They didn’t have a prom, and their graduation ceremony, though certainly well-intentioned, consisted of a short car ride up West Drive and a couple of staged photos.
But last Friday night, San Marino High School’s class of 2020 received one indisputable jewel in its comparatively empty crown — its long-awaited Grad Night.
Retaining its original theme of “Finding Nemo” — though the words “Swimming Home” were added to the title — the event was marketed as a combination Grad Night/one-year reunion. The result was deemed by revelers to be an unqualified success, and anyone would seemingly have been hard-pressed to tell the difference between the event Friday and what was slated to take place on May 29, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic put it on hold.
Kurtis Tsai returned home for the event and might be the first SMHS grad to have spent an entire year in the U.S. Army before attending his Grad Night.
“As a former member of the San Marino Tsunami swim team, we always got a chance to peek at the Grad Night construction after swim practice,” said Tsai, who is studying life science at West Point. “I always looked forward to seeing the different themes and designs each year. This year did not disappoint. Looking around at the painted sets, it was apparent so much thought and detail was put into this Grad Night by our parent volunteers.”
Tsai said the event offered him the opportunity to catch up with former classmates and the faculty members who volunteered.
“Without this event, the odds of running into them again would be very slim,” Tsai said.
He said the pandemic taught him “the importance of being selfless.”
He added, “It was tempting at times to not wear a mask or break quarantine. COVID demonstrated that your personal actions could have serious consequences.”
Ashley Wang was president of SMHS’ Associated Student Body and heading into the busiest part of the year when the pandemic hit.
“I felt frustrated and saddened about not getting a proper end to my senior year and high school,” said Wang, who is studying public policy at USC. “Coming back for Grad Night and being able to converse with friends and see everyone again brought a lot of joy. A lot of fun memories were made, and it will definitely be a night to remember.” She particularly enjoyed the performance by a hypnotist, a Grad Night staple.
She might have appreciated some mind-altering tricks in March 2020.
“ASB was in the planning process for many events, such as spring spirit assembly,” she said. “The few days leading up to the school shutdown involved a lot of meetings that often left us with more questions than answers. Being unable to answer many questions or ‘solve’ many of the problems that the pandemic brought about was probably my greatest frustration.”
That monumental challenge eventually became a huge accomplishment.
“Even as we were all online, there were talks about potentially coming back and what future events could possibly look like,” she explained. “Everyone did the best they could, given the circumstances, and I am proud of the 2019-20 ASB’s ability to adjust, adapt and think outside of the box when we came across any obstacle.”
Wang said that Grad Night exceeded even her highest expectations.
“The event was extremely well organized and I am grateful for all of the parents and volunteers who made it possible,” she said.
Back in March 2020, Lily Chakrian was working on events for the school’s Random Acts of Kindness Club and planning Link Crew events.
“My greatest frustration was not being able to experience senior events such as prom, graduation, Grad Night, senior sunrise and others,” she said. Chakrian said the pandemic has taught her the importance of mental and physical health, and she has also become an advocate for her ancestral homeland.
“Growing up in San Marino and being one of the few Armenians attending SMHS, I found a strong need to bring awareness to the issues in Armenia,” she said.
While at SMHS, Chakrian created a TED Talk about the Armenian genocide, earning an outstanding service award from state Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian.
Away from Cal State Northridge, where she majors in business administration, Chakrian is involved in a club called Hidden Road Initiative, which helps raise money for people living in remote villages in Armenia.
“It is very important for me to keep bringing awareness to the struggles Armenians face because of how small of a country we are,” Chakrian said. “Many people do not know much about Armenian history and I hope that I can change that, even if it is with one simple Instagram post.”
Chakrian also said it seemed “surreal” to return to campus.
“After graduation, everyone had moved on to their college adventures, so being able to come back and see everyone again was amazing,” she concluded.
William Graham was SMHS’ beloved mascot and is currently studying at Pasadena City College with hopes of being admitted to nursing school. He’s known by classmates for his buoyant attitude, which is reflected in what he considers his biggest lesson from the pandemic.
“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” he said. “Despite COVID’s broad and deathly impact, progress still can continue. Think creatively to find what you can make and do with the limitations you have.”
Graham said his biggest frustration was not being able to see every student on campus, attend events or athletic contests or work in the same room with others, except for an online Zoom room with teachers. Grad Night applied a little salve to those wounds.
“I’m pleased that I attended, even though it happened a year later,” the former school “spirit guide” said. “It really makes me feel good that the Grad Night organizers did their best to make sure my classmates and I had the opportunity to receive that rite of passage or level of closure to high school that we’ve heard about for so long, especially after a drive-thru graduation.”
In one of the myriad ironies brought on by the pandemic, Blake Pak attended her Grad Night before sister Skyler Pak attended hers, even though Blake (class of 2021) graduated a year later than Skyler (2020).
“It was nice to reunite with my classmates, although I could tell that I felt more distant from them compared to if we had had it immediately after graduation,” said Skyler Pak, who was editor of the Titan Shield when the presses figuratively stopped. “It felt odd to walk back onto the SMHS campus for Grad Night, but getting to see some of my teachers from past years and finally being able to hug my friends after so much time felt amazing.
“Grad Night itself pretty much lived up to my expectations! I always heard that the hypnosis show was amazing, but I didn’t expect to laugh that much. I had a lot of fun watching my friends do things like smack imaginary cockroaches with a plastic bat and pretend to be Taylor Swift for a few minutes.”
Though Blake had first crack at Grad Night, Skyler already has a year at USC under her belt, double majoring in communication and philosophy, politics and economics. Blake will join the Trojan family next month.
Yohannes Zerihun was able to play the coveted, memorable role as Grad Night cockroach killer.
“Obviously it isn’t what I hoped for to have Grad Night a year later, but being able to see my fellow classmates after a year was very unique,” said Zerihun, who starred on the Titan football team at SMHS. “It gave us a chance to see how much each person would grow as a person and really catch up with each other.”
He said he remembers feeling sad on the March day when school shut down, with distance learning later beginning and students saying off campus.
“I had no idea that would be my last day at SMHS, but I did realize that the pandemic allowed us to stay more connected as most of us stayed in state for the first half of the school year,” Zerihun said. “My greatest frustration throughout the pandemic was not being able to see my friends and hang out with them for almost a year. Having to resort to technology to keep us in touch was a bit of a burden.”
A statistics major at PCC, Zerihun is looking to transfer after the upcoming semester.
“Not missing out on Grad Night was something I think we should all be very happy about,” the man affectionately known as Yo-Yo concluded. “I would definitely say Grad Night exceeded my expectations, and I would really like to thank all the people who played a part in creating that for us.”
Grace Davis has basically lived Grad Night for the past two-plus years. Her mother, Beth, was chair for this and two other Grad Nights that took place when her brothers Jay and Chaz graduated from SMHS in 2013 and 2016, respectively. It was no surprise, then, that Grace said she has looked forward to her own Grad Night “since my days in elementary school.”
“I am so grateful that the committee, the incredible Grad Night chairs, old guard, the school administration and the entire community supported making that night happen,” said Davis, who has completed her freshman year at Samford University, where she studies elementary education. “This is an event that every child growing up in San Marino dreams about, which I can honestly say, as I have been attending Grad Night light-ups since I was in the 1st grade.
“From the days of seeing my mom hard at work for 2013 and 2016, I knew that ours would be nothing short of incredible. When it was originally being postponed and was being said it would look drastically different than normal, I was disappointed, but the perseverance of this team made our Grad Night look exactly like those in the years before us and made it truly special,” she added.
“In a way, I’m almost more grateful it was a year later because it gave an excuse for our class to have that one last hug and closure we never received.”
They have now.