These are different times. It is difficult to know what to think from day to day. Watching the news often leaves us feeling more uncertain than informed. For the most part, we are all hunkered down in our homes- separated from the lives and people and places that filled our calendars only a few short weeks ago. Many businesses have temporarily closed, restaurants are empty, and classrooms are without students. People are feeling displaced. I usually spend March, April, and May putting the finishing touches on senior year at Sidney High School. These are the months when many seniors come into their own. While openly complaining about “senioritis” and counting the days until summer, they quietly begin to comprehend what their school experience and the people they shared it with means. They become grateful. Some even become nostalgic. Prom, spring sports, the musical, concerts, awards – the lasts of things come into focus and are approached with an open heart and a sense of gratitude. They walk toward graduation united in the goal of finishing something they all started together so long ago.
This year, senior year was interrupted. Knowing that only decades ago senior year was interrupted by classmates who were drafted to go to war and that many senior classes have faced challenges, I mean no disrespect in writing about what the class of 2020 is missing. In fact, I think in the last two weeks I have discovered what the class of 2020 is made of. Virtual teaching is not my thing. I graduated from college before the internet. My first year of teaching we didn’t even use computers. Over the years I have acquired some rudimentary technology skills, but I would much rather have a classroom full of students than a computer screen. However, the last few weeks haven’t asked any of us what we preferred, but rather, have dictated the limited options available. The last few weeks have demanded that we all ask more of ourselves.
In an effort to open the virtual dialogue with my students during our first week of online class I posed a few questions in Google classroom about how they were processing the state of things and the interruption in their senior year. I was ready for short responses about how inconvenienced they felt with the shift to online classes, how disappointed they were at postponing prom, and how frustrated they were to be stuck at home. I grossly underestimated the Class of 2020.
Student after student submitted responses that reflect the quality of character in our young people. There was less complaining about missing big events, and more sharing of regrets about how they wish they would have appreciated the day to day high school experience. They missed walking with friends in the halls, grabbing coffee before school, and sharing lunch with classmates. Ultimately, response after response revealed that the class of 2020 values people. They wrote about relationships and their anxieties stemmed from compassion rather than selfishness. Almost every student mentioned missing friends, teachers, and coaches. Some students expressed worries about classmates potentially missing their final season of baseball or their last performance in a musical. Other students shared their worries about family members in the medical field or some of the residents they care for at nursing homes. Many students mentioned how the abrupt closure of schools served as an unforgettable reminder about the importance of appreciating each moment. I spent the last week reading response after response that revealed a yearning to return to their senior year coupled with a very mature understanding of why that was not yet possible.
This generation that has grown up with a phone in hand and social media at their fingertips has discovered, now more than ever, that they value face-to -face interaction. They still love Snapchat and Twitter, but many of them admitted they would happily trade in their phones for authentic interactions with real people. They want to visit grandparents, hug friends, and some even admitted that they want to get back to class.
As a teacher of writing I always encourage my students to try to capture their thoughts on the page. What I found in their thoughts was that several weeks of distance has clarified priorities for a lot them. My guess is that these several weeks of distance have clarified priorities for a lot of us too.
The interruption in their senior year has forced a shift in perspective that can only be gained by enduring hard times. A good friend of mine keeps reminding me that living through adversity, for better or worse, only makes us more potent versions of the people we already are.
For the Class of 2020 it has surely made them stronger versions of the successful and resilient people they were already on track to become.
Truth be told, I confess that I am still holding onto hope that we get a few weeks together at SHS. I am still hoping to take pictures at a postponed prom, see a musical and a baseball game. I am still thinking about graduation- whether it is traditional or something completely different. No matter what, I plan on putting the finishing touches on their senior year. That fact has not been cancelled. Class of 2020 – thanks for reminding me to never underestimate the goodness and resilience of young people.
Sara Olding is a teacher, writer, and mother. She lives in Sidney with her husband Bryan and their children Grace, Genevieve, and CJ Olding. She continues to work and study with the Ohio Writing Project through Miami University.