HOCKLEY – Jo Ann Uriegas waited 18 years to see her first grandchild graduate from high school.
When the day finally arrived, it was nothing like she expected.
Uriegas sat in a parked vehicle in a grassy, gravelly field while the oldest of her 10 grandchildren, Anthony Acuna, walked to a concession stand to receive his diploma from St. Pius X. She watched the crowning moment as it was projected onto a giant wooden screen, and she heard his name called on the car radio.
Hundreds of other proud parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins shared the experience last Saturday night at The Showboat Drive-in Theater, where St. Pius X held a unique commencement ceremony for its 153 graduates. Everyone in attendance was required to wear a mask, and those who are not related stayed at least 6 feet away from each other for most of the evening.
“I’m a little disappointed because of this COVID(-19),” Uriegas said before the ceremony. “But by that same token, I’m glad I’m going to be able to see my grandson … walk, drive, I’m not quite sure what to expect. But he’s going to get his diploma today, and for that I’m happy.”
The pandemic that forced schools all across Texas to close in mid-March also caused St. Pius X, a private Catholic school at 811 Donovan St., to depart from its traditional graduation ceremony. The school had planned to hold its commencement at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Northwest Houston, but pivoted to a drive-in theater about 30 miles from campus at the suggestion of some parents.
St. Pius utilized both screens at the rural drive-in theater, with students and their immediate families parked on one side of the property and other relatives stationed in front of the other screen. There were pre-recorded video speeches from school administrators, valedictorian Gia Cabacungan and salutatorian Xiya “Victoria” Yu. Then all the graduates, wearing caps and gowns along with their protective masks, were spaced a few feet apart as they walked from their vehicles to the indoor foyer of the concession stand, where they walked across a makeshift stage and received their diplomas from Head of School Carmen Garrett Armistead.
“It definitely feels different. It’s not your traditional high school graduation,” said Acuna, who sat in the bed of a pickup truck with his younger brother, Tristan. “Everybody’s 6 feet apart. Everybody has to remain in their vehicles. I can’t conversate with my friends too much.”
Acuna said he was enjoying himself, though, and he appreciated his school’s creativity as well as its commitment to honoring the class of 2020. Many other schools, including those within Houston ISD, are holding virtual ceremonies that only can be viewed online.
Another local private school, St. Thomas, was scheduled to have a similar commencement at The Showboat Drive-in on Sunday. But Armistead said that one was rained out.
“I’m glad it’s in person, at least, and not like a virtual graduation,” Cabacungan said.
The weather cooperated for St. Pius X, with a sunny day giving way to a comfortable, breezy evening. And Armistead said the ceremony “went great,” even though there was a technical problem that briefly paused the procession of graduates.
The live feed malfunctioned on one of the screens, leaving some graduates standing in a long line outside the concession stand for several minutes. During the delay, some small groups of students broke the social distancing protocols and chatted with each other.
Armistead applauded Showboat owner Andrew Thomas and his staff for fixing the problem fairly quickly and allowing the ceremony to otherwise go off without a hitch.
“I think for the most part, (the students) all cooperated. Kids are kids, and some of them had not seen one another in eight weeks,” Armistead said. “Had that technical glitch not been there, I don’t think we would have had the milling around that we had. As long as 14 days go by, if no one who was out there is ill, it will have been a success.”
Armistead said the goal of the creative commencement ceremony was to show the graduates how much they have meant to St. Pius X and to satisfy their families. She said Tuesday that the overwhelming majority of the feedback she had received from those families was positive.
As for planning and executing the event, Armistead said she had never been more nervous or more exhausted before a graduation ceremony. So even though she felt good about how her school’s night at the drive-in played out, it was not an experience she wants to duplicate.
“I hope not,” she said with a laugh. “I mean, oh my gosh, I hope we never have to do that again. I hope next May we’re back in our traditional Catholic church with a Mass, everything that has been our tradition.
“The other side of it,” Armistead added, “is this class will never forget their graduation.”