So you're a high school senior.
Congratulations. And my condolences.
For many of you, this was supposed to be the summer you were courted by college admissions officers who showed you state-of-the-art classrooms and impeccably staged dorm rooms. You were supposed to get irrationally excited about That One School You Loved At First Sight and you were supposed to visit the bookstore and buy the sweatshirt, ripping the tags off even before you left the building so you could wear it on the ride home.
You were supposed to go back to school at the end of this month, walking a little taller than your natural height, because you are a senior, dammit. You know these halls like the back of your hand. You were supposed to smile at the teachers and they were supposed to smile back, a secret exchange that suggests you know they’re just fallible human beings, but you promise not to let the freshmen know. They haven’t earned the right yet.
You were supposed to relax into your seat on that first day knowing it was your “last first” day, and you were supposed to soak in the intoxicating feeling of familiarity that breeds (not contempt but) nostalgic affection. Everything would look a little smaller, somehow. And you were supposed to enjoy every fleeting minute of it.
Instead, you’re facing a tough decision. Your parents read an email from the superintendent aloud to you, citing the third iteration of a back-to-school plan that now includes a choice between two-day-a-week in-person learning or staying in your room for another month.
They look at you blankly and ask, “What do you want to do?” because they know you aren’t a child anymore. You’re 18 (or nearing 18) and the decision is primarily, if not exclusively, your own.
You struggle. As parents, we're used to watching you struggle, but we can’t help the way we want to help. The way we’re used to helping. We can’t assure you we’ve been there before. We can’t tell you what we did at your age. These are uncharted waters, and you are a rudderless crew.
Last year's seniors had it tough, no doubt. They missed out on their proms. They missed out on graduation ceremonies and senior class trips and “skip day.” But for the most part, they had their post-graduation plans buttoned up when the pandemic hit. And when it did hit, they didn’t have a decision to make. They had a decision made for them.
As a community, we bent over backward to make them feel special, in every way imaginable. We chalked their driveways and organized parades and painted banners and left pick-me-up presents on their doorsteps.
(Psst...don't expect the same.)
It’s not that we don’t recognize your losses, or love you any less. It's just that we adults (and American adults in particular) have notoriously short attention spans. We are full of compassion in a moment of crisis, but we grow tired and cynical rather quickly. (Consider, for example, how we lauded your teachers as heroes in March, and called them cowards by mid-July.)
But here’s the thing.
You aren’t adults yet. You do not tire quickly, and you are not ruined by cynicism. You are compassionate and resilient and creative. I know this, because I know so many of you. I’ve been your youth leader since you were in 8th grade. I’ve been on mission trips with you. I’ve stayed up overnight with you. I’m raising one of you in my own home.
Ok, so you may not have fully developed frontal lobes, and you occasionally make dumb decisions as a result. But in many ways, you’re smarter than we are. And that’s why you cannot make a wrong decision about the start of school, as long as the decision is yours to make.
If you decide to return to school, it is not because you are reckless or selfish. You’ve weighed the risks and you’ve considered the alternatives and you’ve made an unspeakably difficult choice that your parents and their parents never had to make.
If you decide to stay home, it is not because you are cowardly or lazy. (See the reasons above.)
And if you’re still hesitating, I suspect it’s in part because you're afraid of being judged. Know this: we adults are notoriously judgmental. While you’re busy lifting each other up on Instagram with heart emojis and gushing compliments and unabashed expressions of genuine affection, we’re over here trashing each other over political memes on Facebook (look it up...it's a thing).
Judge you? We cannot hold a candle to you.
I’m effing tired of the word “unprecedented.” But that’s where we are. More to the point, in this moment, it’s where YOU are. You are the class of 2021, beginning a senior year you never imagined, and do not deserve.
For whatever it’s worth, I am rooting for you. But since those frontal lobes are not fully developed just yet, and because that’s the ONE thing I have over you, I’ll leave you with this:
Wear your mask, wash your hands, and do your homework.
You’ve got this, seniors.