It doesn’t seem like that long ago…in fact, for me it was in a professional development class I took only a week or so ago…when we were talking about how anyone under the age of twenty today was not born when we endured the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. When we talk about things in a “pre-9/11” mindset, that means nothing to them. It is not excessively hyperbolic to say that COVID-19 – or whatever we choose to call it – will be this generation’s 9/11. However their lives were before, they will not be able to view the future without seeing things through the lens of how they feel about what is happening now and remembering the impact of it on them.
Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.Arthur Golden
My niece, Jane, has been looking forward to graduating from high school this spring since not too long after she started high school. She likes her school. She likes her friends and teachers. It’s not that she’s looking forward to the end of all of that. She has been looking forward to the commencement ceremony and senior pictures and all of the graduation parties that all the kids who graduated before her had. I was the same way. I agonized over every detail of my senior year and felt like this time was SO AWESOME. And it was!
What time and life have taught me, and what Jane and her friends have the opportunity to learn now (not without some understandable tears and frustration and hurt) is that it’s not the parties, or the prom, or the spotlight and the principal reading her name and handing her a diploma as she walks across the stage that magically turn a high school senior girl into a young lady, ready to face the next chapter of her life. Whether she walks across an actual stage to applause and hoots and hollers of the crowd or her diploma comes to her in the mail, whether she gets to have a great big awesome high school graduation party now or sometime later when things have settled down, or whether she shows off that beautiful prom dress in the high school gym or at a virtual online “quarantine prom dance party,” (MY IDEA, JANE! YOU SHOULD USE IT!!!!) – is that the parties and other celebrations, the party dresses and ceremonies are not the real accomplishment. They are symbols – fun, exciting wonderful symbols! – of what Jane has actually DONE.
Don’t get me wrong. No one wants to miss the things we’ve been looking forward to during this crisis, whether it’s a prom, a school trip, a graduation ceremony or the party celebrating that, or a long-planned vacation or visit with a loved one. We are all disappointed about the things we are missing right now, and I’m not sure there’s anyone who has looked forward to something more than Jane has looked forward to the things she is going to miss.
Do you think I’m going to graduate?Jane, in a text to me last week as reality of how much COVID was going to disrupt our lives was starting to set in.
That simple question has caused me to pull back from time to time in the last few days of fretting about supplies, and jobs, and the economy and the stock market and retirement and my mom and all of the things there seem to be to fret about right now. I have been trying to put myself in Jane’s place, and all of the other young people in my life, and think about what they are fretting about. And then, because I’m a crotchety old aunt who wants to try to think about the positives of this mess, I started to think about the lessons that took me 30 or 40 years to learn that she might be able to learn today. And oh, how much those lessons would have helped had I learned them at Jane’s age:
- The gown does not turn you into anything. Whether it’s a prom dress, a graduation gown, or a wedding dress doesn’t matter. These are the clothes we wear for special occasions. They are beautiful symbols, and we dream of them. We love the way we feel in them. We love the way we look in them. But what really matters is who you are inside, who is praying for you, and, in the case of that wedding dress, who is standing beside you when you wear it.
- There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having your name called and hearing applause and noise from an audience. That’s true whether you are graduating from high school or college, or performing on stage, or getting recognition at an awards dinner for work. It’s a good feeling to be recognized. But the recognition isn’t the accomplishment. You don’t get recognized for something unless you’ve already done it. You didn’t start high school only because you wanted to walk across the stage. You started high school because you wanted to learn. And boy, did you ever learn! And now, you’re ready for the next step. Most of the time in life, you won’t get recognized at all for the things you do for yourself and the things you do for others. But do them anyway. The best recognition you will ever get won’t be spoken from a microphone into an auditorium full of strangers. You will see it in the eyes of someone who loves you, who is proud of you, who is thankful for what you have done.
- Parties are fun. It’s really easy to get a bunch of people together when there is food, music, and good times. We should have parties often, I happen to believe. Celebrating is good. What time and life have taught me, and will teach you, too, is that it’s not nearly as easy to get a bunch of people together when there is work to be done or when you are going through a terrible time and need help. So celebrate, yes. But also ask yourself how many people in that crowd would you be able to count on in a time of real crisis? Index in on those people. Share time with those people. Give your time and heart and troubles to those people. If you could even start to think that way at your age instead of at mine, you will save yourself a lot of disappointment and heartache.
4. It’s true. Everything – and I do mean everything – that I love and cherish and have fond memories of in my life happened after some other crazy time or situation that I thought was literally going to ruin my life. I have made some of my dearest friends in life during some of the worst times in life. You lived through some of the weirdo boyfriends I let break my heart into smithereens before I met Dave. Our place in Rockport that you love so much? It only happened when the plans we had for another home changed and I thought my dream had died. I was dead broke before I could afford the home and clothes and car I have today. My friend, Mary, has often said to me “Something good always comes from every terrible situation.” It’s true. I know it might be hard to see right now, but it’s true.
You have an amazing life ahead of you, I know you do. And if you try to remember any of these things I’ve said even every once in a while in the next few years, I will be happy to have helped.
I know you’re hurting right now. A lot of people are. But the people who love you most have watched your metamorphosis from your first days on this earth to these days at the end of your senior year. And I think I speak for all of us when we say, “Yes, Jane. you will graduate. In fact, you already have.”
Now go take on the world! (But please, wear your seatbelt, wear sunscreen, and wash your hands. And call your mother.)