I ordered my high school senior’s cap and gown last week. I told her, “You’ll wear this somewhere, even if you have to stand on our porch and deliver a commencement speech to a crowd of admirers six feet apart in our front yard wearing custom ‘2021 grad fan’ face masks.”
I’m thinking ahead to my daughter’s graduation
I know I’m not the only member of Team 2021 thinking ahead to my student’s graduation season and wondering what it will look like. But my fellow senior parents and I have not been blindsided by the possibility of a revised graduation plan as our 2020 predecessors were, and we are not going blindly forward as they bravely had to. The parents and supporters of the class of 2020 paved the path for us, and now we are gratefully, if warily, walking in it.
A recent post by a class of 2021 mom in the Grown and Flown Parents group asking last year’s senior parents for suggestions on how to creatively celebrate our kids elicited dozens of responses. My own open call for big-picture advice from 2020 parents also netted plenty of hard-won wisdom.
Here, in summary, are 21 test-driven ideas for honoring and recognizing our 2021 seniors. No matter what.
Twenty-one ways to recognize the Class of 2021
1. We can ask, first
We can ask, rather than assume, whether or not our seniors want to participate in graduation festivities and “lasts.” Not all students do. It’s still their year, and we can still let them do it their way.
2. We can listen up
We can listen more than we speak…and worry less than we listen (or try to, anyway).
3. We can think outside the box.
We can get on board with nontraditional ways of celebrating. We can try to help our students (and ourselves) see that different does not have to automatically mean not as good.
4. We can get together
We can set up online forums to connect us with other Team 2021 friends and families. Through them, we can brainstorm event ideas, coordinate local plans, encourage each other, and share good news about our kids. One 2020 senior’s dedicated Instagram page caught the attention of a country singer, who invited page participants to submit their senior photos for use in his music video.
5. We can sign up
Yard signs ruled the lawns of 2020 grad fans, and 2021 looks primed for more of the same. Last spring, schools, churches, parent groups, and individual families ordered up school-color signage displaying everything from students’ names to their pictures to more private but still proud “we love our seniors!” Some local businesses or booster clubs paid for the signs and displayed them collectively in a town square or other high-traffic location before offering them to parents to relocate to their own yards.
School districts took over local billboards, posting senior class group and individual photos, and many high schools hung banners saluting their grads-to-be. One minor league baseball team offered use of their video board for senior shout-outs in exchange for a donation to a local food pantry. In another community, a local photographer took pictures of each senior in front of the courthouse, then posted the photos online for families to download.
6. We can hold on and let go
We can understand that our seniors are looking for independence as we’re leaning into their lasts. Our kids will experience a lot of emotions as they let go of us—in healthy ways—and look toward their futures. Their independence may shake us, but it will also make us proud.
7. We can run for a reason
Class of 2021 friends and family members who are runners can follow the lead of the high school principal who logged a mile for each member of his (smaller) 2020 senior class, posting online who his miles were for each day.
8. We can adopt and encourage
Many schools, churches, neighborhoods, and senior parent groups (whether all local or with members scattered across the country but brought together virtually) adopted last year’s seniors, giving them gift bags, e-gift cards, handwritten notes, and text messages of support. Some adoptions were one-time commitments, while others followed adoptees throughout the graduation season.
9. We can take time for ourselves
Renewed interest in things we loved in the past will be a gift to us and to our graduates.
10. We can follow the parade route
Parades were far and away the most popular vehicle for honoring members of the class of 2020, and understandably so. Graduates (many of them capped-and-gowned) walked down blocked-off streets or rode in decorated cars led by police or first-responder escorts, while socially distanced cheering supporters stood along the routes with signs and banners.
11. We can save space
We can allow room for the process of grieving (a normal part of a normal senior year, much less a decidedly abnormal one) and honor our seniors’ emotions.
12. We can be ready to be surprised
We can expect to be caught off guard—in the best way—by how bravely yet honestly our seniors are handling what comes their way. And we can expect to be even more proud of them than we already were.
13. We can drive in and drive up
Drive-in theaters became graduation stadiums in many communities last spring and summer. Socially distanced ceremonies held ahead of time in other locations—often with individual graduates and their families assigned specific time slots when they were handed diplomas and given photo ops—were compiled into full videos shown on the big screen.
Other schools set up stages in their parking lots and held drive-in live graduation ceremonies. Attendees stayed in their cars but were in many cases allowed family-unit photos by the stage with their individual graduates, diplomas in hand.
And to allow seniors a chance to say goodbye to their teachers, some schools organized drive-up farewell events in student parking lots, with faculty on hand to give gifts bags and best wishes to students in their (decorated) cars.
14. We can take time to cry
We can take some moments to ourselves to cry about all the things we’ll miss. (But not while we’re ironing graduation gowns. Tears make more wrinkles.)
15. We can cheer on
After the tears (see #15), we can cheer for all the new opportunities and adventures our graduates will have in coming years.
16. We can take all the pictures
We can take pictures of everything. And we can be in the pictures
17. We can take advantage of technology
If ever there was a time when technology proved its worth, 2020 was it. Social media and other forms of virtual communication allowed seniors to be recognized from afar but in up-close-and-personal ways.
School websites, along with Instagram and Facebook pages, highlighted members of senior classes one at a time, including senior photos, biographies, and future plans summaries. And live-streaming filled in some gaps at Covidized academic, athletic, and arts senior nights and award ceremonies.
18. We can leave margins
We can give our seniors and ourselves all the grace we can gather.
19. We can let them leave a legacy
The members of the class of 2020 left their mark, and some of those marks were left in their own schools. At least one school painted a wall, assigned individual seniors to a specific time slot, took their picture in front of the wall, and invited the future alumni to sign the wall or leave a painted handprint.
20. We can be present
In the middle of all the once-in-a-lifetime moments, we can pay attention to the ordinary moments when some of the best of real life happens.
21. We can make the most
We can remember that our kids earned this time to be celebrated, and so we can do our best to celebrate everything.
Before I started planning my first senior’s graduation party a few years ago, I gave myself a good talking to. I knew I could easily get bogged down in details that would derail me from what really mattered. I told myself that as long as my graduate was able to honestly say she felt loved, cherished, and celebrated when all was said and done, that was the win.
I’m having that talk with myself again now. Whether we get there by pomp and circumstance or by parade, if my 2021 grad feels loved, cherished, and celebrated when she hangs up the cap and gown I just ordered, I’ll know we both won the prize.
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