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Senior Send-Off: How Murray Created A New Graduation Tradition

Liam Niemeyer

Murray High School Senior Abbie Bierbaum is wearing a black cap, the Thursday evening sunset shining off the golden sash draped around her graduation gown. 

After a full high school career -- serving as her graduating class’ treasurer, editor of her school’s yearbook, and jumping over hurdles on the track team -- she isn’t walking in front of hundreds of people on stage to receive her diploma. Her high school graduation is anything but normal during the coronavirus pandemic.


“It does feel pretty weird, but I feel like Mr. [Tony] Jarvis and the school board are giving us the best that they can due to the circumstances,” Bierbaum said. “We wanted to honor the whole senior class in a way that was socially distanced.” 


Instead, she’s standing in a parking lot filled with cars and dozens of her fellow graduates, some on foot and others in cars waving their arms through sunroofs, getting ready to march into downtown Murray. Ahead of them, family and friends line the streets to cheer them on.


Credit Liam Niemeyer / WKMS
Murray High School Senior Emmalyn Tucker sits on top of a convertible, along with other seniors.

Murray High School Principal Tony Jarvis had only been leading the school for about a year, previously working in McCracken County Schools, when coronavirus changed everything about education. Yet, when he worked with long-time Murray residents in hatching the idea for the parade, it seemed like a unique idea for him during unique times.


“According to the people in the meeting, some of them are long-time residents, they said this has never been done. So, we might be starting a new tradition for Murray seniors to be able to do a quick parade through town,” Jarvis said. “But these kids deserve something beyond nine weeks of online school and a limited contact graduation. So, this is kind of like a graduation opportunity for them to put on the cap and gown, see a lot of people, tell people how they feel about them.”


With an announcement over a crackly speakerphone, the newly-dubbed “Murray High School Main Street Mile Walk” began to roll.


Cars honked, and family and friends cheered back. Some cars had banners with pictures of their graduating seniors, while one group rode an off-road vehicle with yellow and black balloons hanging out the back. A guitar version of “pomp and circumstance” played along the side of the road. 


But this parade wasn’t just for the graduating seniors.


“This is a lot longer of a walk than Lovett Auditorium stage, but...I think it gives a lot more people the option to come, because you can line up the sides of Main Street,” said Callie Adams, who made a sign for her cousin. 


Ginny Adams, who was with Callie on the side of the road, said she thought the parade was innovative, even though these seniors don’t get to experience a traditional commencement.


“This is a great way to commemorate the celebration, and they really don’t know what they’re missing. Because we all got to do it,” said Ginny Adams. “They’re getting to do something different, and it may be better.”


In front of the Calloway County Public Library, one of the seniors walks up to  Murray Elementary Teacher Shannon Chiles and hands her a piece of paper bearing the words, “Honorary Diploma.”


Credit Liam Niemeyer / WKMS
Family, friends, and community members line Main Street to cheer on students.

 “They give ‘honorary diplomas’ to previous teachers, and I was her first grade teacher,” Chiles said. “It means everything. She’s made it this far and she remembers me...that I may have had an impact in her life, so.”


Yet, as these students finish walking past the county courthouse and their old middle school, there’s still uncertainty and mixed signals for what to do in the future, and there are still mixed signals of what to do now amid a pandemic.


Before the parade, some seniors stayed in their cars with their parents, all donning masks; other seniors didn’t wear masks at all, some hugging and talking closely together. 


“We have some students who have issues with immunity. I’ve told them and their parents ‘Hey, you take care of your child. They're a priority for you.’ But we have other families that I believe are letting their kids be a little more, we'll say, loose with the rules and guidelines,” said Tony Jarvis. “I’ve told them and their parents repeatedly what I expected them to do, and you can see as with most school events, there are a few that are not going to quite live up to that part of the deal.”


One graduating senior decided to stay alone by her pickup truck instead of greeting her classmates after weeks of isolation. She’s wary of seeing others not following federal guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks in public to prevent spread of the virus. Among family and friends along the side of the road, some wore masks and kept a distance; others did not. 


“As a healthcare worker myself, I kind of see it as this might turn out as good as we plan it, but people are going to do what they want in the end,” said Whitley York, her dog, Little Fish, by her side. 


This pandemic has been very real for her. She’s been working for the past year as a nursing assistant in a Marshall County nursing home that she said hasn’t had any coronavirus cases yet. Other nursing homes with especially vulnerable populations throughout the state have not been spared. 


York plans to go to West Kentucky Community and Technical College and eventually transfer to Murray State University to get her nursing degree. 


“Everybody said always that 2020, the graduates, we’re going to be the ones that go down, it’s going to be something different because it’s 2020,” York said. “And I think this is that difference that they were talking about.”


"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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