Single mom surprises son with backyard college graduation ceremony: 'It was something to finally smile about'

Derrick Williams kisses his mom, Ayanna Tatum, after she threw him a surprise graduation in their backyard. (Photo: Courtesy of Ayanna Tatum)

A Texas mom surprised her 2020 college graduate with a backyard ceremony complete with a stage.

Like countless other high school and college graduates, Derrick Williams, 22, of Houston was faced with the reality that he would not have a traditional graduation due to the coronavirus pandemic. Williams, who received his pre-med psychology degree from Baylor University, tells Yahoo Life that the news was upsetting.

“This moment that I was supposed to share with my family and friends was taken away,” he says. “I understood that this was not the worst that the virus could do, but I was hoping to have this moment for family, especially my late grandmother.”

Hurt that her son would not get the chance to walk across the stage, Williams’ mother, Ayanna Tatum jumped into action. After seeing a Facebook post about another family that threw a front-yard ceremony, she wanted to similarly celebrate her son’s achievements.

“I really started thinking, ‘I wonder if I can find a stage company,’ and I had never done that before. I’ve never secured a stage, I had no clue, so it was kind of scary...but I started researching...and once I [did it], I really got excited,” Tatum tells Yahoo Life.

Tatum and her children Derrick and Kennedy. (Photo: Courtesy of Ayanna Tatum)

Obviously, Tatum is her son’s biggest fan and according to Williams, the feeling is mutual.

“My mom always made sure I combined hard work and faith to make anything I dreamed of a reality,” he says. “She was also big on taking responsibility and having a kind heart towards others, even when they aren't so kind to you.”

Tatum, who is a native of New Orleans, has worked in education for 13 years. Both her father and late mother attended historically black colleges and after becoming a single mother of two, Tatum lived on campus with her children. After completing her bachelors degree, she received a master’s degree in education.

“I wanted my kids to see me go through that process because I wanted it to say something to them about education,” she says. “I actually took them to class at one point...and I do think it had an impact on them.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Tatum relocated her family to Mississippi until they chose to settle in Houston because of the school districts. Williams, who was in elementary school at the time, says he does not recall much from this period, other than life was hard.

“I remember being homeless for a bit and staying at some shelters,” he notes. “I also remember moving between hotels, and being taken in by the family we had in Houston. Though we didn't have much and the future wasn't bright, my mom poured everything into my sister and me.”

Last week, Williams had no inkling that when his mother told him to put on his cap and gown, that he would have the opportunity to walk across the stage.

“It all happened so fast. I knew she was up to something when I saw people I didn't know unloading a stage,” he says. “Then I thought it would just be a small graduation for my mom and immediate family. But more [people came] and it felt like a genuine substitute for the real ceremony.”

Williams poses in his cap and gown in front of Baylor University. (Photo: Courtesy of Ayanna Tatum)

Tatum, whom her son considers “his rock,” admits that the event felt surreal.

“To be a parent and see your child constantly studying, you are looking forward to that big moment, right?” she says. “That moment where you can scream your absolute lungs mom died a year ago and she was my biggest fan, and of course she was my kids’ biggest it wasn’t just a graduation, it was something that was giving me hope, something to finally smile about.”

“My education is pivotal in allowing me to become equipped with the tools necessary to give back to others as they have given to me,” says Williams. “...I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to continue my education...”

Williams will attend the University of Texas McGovern Medical School in the Fall and according to his mother, he is already studying and running on a YouTube channel called MedHead.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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