High School Seniors, Here’s My Shoulder. Have a Big, Ugly Cry.

high school cross country

Dear Class of 2020:

I’m writing today because sometimes when terrible things happen, it’s important to stop, and count the cost, and just cry.

Of course, having the next few months of your life popped like a soap bubble is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives.

But you’ve lost too. And while you and I can’t change that, we can take a moment to recognize it, make space for it, mourn it. It’s not only okay to feel sad, it’s essential.

You might be feeling bummed or angry or cheated. But even you may not completely understand what evaporated along with the last quarter of your last year of school.

So let’s lay it out here. When your school system announced that students would not return to school this year, this is what it meant:

You lost your spring sports season. All those hours on the field or track doing what you love most with the people you love almost as much. All those late nights on the bus singing goofy songs, all those inside jokes and easy camaraderie with people who just get you. You lost the thrill of victory, the sadness and frustration of defeat. You lost the important life lessons that go along with respecting the ref even when she’s wrong, listening to your coach even when he’s unfair, standing up for your teammate even when she’s annoying. You lost your opportunity to run the fastest, jump the highest, throw the farthest. You might have lost the chance to put your name on your school’s wall or even in the sports history books.

You lost your senior play/music concert/dance performance/art show. This was supposed to be the culmination of all your years of learning and growing and honing your craft. You’ve watched the seniors in years past snag those starring roles, be awarded those violin solos, win those blue ribbons. You won’t ever get that praise, that self-confidence boost, that feeling of satisfaction that you worked hard and your world gave you a standing O. This was your moment to shine on stage and it was snatched away.

You lost your last science fair/quiz bowl/debate tournament/spelling bee. This was your shot (and it doesn’t happen as often for the super smart set) at being a hero to your peers, at bringing home a trophy for your school, at getting recognized in newsletters and message boards and your school’s Facebook page. You were perhaps competing at the state or national level, with the chance to rub elbows with some of the brightest of your peers in a big, big pond. This was once-in-a-lifetime stuff. And it’s gone now.

You lost senior prom. All the tenderness and butterflies. The chance to get out of your comfort zone and make yourself vulnerable and have someone squeeze your hand and look sweetly into your eyes. You lost embarrassingly dropping your fork at a fancy dinner. And not knowing how to pin on a corsage. And wishing your parents would stop taking photos already! You lost feeling awkward on the dance floor and stealing a kiss from someone you’ve liked from afar for a long time. You lost the off-chance that this most formal of dates might lead to something special. Or the possibility of going deeper with a friend you’ve known for years. Whatever might have happened in that maybe magical, maybe terrible 24 hours, you’ll never know.

You lost the litany of lasts. Those weeks in late May and early June where you reach back into childhood and recall the experiences that made you who you are today: That Tuesday when seniors return to their kindergarten classrooms. The senior dinner when your teachers tell stories your parents never heard and your peers help you re-live all the funny, heartbreaking moments of the last four years. Your senior trip or picnic or skip day or water balloon fight. All the signing days when friends gather to celebrate their athlete peers’ future steps. These traditions repeated year after year guide us through this special time. But for you, there won’t be any. 

You lost the chance for your community to give you one big send-off. There will be no walk across the graduation stage. No pomp and circumstance played (over and over) by your fellow orchestra members. No valedictorian speech. No flipping that tassel. There’s supposed to be a day when 12 years of teachers see how all their hard work has paid off. When family members from far and wide gather to encourage and celebrate you. When the neighbor down the street stops by to say: “Great job. You’re going to go far.” And it’s not just graduation. It’s senior day at your church. It’s that awkward photo when your community organization gives you that scholarship check. It’s the neighborhood block party.

You’ve lost all these memories you would have made. All the photos you would have taken and someday shown your own kids. All the stories you would have told over and over. They’re all gone. Poof. Into thin air.

Who knows what else this virus will steal: summer jobs, world travel, hanging out with friends, beach trips, backpacking adventures, college send-offs. Maybe even someone you love. Maybe even, horribly, some of you.

But whatever comes next, know that we are walking with you, Class of 2020. Loving you, hugging you, crying with you. You will be shaped by these losses, for sure.

We all will.

Love, Christina Nifong, mom of 2020 senior

This essay first appeared as part of Motherwell Magazine’s coronavirus coverage.