When We Graduated From High School “Goodbye” Meant Something

Good-bye in 1987 meant something my 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son could never understand.

After my high-school graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden, all 700 and something of my classmates milled around in the June heat, wearing our polyester green and white caps and gowns and looking for any reason to prolong our departures.

We searched for family and friends, hugged and posed for pictures that we’d probably never see.

Female honors grad in cap and gown
When I was a teen, “goodbye” meant we might never see our friends again. (Twenty20 @SBphoto)

When I was a teen, we had to make an effort to stay in touch

To see each other again meant being together, and not just on Instagram, Zoom or FaceTime. It would require the effort of making a phone call and a plan, then taking a subway or bus to a coffee shop, Central Park or someone’s apartment; hopefully when their parents weren’t home.

Friends we stayed in touch with were people we loved, not just the ones who sent a request and occasionally clicked “like” on a photo.

When we left for college, we said goodbye but meant, “I might never see you again.”

Maybe there wasn’t enough time to become close, maybe we didn’t have much in common to begin with. Maybe, we really did like each other but life got in the way.

Whatever the reason, goodbye was severance from almost everyone we knew, at least for a while.

A few weeks ago, when my daughter’s Zoom celebration ended, signaling middle school was officially over, I could hear dozens of students saying goodbye.

Now “goodbye” has lost its meaning

Immediately afterward, my daughter and her six best friends were on FaceTime. One of the girls was in Russia. Later that night they had a Netflix movie party that lasted for hours. I could hear their laughter late into the night.

They are all going to different high schools and I once thought that transition would be difficult. But even though they haven’t been together since in-person school ended in mid-March, in many ways their relationships haven’t changed.

“I guess the end of middle school isn’t that sad for you,” I said.

“No, why would it be?”

“Because graduation used to mean everything would be different.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“Like it might be weeks or months or forever before you heard from your friends.”

She gave me the uncomprehending stare of a teen, who can set her phone aside for an hour, but never a full day.

For better or worse.

Nearly every moment of every day, their connection to each other is still as fierce as the adolescent drama. Outfits and hairstyles are immediately critiqued. They eat meals and dance together, read books and play games side by side. Online romances begin and end, sometimes with friends of friends they’ve never met.

Summer vacation used to mean a break from peer pressure.

Today it does not end.

The cliques will come on our family’s beach vacation, and follow our daughter for years.

When I left New York City for college in Ohio, my best friends spread across the country, as well. Since my parents didn’t pay the extra fee for a long-distance, dorm-room phone plan, staying in touch meant writing letters and waiting days or weeks for replies.

AOL wasn’t a thing.

Without an online world to retreat to, the people in our dorm quickly became family. And since all ties to home were disrupted, we were able to transform as much we wanted, without constant reminders of who we were back home.

[Once a lover of all things science and math related, I became a Dr. Martens-wearing, college radio DJ and occasional lacrosse player.]

It was impossible to lean back so we had to lean forward.

I lost touch with many of my childhood and high school friends for decades–until Facebook emerged.

Didn’t we all?

Adulthood no longer begins at 18 or 21. Instead, several studies show the transition to full adulthood often extends into the late twenties or early thirties.

Becoming an “adult” has been delayed

Emerging adults” are delaying moving out of their parents’ home, getting married and becoming financially independent. There are many theories about why this is happening. My guess is TikTok and Instagram don’t help.

So, what does goodbye mean when it’s possible stay in touch with every single person you have ever known?

On the final Friday in June, the last day of sixth grade, I asked my son, “What happens now?” It was a day he’d been looking forward to and talking about for months. “Nothing. I’ll see my friends, online tomorrow,” he said. “Everything will be exactly the same.”

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