Latest Chart: Stealing a little hope from graduation

June 12, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

“The year is 2040,” said M., and with that he was off and running on his wonderful, memorable graduation speech. We got to see it live, because M. is one of Thirteen’s classmates. Last night, our school gave the 8th graders the opportunity to celebrate the end of their middle school years in person.

A few months ago, when it became obvious that COVID-19 was going to shutter celebrations of pretty much all kinds, the school started having conversations with the 8th graders about what they wanted from their graduation. What did they think about holding it online, like so many other schools did? What about faculty visiting the kids at their homes and presenting diplomas one on one? What about holding a celebration in the school’s parking lot where the kids and their families did a drive-by graduation?

After two conversations on Zoom for all 8th grade families and students, one thing became apparent. The kids wanted an in-person graduation. We talked about what that might mean, particularly when it came to how long they’d have to wait for a live event.

The students all said the same thing: it didn’t matter. End of summer. Into the fall. Even at next year’s graduation, although none of them really liked that idea. But if it meant safety for all of the families and getting to celebrate in person—even if they couldn’t hug one another senseless afterward; even if they couldn’t high five each other or stand in tight knots and joke around like they usually do—they were willing to wait.

In some ways, now that I think about it, it was almost like the kids were saying to the coronavirus, in that way only idealistic young teens can, that they knew it was horrible, but they were going to hunker down and let it run its course because they had more of everything to outlast it.

COVID-19 is still a problem. It’s still a health disaster. A pandemic. People are still getting sick. Cases are still going up. There’s still cause for grave concern.

One positive thing, though, is that we have more information now on what to expect. We also have the passage of time on our side. Our incredible head of school, after weighing all the options and the facts from scientists and other health experts, determined that if we held the graduation with certain precautions and many restrictions, we could do it in person.

That list of precautions and restrictions was pretty long. I don’t envy Ms. Y.’s task. She had to take into account what was occurring in the national conversation, the state’s conversation, the local conversation, and, most importantly, what our own 8th grade families thought and felt. Even amongst us, there were varying degrees of comfort with the idea of meeting in person.

Our school normally makes the 8th grade graduation an event open to all family and friends of the school. The event would take place before school ended, and the gym would be packed as the graduates sat on the stage together. There would be cake afterward, and a lot of milling around with that end-of-school-year rush fueling everyone’s excitement.

For this graduation to work, though, the event would be held outdoors. We had a rain date, of course, but barring any precipitation we’d be sitting behind the school in its expansive lawn. The most obvious weather factor would be a hot day, but here in Central Illinois we also deal regularly with windy days that blow hair all around and even somewhat heavy objects across a field.

Then there was the seating arrangement. We’d be sitting a minimum of eight feet apart, and we’d have to provide our own chairs or a picnic blanket. The school has chairs, of course, but the reasoning was that some people might feel better using their own chairs from their own homes.

Next, the 8th graders wouldn’t be sitting together. They’d sit with their families. And they wouldn’t shake the hands of any faculty. No hugs of encouragement or excitement, with teachers or one another. No fist bumps as they introduced one another for their speeches, and when it was their turn to speak they’d have to wait for their classmates to leave the platform completely and for a masked, gloved teacher to change the cover of the microphone before they went up to share their last thoughts and memories from school. Then they’d pluck their microphone cover off and leave the platform right away.

The biggest restriction, though, came in the guest list. First, only the students’ advisors, or homeroom teachers, would attend. No other teachers, even if they’d known the kids from kindergarten or elementary school could come. As for the families, the guest list allowed parents and siblings only. No family friends and no one else, even if that meant family who lived with the 8th graders.

With all of these stipulations, Ms. Y. asked, would we be willing to hold an in-person graduation in the second week of June?

The students gave a resounding Yes. The parents also said yes with a little more caution and wariness. After all, we’re parents. We’ll fight tooth and nail to protect our kids, and these days it feels like the easiest way to do that is to keep them at home. Even if they’re driving us nuts while we do so.

At least the weather has improved enough so we can let the monkeys out of the cage into the back yard occasionally.

That means rainy days are looooong days.

Last night, though, it didn’t rain, and we had a beautiful 80’ish degrees around 7 p.m. when graduation was set to start. It was windy, sure, but we’re used to that. We just clutched that much tighter to the programs (and, for the girls and women, our dresses.)

The wind couldn’t blow away our optimism. Because to see the other families, from our family spots that were set at least 15 feet apart, to wave to them and call out congratulations…it was heartening. Encouraging. And a reminder that, yes, maybe that idealism our kids displayed in waiting out the virus is somewhat warranted.

The kids gave their speeches, and Thirteen spoke with confidence and humor about her time at the school. She shared favorite memories and complimented her classmates. She talked about her anxiety regarding high school but couched it with knowing several of her friends will be walking those same halls in the fall (even if that means virtually.)

I didn’t tear up. I was too happy, too excited, to see everyone come together to celebrate these wonderful young people. I also enjoyed so many of the other speeches and the memories shared by the teachers, whether in person or via video. It made me think of my own high school graduation, a cherished memory because of my years at my own school (15 of them!) and the wonderful friendships from my senior class that continue to this day.

And when Thirteen’s classmate, M., got up and started his speech with, “The year is 2040,” it made me smile. Like these kids, I’m encouraged to wait out these challenging times. With the humor, the compassion, and the kindness they showed last night, it proves that our future is brighter than maybe we realize when we’re cloaked with desperation about current events.

“Plan for the worst and hope for the best,” the saying goes. Many times we focus on the first half of that statement: the worst. But last night showed me that we need to do just as much of the second half as well. We need to be willing to look to the future.

We need to be willing to hope.