Despite pandemic restrictions on gatherings, the committed Canadian educator refused to allow a super-important high school memory fall to the wayside for his students.

By Beth Ann Mayer
July 06, 2021
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An image of a person holding a graduation cap.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

The 2020-21 school year was a particularly challenging one for children. In addition to assimilating to virtual learning and increased isolation and loneliness, for many teenagers, those quintessential "high school experiences"—say, going to prom or attending a football game—were eliminated due to the pandemic.

But one Canadian teacher refused to allow one super-memorable moment fall to the wayside for his students: walking across a stage to receive a diploma.

Ray Gowlett, who teaches health and physical education at Central Algoma Secondary School (CASS), drove nearly 250 miles with his portable stage (that he built himself!) to physically hand 72 seniors their diplomas this weekend.

"We started Saturday at 8 a.m and we finished Saturday at 8 p.m.," Gowlett told Insider. "And then we started again Sunday morning. Our first delivery was at 9:00 a.m, and the last one was finished at 7:30 p.m."

Gowlett's daughter, Sadie, who is a senior at CASS, inspired the touching gesture. Initially, the teachers at the school were going to split the job and deliver diplomas to specific homes. But Sadie wondered if her father could hand her and a friend diplomas at a nearby outdoor stage.

"I asked, is it important to walk across the stage? And she said, yes, we really want to walk across the stage and get a picture with our diploma," Gowlett told Insider. "I said no problem. I can do that. Do you think many more people would want to do that? She said everybody would want to do that."

Since COVID restrictions prevented him from having all the students come to the community stage, Gowlett devised a plan to stage a ceremony outside each student's home. Local businesses helped him assemble the materials he needed to build the stage, and he completed the project within six hours.

One TikTok video with more than 1.5 million views shows a senior walking across the stage to receive her diploma before Gowlett disassembles it to head to the next student's home.

An Instagram photo of another student posing with her diploma even caught famous journalist Katie Couric's attention. Couric responded with four heart emojis.

This story is such a heartwarming one. School reopenings and virtual learning were controversial, spurring contentious conversations that pitted communities against one another. It's nice to see a group of people come together to end the school year on the right note.