I still remember my senior prom. Back then, we didn’t hold these dances in hotels or country clubs. Instead, we came up with a theme and everyone pitched in to decorate the gym. Ours was “Scheherazade” and that large athletic space, which usually filled with cheers for our basketball team, was transformed into a magical dreamscape. I had my hair done at a local salon in a style reminiscent of the popular Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello, who, in the popular culture of the time, stood out in a sea of Sandra Dee blondes, boosting the morale of the many Italian-American girls in my class.
The last few months of senior year in high school were a whirlwind. There were award dinners, recognizing those who excelled academically and athletically. Our school newspaper published a futuristic story predicting where everyone would be in 10 or 20 years. The yearbook came out, and we spent days signing them. A signature would never do if we could write pages and pages, trying to capture in those words what high school was all about and how much we valued our friendships.
Graduation was the final event, once again held in the gym. Our relatives and friends sat on the bleachers, watching as close to 500 seniors, decked out in their caps and gowns, marched in while the student orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance.” For a few days after, in some cases, for weeks, the seniors seemed stunned, rudderless. Many of us worked at summer jobs (mine was in a toy factory), others went to camp, either as counselors or as campers. Those fortunate few took trips out west or, the really lucky, to Europe. Soon enough, our class would split with the majority going off to college, others to vocational schools, or to full time jobs.
Those special events of senior year, however, remained seared in our memories. Whenever we gathered for reunions, we would find ourselves going back to those final days. “Remember when…” began more than one conversation, followed by an anecdote that was either humorous or humiliating but not forgotten.
I keep thinking about the classes of 2020. In the scheme of things, particularly in the midst of a pandemic that is claiming thousands of lives, young people missing out on these senior year events may seem, to some, trivial. Seniors will graduate and they will leave high school with three and a half years of memories that they can talk about at reunions.
Yet a graduation ceremony provides closure. Everything leading up to that moment – the prom, award ceremonies, yearbook signings, etc. – are the preliminaries, setting the stage for that final get together, being united as a class one last time before going out into the world. Without that event, does the finality of high school seem less real?
In some ways, I understand how they are feeling. Four years after my high school graduation, I was a senior in college. The year was 1970 and the U.S., fighting a losing war in Vietnam, upped the ante by invading Cambodia. College campuses erupted, protesting the bombing of a neutral country. On May 4, the Ohio National Guard fired on student protestors at Kent State, killing four students and wounding nine others. (John Filo won the Pulitzer Prize for his iconic and heartrending photo of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller.)
My college, Syracuse University, was one of many to shut down. The administration announced that graduation was cancelled. Like so many seniors, I went home. Except…a week or so later, graduation was back on! My parents and I decided to attend, but because I had cancelled my cap and gown order, we sat in the stands and I watched as my classmates marched onto the field. My father kept asking me when I would join them and I explained for the umpteenth time, I couldn’t because I didn’t have a cap and gown. It was a disappointing and surreal end to my four-year college career.
True, I didn’t have that college graduation moment, but there were many other college seniors at Syracuse and around the country, who shared my fate. In the near term, it was something to tell people when they asked about my college graduation. Soon, even recounting those bizarre circumstances became less important. I graduated. I had my diploma. Time to move on.
No doubt these seniors will spend some time mourning the loss of these formal events. But they are amazing young people who have found other ways to connect using technology. They should use those methods and forge special and unique memories that will sustain them in the future. Years from now, they will be able to tell their children and their grandchildren, and anyone who follows, that they graduated in the midst of a pandemic and lived to tell about it. Imagine that.
Top photo: Bigstock