study to be a physician’s assistant. “We’re lucky to at least have a graduation. I’m happy we get to walk.”

Outside the auditorium, while watching her son hold his diploma, Wesley’s mother Kristen Evans said the experience is “surreal.”

It was not surreal because of the canned applause or the empty auditorium populated by lawn signs. It was surreal because she is watching her son grow up.

“I remember when he was a baby,” said Evans, never taking her eyes off her son, dressed in cap and gown. “Getting him to this point, I’m super proud. No words to describe. Many ups and downs, but well worth it.”

Evans noted that Wesley was born seven days before the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Now he’s graduating during a global pandemic.

“I know he’s meant to be something special,” she said.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Maureen Miller came to watch her son Darion walk across the stage. She, herself, graduated from Pottstown 27 years ago. He plans to attend Penn State in the fall.

“I was a bunch of nerves all day today,” Maureen Miller said. “I’m so happy they were able to do something. Little bit of a tear-jerker. I didn’t cry like a baby, like I thought I would.”

Even the graduates got teary. When Melissa Coleman approached the stage to hear her name called, she wept a little. Then giggled a little. Then lifted her chin and strode across the stage.

Once outside, she said the act of graduating makes her feel happy. But also it’s sad. Coleman will be attending California University of Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, to study athletic training.

Pottstown High School senior Melissa Coleman poses with her father, James Coleman, after a socially distant graduation ceremony. (Emma Lee)

She started crying again. Her father put his arm around her.

“She’s headed to another part of life,” James Coleman said. “You’re starting a new beginning. It’s not the end. You still got education to go.”

He couldn’t resist getting in a dig: “You got to get out the house!”

They both cracked up.

All of the ceremonial diploma hand-offs during the six-day marathon will be videotaped and edited into a breezier hour-plus version. On June 4, Pottstown plans to have a graduate parade in cars through the town.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.