3/15/2020 3 Comments
There is something really remarkable happening in America today.
Beyond the hand sanitizer shortage and the re-education about washing one’s hands, there’s something else. Beyond the difference between presumptive and confirmed cases and the facts and figures about clusters and the geography of Wuhan City, there is more. Beyond all the daily and hourly news coverage is the thing no one is talking about: the remarkable irony of a global and paralyzing crisis impacting this particular class of American graduating seniors.
This spring marks the graduation of the first American high school class to live entirely post-9/11. Many of them, based on simple gestational calculations, will have had mothers who were pregnant with them on or around 9/11. They are in fact, the first graduating class of true 9/11 survivors. These seniors came into a world already reeling from the greatest tragedy of a generation and they grew up in a world with fear and war woven into their very fabric of existence. One could argue that nothing should have shaken them.
Except it has.
This senior class is now facing a global health crisis and trying to evaluate what it means for them. Every day – indeed, every hour – brings with it new cases, new recommendations, and new fears. And with the growing fears come mounting disappointments, some of which are unique and particularly poignant for these graduating seniors. Short and long term school closures bring with them cancellation of major milestone senior moments and extracurricular activities that would otherwise have been memories of a lifetime. Just last week, the YMCA cancelled its Short Course National and YMCA Diving National Championships, for the first time since 1947, eliminating a major competition for senior swimmers who have been training their whole high school careers for this moment. The Class of 2020 is now facing a very real possibility that they will graduate never having been able to attend a prom, or a senior night at their spring sport, or their seminal senior orchestra concert.
At a time in which everyone in our country is being asked to sacrifice, it’s tempting to overlook the sacrifices of these seniors. After all, everyone is facing disappointments and cancellations. Everyone is facing a global health crisis and all the unknowns and sadnesses that come with it. These disapointments of the current Senior class might be getting a little lost amid other news and other concerns.
But consider this.
The Class of 2020? They have never really known what the world looks like before and after a crisis. They’ve only known after. They have always lived after.
Or so they thought.
Before 9/11, we all took certain things for granted. Ease of travel, peacetime, immigration attitudes, health of our first responders, privacy. We got lazy. Probably even a little selfish. After 9/11, a new way of life emerged. We grew up quickly and we told later generations, especially, this generation – you have no idea what the world was like before. You have no idea how much things have changed.
But now, this new crisis, a global health crisis, has come along just in time for these graduating seniors to understand what it means to have lived before. And perhaps as happened in 2001, it will help them grow up a bit as well.
Before the start of 2020, the world – including these seniors – largely took for granted health, vaccines, and importantly, the ability to gather in crowds, large and small, to protest, to march, to celebrate, to pray. And now, a new reality has emerged for these 9/11 survivors. Gatherings are banned outright in some places. Schools and colleges are closing and/or shifting to online models. Mandatory closures have been imposed. Self-quarantines and social distancing have become the new normal.
Our seniors are lamenting. Why now? Why us?
For those of us who lived before and after 9/11, it’s our job to usher these teens through this crisis, since they never had the chance to actually live through 9/11. They lack perspective, and we have an opportunity to help them find it in this crisis.
The idea behind bans and self-quarantines and social distancing, and the potential cancellation of some of the most important milestones of their senior year, of course, is not to ruin our seniors’ lives. The idea is for communities to reduce mass exposures and, most importantly, slow the spread of the coronavirus. The hope is to stop the virus if possible, but if not, to help our American health care system handle the influx of patients, and avoid becoming overwhelmed beyond capacity at any one point in time. (See the NYT piece on “Flattening the Cure.”) It’s about more than keeping ourselves healthy; it’s about keeping others healthier for longer. It’s about establishing a longer timeline – in other words, one with more afters and befores.
If there’s anything we have learned having lived through 9/11, it’s that the befores in life give us profound perspective later on. That’s something our current seniors might not have understood until now. And that perspective will help them weather this new crisis, turn outward, change and grow. It will help them handle the next crisis and the one after that.
There’s no doubt they can do it.
They are truly survivors, after all.
(P.S. For years, I've been so intrigued by the realization that this year's graduating class would be composed of the first 9/11 survivors, I set my latest novel, I KNOW HOW THIS ENDS, against the backdrop of the 2020 Commencement. Just because it's fiction - doesn't mean it's not true. xo, Amy)