I know you, at least in some way. I’ve taught seniors for the last 13 years, and for the most part, I’ve loved it. I love watching the arch of your senior year; the excitement to begin that turns to apathy along the way, which is quickly followed by anticipation as spring approaches. I love the angst as you decide what to do post-graduation; the grit of those last seasons of your favorite sports; the romanticism of your last prom; the thrill of signing the final yearbook for your friends; the prestige you radiate when you put on your cap and gown and walk across the stage to the cheers of your closest family members. I’ve watched you, year after year, and I’ve cried tears of joy for you, because it’s perhaps the greatest time of your life. Everything is in front of you as you close one chapter and dream of what’s to come.
You have every right to be angry right now. That’s all been stripped from you. You have every right to feel cheated. After working for twelve long years, you’re sitting at home, watching the world become paralyzed in front of your eyes as you face the grim reality that many of those senior year milestones may never come.
Someday you will tell others about this, maybe younger siblings, perhaps even your own children. You’ll hear them complain about school and you’ll tell them how much you missed it when you were told to go home. You’ll tell them how much you grumbled about the early morning starts, the arbitrary rules, the strict teachers, the busy-work that bored you – until you couldn’t have it anymore. You’ll tell them about how much you missed the comradery of being in a classroom at 7am, chugging coffee to stay awake; that teacher who actually cared; that assignment that really did spark your interest. You’ll tell them how lucky they are to have it.
You’ll tell your kids how technology saved the day; how the programs many of your parents complained about became salvation for grandparents and kindergarteners alike; how your cell phone became your lifeline, and technology became your only way to learn, grow and connect.
You’ll tell them about the heroes you witnessed – many of them your own parents – who went to work at hospitals, pharmacies and grocery stories to make sure people were fed, healthy and taken care of. You may even tell them that you were one of those people, stocking shelves at your local grocery store so that people in your community would have what the needed.
You’ve learned a lesson I could never teach you in school. Sometimes the bottom falls out. Sometimes the world makes no sense. I walked around the University of Pittsburgh’s campus on September 11, 2001 and wondered what the world would look like when we emerged from the rubble. Now, you’re doing the same. But I hope you know that the world will make sense again someday. It will be altered, but a new normal will emerge.
I graduated in the class of 2000. Twenty years ago, we thought the world might end because of a computer glitch. And then the world almost did end when planes crashed into the World Trade Centers. Seven years later, many in my generation emerged as college graduates in an economy that was not particularly welcoming. But we learned from it. And you will too.
This is your hardship story. This is your Great Depression, your World War II, your Kennedy Assassination, your Vietnam. Its difficult to put it into perspective when you are in the middle of it, without the wisdom and grace that comes from years of removal and reflection. As you stand on the shore of your life, you can never know what waves will hit you without warning and knock you off course. What you choose to do with it, how you respond, that makes all the difference in the person you will become.
My heart breaks for you. It breaks for my sister, who may have to deliver my nephew alone because my brother-in-law might not be allowed in the room. It breaks for my mother, who lost her only brother on March 12th and has not been able to properly mourn his death. It breaks for my stepson and his fiancé, who’ve had to postpone the wedding they planned for fifteen months. Like them, you have every right to grieve your loss; it is a tremendous one. And in the end, I hope you come out of it with an acceptance that nothing in this world is certain. The only surefire way to cope is to be grateful for what is good, to be hopeful enough to endure what isn’t, and to trust in your ability to persevere.