My son graduated from college this week. It was a huge milestone, as it was for each of my three older children. The pride a parent feels when a child has completed a rigorous course of study successfully, and that earned degree is officially conferred, is immeasurable.
This graduation, of course, was different. Instead of being among a crowd of thousands at Yankee Stadium – as was the plan – and watching a parade of robed and mortar-boarded graduates enter the field, then being inspired by an eminent commencement speaker, our immediate family sat on the living room sofa and watched the virtual ceremony on YouTube.
The deans from each division of the school offered congratulations on a recorded Zoom call, and students representing the various divisions spoke briefly about their college experiences and aspirations. When the president of the university announced things were official, my son stood in front of the screen and we tossed some confetti his way.
The achievement was monumental. The celebration was, to put it bluntly, meh.
This is how joyous occasions and rites of passage are marked these days, necessarily tinged with a bit of sadness, because whatever festivities you can muster are just not what they are supposed to be.
As a parent of a 2020 grad, my heart sinks a bit when I think of all that my child has missed during the spring Semester of the Pandemic. Hugs that should have been shared with faculty members – some who have been his trusted instructors and mentors for four full years – were replaced with meek Zoom good-byes. Parties with friends and colleagues to mark the end of a communal college journey never happened.
Of course, not being able to attend a flashy graduation ceremony, and not being able to throw the type of party you want, while distressing, are minuscule in significance when compared to the very serious and life-changing traumas faced by too many during this pandemic. More than 95,000 Americans have died as of press time. More than 33 million people have lost their jobs. More than 100,000 small businesses in the United States have closed permanently. Food insecurity has increased dramatically. Some people may never recover from the devastation and havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked on their finances or their physical and emotional health.
The other losses, though, are nonetheless still losses. The weddings that had to be postponed, or shifted to a backyard with a truncated guest list. The bar and bat mitzvah children who are unable to share their big day with friends and who cannot read the haftorah, which they worked for months to learn, in front of their congregation. The Zoom brises, with close relatives unable to be physically present as their newest family member is formerly welcomed into Judaism. The birthdays. The anniversaries.
“We will celebrate properly later,” I keep hearing, I keep saying. And I am sure we will. But I also think it is OK to acknowledge that the parties and celebrations and festivities that the coronavirus is robbing from us now are real losses, too.
Because I am living with a newly minted college grad, it is his losses that I am feeling most acutely right now. Instead of being back in Manhattan, where he had intended to dive into a career as a musical theater performer, he is social distancing in Pittsburgh, back in his childhood bedroom. I am so grateful that he escaped from the dangers lurking in New York and is safe here at home, but simultaneously heartbroken that his life right now is not anything close to what he thought it would be, what it should be.
All of the brief speakers at his commencement ceremony acknowledged the unique challenges of being a 2020 graduate. Their words also were inspiring, as one by one, they encouraged the new graduates to be motivated by the lessons they are most certainly learning from the coronavirus crisis. Resiliency. Resourcefulness. Appreciation for what matters most.
Use the pandemic to make the world a better place, was the message delivered to the graduating drama students, with Dean Allyson Green of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts quoting the writer Toni Morrison:
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Morrison’s passage continues: “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.