I run a youth dialogue and podcasting program with teenagers called This Teenage Life. Our recording sessions have been a social and creative lifeline for me and the teens throughout the pandemic. We laugh, we vent, we cry. The teens’ grief escalated in early March when they thought graduation would be completely cancelled. Through tears, Jade Bentley, 17, said, “I make fun of people who peak in high school or whatever…but I do think there are important things that happen,” she paused and her voice cracked with emotion when she began describing the logistics of a drive-through graduation.
Since then, we’ve all been vaccinated and hope is in the air. But the teens are still uncertain about what their graduation ceremony will look like. Not having a “normal” graduation has brought up feelings of grief around missed milestones over the course of the past year.
In case you’re experiencing something similar, we hope sharing our thoughts will help you feel less alone.
Cloe Moreno, 19 College Freshman
I never really thought about graduation when I was younger. I just assumed it was going to happen once I was a high schooler, ready to go on to college. It was actually a scary thought for me. Maybe I would have a party or maybe I would be going to a few if I was invited by friends. My vague ideas about graduation and how the occasion would be marked only surfaced from time to time, and I certainly never thought — never imagined — that if I didn’t celebrate it in some way it would be due to a global pandemic.
When COVID-19 first debuted, all those ideas changed. It happened in steps, like the deconstruction of a Jenga tower. First we thought we might have to social distance the event if we found a big enough venue, or maybe we would have to push it back a week, or invite fewer people— all naive thoughts. With the cancellation of school, the whole structure came down.
Was it possible we wouldn’t have a graduation? Faced with that possibility, I coped by thinking graduation wasn’t a big deal.
As the months carried on and more of the normal experiences of high school disappeared, I tried to bring back some excitement for what the school had finally planned: a drive-by graduation in the car parking lot. While many enjoyed the event, glad to have anything at all, I couldn’t help but feel a pit of sadness as the tassels on my car fluttered and I looked through the windows I had decorated, out at my teachers who were distanced and dancing as I drove round. I just wanted to get out of there. Unfortunately instead of doing something else to take my mind off of the event, I had my graduation party waiting for me. Yes, I still had planned one, but I was slowly wishing that I had ended my goodbyes there.
Luckily the awkward feeling of distress slowly dwindled as cars showed up and I realized this was an important opportunity to put my spin on how high school was going to end. Some of my closest friends got to talk and laugh together, and as the sun set, it felt like I was ending the day on a high note or at least higher than I expected. Graduation did what it was supposed to do: it marked the end of our high school career. And no matter how many times my hormones and pessimistic mindset made it hard to appreciate, I had to acknowledge that it was also a way to embrace the exciting things to come — college for some, jobs for others — each of us armed with new anxieties and aspirations.
Olivia Ho, 18, High School Senior
With two older sisters, I’ve had a lot of experiences with graduations. The first one I went to was my oldest sister’s fifth grade graduation. I’m pretty certain that her class sang a song and maybe even coordinated a dance, but the only clear thing I remember was how my mom gave me my first piece of gum to keep my four-year-old self quiet as I shifted and squirmed in my uncomfortable dress.