For months now, I’ve been telling people that you’d be surprised how much there is to do when there’s nothing to do.
“Nothing to do,” of course, is a gross oversimplification during a time when games, leagues, tournaments and races have been canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fact is, until the Belmont Stakes on June 20, I hadn’t covered a live event since March 8, when the Union College men’s hockey team saw its season end with a double-overtime loss at Yale in the ECAC Hockey playoffs.
I’ve been out in the field for some stories and columns, like the opening day of trout season on April 1 and the rescheduled start of training at Saratoga Race Course on June 4.
But those don’t count.
For one thing, some of the key participants (fish, horses) make for lousy interview subjects (no matter how many peppermints you bring).
So last Friday, as we scrambled to cover all the high school graduation ceremonies that had piled up on the weekend, the Gazette sports department was enlisted to help handle the overflow, and I welcomed the opportunity to get out there and see what the day would bring.
I’ve been working in the Gazette sports department since 1987, and one of the fun informal checklists we keep is the variety of sports we’ve covered.
If you get sent to fencing matches at the City Center in Saratoga Springs, you check “fencing” off your list.
If you do a feature on a high school kid who is national-caliber in the junior ranks of the skiing/riflery combo, you have fulfilled your lifetime qualification for “biathlon.”
I can claim racewalking, squash, speed boat racing, interscholastic riflery (the non-skiing kind), tae kwon do, figure skating, motocross, beach volleyball, MMA, and on and on.
Because of the pandemic, the game has changed. And I got to check “high school graduation ceremony” off my list for the first time in 30-plus years in the business.
It certainly was a different kind of experience for our sports department, a departure for reporters used to following a scoreboard, keeping stats and assembling a narrative. But it had a little bit of the feel of a typical Friday night during high school basketball, when we’re deployed to various corners of Section II.
In my case, I pulled Schenectady High, and although it was a long day for the faculty and staff after a few whirlwind weeks of planning and organizing at the last minute, everything went off smoothly and safely, allowing the kids to have their big moment under substantially altered circumstances.
I did see one familiar face, Seven Terry, the Patriots’ star quarterback. I talked to him last October after he threw an important touchdown pass late in the game to help beat Niskayuna 32-22.
On Friday, he said it was a bittersweet day.
“But I’m just glad the school was able to work something out that we were able to walk across the stage,” he said.
“Pretty abnormal,” said Malika Bensalah, chuckling over the long single-file line of graduates snaking through the school onto the auditorium stage, most with fewer than a half-dozen friends and family to cheer them in the otherwise empty hall.
It was up to senior class principal Dave Preston to keep score. He said he was encouraged by the June graduation rate of 73.8%, up from 68% last year, and credited faculty and students for working through the unusual conditions brought on by the pandemic this winter and spring.
“A lot of my students set themselves up going into senior year, and the ones that didn’t, we wrapped around a lot of support with our PPS [Pupil Personnel Services] staff, with our counselors, our social workers.
“The teachers were unrelenting. They would not let the kids give up. There was a lot of opportunity to drop off. A lot of kids struggled with distance learning, but the teachers and our support staff would not let them not graduate.”
So it wasn’t a game, but it had a score … and there was clock-watching.
Class president Maram Ahmed was babysitting her toddler niece in Latham most of the day and finally walked through the door at 3:29, not long before the last of over 500 graduates punctuated a ceremony that had begun at 9:40 a.m.
She and valedictorian Mya Burns each addressed Black Lives Matter activism in their pre-recorded speeches, which were delivered before an empty house at Proctors Theater and were part of a 90-minute virtual graduation that streamed online.
If the cliched image of a valedictorian is that of a stuck-up egghead with no social skills, Ahmed took the opportunity to dispel that in her speech.
“When I was introducing the valedictorian, I wanted to emphasize that, even though a lot of people didn’t know Mya personally, people have this idea of a valedictorian that Mya completely wasn’t,” Ahmed said. “She was so kind-hearted and always willing to help people and just meet new people. I think a lot of people didn’t know that about her.”
So, yeah, these are grim times. But maybe not so grim.
Speaking of cliches, journalists are supposed to become jaded at some point, right?
Covering games and watching sports may seem like a trivial matter in the context of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean your appreciation for them is wrong-headed or callous. I will say, in the absence of that, there was a deep appreciation for getting out of the home office and listening to these kids.
They want to be nurses and veterinarians. Bensalah will study business administration at UAlbany, with the interesting twist of a minor in art.
Ahmed developed her interest in neuroscience after sophomore chemistry — “not to toot my own horn, but it was an easy class,” she said with an easy laugh. She wants to go to waterfalls and drive-in movie theaters with her friends this summer. Remember drive-ins?
Kalvyn Rojas was handed a flag of Peru on the stage, because “My mother and father actually came to this country to help me out for my future.”
Their diversity — of race, of interests, of hopes — was wide-ranging, but the faces beaming with pride and joy, muted as it was by circumstances, was as universal as it gets.
I asked Usman Pirzada about the piece of electrical cord he had attached next to his mortarboard tassel, and a family member said, “It signifies that he has a lot of power,” to which Pirzada said, “Yeah, kind of. Whenever you need something, you just plug it into the plug.”
“We make do with what we’ve got,” Angel Pacheco said of the makeshift ceremony.
Thanks, Schenectady High Class of 2020. I needed that.