In March 2020, which in a time-warped way feels like 20 years ago, the senior class of Middlebury College received the shocking news. They would all have to leave the campus and head home within a couple of days.
The awful Covid-19 pandemic had reached a point where university leaders could no longer feel the students would be safe on campus. The virus had started killing people around the world with alarming speed. And danger signs were everywhere.
So they heard the news, hoping they would only have to stay home a couple of weeks and maybe things would get better and they could finish out their senior years, put on their caps and gowns, and graduate as every other Middlebury senior class had for over a hundred straight years. All would be normal again.
But news about the virus worsened by the day. Within a few weeks, it became clear they would have to finish their last few courses from their homes online to stay safe.
There would be no graduation ceremony on campus on the beautiful lawn on the Middlebury campus set in the spectacular mountains of Vermont.
My son was one of those Middlebury students. He came home with his parents to North Carolina and dealt – as the entire world did – with the worst pandemic in a century.
For over 700 days those students have been applying for jobs, getting rejected from jobs, landing jobs, and doing jobs. They entered the working world in a way none of us except the Class of 2020 will ever be able to relate to.
I think about all the days they’ve spent sitting in their homes at computer screens doing Zoom calls. Countless hours by themselves, coping, trying to sell themselves and their skills to a working world that can be so ruthless and cold and unimpressed with new college graduates who don’t have a whole lot of real working experience.
They persisted. Each morning they woke up and sat at those computers again. For days. For weeks. For months. For two entire years. Grueling years. Frustrating, tedious, tumultuous years.
Unappreciated often. Rejected often. Given unpleasant and unrewarding work to do that others with more seniority don’t want to do anymore.
Today something different happened. Eighty-five percent of them went back to Middlebury College, the place they had to evacuate from in a rush more than two years ago. Many had not been back since March 2020.
Yet there they were in the black gowns and caps, having waited to do what they had envisioned one day within four years. But for this climactic moment, they had had to wait six years.
Never has this happened in our lifetimes. College students returning to their campus to say hello to all those classmates they hadn’t seen in so long. They partied all night in the dorms last night. Many watched the sunrise together over by the incomparably beautiful Middlebury football stadium, soaking in one last memory of college that was no longer.
They came back to say hello to each other. They also came back to say goodbye to this special New England college.
All in one day. All during one ceremony.
That’s the fullest of days, a Vermont mountainside of complicated emotions including frustration, fear, pride, and sadness.
For this alone – the simultaneous hello and goodbye – the day stands apart from all others in their young lives. It always will.
Years from now they’ll have children of their own. In some way, a conversation will come up when one of their kids asks them about their college graduation.
They will have one helluva story to tell, a story only members of the Class of 2020 can explain. They are a unique group of people now in American history.
They are that class that didn’t get to graduate when they were supposed to.
In her moving speech to the class, President Laurie Patton said: “Your memories of the last time you were here must be powerful. I know they are for us. It was snowing off and on the week of March 10, 2020. You must remember. I certainly do. We left each other with shock and disappointment and tears.”
“Considering these extraordinary circumstances, what can we say to you? And do for you?” asked Patton.
Her point was the Class of 2020 had already gone out and experienced the real world these past two years. Unlike normal classes that graduate on time that haven’t lived in the real world yet, the Class of 2020 knows full well what the working world is like the cruelty, toughness, and monotony of working for a living.
“I believe we can do two things,” said the president. “First: we can welcome you home, to your first, most unusual Reunion. And second, at the very same time, we can give you a proper celebration which creates closure, a sense of an ending to your Middlebury careers.”
The president choked up in the middle of her speech. It was one of those moments all of the students, and everyone else there will never forget.
She wept for the young people who had to experience such heartache for so long. Her cry meant something more universal than not graduating on time.
It felt as if she cried for all of us, the entire world, who had to endure the horrific pandemic. We’ve all felt like crying at some point during this nightmare ordeal, and many of us have succumbed to tears.
For me, her cry felt like an all-encompassing reaction to the tragedy that hurt so many people, ended so many lives, broke so many families, and hurt every single Middlebury student in the Class of 2020.
Her cry felt appropriate.
Her cry felt real.
Her cry was a weeping for those innocent victim students out there in front of her in the caps and gowns who — finally — got thrust into something against their desires far too early in life and taught them that life disappoints us sometimes. And when that happens there’s nothing we can do about it except cope, keep going, and believe better times will come.
I often think of all the students who didn’t get to graduate on time because of the pandemic. My heart ached for them in 2020 and still does. It’s as if they had to see a death first-hand that was unavoidable yet not what they deserved.
What a colossal crisis the pandemic was. What a bad deck of cards the Class of 2020 was dealt.
What awesome mental toughness they showed to keep waking up in the morning and doing the mature things, looking for work, trying to get their careers started, doing a first, second, and third interview with the same company, only to find out someone else got the offer.
They did all this somehow. So young. So resilient.
So triumphant today in their caps and gowns.
And saying goodbye.
Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here:
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