(From left to right) Chance Fred, Jaidin Knighton and Sheldon Sam dance at the end of their Grade 7 graduation ceremony outside Haahuupayak Elementary School, in Port Alberni, on Thursday, June 18. (Melissa Renwick photos)
As a line of Grade 7 graduates emerged from Haahuupayak Elementary School, they were met with a blaring of honking horns that sounded from the parking lot.
Unlike most years, the graduation ceremony was held outdoors and every student sat two meters apart. The balloons attached to their seats buzzed around them in the wind, matching the students’ excitement.
Family and friends remained pulled back, showing their support from lawn chairs in the parking lot and curbsides.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic meant that all but two of the 13 students carried out their final days attending the elementary school from home.
“It’s been really hard for the students, as well as staff, to not see each other,” said Grade 7 teacher, Serena Schwager.
Despite the challenging times, having a graduation ceremony was non-negotiable for Schwager.
“It’s really like a family here,” she said. “Many of the students that are graduating have been here since kindergarten, so it’s really close knit and it’s really important that we honour them.”
Mary Robinson is one of them, and while her excitement about the graduation ran high, she is “mostly nervous” about attending high school.
It was the kindness from her teachers at Haahuupayak that she loved most about her time at the school.
“They would be there for you when you were having rough days,” she said of the school’s staff.
With more students and bigger class sizes, Robinson knows she won’t have the same support from her high school teachers.
“It feels like I’m going to the next stage of my life,” she said. “Moving up so that I can go get a job and help out my family.”
Graduates gave their speeches in both Nuu-chah-nulth and English and in between loving tears, their families spoke of how proud they are.
“You’re going to change the world,” said Robinson’s mother, Charley Frow, to the graduates. “I can’t wait to see what you create.”
Cheyenne Sam gushed of how well her son, Sheldon, uses Nuu-chah-nulth language – proudly sharing how he speaks it outside the classroom and inside their home.
After one final song and dance, the cars cleared out from the parking lot. Sam held her son in the middle of an empty stall. They breathed in comfort from one another, not quit ready to say “goodbye.”
“You’ve reached a point where you’re going to leave us physically,” said gym teacher, Ernie Netzer. “Spiritually, you’re always going to be a part of this building.”