vulture lists

9 Great TV Episodes About Graduating High School

Photo: ABC

Soon, young students will be donning their caps and gowns and graduating from colleges and high schools all over the country. It’s a pretty stressful time, but an exciting one — it signals not only their major achievement of managing to get through the hell that is either high school or further education, but the start of a new chapter in their lives.

To that end, it’s a pretty common device in both teen TV shows and those with seasons set in college. It’s the culmination of all the events to that point, and a way to show our characters’ growth — and their panic over what could possibly be next. High-school shows in particular build toward that big day, which will either signal the end of the show entirely or the dawn of a new (and almost always inferior) college-set era. Graduation episodes involve drama, high-emotion speeches, and reminders of the stark differences between the students we’ve grown to love — but usually end in hugs.

If you’re preparing to graduate, hopefully these nine Graduation Day–themed episodes will prepare you for every eventuality — from the dramatic to the deadly.

The O.C., “The Graduation” (Season 3, Episode 25)

Through its four-season run, The O.C. managed to celebrate (or desecrate) every single holiday or occasion imaginable. Graduation day is no exception, and in “The Graduation,” the drama is ramped up as Seth admits to his parents that he started the Newport Group fire and Volchok and Ryan’s feud escalates. Marissa decided to join her dad in Hawaii after graduation, so the gang has one last hurrah at the model home before saying good-bye (not knowing that it’s forever). Ryan drives Marissa to the airport, but a furious Volchok tries to run them off the road — accidentally killing Marissa, who Ryan carries (in those big strong arms) as Jeff Buckley plays, the car fire rages, and thousands of teenage hearts break across America. Now, let’s hope your graduation day is far less eventful.

The Vampire Diaries, “Graduation” (Season 4, Episode 23 )

Of course, nothing could ever run smoothly in Mystic Falls, not even graduation day. Here, Mystic Falls High School is teeming with ghosts attempting to settle old scores. Yes, ghosts! As Elena, Stefan, Caroline, Bonnie, and Matt gather for the ceremony, the spirits converge, and help comes from an unlikely source in Klaus, who also gives Caroline an unexpected present. He gives Tyler his freedom, allowing him to come back to Mystic Falls and be with her. There’s more death, drama, and turns, with Stefan turning out to be Silas’s doppelgänger, Bonnie giving her life to save Jeremy, and Silas dropping Stefan in a lake. But with the ghosts gone, the gang manage to have a real, heartfelt graduation scene fit for any normal teens … so if they can do it, you certainly can.

Gilmore Girls , “Those Are Strings, Pinocchio” (Season 3, Episode 22)

Gilmore Girls, so completely oriented around Rory’s education as it is, has three entire graduation episodes. However, not all of them are for Rory: Her Chilton graduation is in season three, while Lorelai’s own graduation is in the season-two episode ,“Lorelai’s Graduation Day,” and, much later, Rory finally graduates from Yale in “Unto the Breach,” an episode that sees her turning down Logan’s proposal. But the best among them may be “Those Are Strings, Pinocchio”: Rory graduates from Chilton, but, realizing she didn’t get financial aid for Yale, has to go to her grandparents to ask for money. This obviously displeases Lorelai, but luckily, Rory has an emotional speech prepared as valedictorian that melts Lorelai’s heart. She praises her mother, saying: “My mother never gave me any idea that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do or be whomever I wanted to be.” Don’t forget: If you piss off your own mom on graduation day, you can probably soften her with a speech.

Dawson’s Creek, “The Graduate,” (Season 4, Episode 22)

Throughout much of the series, Dawson’s Creek was leading to a pivotal moment: graduation, after which everyone goes to college and far inferior seasons of the show. In this episode, the gang gather for a ceremony run-through while Pacey worries that he won’t graduate at all and freaks out over his last final — resulting in him walking out of the test. Joey attempts to help Pacey, who doesn’t want to think about the future, which is pretty relatable. Meanwhile, valedictorian Joey is panicking herself over her speech, but while failing to write it, Joey gets a surprise gift from her late mother in the form of a letter about how proud her mom is of her, which Dawson reads to her. The letter inspires Joey to write a heartbreaking, meaningful speech that she reads at graduation, and we say good-bye to the students as we know them.

Modern Family, “See You Next Fall” (Season 2, Episode 23)

A great deal of Alex’s narrative in Modern Family has been centred on her educational achievements, and it all culminated with “See You Next Fall.” She’s struggling with the pressures of being valedictorian. Haley admonishes Alex off having written a speech that highlights her outsider status, reminding her that “everyone’s got their stuff” and she shouldn’t be so judgmental. The family almost don’t make it to graduation, but Alex finally does give her big speech, but with some new edits: Inspired by Haley, she says “everybody’s got their … stuff … whether you’re popular, or a drama geek, or a cheerleader, or a nerd like me. We all have our insecurities; we’re all just trying to figure out who we are.” This shows real growth for Alex — and if you’re valedictorian giving a speech soon, you may or may not want to take some cues.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Graduation Day Part 1 & 2” (Season 3, Episodes 21 & 22 )

In the third season, the Scoobies are working on both prepping for graduation and bringing down the evil mayor who has his own big plans on graduation day. Everyone gets a bit dark: Buffy stabs Faith while Giles attempts to stab the mayor, but their efforts are fruitless, and the mayor transforms into a demon. Bloodshed ensues! They all sit around after the battle, and Oz notes that they survived high school — a big achievement for any student anywhere, let alone these students.

One Tree Hill, “The Birth and Death of Day” (Season 4, Episode 20)

Now, if your graduation goes half as terribly as this, you’re winning. Lucas shoots a gun at his father, and his mom collapses in pain — which turns out to be eclampsia. Everyone argues about the gun, but they try to take their minds off of it with blissful thoughts of graduation, with Haley even attempting to write her graduation speech in the hospital as she also prepares for a life as a young mother. Nathan, devastatingly, almost has to face a future without basketball (I know!), but Whitey offers him an opportunity to play for him on his college basketball team. Haley delivers her speech, but also begins to experience pain and deliver her baby during it. Whether or not you have to deliver a big speech on the day, here’s hoping you don’t have to deal with this much gun play, cheating, or death.

Saved By the Bell, “Graduation” (Season 5, Episode 26)

In all of these episodes, there’s always a stark divide between how the smarter kids spend their graduation day lead-up, and how the … academically challenged do. In “Graduation,” Zack is panicking that he won’t graduate at all, and discovers that he needs just one more credit in order to seal the deal. This results in Zack having to be in dance class and perform in the ballet — which is definitely less laughed-at now, but back then was clearly a big point of comedy. Elsewhere, the smart kids have it out when Jessie expects to be named valedictorian … but Screech, with slightly higher grades, ends up getting the honor instead. However, ever the golden heart, Screech tells Mr. Belding that it just isn’t as important to him and abdicates the title. Jessie, unaware, starts to get a bit big for her boots, but Lisa lets her in on the truth, leading to Jessie finding a way to honor Screech at the ceremony. It’s a gentle reminder that high school was actually all about the friends you made (and also your grades).

Malcolm in the Middle, “Graduation” (Season 7, Episode 22)

Naturally, Malcolm is valedictorian in this episode, as all good sitcom geniuses tend to be. In this, the last Malcolm in the Middle episode ever, Malcolm has been accepted into Harvard — but Hal is worried that they won’t have enough money to pay for it, a relatable reality for so many families in real life. But when Malcolm gets offered a dream job in lieu of college, Lois turns it down, telling him that she and the family had expected him to go to college — and eventually become president. “Of the United States!” she adds. She wants him to “struggle in order to understand, represent, and empathize with families like his own so that he can be one of the best presidents in American history.” Three months later, we see her plan in action: It’s revealed that Malcolm does go to Harvard, while working part time as a janitor (also at Harvard) to fund his studies. It’s a realistic representation of the balance poor, smart kids everywhere have to attempt, and it’s the closest thing to a happy ending Malcolm in the Middle was ever going to get.

9 Great TV Episodes About Graduating High School