I sat this week in my empty high school English classroom, reading over and commenting upon work that students from my three senior classes had submitted as part of their distance learning plan established a few weeks ago. Usually, at this time of the school year, my students would be busily preparing and practicing senior project speeches, which were slated to be presented before panels of community judges this month. However, this year there will be no presentations to anyone, only the quiet, isolated crafting and revising of those speeches on the page and submission of them to their English teachers as a requirement for graduation – a celebration about which, at this point, we are all uncertain as to the date.
As I sat working in my room, the central air conditioning unit droned on, creating a monotonous hum that underscored the absence of usually noisy seniors, bantering, asking me questions, stressing over their senior projects, wondering about prom or senior banquet, striving to pass my English class, wondering or worried about college or work or what life there is after over 12 years of public education. Suddenly, for them, without anyone even realizing, it was all over. And there is nothing anyone can do to bring it back or make it better.
Although I think some of what I have to say will apply to all high school seniors, I’d like to reserve some space to pen a letter to my own seniors – who I will never see again within those same class dynamics. We will never again be together as a first block or second block or third block or fourth block class. I won’t get to observe you revel in all of those high school rites of passage at the end of that final year. We won’t get to do anything else collectively until the time finally comes to converge for a graduation ceremony. I, too, feel lost over what we didn’t get to have and do.
So to those seniors, I would like to say:
First, I am sorry. Sorry that all the things to which you were looking forward in the last few months of your culmination of school got hijacked. I know that you probably reveled in that first week off, likely that second week as well – which, for our school, was officially spring break. However, thereafter, the reality of missing those last few special times with your high school friends likely set in at some point for some of you – especially after we were told that we would not resume the school year.
I know that you didn’t ask for it, and I know that you certainly didn’t deserve it. You should be upset. You should commiserate with each other. What you’re feeling is a form of what many of us are feeling in various forms: grief. However, you have even more right to feel it than some of the rest of us. Don’t allow anyone to criticize you for it. These were the moments that you worked for since you can remember being in school. This was the year and the occasions to which everything thus far had been building.
I am sorry that you did not get to participate in your senior prom, senior banquet, academic or sports awards banquets, spring sports, band/choral spring show, and, yes, the annual “official” senior skip day. I am sorry that you won’t get to feel the emotions that accompany those events. As I’m sure you have already realized, there really is no authentic way to experience them otherwise, outside of simply just doing it.
Know one thing: your teachers and administrators care about you. We haven’t forgotten you. If our care for you existed exclusively within those four walls of the classroom, we wouldn’t be educators. We would instead have pursued some other profession. Know that we haven’t forgotten about you, and as we all plod along in crisis mode, we still remember what you have accomplished in getting to this point.
Remember, ultimately, that this is your year. Don’t let it go by in vain. I encourage you to make a record of what you are going through. Yes, you can write it down. (Remember that I must offer that avenue first because, after all, I am your English teacher.) However, if you’re not keen on writing, then make a video or a podcast. Documentation can be therapeutic, as it gives us an outlet to articulate our thoughts and feelings, which validates them, makes them feel more real to us.
Remember, too, that you are living through history. One day, perhaps, you may have children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews who will ask you what it was like to have lived through such an event. What a great testament to history, to your experience, to your current grief over this sudden and irrevocable loss to be able to share the tangible immediacy of these moments with them – which, by then, will be remote, long past.
For now, I am thinking of you all. I am missing you – your voices, your smiles, your laughter, your questions, your stories, and, yes, even your excuses when some assignment hadn’t been completed. I am wishing you, my students, with whom I didn’t get to finish the school year, the best. When it finally happens, I will be excited to see you walk across that commencement stage and, later, toss your cap into the air, which will be rendered more bittersweet. I am proud of you.