Parents work together on at the Santa Monica High School parking lot to build the annual graduation boat. (Brandon Wise
Parents work together on at the Santa Monica High School parking lot to build the annual graduation boat. (Brandon Wise
Parents work together on at the Santa Monica High School parking lot to build the annual graduation boat. (Brandon Wise

SAMOHI — As the evening fades into night, the Santa Monica High School graduating class of 2013 will walk down a gangway today and onto a boat bound for Greek Isles, or at least the tennis courts of their alma mater, decorated to the nines.

In reality, they will be trapped there for almost 10 hours, a precaution meant to protect them from car crashes, the number one killer of teenagers according to the Centers for Disease Control.

If all goes according to plan, they will hardly notice.

Full from a meal with their families — and maybe a little tipsy — they will dance, rock climb and sumo wrestle long into the night, only to watch the sun rise with their class in what will likely be the last chance they will ever get to congregate with the people who have been with them through their entire Santa Monica educational experience.

This is Grad Night, a salute to the end of one chapter of a student’s life and a celebration of things to come as they leave the vessel and head out into the world, probably to breakfast at a local eatery.

The night will look effortless. The young adults will leave without a notion of the sweat, tears, time and even shakedowns it took to make the last hurrah of their high school careers a success.

But the truth of the matter remains that it took a crew of dozens of dedicated parents and supporters committed to the cause to pull it all off in style.

Getting it together

Grad Night is like a celebrity wedding that happens every year.

The event costs roughly $100,000 from start to finish, a tidy sum that covers game and decoration rentals, food and prizes for the graduates and the teams of adults it takes to police them.

Then there’s the practical aspects — police oversight, a firefighter to keep an eye on some combustibles in the Memorial Greek Amphitheater and even private security which serves less to keep Samohi kids in and more to keep party crashers from nearby high schools out.

Most of that is covered by ticket sales — $100 at the beginning of the year, $125 at the door — but with almost 800 students that attend the event and a good portion of those on scholarship, it takes some hustle and generosity to bring it all together.

Parent volunteers spend a year gathering the funds, seeking out prize donations, coordinating all of the activities and cajoling parents of graduates or future graduates to come and work the event, some at the inhuman hour of 3 a.m.

Kim Eyler, a Samohi supermom, has spearheaded the task for the past decade.

The mother of four is the Grad Night guru, each event meticulously documented in a green notebook in small, neat writing.

She knows the company that can deliver the requisite number of sandbags to hold the Grad Night set together, when to order insurance for the night and where, exactly, each item that comprises the cruise ship facade is hidden in the dungeon of a basement underneath the high school history building.

“Kim’s brilliance is that she can put it into sequential order,” said Lisa Balfus, president of the Samohi Parent Teacher Association. “She’s the master of execution and logistics.”

Eyler is much more self-effacing, but apparently the parent community is on Balfus’ side — Eyler won the Golden Oak, the highest award the PTA can give, for not just her work on Grad Night, but for all of the volunteering she does in the district.

“I love the event,” she said. “It’s a great way to be involved at Samohi.”

The truth is, Grad Night wasn’t always this grandiose production.

In the past

Prior to 1991, kids hopped on a bus and went to Disneyland with their class and those of whatever other high schools signed up to go that day.

The park began the tradition in 1961 in response to requests from three high schools in San Gabriel Valley. The year before, students celebrating at a party the night of their graduation died in a car crash, according to “In Service to the Mouse,” a memoir of the park’s first president, Jack Lindquist.

That year, the boys had to wear a coat and tie and the girls “dressy dresses.”

“Basically, we wanted the students to have a great time, but we would not tolerate any rowdy behavior,” Lindquist wrote.

That worked for years, but in 1990, school officials realized that the buses to Disneyland were getting progressively more empty, said Catherine Baxter, dean of students at Samohi.

At that time, she was the senior class advisor at the high school, and the community was struggling to find a way to keep young people safe around graduation.

“We found that our young people were just not going to Disneyland,” she said.

That year, a group of parents discovered that schools in Orange County were doing a new version of the night, one based at their own school.

With guidance from those parents and the donation of a cardboard boat from a high school in Tustin, Calif. the parents put on the very first local Grad Night for the class of 1991, which also happened to be the 100th anniversary of the school’s founding.

Local car dealerships loaned vans to transport children to the event, and parents with special skills like furniture construction and set design lent their talents to the night.

“The kinds of things that came out of the woodwork transformed the gym into something so different,” Baxter said. “How do you take the smelly old gym and lock everyone into it?”

Every student’s name was on a star that hung from the ceiling, and people who had been your teacher, your principal, your superintendent were there to make sure you had a good time.

Packing kids onto a bus was easier for the adults, but this was right for the community, Baxter said.

“It’s something that we should never lose,” Baxter said.

Putting it all together

Grad Night is 85 percent planning and 15 percent construction project.

Set designer and Samohi parent Woody Coleman built a new boat to replace the tired cardboard version, this time out of wooden panels marked for easy assembly.

The outer facade goes over the entrance to the tennis courts, built around scaffolding. The whole thing takes three weekends to set up and one weekend to come down, a task that falls primarily to a crew known as the “boat dads.”

The moniker is something of a misnomer — some have been working Grad Night almost as long as the graduates themselves have been alive and have already seen children and even grand children go through the ritual themselves.

It’s their contribution to the community, Coleman said. Parents who are doctors and nurses in their day jobs staff the medical tent, and have transported drunk teens to the hospital when they needed more than just a place to sleep it off.

Coleman estimates they’ve saved at least four lives since he began working on Grad Night.

Plus, it’s fun, he said.

“These are all my friends,” he said, pointing to the other men and women constructing the boat and putting up the panels on the inside of the tennis courts. “I get to see them four weekends a year.”

Just two weeks from that day, the tennis courts will be filled with almost 800 graduating seniors, many of their parents and other volunteers. They will play games and do activities until 3 a.m., at which point they go en masse to the Greek to watch a video of their time in school, assembled by fellow students.

When 5:30 a.m. rolls around, the students return to find the tennis courts transformed and their diplomas waiting for them, distributed by a smiling superintendent.

“It was a great night,” said Ben Allen, vice president of the Board of Education and Samohi graduate, class of ‘96.

He remembers the nostalgia of the night, the moment when people confront a wall of pictures from their elementary school years, look around and realize they will never see many of the people they’re with again.

“For most people, high school is a collection of all sorts of different kinds of experiences. Positive, negative, everything in between,” Allen said. “It’s a moment to reflect with peers you’ve spent so much of your life with, to celebrate with them and say goodbye to them.

“There’s a certain poignancy,” he said.

After the graduates leave, the parents are still there, breaking down the event and preparing to clean up after the night of childish revelry.

This year it will have a different weight. It’s Eyler’s final year as chair — the last of her children is graduating that night — and she’ll be preparing to pass the torch and that famous green notebook to two new volunteers, Lori Whitesell and Carol Golden.

Who will take over for the boat dads and learn the ins and outs of constructing the ship each year is less clear — the institutional knowledge embodied in the group of stalwart volunteers is as vast as the sea the cruise ship purports to sail.

Although volunteerism has slackened to some degree, Baxter, there since the beginning, knows the importance of pushing through and finding people, whatever their passion or talents.

“There’s a job for everybody, no matter what they can do,” she said. “Everyone comes out and helps. It really makes our community smaller. It’s one of the great things we do in this city.”

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