This past weekend was supposed to be my son’s college graduation. Sixteen years of schooling, of buildup, of expectations, tests and dreams, hard work and sacrifice, has all led up to this: a whole lot of not what we expected. Welcome to the 2020 graduation.
Instead of trying on a cap and gown, accepting a fake diploma and hugging friends goodbye, he gave a final Zoom presentation in isolation and closed the door on a senior year gone terribly wrong. This year there won’t be a celebratory dinner in a nice restaurant. This year it’s take out meals and social distancing. Congratulations.
It started with such promise. Campus visits and acceptance letters gave way to dorm life and cafeteria food. Always a good student, my son learned to budget his time in a way that allowed him to make the Dean’s List while still making friends at parties.
But everything came to a screeching halt over spring break. Students were told not to return to the dorms. Classes were moved online. Suddenly he had to cram everything into his car and make the treacherous drive across the country, avoiding hot spots where he could potentially breathe in a death sentence.
Everybody’s life has been upended in some way because of this pandemic. It almost feels selfish to mourn the loss of pomp and circumstance when other people are filing for unemployment and wondering where their next meal will come from. And sadly, that’s going to be the next problem he faces. This year’s graduates are staring down an unemployment rate not seen in the United States since the Great Depression. More than 20 million people are out of work. What good is that shiny new college degree when every company is scaling back, laying off, and completely changing the way they do business?
The irony is he didn’t want to attend graduation. After all the money I’d spent on his education, he didn’t want me to spend more to fly out and stay in a hotel, to watch him cross the stage for thirty seconds and receive a rolled up piece of paper.
What he didn’t understand, is that was exactly the reason why I wanted to attend. I wanted to hear that familiar organ march, wanted to see the culmination of all that studying, all that expense of getting him to this point. I wanted closure. Instead, we have closed campus. And a potential ceremony in the fall. After everyone has moved on with life. Not exactly the same.
For some students, the lack of graduation has caused an existential crisis. Online school work and zoom classrooms are not what they signed up for. And if there’s no ceremony to mark the completion, how can this be the end? It’s like going to a funeral with a closed casket. Your brain can convince you that it isn’t really over if you didn’t see the body lying there.
And who’s to say graduation ceremonies aren’t a thing of the past? Even if we don’t face a second wave of infections in the fall, how long will it take for people to feel comfortable in a stadium full of strangers? Who wants to rub shoulders with someone who is coughing into their elbow? Allergies? Yeah right. In the age of COVID-19, everyone is considered dangerous until three weeks have passed without any sign of infection.
Graduation is a big milestone. It signals the end of school, the start of true adulthood. But for the class of 2020, this weekend will look a lot like every weekend has for the last two months. We’ll eat our takeout, and say congratulations, and wonder how long it will take to get back to normal. If we ever do.
Maybe 2020 will be the only class that has to miss out on graduation weekend. Maybe in five years, we’ll look back on this time and think it wasn’t too much to give up for what we got in return. But for today, I’m sad. I’m missing what could have been, and crossing my fingers for a better tomorrow. I know the class of 2020 is, too.