The best-kept secret: Glenbrook North Grad Night was back and better than ever
Let's face it, if a graduating senior can't have fun at Glenbrook North's annual Grad Night, fun just isn't their thing.
More than 1,000 people took advantage of attending a preview of the school's 30th Grad Night on Sunday. In just a couple hours the vast majority of the Class of 2022 -- about 90% of the 514 students who received their diplomas earlier that day at the Rosemont Theatre -- would arrive, the festivities free to them from 11 p.m.-5 a.m.
Like "Fight Club" in Las Vegas, though, no one talks about what goes on at Grad Night; what happens there stays there.
"Before cellphones it was really a secret," said Stefanie Zellen, 2022 Grad Night co-chair with Elyssa Siegel.
"It's an event that you have to see it to get it. Once you see it, you get it, and then you get all the momentum behind it."
This is a unique, themed event -- Sunday's theme was "The World Is Yours" -- and the photos and activities included in this piece don't necessarily reflect what came before or what will appear at future Grad Nights.
"I have an older sister (Skye) who got to go through it, but the rule is, you know it's a thing but you don't get to know anything about it unless you've been through it," said Jett Greene, a 2021 Spartan graduate, who under the pandemic had to instead attend a graduation party at Athletico.
Quite nearly in the best sense a three-ring circus -- particularly if one includes the mechanical bull ride and several of the characters from "Mario Kart" among the diverse video games available just before one reached the air hockey table -- upward of 200 parent volunteers and 500 separate donors created a setting that rendered Glenbrook North's cafeteria and main gym and several of its hallways and common spaces colorfully unrecognizable.
"We have parents that are like, 'I'm lost,'" said volunteer Brian Greene, Jett's father, speaking from the competition gymnasium, where volleyball and basketball tournaments took place. "That's what we want, because (students) don't even realize this is the cafeteria where they spent four years."
Speaking of which, they didn't go hungry.
"As a neighborhood business, I've watched these kids grow up," said Josh Kaplan, owner of sponsor Josh's Hot Dogs and one of the participating food vendors. "For the past 13 years it's been my privilege to give back to the kids on this special night that keeps them and the rest of the community safe."
That is key, a reason Grad Night was established in 1990 (Sunday's 30th presentation represents two years lost to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Upon entry, graduates who had enlisted to attend used the school's actual kiosks to sign in. They placed any bags, backpacks or whatnot they brought into airport security-style plastic bins and, once through the realistic-looking "security scanner," found their personalized "passport." If by midnight a student had not shown up a volunteer called their parents.
Indoors until 5 a.m., unless they ventured to the courtyard to relax or play Ping-Pong or large-scale Jenga and Connect 4, only a student's parents could pick them up at the end of the night or sign them out if they chose to leave early.
"Yes, it's an amazing event, and we obviously want to give these kids a celebration, but the number one priority is to keep the kids safe," said Zellen, who with Siegel started planning "The World Is Yours" nearly a year in advance.
"People don't talk about it initially like that because they just think it's a big party. But it's really about everyone being safe, and that's the number one priority," she said.
A Northbrook Police officer, a school resource officer and Glenbrook North security also helped make that happen.
Why anyone would want to leave is puzzling. Cheri Kates, the entertainment co-chair with Ilene Weil, said if students knew what they were getting there would be 100% attendance.
Based on "The World Is Yours" she may be right. The entertainment options and craft involved creating, for example, a Parisian bistro out of a hallway, floored those at the preview.
Steve Dolins, Glenbrook North Class of 1988, sent two children, Zach and Sydney, through the school.
"When they had their Grad Night they absolutely loved it, and tonight brought back great memories. I've been through this about a dozen times, and this looks like the nicest setup I've seen yet, by far," Dolins said.
Glenbrook High Schools District 225 Superintendent Charles Johns joined the district in July 2019. Glenbrook North Principal Jason Markey arrived as Glenbrook North's principal in 2020. Due to the pandemic, neither had witnessed a full-blown Grad Night. Despite rising with the sun to prepare for graduation, both men -- as well as District 225 President Bruce Doughty and Vice President Peter Glowacki -- got a second wind viewing this extravaganza.
"I'm staggered ... There's literally hundreds of people here to see the decorations. This is one of the most heartwarming things I've ever been a part of," Johns said.
"This is my first, like Dr. Johns," Markey said. "I'm beyond excited. I'm surprised and just elated with the efforts of the community to put this together. This is completely parent-driven and community-supported, which is amazing to see something like this at the school."
The spot-on airport themed entrance offered a raffle for prizes like televisions, Apple watches, Cubs tickets, air pods.
"I've been working on it the past two months," 2019 graduate Lucky Deutsch said of the two large canvasses he'd painted. He attended Grad Night in 2019 and now, back from Illinois State, was volunteering while his brother, Caden, attended this one.
"It was really fun," Lucky said. "I loved seeing all the decorations and stuff, a fun experience at the end of the year, to be able to just spend time with friends that I knew I probably wouldn't see for awhile."
Once students grabbed their passports, a hall outfitted with countries' flags led to the rooms and gyms providing food and activities.
The centerpiece was the main gym. Where once were bleachers and a hardwood floor, strands of colored lights and neon signs illuminated displays of places like Colorado, Nashville, New York City and California. A large inflatable slide dominated the otherwise dimly lit room.
Elsewhere the small gym offered a vendor hosting games of "Jeopardy" and "Family Feud" in front of a GaGa Ball pit and an inflatable "Wipeout" game.
A Casino Room offered eight tables, heavy on blackjack; in the dance studio loft behind the bleachers movies played all night. Students could simply mellow out in the Thailand Room.
A disc jockey. A magician. An astrologer. Karaoke. Hair braiding, nails, glitter tattoos. Yoga. Palm reading. Tarot. Caricatures.
Like Kates said, all-inclusive, something for everyone.
Most importantly, Grad Night was back.
"It is another step in our return to normalcy for our students. So many people inside our schools, and outside our schools -- the entire Glenbrook community -- have come together to help our kids return to a more normal platform for learning and growing," Doughty said.
"It's absolutely thrilling to see, and this is just another wonderful part of the Glenbrook way of doing things and part of the excellence we deliver to our students. So we're just absolutely so delighted to be here."