A letter to high school seniors

At first, I sat down to write about graduation in my small community of Vashon Island, Washington. We are a tiny little island near Seattle. There is not a lot to do here. I guess that makes teenage traditions even more important. COVID-19 had left me hurting for our community’s kids, missing so many beloved traditions, spending […]

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At first, I sat down to write about graduation in my small community of Vashon Island, Washington. We are a tiny little island near Seattle. There is not a lot to do here. I guess that makes teenage traditions even more important. COVID-19 had left me hurting for our community’s kids, missing so many beloved traditions, spending the last few months in quarantine and away from their friends. I felt so bad about them missing their proms, their theater productions, their commencement, all of the pomp and circumstance. So, I sat down to write a sentimental article about these beautiful rites of passage in our small island community.

But now, that feels empty. Who am I to talk about the sadness of missing the game when so many Black boys are unjustly incarcerated before they reach the age of 18? How can we complain about parents losing the commencement traditions when all too many parents in the Black community lose their children to violence? 

We were already raw after months of quarantine and worry. Now, watching police violence against protesters across the country has left us exhausted.

And into this world will come Class of 2020, hard-working, ever-patient and desperately deserving of our grace.

This is the class that won’t walk onto our community’s high school field to the accompaniment of the high school band. Put that in the same Lost Pile as staging musicals and as going to state tournaments again for soccer or lacrosse. 

Instead of carrying memories of those wonderful traditions, these seniors will carry the effects of COVID-19 for the rest of their lives. We are learning so much about COVID-19’s impacts on kids. Kids are skipping college and going to college closer to home. Their parents are losing jobs. These kids are seeing historic highs in depression and anxiety. And remember, we know our schools have never been equitable. There are students who do not get the same education in Washington state as their peers, whether it because they are homeless, have special needs or live in under-resourced communities, among other things. But during COVID-19, those kids usually lacking resources have been hit even harder. Everywhere you look, the virus is hurting those who have already been hurt.

I also have been thinking of those like our middle child, who graduated from college this spring after four years of hard work. No fanfare, a virtual graduation online, no walk across a quad. And it was heartbreaking, because I know this is just the beginning of unfair. The Class of 2020 college grads will be going out into the world looking for internships and jobs, many of which have been withdrawn or canceled. Can you imagine joining the workforce right now?

But today, I am thinking of my small town’s Class of 2020. I am thinking of the Senior Prom that did not happen. I keep feeling for theater kids. Doing a high school musical her senior year was the highlight of our oldest child’s final year at Vashon High School. Our youngest child graduated from Vashon last year playing on the first place soccer team. I will never forget the moment when those boys won state. Hopes were very high for this year’s team, including some wonderful junior boys I have watched grow up. But that was not to be.

So, in closing, here is my message to Vashon Island’s seniors today:

Oh, Class of 2020. You are entering a world that will be utterly challenging. The economy is plummeting, jobs are disappearing. In the midst of all of this, protests are forcing us to reckon with a system that has for so long favored some of us.

You have all handled the days of quarantine with grace and strength that will serve you well in the years ahead. You cannot get back these rites of passage. But know this: while those things would have been wonderful memories, you were still so utterly blessed. You were safe and cared for. You may have missed driving with your friends from prom, but remember most of you would not have feared for your lives if police pulled you over while you were driving home. 

We have to do so much better. Many white people have been asleep and truly ignorant for so long in this country. We just haven’t understood. Now, though it is unfair, people of my generation need your help. We need you to go out into the world and help us make it more equitable and fair. March in protests. Read challenging books about race. Donate to organizations like the NAACP. Support your black and brown friends. Vote. Ask tough questions of your family. Being trapped inside this spring and missing all of these beloved traditions really is, though unfair, not the end of the world.

In the end, what will matter most is what you take from 2020. I don’t think it will be something you learned in school. It may be about our justice system, or about police violence or the right to protest or pandemics or social distancing. You may have lost your rites of passage. But look what you got instead. You are part of a moment in history in which great things are happening.

With that, farewell as you leave this small, green island in the Puget Sound. You have an opportunity like no high school class has had before. Use it well.

Lauri Hennessey is the CEO of League of Education Voters and a resident of Vashon Island and mother of three grown children.

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