The story of the class of 2020 is defined by so much more than its end
From the Editors: We would like to congratulate Naomi Niekerk — Champaign Central High School Class of 2020 — for winning our essay contest for Centennial/Central/Urbana graduating seniors. The prompt for the essay appears at the end of this post. Her essay is reprinted here, and she is the proud recipient of a gift card to a local business of her choice.
by Naomi Niekerk
About a month ago I opened my phone to several text messages from friends concerning a new social media trend floating its way across America. You may have seen it: a friend, colleague, teacher or celebrity posts their own past senior photo, with a copy-and-paste caption that seeks to “honor” the class of 2020.
While I am confident there are no ill intentions behind this fad, I shouldn’t have to explain why turning a solemn moment for an entire graduating class on its head by posting a throwback picture of one’s own happy senior year is in poor taste. Initially, I felt my frustration did not extend beyond the trend itself, and that I was incensed solely by the fact that the things my classmates and I had just lost were being rubbed in our faces. However, I gradually realized that my anger and sadness resulted from a larger misunderstanding of our feelings, one created by those participating in the trend and many others — who are wonderful and caring, but who seek to rectify something they do not fully understand. In fact, it’s a problem so prevalent that it is even present in the question from Chambanamoms that prompted this essay.
Allow me to explain: My fellow graduates and I are grateful for opportunities such as this essay contest to express our feelings at this time. Unlike the aforementioned photo trend, this contest actually tunes in to what we seniors need and want, instead of simply throwing a picture our way. What I wish to do here, as my amazing English teacher (Mr. Slotnick at Champaign Central High School) has taught me all year, is think critically about some of the language present in the prompt, as it is crucial to understanding how I and many, many others feel right now. That being said, let’s break it down.
The essay prompt begins with “Prom. Honors Day. Graduation. Milestones of senior year that most of you took for granted won’t happen.” Yes, it’s true that we’re sad these moments won’t happen the way we thought. I can’t name a single senior who wasn’t disappointed by the news that we wouldn’t dance at prom or walk the stage in cap and gown. While we went into senior year assuming these special moments would still take place as planned, I’m not so sure we took them “for granted.” That phrase often suggests a failure to appreciate and reflect on the significance of something, a failure appropriate to many of life’s moments but not these.
The end-of-senior-year traditions mark the conclusion of a long chapter and the beginning of a new one, a passage to all of the unknowns that the very near future holds. Losing these moments, to me and many others, didn’t show us how we took them for granted, but how significant they truly were, how this school year built a rising appreciation within us for the value of final celebrations and the transition they represent, before it all got taken away. It’s difficult to dwell upon and understand, for us seniors and those supporting us, and it’s harder when we are reminded of what we lost through well-meaning social media trends.
There’s one more word I want to analyze here, and it’s the one whose meaning I’m especially afraid of losing right now. For even with all of our feelings regarding the loss of graduation, prom and so much more, these events are still just “milestones.” While undoubtedly important, milestones only mark segments of a longer journey. The class of 2020 had three and three quarters’ years worth of memories, growth and learning. Each and every one of us experienced great change as we went through periods of struggle and success. We forged countless new friendships, we celebrated when classmates beat cancer and overcame other huge obstacles, we grieved when friends lost loved ones, we supported one another in athletics and music and all of our passions, and we made great progress in discovering who we are and what we wish to become.
I’m afraid that through commemorative trends and other actions meant to honor the class of 2020 through this difficult patch, our high school story is going to become about the few things we’ve lost, instead of everything we’ve found. Senior year was never defined by the pictures or the dances or even graduation, but by all the progress we made and everything we learned about ourselves.
So, before you post that picture of yourself, remember that while these aren’t moments the class of 2020 “took for granted,” they are still just “milestones” from a much longer, very exciting journey. While it’s true that we’re disappointed and frustrated about the loss of our senior year traditions and appreciate the sympathy, it’s hard to feel better when focusing only on the sad end of our high school stories. If you wish to honor us, ask about the rest of our journey and how we feel looking back as graduates. But please, don’t let this time of crisis swallow up everything we’ve accomplished until now, not today and not in the future. The story of the class of 2020 is defined by so much more than its end.
(The essay prompt: “Prom. Honors Day. Graduation. Milestones of senior year that most of you took for granted won’t happen. Many adults are trying to figure out ways to honor the Class of 2020. We’ve seen social media spotlights being created for individual students; fields being lit up; parades being considered; virtual graduations planned. But what do the seniors think about all this? Tell us: What are your feelings about graduating from high school during a global pandemic? And how would you like the community to honor the Class of 2020?”)