Dear Class of 2020,
Although my own senior prom and commencement exercises took place in the Graham High School gymnasium more than fifty years ago, I assure you that I have more than an inkling of how you must be feeling about the final months of your senior year. During my teaching career, I spent forty springs listening to descriptions of prom dresses, congratulating baseball/softball players and track athletes on their victories, experiencing Broadway entertainment right on Graham stages, celebrating diplomas with hugs and handshakes, sending young people like you out into the world.
The type of spring you have experienced as a senior was never even a blip on the radar screen in those forty years – actually, such an occurrence was not any kind of blip back in January when we rang in the new year with such symmetrically-arranged numbers.
Then in mid-March Ohio closed its schools and sent you home for an unending string of calamity days, way outlasting any blizzard bag assignments you probably ever completed. Ohio sent many of your parents home, too, and there you all were together – basically 24/7. As required sheltering shoved life into limbo, it slowly dawned on all of us that those final traditions whose images have been part-and-parcel of your mindset for a dozen years would not be happening or would occur in such a form as to be nearly unrecognizable.
As governor after governor stepped up to protect the often-conflicting needs of the people in their states during this pandemic, you were Zooming with your teachers. While Americans cast wary eyes at the frightening progress of the virus in other countries and other states, you were trying to understand your lessons and submit assignments via the internet. Against a backdrop of increasing politicization and muddled messaging, you just wanted it all to be over.
However, if I know students of any generation as I think I do, you were also missing your friends: no long rehearsals and opening night jitters shared with your friends; no high-fives of victory or shrugging off regrettable defeat shared with your friends; no pre-prom dinner and dancing the night away shared with your friends; no plain, good-old hanging out shared with your friends. I am thinking these times are the ones you have missed the most.
Your parents and teachers, frustrated by their inability to give you the world, have been working hard to alleviate as much of your disappointment as possible. As I write, diplomas are being awarded pretty much in a vacuum in that virtual 2020 kind of way. I watched a proudly-produced video of the Graham graduates and their plans, and community members adopted seniors to honor. And I love the idea of the senior parades being organized. But I also know it will just not be the same without the big celebration of the whole class together one last time. I understand that you may very well be sad and mad; I would never begrudge you the right to feel that the whole darn situation has been totally unfair.
Unfortunately, there have been other senior classes forced through their own frustrations and disappointments caused by circumstances outside anyone’s control. My parents lived through the desperate years of the Great Depression, years that affected them for their entire lifetimes. Almost twenty years ago, we awarded diplomas to World War II veterans who enlisted to defend our country before they graduated. Some 11,000 American soldiers aged 17-19 died in Vietnam. Every year tragedies in too many forms take classmates from us before graduation day, leaving empty seats and even emptier hearts at commencement. And the scourge of the 21st century, school shootings, has taken an unforgettable and unforgivable toll on too many senior classes.
A wiser person than I once gave advice you might consider: it is not the load we carry, it is how we carry the load. It took me more years than it should have to understand that concept. These days I allow myself to wallow in pity for an hour or two and then get back to pushing forward.
I have also learned, again too slowly, that as low as my life may drop, there is always someone in far greater need. Helping someone else is a really effective antidote against depressive thoughts. By the way, I believe many of you have already put that plan into action in recent weeks.
I was inspired by a letter that Governor DeWine’s son-in-law wrote to the members of his high school track team: it would be better to look at not what was taken, but what you gave…you gave it up to save fellow Ohioans, who would have been in peril, who are so precious and valuable…they will be here because of what you have given away…
However, dear young people, what makes my heart most optimistic is this: through the invaluable lessons you have learned in the past couple of months – albeit involuntarily – you have developed a deep-down strength that often comes much later, the strength of facing today’s reality and then getting on with life. It is my hope that you will seldom need to access this strength. If that time comes, however, I believe you will be wise enough and strong enough to lead yourself and those around you to better days.
Now I wish you hugs and handshakes…and your diploma in your hand!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.