Dear class of 2020,
I am a West Marion High School graduate Class of 1996. That year probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but if you do some quick math you’ll figure out I’m somewhere in the neighborhood of being as old as your parents.
Interestingly enough, in January of ’96, the United States experienced one of the worst blizzards on record, forcing the schools in New York to close for the first time in eighteen years. So those guys at least have a little something in common with you. Also in ‘96, Braveheart won the Oscar for best picture, the biggest newsmaker was the Menendez trial, a Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls won yet another NBA championship, and we all eagerly awaited the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. I had to Google most of that (something I couldn’t have done in 1996) because honestly it just wasn’t that memorable. Except for the Olympics.
Now, every school has been closed for months, basketball is canceled, the Olympics are canceled, and did we really care who won the Oscar for best picture? Whatever it was, it’ll never be Braveheart.
Of course, we all know what the biggest newsmaker is today.
In 1996 I went to prom with a good friend of mine – nothing romantic or anything, and as graduation neared, our biggest concern was whether or not it would rain and we’d have to graduate in the gym. It had been years since a class had graduated in the gym, and we certainly didn’t want to be the first.
We didn’t get rained out. We had the graduation we wanted. Our Salutatorian gave a speech I don’t remember. Our Valedictorian gave a speech I don’t remember. A song was sung by a friend of mine which I don’t remember. We got our diplomas, deposited a marble in the hand of our principal as a practical joke when we shook his hand and posed for the picture, and we threw our hats in the air. We hugged each other, some cried, we took pictures, a few went off to post-graduation parties…and we moved on to the next chapter of our lives.
You see, graduation is a milestone ceremony for many. It is a formal letting go of the growing-up stage of life, passing through the gateway to the adult stage of life. We do this in front of friends and family, endorsed by those who have mentored us for twelve years and watched us grow from snotty-nosed kids to amazing adults.
For many, this passage is so rigid that they don’t look back. It draws a clear line between the high school version of us and the person we want to become for the rest of our lives. Relationships that were developed out of necessity are allowed to fall away as we begin to pursue those things that would define us as adults. For me, I was ready to go. I was ready to cross the threshold, to leave the village behind, and to enter into the adventure I was being called to pursue. I was ready to chase my dreams and live my life.
There are people with which I graduated in 1996 that I haven’t spoken to since that night. And before you shake your head and call shame on me, know this isn’t all that uncommon. Just as I haven’t spoken to those people in twenty-four years, it is also true that they haven’t spoken to me either. A few years back I reached out to one of my good friends in High School and apologized for not making more of an effort to stay in touch. His response? He said he thought it was just a part of growing up. He hadn’t had a second thought about it. We grew up. We moved on. We all did.
Class of 2020 you have been given a very unique gift. It’s true that many of you don’t get to have a prom. (For some of you that’s a good thing, right?) It’s true that many of you don’t get to have your perfect graduation. Your Valedictorian and Salutatorian won’t give speeches for you to forget. There won’t be a rendition of whatever sad, tear-jerking song your class had chosen to be performed on that day. You won’t get to prank your principal, shake hands, throw your hats, take pictures, or cry.
But most importantly, you aren’t being forced through that gateway. There is no hard break between point A of your life and the rest of it. There is no officially sanctioned transition ritual. You get to transition in the way you choose. What does that mean? For some, it means you can break off toxic relationships without feeling guilty about it. It also means that there’s no dividing line in your life that might tempt you to neglect the friendships you’ve made over the past few years. Sure, growing apart is a feature of life. Some of those friendships will diminish as new adult friendships are formed. But when you look back, you won’t see that line of separation. You will know it happened naturally, not because you were pushed into your new phase of life by social convention.
Embrace the fact that your transition into the adventure of the rest of your life is being done a little more gently. There’s no fanfare or celebration to put the pressure on you. It’s just you. How will you choose to move forward?
And know this…you are not alone. You will forever be the Class of 2020. All across this world, young men and women are experiencing the exact same thing. They are the Class of 2020. Whether in China, Italy, Australia, England, or America, you are all the Class of 2020…and that means something to all of you.
Do you know what happens when I tell people I graduated in 1996? Nothing. On the off chance I run into another ‘96 graduate all I get is a, “Hey! Me too!” But you…well, you have a story. The Class of 2020 means something. There has never been and never will be another class with YOUR story. Your children will read about your graduation year in their history books. Movies will be made about it. Books written. For the rest of your lives, when you tell people you graduated in 2020 it will have a deeper meaning that most everyone will understand. Their eyes will get wide, they’ll ask you tons of questions, and you’ll be the center of attention. You will be heroes for your children, who will brag about you on the playgrounds. And when you meet another 2020 graduate, you will have something very profound in common. You will share in camaraderie a bond with other 2020 graduates that no other graduating class has shared. When you meet one from another country, you’ll instantly have that bond. It will transcend culture, ethnicity, religion, and political borders.
You will be remembered by everyone. Graduating classes before you are looking at you now, wanting to reach out and try to find a way to ease your loss, as I am doing with this letter. Graduating classes after you will look at you with a kind of awe because they don’t have a story, they won’t be remembered, and they will forever be in your shadow.
You are the Class of 2020. The Class that didn’t have a prom or a graduation. You didn’t have the ceremony that transitioned you to adulthood. You were quarantined at home. Alone. Made to experience these milestones in whatever manner you feel like, if at all. You may feel this is a tragedy, but in reality its something quite extraordinary.
You’ve been given the gift of immortality. Be proud of that.