Jack Knox: White-haired seniors give high school seniors their moment in sun

High school graduation is supposed to be a big deal.

Class trips, dances, dinners. Riding around in a limo like a rock star. Splashing out too much money for fancy clothes that won’t get worn for that long. Sitting through speeches and a big-screen photo montage (are they still all set to Green Day’s Time of Your Life?) before parading across the stage in front of an auditorium packed with proud family members sweating through their finery.

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At least, that’s what it was like in the Before Times.

“You hear about it from your siblings,” says 18-year-old Stella Sarosiak. “To have it taken away is kind of upsetting.”

For the Oak Bay grade 12 student, it looked as though grad would amount to little more than a cap-and-gown ceremony limited to groups of eight students at a time. She and her friends had their dresses, but nowhere to wear them. Imagine the sound of a balloon, slowly deflating.

But then came a surprise for Sarosiak and seven other high school seniors who work serving meals at James Bay’s Amica Douglas House seniors’ residence. The people who live and work there decided the eight girls shouldn’t be allowed to graduate without someone making a fuss over them.

Not only that, but they decided to pull out the stops. “It felt like you should either do it 100 per cent, or zero per cent,” says Liam Brown, the director of culinary services.

So, the eight young women each received an invitation — printed on proper card stock, of course — to bring a couple of family members to the Douglas Street residence, where they posed for photos on the patio and enjoyed appetizers under a canopy.

Then the grads were whisked inside where the residents themselves were waiting, dolled up in dresses and pearls and almost-forgotten tuxedos pulled from the back of closets. Gold and black decorations adorned the walls and ceilings. Bulletin boards carried the teens’ photos and bios. Upstairs, there was a dinner — garlic prawns or roast beef sirloin with Yorkshire pudding, parmesan roasted tomatoes, grilled asparagus, buttermilk mashed potatoes, followed by cupcakes topped by tiny mortarboards — punctuated by toasts.

What really struck Sarosiak was the life advice that the residents wrote on whiteboards, messages like “Listen to your heart” and “No matter what, don’t give up.” Sarosiak says she took the words to heart, as it was obvious the residents, some of whom she has formed relationships with over the past couple of years, had put a lot of thought into what they wanted to convey. “None of it was generic. You could tell they meant what they said.”

And yes, it felt good to dress up, to be celebrated, to be recognized in a year when it appeared the grads’ moment in the sun would be eclipsed by COVID.

The unexpected bonus? How much the residents got out of making the eight feel special. “It was a good morale-builder,” said Darlene Ferris, a former high school principal who found herself enjoying being behind a podium again, addressing the crowd. Staging the event energized people. “It was really fun. Everybody was up for it.”

Former university professor Donovan Waters, 93, looked at the eight teens graduating in the shadow of COVID and thought back to his own school days in wartime England, preparing to transition to adulthood. All that promising future under all those clouds. It would have been a shame to let this moment pass uncelebrated — and it would have been a shame to miss the reaction of the grads.

“It was a joy to see how much they enjoyed the situation,” he says.

The grads of 2021, like the grads of 2020, might not get to experience the same high-profile hoopla as those who went before them, but as the white-haired seniors showed the high school seniors, that doesn’t mean they’ve been forgotten.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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