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Garces Memorial hosts outdoor graduation: "It's a great new tradition"

Tuesday night marked the return of pomp and circumstance to Garces Memorial High School's graduation ceremony — and the graduates and their families couldn't have been happier.

The graduation standard was also played for the class of 2020, but their graduation ceremony was a casual drive-thru event featuring more pick-up trucks than gowns. It was held in the midst of uncertainty over how to properly send off the senior class when the state was banning gatherings of any kind during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this year had the hallmarks of a traditional ceremony: the class processed on foot in caps and gowns. A band played. The valedictorian, Victor Agbayani, was able to valedict. Monsignor Perry Kavookjian offered a benediction and passed out diplomas. Dominic Villalpando, a graduate heading to Pace University on a dance scholarship, performed.

Families filled the stands and looked down on their graduates below who sat on the field. They were overwhelmingly grateful to be there, since this moment hadn't been assured to them one year ago.

"I'm just grateful they're able to have a ceremony, because they missed so much," said Alicia Gonzalez, whose son Abraham Gonzalez graduated. "It's a blessing to be able to share it with the entire family."

Typically, Garces Memorial graduates its seniors at the Mechanics Bank Arena Convention Center. Principal Myka Peck believed it would be especially nice to have graduating seniors spend their final moments on campus — since that campus experience, too, had not been assured to them one year ago.

"They have so many memories on the field," she said. "I think to have it on our campus makes it more fitting."

Families and graduates really appreciated the new venue. The light breeze and temperatures in the 80s certainly helped.

"It's a great new tradition," said Jensen Hallum, a graduate. "I'm excited and it should be a great send-off for four years at Garces."

Peck said she's really proud of this class of 117 seniors, all of whom graduated this year. She lauded them — and also staff who worked hard with this class during a difficult year that began in distance learning.

"That’s a testament to what our teachers have done," she said.

Graduate Angel Rodriguez said beginning the year in distance learning was a struggle for him, and he worried he might not make it to this day. It was when school returned to in-person learning in October that he began to turn things around. He credits his family and girlfriend Elizabeth Nevarez, who graduated last year, who was there to see him earn his diploma.

"I'm glad for the experiences I had for the four years, even though we had the restrictions," he said.

Nevarez, for her part, was grateful to return to campus for graduation and see people again.

"We finally have a chance to see everyone again," she said.

Because of COVID restrictions, each graduate was only able to have four tickets to pass out to their loved ones. This inspired some creativity.

Across the street from Garces, Rosanne LaFever, class of 1996, hosted a watch party with alumni, which included Our Lady of Perpetual Help Principal Nicole Rebuck. On lawn chairs and under a big Garces "G," they had a good view of the procession, which came in handy for two grandfathers of graduates whose wives were at the ceremony.

"I wouldn't let my wife miss it," said Jerry Barker.

"Same deal," said Ron Cruz, pointing to himself.

The band commenced "Pomp and Circumstance" and the sound rang through clearly.

"There's some sound for the cheap seats," Cruz said with a laugh.