High school graduation, pandemic style

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My favorite high school graduate of 2020, Celeste

I remember little of my high school graduation. In fact, my sharpest memory of that June day 33 years ago is of a bug splatting all over my necktie as I drove to the ceremony.

And it was no small bug, mind you. It was one of those cicadas that swarm the Washington region every 17 years, known as Brood X. Those critters crawl out of the ground in biblical proportions, taunt the region for about a month, and then die until the internal clock in their offspring wakes them up 17 years later.

Those bugs were swarming the region in June 1987, and I owned a red pickup truck that didn’t have air conditioning. As I drove down I-270 to the graduation ceremony with my windows rolled down, a cicada ricocheted off the side-view mirror of the car next to me and splattered all over my necktie. 

It was a fitting end to high school. 

As you can tell, I didn’t care much for high school. In fact, I signed up for the work-release program as soon as I was eligible and left school by 10:30 a.m. every day to work at Pizza Hut. 

I spent more time slinging pizzas than I did in class my junior and senior years, but it gave me the time I needed to earn money to buy that red pickup truck, which was the point.

I guess I remember so little about graduation because it was the end of something I could not have cared less about, so why remember anything? It just didn’t matter to me. 

But it does matter to many people, including my daughter Celeste. She is a member of the Class of 2020, and could not have a traditional graduation ceremony because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Cancellation never entered my mind when schools closed for two weeks on March 16. But soon came the stay-at-home order, the forced closure of select businesses, and the beginning of online classes.

The number of reported illnesses and deaths attributed to coronavirus quickly rose, and as the closures and quarantine wore on, the political blame game grew more intense, fueled by the ills of social media.

And when politics takes center stage, objective truth no longer exists. Politics is to society what a black hole is to the universe. It simply devours everything. Not even the light of truth can escape.

I slowly realized that the Class of 2020 would not have a traditional graduation ceremony, and an email from the school eventually confirmed it. Thoughts and feelings swirled around my head like a hurricane slamming into the East Coast, leaving behind only the five stages of grief and loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and at last, acceptance that Celeste and her fellow classmates would not celebrate their final year in high school as so many of us have.

Parents appealed to decision makers, but state officials would not allow it. They deemed travel to a graduation ceremony as “non-essential” and any gathering larger than 10 people as too great a risk of spreading the virus.

Sigh.

We usually mark the end of high school with an extensive list of “lasts” paired with the realization of those things being the last. 

The last time you wake up at 6 a.m. as a high school student. The last morning you walk through the school’s doors. The last time you eat lunch in the overcrowded cafeteria. The last time you see your favorite teacher.  

Your last spring musical. Your last show choir performance. Your last time taking a bow in front of an adoring audience on a stage you didn’t know you’d take to so well until you did.

Of course, you had those lasts, but you didn’t know it at the time, and not knowing makes all the difference. It means we can’t fully appreciate these events as they happen. We just move on to the next thing without savoring the moment. We miss the sweetness of the last.

And then there are the events that didn’t happen for the Class of 2020. The senior banquets. The award ceremonies. The senior proms. And, of course, the graduation ceremonies, at least not in the form so many of us know.

Celeste did walk across the stage in her cap and gown to accept the token of her diploma from her school’s principal, but the auditorium was empty. No one gave a commencement speech. No one other than us applauded. No group photos with her friends in the frenzy after the ceremony. And certainly no all-night after party, as has been the custom here for years. 

She’s a high school graduate!

I understand the decision to cancel a traditional ceremony. Her class has about 400 students, so nearly 3000 people would attend. That’s quite a crowd for ordinary times, let alone during a pandemic. 

But I have a hard time understanding why state officials ruled out the more creative alternatives to a traditional ceremony, whether it be a series of smaller ceremonies on the school’s football field, a drive-in ceremony, or even a parade.

In the end, that left only the possibility of a solo walk across the stage in front of an empty auditorium combined with a web-based slideshow of the graduates. 

If hundreds of people can stroll through a big-box store at one time and fill their carts with junk food, I don’t know why it’s so dangerous to break the class into smaller groups and stagger families so their graduates could experience a scaled-down traditional graduation ceremony on the football field.

Sadly, state officials simply did not see a graduation ceremony as an essential activity, like buying booze, a lottery ticket, a pizza, or even an ice cream cone. After all, how could a rite of passage ever compare to buying a $5 scratcher or a fifth of gin?

Some will say that state officials took the safest route to tamp down the spread of the virus and save the most lives because they saw no way to reduce the risk to zero. Others will say that life without risk is impossible, so we might as well carry on as normal.

I find truth in both, comfort in the middle, and sadness in the realization that the Class of 2020 missed out on a rite a passage that many of us take for granted.

One thing is certain:  Every student in the Class of 2020 will remember more about their graduation than I do of mine, even if it’s for what they missed. But even a pandemic cannot reduce the accomplishment of finishing 13 years of school. 

Congratulations, Class of 2020! May you change the world in ways we need most.

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