Alec Gardner

Students in the Class of 2020 walk towards the football stadium during Senior Seminar

An Open Letter to the Class of 2020

March 23, 2020

“I wish we could just skip to the end.

“I’m so ready to be done.”

“I just want to get out of here.”

“I wish we could just skip to the end.”

Do any of the above sentiments sound familiar? I know they do to me. Since August, I’ve either heard or expressed the same three things over and over again. I thought I was ready to end my high school experience and head off to college as soon as possible.

Maybe the universe is playing some kind of perverse joke on us. That’s what I thought when the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head and effectively shut our high school down. We’ll keep learning, of course, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same when I can’t leave my house, or see my friends, or go to class and see my teachers, or participate in clubs or sports. It’s not the same.

Looking back, I should have chosen my words more carefully. I should have wished for a happier ending. I shouldn’t have taken Center Grove High School for granted. But that’s what I stupidly and selfishly did.

The last couple weeks have felt like a waking nightmare. Everything we thought we knew has been turned on its head. People we thought we could trust to have answers–our supporters, our leaders, our mentors–have none. It’s terrifying to know that some of the cleverest people in your life can’t help you.

I’ve been restless. Suddenly, I have almost nothing to do. The world feels so empty. When I drove by the high school the other day, there were no cars and no pedestrians. It seemed like a graveyard.

Even with the world at my fingertips and in my pocket, I’ve never felt so alone. I can talk to my friends, but I can’t see them. Those college rejections aren’t meant to be taken personally, but in light of all the other ways the world has crumbled, I can’t help but feel any differently. Seeing my girlfriend, which was already a rare occasion, has become impossible.

This sucks.

One thing I’ve learned, not just in high school but in life, is that the story doesn’t matter. People never listen to what you say. What you say doesn’t matter. It’s all about whose story you tell, how you say it and how you make people feel. Did “Life of Pi” teach me that? It was a good book, but probably not. Was it reading “Heart of Darkness”? No, I think I knew the true nature of a story long before AP English 12.

How do I know what makes a story matter? My parents and their grandparents.

My mom and dad filled my head with stories of my great-grandmother from a young age. Her kindergarten teacher slapped her in the face for not speaking English even though she didn’t know how. Her parents were Italian immigrants. They didn’t even speak English at home. Throughout grade school, she made the same choice every day at noon: buying lunch or being able to ride the trolley home. She went to college.

My parents lived in Chicago growing up. They told me about walking through twelve feet of snow in the dead of winter in elementary school. For some reason, this story never made me sympathetic because I knew that after that brutal walk my parents had a good education. They were able to come home to a warm house. They went on to go to one of the best public high schools in the country.

My grandmother’s story is a powerful one of overcoming suffering. My parents’ story likely reminds you of things your parents have said that make you roll your eyes. Something like:

“Back in my day, I had to walk ten miles to school every day.”

My parents could have changed my attitude if, instead of talking about themselves, they told me about the kid at their school who had to walk to school every day, regardless of the weather. The kid who walked through those Chicago blizzards to get to school because school was all they had.

Does this mean my parents didn’t have something to say about struggles? I don’t necessarily think so.

I talked to my mom recently and got around to making fun of her for the “back in my day” trope. 

“That’s not fair. Remember what your great grandmother had to do to get to school?” she said.

In my head, my great-grandmother and my parents had two entirely different experiences growing up. They weren’t even in the same category. How could anything compare to that choice my grandmother had to make? But maybe I was wrong. Maybe my parents had other obstacles, other challenges growing up I don’t know about.

My thoughts on this are frustratingly inconclusive. Even going back and reading my own complaints, I feel as though they are hilariously insignificant. What right do I honestly have to complain about how COVID-19 has affected my life? What makes me think I have any right to write? Why should I get to tell my side of the story when it hasn’t been that bad for me, when there are families out there who have the virus, when there are people on the streets without healthcare, without a job, without any security in this trying time?

We all suffer. In all likelihood, however, you and I haven’t gotten the worst of it. Some of us have, but many of us will make it out of this okay.

So what are we supposed to make of this? How do we honestly, earnestly and eloquently express what we went through during this time?

How do we ensure that we tell this story right? How do we explain the effects this pandemic had without overstating or understating it, without over-emphasizing our own struggles or minimizing them into nothing?

Do any of my issues matter?

Does it matter that we may not get a prom or a graduation? Does it matter, in light of everything the world is dealing with right now, that we may not get to say goodbye to our classmates before we head off into an uncertain future?

Of course it does. But we’re also incredibly lucky. Center Grove is so, so, so much more than a building. It’s more than 2600 kids in a block of bricks on a hill.

We are so much more than the senior class that dealt with coronavirus, just like the Class of 2005 was so much more than the class which dealt with Katrina.

This isn’t the end of high school. I’ve still got a couple months left. This doesn’t mean I lose my accomplishments, or that I didn’t write for this newspaper for two years, or run on the cross country team for four years, or make friends, or lose friends. Coronavirus doesn’t define my high school experience, or even my senior year, and it damn well doesn’t define yours.

This doesn’t take away from the amazing career paths our students have set for themselves, or the football team advancing to the state game, or the cross country team qualifying for the state meet. It doesn’t take away from the incredible hard work of indoor percussion. It doesn’t mean the track team should feel any less proud. It doesn’t mean robotics poured years of effort and engineering ingenuity into nothing.

We’ve come a long way in four years, but high school isn’t over. So many things are still in our control. How are we going to explain this to our kids? Maybe we’ll tell them why we were able to get through it, how we were able to overcome hurdles we didn’t prepare for. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it sure wasn’t a joyride. This might be somewhat meaningless to say at this point, but I can’t speak for you (though I have certainly tried.) All I can say is that for me, this pandemic has truly given me a reason to reflect back on my high school experience. If it weren’t for COVID-19, I may never have given this school and its students the credit it truly deserves for making me into who I am today.

Maybe I didn’t do this the right way. Maybe you don’t like the way I explained it. All I’m saying is that there’s more to this than the abrupt and impromptu end of high school. We won’t be remembered for coronavirus. What will matter is how we move forward, and, more importantly, how we explain what happened to future generations and purposefully move our conversations in the right direction.

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