Man, was I prepared to CRY this spring. I had trained like a Tear Olympian for the ultimate Spring Games: my oldest’s high school graduation. I’d put in all the hard work of getting ultra-emotional about things that would happen months in the future.
I’d need stamina, so I prepared for all of my daughter’s lasts by picturing them in full-blown detail, all the while kicking pebbles down memory lane til my toes bled. I’d already proved my mettle, crying like a champ after her final water polo game in the fall. Next up, I was kleenex-ready for her final musical. Then a final senior banquet. All the final finals.
The graduation of my imagination did not happen
I’d imagined a sunny graduation day. We’d head to a college in the city, a borrowed home for my daughter’s high school graduation because it was to be that big of a crowd — the high school stadium could not hold such a mob of graduate fans. I’d imagined everyone in crisp clothes and hair combed, my littlest in his go-to linen suit.
I’d imagined a requisite quick fight with my husband over an inability to park/borderline lateness — the argument that’s a fixture of all big family days because Excitement and Agitation are first cousins.
I’d imagined sitting in a crowd of people teeming with relief, and love, and pride, watching their best people get rewarded for doing their best. Is there anything better than looking at the mass of possibility in the form of hundreds of young adults ready to launch??
I’d imagined experiencing that surging feeling where there’s so much good you can’t possibly drink it all in, and of course there’s a sadness but it’s overshadowed by the joy of the day.
I’d imagined the day might be even better than I’d imagined.
And I knew I’d amplify it all with my curated set of highly emotional memories. Like wanting to watch a sad movie when you’re already down, or making yourself listen to Jewel’s You Were Meant for Me on repeat in the midst of a bad break up while driving around aimlessly in your Mazda MX3 — I was ready to suffer the flashback montages my mind had been busily preparing.
My imaginings all featured that little girl who switched schools after kindergarten. And, when I dropped off that nervous, watery-eyed girl for her first day at her new school I went home sincerely worried that I had RUINED HER LIFE. But the girl I picked up six hours later was standing authoritatively in front of the school. The picture I took is one my iconic ones of her — cross-armed, in an impossibly small uniform jumper made of an unflappable, unearthly material — staring straight at me, not smiling, but clearly communicating I Got This, long before that was even a thing to claim.
Turns out, she wasn’t ruined at all. In fact, the whole episode would prove a bit of a spoiler for how she’d keep tackling life.
I was ready to watch that same girl stride across a stage for a diploma in an unflappable, unearthly graduation gown thinking of that cross-armed pixie version of her. Making myself cry, adding layers of memory and feeling to an-already moving day.
This has to be the worst and strangest turn of events
But in the weirdest and worst of twists, my daughter already doesn’t pull into the driveway at the end of every school day. And moreover, I CAN’T WAIT FOR HER TO LEAVE. Now I cry thinking of her not leaving because the next thing I desperately want for her is the freshman fall she’s envisioning, one of new friends in a new city with new classes and new professors. This feels like what’s due our kids in the Class of 2020, right?
Your senior spring was blown to bits — here’s your rebate check in the form of a magical freshman fall.
It’s not just the big events that have been ripped away this spring, it’s everything. And everyone’s missing out. There’s the freshman baseball season that was stacking up to be a good one before the diamond had to be deserted. There’s the right-of-passage seventh grade retreat that my daughter’s heard all about from her older brother and sister. There’s my youngest’s favorite day of the year — the Special Olympics track meet — where he is the fastest and best and winningest and most medaled (self-reported). That these things won’t happen are consequential losses to the specific kid losing them. But there’s a feeling that these losses of midstream school life will be recouped.
Milestone years are different. Whereas in other years of education, Gwyneth Paltrow’s sliding doors seem to open up to the same subway, for seniors the doors lead to totally different cars. You can’t sit and picture with any certainty what walking through one of those doors was going to feel like. You’ve never done if before. This passage was your turn, the rite you had a right to.
The seniors were robbed of big and small events
Our seniors are getting ROBBED. But it’s not just the big ceremonies that they are losing in this hold up. Of course the thief wants the valuable stuff — your watch, your wallet, your phone — or in this case, your graduation, your baccalaureate, your prom. But this time he wants all the minor stuff too. Give me the gum in your pocket! He’s taking it ALL.
It’s true for seniors that their list of losses pales in the face of all the larger and more terrible consequences of these times. Of course there’s a need to grade their own grief on an unfriendly curve when others are sick, dying, hungry and financially insecure. But it’s also true that just because it doesn’t compare to this suffering doesn’t mean the grief’s not real. Because the plain truth is that was your stuff. And your gum. And they don’t make that flavor anymore. Those were the last few pieces of your last high school sports season, the last few pieces of holding that stick, or that racquet, or that bat. And I’m guessing you planned on chewing every trace of flavor straight out of those pieces.
The credits were destined to roll on the Class of 2020’s senior year, as they roll for all seniors. But when the screen starts playing them unexpectedly in mid-March, it’s hard to parse apart the sadness over the ending and this premature, abrupt deletion of these last few months together. This grief is physical — for a place and the people that have figured so heavily into the last four years of life. That my daughter won’t walk in the those halls again — that end was on its way. Just not like this.
She thought she’d get the chance to experience her lasts KNOWING they were her lasts. Not an abrupt midweek start to a just-two-week break that turned into, in hindsight, her last day of school — a solid two and a half months too soon.
Where does the standard sadness end and the sudden sadness begin for this class??
And it’s the whole class everywhere in the world
The craziest thing about the Class of 2020’s experience is that it’s the whole class. Not just my daughter’s high school, or just the high schools in the US. None of our kids will meet a single person at college who was unaffected by this time. Some kids will have been bored, others tormented by family immersion, or sad about everything they didn’t get to do. Some will have parents who were essential workers. Some will have lost someone they loved. Everyone will have had too short of a senior year. Everyone.
The Class of 2020 had to walk through this different door they hadn’t planned to use— Watch out! It’s shattered. Don’t step on the glass! This is an unprecedented shared experience. I want to think this universality will end up being that hoped for rebate check. And I get it — to a senior that probably feels like pennies on the dollar right now. But maybe the value will be there and be felt, as they get to experience it. As they open that fresh new pad and start sketching the first scene of this next part.
For now, Class of 2020, it seems your graduation is being offered as a practicum. Instead of a grand event, sitting and listening to a lofty speech about how you will be tested, or will have to sacrifice, or will have to pivot, or will have to deal with the unexpected, or will have to handle future setbacks, life has issued you a real-live, multi-month test packed with each of these challenges instead.
A few nights ago, I walked by my senior’s room on my way to bed. That day we’d covered our usual topics of this weird spring — stuff she would’ve been doing on this day, hopes for the fall. A mixed bag of sadness, anxiety and light, sweet bright spots. As I passed her door, I heard the unmistakable sound of her laughing HYSTERICALLY with friends on a Zoom, like your-sides-are-now-split kind of laughing. I skipped going in to say goodnight in order to help her simulate real-life socializing, since back in the day I very rarely followed her anywhere in the real world.
But the happy, uproarious chatter of all those kids — kids who wanted a different spring and kids who are nervous about the possibility of a yet-again different fall — that was the best lullaby I could’ve hoped for. That night I slept better than I have since our world closed. I woke up thinking Oh I get it: She’s Got This. They all do. The kids are alright.
They are disappointed but they are not ruined
The Class of 2020 is nailing their practicum, and they’re anything but ruined. They’re sad and disappointed, OF COURSE. But they are, living out that would-be speech they were supposed to hear in person, on that sunny day, in those gowns and decorated caps. The speech they’ll now hear on Zoom, or in a car in a parking lot, or at a later date.
No matter where or how they graduate, they have 0% risk of being called self-centered. Every day of this senior spring they deserved, but didn’t get, they are passing the test, making the sacrifice, learning to pivot, juggling the unexpected. They are not being set back by their current setback.
The truth is, unflappable, unearthly — that was never about the gown.
Class of 2020, caps off to you. We couldn’t be more proud.
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Jen Parker is an essayist and Top Parenting Writer on Medium. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and four kids, ages 10-18. Bite-size musings can be found on Instagram; full-size entrees under jen parker on medium.com.