Driving for four hours and covering only 25 miles, our volunteer caravan of five high school teachers, appropriately masked, follow a dizzying path – we back track and U-turn on countless suburban cul-de-sacs, delivering Congratulations Seniors lawn signs. This afternoon has been emotionally laborious – reconnecting with students we’ve been teaching remotely, but haven’t seen in person since March. We’re painfully aware we may not see them again, these bright, inspiring, hilarious and rebellious young adults we spent our days with.
Our stops have taken on the regularity of ritual – we approach the graduate’s house, and the honking commences, continuing until we emerge from our cars, plant the celebratory lawn sign, and shout our congratulations. Some students have signs to match ours – thank you teachers! – and their little siblings run in giddy circles – the first time seeing anyone outside the family for months.
Some of the students seem stunned
Some students seem stunned, some deeply grateful, others mildly annoyed. Several are still sleeping (it is only noon). We get it. All of this is so inadequate, this coercion to accept our drive by jollity, this spontaneous moment of pressured joy. The kids want out – out of the tiny orbits in their homes, full of protective restrictions and anxiety.
But what’s unexpected are the crying moms and dads, standing back, giving their kid time to connect with us, and watching from a distance. Their tears sideswipe us, moms ourselves, and we blink away the welled up emotion and pepper the graduate with enthusiastic questions about her plans for the summer and beyond.
They tell us the college they committed to, but shrug trying to imagine what that will look like. We move onto the next stop and put on our cheerful faces. On one hand our bravado is genuine – they are senior strong and 2020 can’t stop them. We are genuinely proud of their accomplishments and any small way we contributed to it. But we know that they know we are overcompensating.
These seniors are grieving their losses
They are grieving the loss of the rituals they imagined since grade school – decision day, scholarship award ceremonies, last games, and of course, the crowning achievements of prom and graduation. But what was also lost, and perhaps is just as important for them: senior cut days at the beach, when, the following day, we teachers would marvel at the sunburns they got when home sick in bed.
Also vaporized – the unsupervised trip to the Jersey shore (appropriately named Wildwood). All those times they would have stood on tiptoe at the precipice of choice and learned (or didn’t learn) how to say no. All the opportunities to be self-driven and self-disciplined, or not. The tiny, mundane, repetitive decisions that add up to a sense of agency in life. It’s the moms that get me, my colleague Jen says as we walk back to our cars after the last stop.
I nod, fighting back tears, imagining what would have been lost if my only child’s graduation, just three years earlier, looked like this.
We say our goodbyes and are more than ready to head home. As if on cue, Maureen’s balloons, repurposed from her daughter’s small college graduation party and secured to her rear window, become untethered. They dodge a power line and bob into the sky.
We laugh and wave at them. Bye, bye graduation.
It all brings me back to memories of my daughter’s prom
Back home, I’m spent but buzzing with intense emotions. I pass the budding rhododendron by my front door, and am propelled back three years. A series of small moments floated up into my mind – after several hours of hair and makeup, my daughter shimmied into her light blue gown, and I zipped her up. How did this body suddenly transform to fill out this garment; when did she learn to walk in heels…
Her date rang the doorbell, beyond handsome in his tux with coordinating baby blue tie, his dark eyes widening at the sight of her. Outside I took too many photos as they awkwardly pinned on the boutonniere and the corsage. Flanked by the philodendrons in full magenta riot, she protested weakly, eyes rolling, smiling and laughing as they struggled not to impale each other.
And then they were off to the pre-prom party (another photo op for parents) where we would collectively shake our heads at the remarkable transformations. Just that morning they were wearing sweats, high ponytails and backward baseball caps. Now they effortlessly rocked updos and tuxedos. Sequined gowns sparked in the sunset.
That would be the summer when our daughter was off to practice – to exercise the decision making muscles that form her developing prefrontal lobe. Every parent has his or her own daunting, thorny aspect of raising an adolescent. For me, it was circumnavigating the power struggles that accompany new freedoms and new limits.
That summer, my daughter and her boyfriend would dive from the high spot at the swimming hole that forbade swimming, (she told me of this with a mischievous grin just last year) drink beer, go sky diving and buy bedding for their new rooms at college. We hoped college would be a soft place for her to land. And it was.
My students will be fine
And my students will also be fine, although shaped by the realities of “living in the Q.” But how about the moms and dads? My child got to experience a burgeoning sense of adulthood, to exercise the muscles of conscience as she anticipated and balanced short term pleasure and long term goals.
Each time she came home just a bit late, or rightly demanded her freedom, or calculated a risk well, I relaxed a little more. “It’s your call,” we could say to her when she asked to go to a party that would not be over until the wee hours. All of this helped me prepare for her to sleep with her under a roof different than ours. She got to practice without a mask and without social distancing.
These grand moments in institutional settings, and those small moments when our kids are beyond our watchful (but desperately trying to remain nonchalant) gaze cannot be replaced. In a normal summer before college, the tassel would move, the curfew broken, the risks we were willing to allow them to take were assessed by our kids, not by the department of health. It’s just not right we say (although we know too well just how right it is.)
There is nothing fair about any of this
It isn’t fair. That is not debatable. It’s essential to attend to the way our seniors are grieving, but parents are also mourning a great loss. In normal times, these rites of passage (once passed) gave us comfort. Now we do not have the rites as we knew them, nor the comfort. It’s terribly tough on the kids. But I also get how hard this is for parents, who have to enforce more limits, and likely get into more tussles with their children who may understand, but are wired to be independent.
Off in the distance the summer sky looms, blue, cloudless, uncertain. The graduation balloons in my neighborhood, next to our signs and tied to mailboxes and front posts, are slowly deflating. I’m sure more than a few have floated off, unfettered.
We know that time will march on, and the rituals they have been imagining since grade school will vanish on the horizon of adulthood. But the moms? We worry, occasionally reminding ourselves that while the summer after high school is short, the road ahead is long.
Our graduates may have dealt with unforeseen obstacles, but my seniors have written poignantly about the lessons of the pandemic. Patience. Collective sacrifice. Gratitude for essential workers. Empathy. How to shift the idea of stuck at home, to safe at home.
They will get to fail at adulting, with its endless insignificant and monumental choices that add up to a sense of agency, and to try again soon enough. Their world will look different than our pre-pandemic world in ways we can’t even imagine now. But there will be plenty of safe spaces for graduates to take flight and soft places to land.
The moms and dads will see to that.
More to Read:
It’s Easy to Judge Until It’s Your Kid, Let’s Try Compassion Marybeth Bock writes about the importance of compassion as we think about other teens and families.
The 10 Things All Freshmen Need to Bring to College This year, even more than most, teens should think about bringing a minimal amount of gear to college. Here are the basics.