To paraphrase the song from “My Fair Lady,” all Maram Ahmed was thinking was ‘Get me to the school on time.’
And instead of top hat and tails, it was cap and gown.
The 2020 class president made it, being whisked from a babysitting assignment in Latham to cross the stage toward the end of the graduation ceremony at Schenectady High School that lasted well over six hours on Friday.
So did over 500 of her classmates, as Schenectady High responded to COVID-19 restrictions with a makeshift event that brought a steady stream of seniors in socially-distanced single file across the school auditorium stage to receive their diplomas.
While Ahmed had some hectic anxiety added to her big day, it was just one more curveball in a senior year full of them for everybody due to the pandemic. Ahmed, like others in her class, took the adjustments in stride and were grateful that their school was able to organize a drive-through/drop-off format on a weekend stacked with diploma and graduation ceremonies throughout the Capital Region. The Schenectady senior class is too big to have held an outdoor ceremony under current pandemic protocols.
“This was actually fun,” Ahmed said. “I liked the cheering, my name being called, my pictures being taken … I felt famous.
“I was stressed about it. Then the stress causes me to get mad, and then I had a little kid to take care of … Boy.”
Dave Preston, principal of the senior class, said that of the 699 students in the senior cohort, 516 (73.8%) graduated in June, an increase from 68% last year. Graduation by students with disabilities was up from 52% to 65.5%, in a year when students were forced to do their coursework at home because of the pandemic.
On Friday, graduating seniors were alphabetically assigned times of arrival, entered the school on The Plaza side of campus and followed floor arrows through the halls to a side entrance to the auditorium.
Every few minutes, another graduate crossed the stage, stopped for photos, and proceeded backstage to rejoin family members in the hall and exit into the west parking lot, where a variety of inspirational chalk messages and quotations were written on the sidewalk and concrete pillars.
Under normal circumstances, Ahmed would have walked in early in the drop-off period because of the ‘A’ in her last name — the first student crossed the stage at 9:40 a.m. — but she had to scramble just to make it toward the end. Relieved, she made the walk for her diploma at 3:29 p.m.
She has a standing commitment on Fridays to her sister Nadeen, a surgical nurse in Albany, to babysit niece Eliana, who turns 2 on Saturday, and didn’t want to break it.
“Oh, tell me about it … running all over the place,” Maram Ahmed said of her niece.
Ahmed and valedictorian Mya Burns made their traditional graduation speeches two weeks ago at Proctors Theater as part of a 90-minute virtual graduation video production that included musical performances and was open to congratulatory messages to each graduate on the website.
“We had about 6,000 submissions that we had to go through and edit,” Preston said. “At the same time, the company that manages this said it was in the highest percentile of all submissions and on par with colleges and universities that graduated 3,500 kids. Our community stepped up and congratulated kids, the families, everybody went in there and put a lot of really good content on there.”
“It’s kind of crazy, because I was looking at the website for each student, and I have messages from my first grade teacher, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy,'” said Ahmed, who is deciding between the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University to study neuroscience. “And the librarian from my elementary school, and how do you guys even remember me?”
Among the points Ahmed made in her speech was a shoutout to Burns and support for Black Lives Matter activism.
“I wanted to emphasize that, even though a lot of people didn’t know Mya personally, people have this idea of a valedictorian, and Mya was so kind-hearted and willing to help people and just meet new people.
“I talked about the Black Lives Matter movement briefly. I wanted to mention what was going on and what we as a community can do. That was my main target.”
Preston said he and the rest of the administration and faculty were gratified by the percentage of graduates. Teachers were working with some students as late as 11:30 Thursday night to put the finishing touches on their coursework.
“I got a text message with one of my students who let me know she was completed right then, and today she gets to walk the stage and graduate,” he said.
Schenectady usually holds its graduation at Proctors Theater, but had to come up with an alternative because Gov. Andrew Cuomo isn’t permitting large gatherings.
Preston and staff came up with a plan, using Health Department guidelines, and were approved.
Otherwise, the virtual graduation video would’ve been the extent of the ceremony, so students were thankful for this alternative.
“It’s a little different, but we make do with what we’ve got,” said Angel Pacheco, who plans to study to become a licensed practical nurse through BOCES. “My senior year was very fun from the beginning, until we had to go home. It was weird, but we got through it quick. The adjustment was pretty simple with the online work.”
“It makes sense because of the virus; you can’t do anything about it,” said Bheesham Ragubar, who wants to become an electrician.
“It was different,” said Seven Terry, Schenectady’s star quarterback who will study sports management at Springfield College. “It was weird watching everyone go, and I’m just home waiting for my turn. But I’m just glad the school could work something out where we got to walk across the stage.”
“It was weird, but it was more comfortable because there were less people and my family was there,” said Terry’s football teammate, Zamir Robinson, who wants to study business management at Hudson Valley Community College. “I’m kind of disappointed, but I’m happy that Schenectady at least did something for us instead of nothing. It could’ve been way worse.”
“It was fine. At least it wasn’t crowded,” Reshma Persaud said. “I wasn’t as nervous as I would’ve been in a crowd, because I kind of have a shy personality, so it was great.
Persaud, who wants to start with nursing at HVCC or SUNY Schenectady before pursuing studies to become a veterinarian, was among many students whose caps and gowns were complemented by sashes and medals signifying activities and academic achievement, in her case a white sash representing the Air Force JROTC.
Malika Bensalah was adorned with not only a sash and two cords as part of Smart Scholars through SUNY Schenectady, but a medal for being a full International Baccalaureate diploma candidate. She’ll major in business administration and minor in art at UAlbany.
“Oh. Pretty abnormal,” she said of the ceremony. “It was probably something I would never have expected, moving from middle school to high school.
“It was more of a community feeling, people literally right next to you, where this one is kind of like, ‘You have to stay over there,'” she said with a laugh.
Kalvyn Rojas was handed a flag of his parents’ native Peru when he was on stage for photos, and he thanked them for coming to the U.S. and becoming citizens to help his future.
He plans to attend HVCC or SUNY Schenectady and eventually wants to study law so he can become a district attorney.
“This did go smoothly and fast,” he said. “I guess it’s better. It would’ve been nice to sit down and wait for your name to be called. It kind of stinks not to see my friends.”
Usman Pirzada, who is on his way to flight school at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, attached a piece of three-prong electrical cord to his mortarboard to go with the tassel — “It signifies power,” a family member explained.
“Honestly, I’m happy that we were actually able to get to walk across the stage, instead of a virtual ceremony. It was way better,” he said.
“Ever since I was a kid I was flying RC [remote control] planes, and when I took my trips, I’d talk to the pilots and just figured out that that’s what I wanted to do. So, besides that … yeah, it’s time to start life.”