The photos popped up on my phone during a basketball game. I was on my couch watching the Syracuse University men’s team steal a rare comeback win and calculating their odds of making the NCAA Tournament. My daughter was trying on ball gowns at Boom Babies, texting me pictures of any dress that was a potential slam-dunk.
“This is the one!” Sadie captioned over a shot of her in a shimmering full-length sheath of amber. She looked beautiful. I agreed it was the one, despite the fact that the price tag suggested it was at least three. The dress went home with her to hang in the closet and await its big night.
That was the third week of February, before the world got flipped upside-down. Only a handful of COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in the U.S. Schools were still in session, March Madness was looming and humanity had not yet begun its self-imposed hibernation. We could still breathe publicly.
By mid-March, life as we knew it began to dismantle. Restaurants served up restrictions on their dining rooms. Hair salons trimmed their hours to nothing. Even gyms exercised the New York State on PAUSE executive order, which forced unnecessary businesses to close. We all redefined the word “essential” to include dry cleaning but not golf. Who knew?
Most impactful to my daughter and thousands of other students, schools across the state closed their doors. Liverpool announced a closing date but then shut down prematurely when the first positive case of coronavirus popped up in Onondaga County. Suddenly, the fate of Sadie’s senior year was put in jeopardy.
I understood how the risk of spreading the virus outweighed any potential fallout from an incomplete education. I’m an alumnus of Liverpool High School, and some of my former teachers would attest to the perceived threat that my younger self found in homework, with or without a pandemic.
“Differential calculus is a plague in itself,” I would have argued.
But my daughter loves school. She ranks in the top 2% of her class, always striving to excel. For her and her classmates, senior year marks a chance to celebrate the accomplishments for which they have worked so hard. The final semester is the culmination of the journey they have shared, feeling that sense of freedom that swells in the halls, experiencing the collective euphoria of knowing that together they survived every dull lecture, questionable cafeteria lunch and lap around the gym.
“Twelve years,” Sadie lamented, “and now we’re missing the best three months.”
There have been, of course, much worse effects from this crisis rippling through our world. Healthcare workers fought the illness on the front lines. Elderly relatives went unvisited. Weddings were postponed, holidays and birthdays spent in relative isolation. Our economy was decimated, with unemployment skyrocketing. To put everything else in perspective, some families suffered the ultimate loss, watching a loved one succumb to this disease.
One way or another, we have all persevered. Many worked from home, sharing their cat’s commute from bed to the couch. Others have continued to drive in each day, adapting to challenging new workplace restrictions. Some of us hummed songs while washing our hands. Some learned how to sew masks. We all learned how to use Zoom.
For students, the change was one mostly of restraint. Teens who previously dreaded the confinement of their classrooms discovered their homes to be even more limiting. Suddenly, they lost the independence they had only recently gained, while Senior Skip Day lost all meaning.
My daughter initially took the lockdown in stride. She appreciates routine, so she made herself a schedule of exercise, online classes, schoolwork and chores. Her quaran-team was furry and four-legged. Together, she and her dogs coped by posting TikTok videos, FaceTiming friends and calculating when their supply of toilet paper might run out.
By week three, she had exhausted her interest in Netflix, realizing that distractions are scarce without any new movies, sports, concerts and nearly every other entertainment outlet. Her cabin fever became evident when I texted to ask if she could pick up her contacts from the optometrist.
“I can do that!” she answered with misguided enthusiasm. You would have thought I had asked her to drive around and determine which ice cream shop has the best soft-serve.
The Class of 2020 should be resilient. They grew up in an era of political terrorism, and practiced active shooter drills in their classrooms. They learned the word recession before they learned to ride a bike, watching their parents struggle financially through he housing market crash.
When they became enamored with Stranger Things, it made perfect sense. They had spent so much time preparing for catastrophe, it was natural for them to fear the consequences of government experiments that open portals to alternate dimensions. If Eggo waffles showed up in your freezer, that was just your teen stocking up for the apocalypse.
Our real-life science fiction has somehow felt even more surreal, especially for these seniors. Social distancing is devastating at an age when being social defines so much of your identity. Family cannot always substitute for the bonds made during lacrosse practice or Biology lab. And nothing can substitute for the year-end events that mark the end of high school.
Sure, schools will find a way to host graduation. But that rite of passage cannot amend the memories lost. Those final hugs in the hallway. A chance to say goodbye. The tears to which only friends or teachers can relate.
My heart aches for my daughter, my niece Carlie and every other graduate who had this year stolen. My advice is to learn from this moment. Tragedy can often define a generation, but the effects can be positive. As your forge your next life adventure, embrace the challenge the world is facing. Allow it to further shape the resolve you have demonstrated in the face of an uncertain future.
For my daughter, two things remain clear. Sadie will attend Binghamton University in the fall. And, with or without a Senior Ball, she will find a way to wear that gown. If you see a young woman in Target or Wegmans dressed in heels and evening wear, that’s just my daughter, searching for closure, tacking an end onto an adolescence that didn’t get one