First Person

Heartbreak, Love, and Resilience: A Teacher's Letter to the Class of 2020

—Melody Newcomb for Education Week

“You have risen to the occasion”

| Corrected: May 27, 2020
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My dear high school class of 2020:

Oh, where do we even begin?

First, I want to say how much I love and adore you. I’ve known many of you since you were 12 years old, bouncing around my 7th grade classroom, reading, thinking, and laughing with me. You indulged me when I made funny voices during read alouds and participated when I made you go outside to try the “Unity clap” we learned about in a lesson on the United Farm Workers strike. I was so happy that our small school meant I got to teach you as 9th graders as well. I loved watching you grow once you moved on and become the marvelous young adults you are today. You made me so happy to be back in the classroom with you. You reminded me then (and now) why I love being a teacher.

Second, I want to tell you how sorry I am.

I’m sorry all the traditions you’ve been looking forward to for years—senior breakfast, learning the waltz to dance at graduation, the walk down the aisle to get your diploma—are not happening as planned. I remember watching your faces during last year’s graduation and knowing you were thinking, “Next year, next year this will be us!”

Schools are doing their best to get creative, but I sympathize with you when your hearts cry out, “That’s not the same.” You’re right. It’s not the same. It’s not fair.

And my heart breaks, because while some of us are mourning the postponement of things, you’re mourning a moment, a milestone, a set of memories that you won’t get to have the way you’d been dreaming about for years.

"You will come out on the other side, and what a story you’ll have to tell."

I won’t sugarcoat it for you. It is upsetting, and all the feelings of frustration and sadness and disappointment you have right now are warranted. If you want to lie in your bed and cry while you listen to sad music or punch a pillow or write an angry letter to the coronavirus, that’s OK, too. I have done all of these in the past month, and you should feel no shame in doing the same. I know how much better it can be to let out your feelings.

Here’s what else I know: You are some of the most powerful and innovative students I have ever taught. During this pandemic, you’ve been using the technology and media to raise your voices and share your ideas. You’ve published books. You’ve coded programs to help your community. You’ve expressed yourselves. You’ve created and shared funny images to use as “memes” to brighten each other’s day.

Now, you might be laughing at this last statement. How could meme-making be a virtue? Well, if you remember Act 2, Scene 3 of “Romeo and Juliet,” Friar Lawrence soliloquizes that, “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied, and vice sometime by action dignified.” This captures something you do quite well: You take things that could be wrong and make them into something dignified and great.

You also have a knack for making the best of bad situations—a difficult news cycle, an election that didn’t go as you hoped. You have risen to the occasion and shown that your bravery outshines any doubts you had about yourselves. You are uniquely set up to handle every curveball that global pandemic can throw at you with creativity, resilience, and grace. It’s not fair that you’re not only losing your senior-year memories but also entering adulthood at such a scary time and in a world filled with uncertainty. But I believe in your ability to move through this crisis. You will come out on the other side, and what a story you’ll have to tell.

What will that creativity look like?

Maybe you’ll write something brilliant about how the world was shut down by a virus, maybe you’ll work with each other to create a once-in-a-lifetime set of memories to commemorate your hard work, maybe you’ll devise a scheme to allow you to celebrate (safely) in a way none of us has imagined. When you look back on this time, it will be tinged with disappointment, yes, but I hope that you will also be proud of how you all moved forward with respect for each other.

Because, really, that’s what all the ceremonies and rituals you’re missing out on are—expressions of deep love, gratitude, and affection. You have laughed, cried, and learned with each other for years. You’ve sweated in classrooms during tests, celebrated your victories, dated each other, and made it through the drama. The graduation events you’re missing now should have been opportunities to put all of it behind you, look back at it, and celebrate that it made you into the marvelous humans you are today.

The traditions and rituals we have constructed can be powerful, sure, but you will now decide how to celebrate. You don’t need to change what’s in your hearts, you just need to rethink the method: You can still give each other all the love, leis, and support for what comes next, even if it’s not at the graduation ceremony you once imagined. I know you will look through the muck and mire of a coronavirus-altered world and still be able to give each other that support and care. And I’m already inspired by it.

Finally, I want to say thank you. Thank you for being awesome and fun and inspiring and silly and intelligent. You not only made me a better teacher, but you made me a better person. I’ll always be grateful I got to spend two years of your life working with you and another six getting to know you even better. I am excited to see where you go next.

With aloha,
Ms. Torres

Vol. 39, Issue 34, Page 28

Published in Print: June 3, 2020, as A Teacher’s Letter to Her 2020 Graduates
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A previous version of the author's bio misstated the name of the Center for Teaching Quality.

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