When I arrived at West Craven High School in Vanceboro, North Carolina on April 27 at 8:30 a.m., the scene included fire trucks, police and sheriffs cars, and lots of hand-made posters taped to cars.
There were no signs of students on this Monday morning. The annual excitement of late April — the season of senior cookout, senior prank day, senior weekend, spring athletics, and of course, prom — is halted, as is the case across the nation.
However, one thing was special about this day. The teachers and administrators were going to see their students.
During a normal school day at West Craven, many students travel very long distances to show up. Now, West Craven was coming to them.
Tabari Wallace, North Carolina’s 2018 Principal of the Year, stood in full graduation regalia in the parking lot with a megaphone, coordinating cars. The parade of teachers, administrators, coaches, police officers, firefighters, and community leaders was set to fan out across the district to give each student their own private parade. The parades visited 220 seniors in a four-hour window, covering 485 square miles. To do this, they split up into 14 groups, each with a stack of personalized yard signs and one message: “You will graduate.”
“This gesture is much-deserved considering what our seniors have been through over the past four years. Hurricanes, floods, ice storms, sharing their school to make room for the displaced JWS babies, no senior cookout, no senior prank day, no junior/senior weekend, no spring athletics, band and chorus concerts, no spring theatre productions, no A-team Banquet, no academic award celebration, and a delayed prom and graduation (yes we are still having these two) just to name a few,” Wallace wrote in an email to his staff the night before the event.
“This is the least we can do to show our seniors we care and that they are at the forefront of our thoughts.”
In October 2018, West Craven High School opened its doors to elementary school students from James W. Smith (JWS) Elementary whose building was ravaged by Hurricane Florence. They made room for 270 extra desks and continued learning under one roof. West Craven is on Streets Ferry Road in Vanceboro, known for flooding during storms. During Hurricane Matthew, it took weeks before anything but boats could pass.
Back in the driveways, yards, and parking lots of student’s homes, students were reminded that their hardships were not forgotten when their principal showed up in his own cap and gown.
“This is not a substitute, it’s a bridge to get them across this stage. When you hear kids asking about graduation, tell them this: We will graduate,” Wallace said to his team.
I followed Wallace and Sheriff Chip Hughes as they led a procession of half a dozen teachers on one route, which visited 26 students in four hours. A symphony of honking and sirens could be heard as we pulled up to each residence.
“Please accept this as a token from the Craven County Board of Education, administration, and teachers until we can finally get you across the stage,” Wallace said as he placed each sign in student’s yards.
Students, siblings, pets, neighbors, and parents all stood by as teachers held up signs, clapped, and congratulated each student. For seniors who have been through so much, and when so many moments have been taken from them — this small gesture represents more than a yard sign.
As the caravan left each house, and remote learning continued for another day, “congratulations to the class of 2020” personalized yard signs could be seen across the county.
“They said there was no way to do a parade out west because we service 485 square miles — well, we will show them,” Wallace said. “Eagles don’t follow tradition, we make tradition.”