A COVID-19 question to the Class of 2020: why did this happen for you?

If we can manage to ask this question in a way that lands, we might be catalysts in a high-potential moment

Third in a line of four successive fathers and sons, I will have been the outlier among them to have come of age in a comparatively unremarkable time, rather than during a moment of profound and sweeping national crisis or cultural transformation.

Sure, the year of my high school graduation (1993) gave us the first World Trade Center bombing, a stand-off at the Branch Davidian compound, Beverly Hills: 90210, and a battle in Mogadishu. But, then and now, these events felt and feel like mere disparate and isolated disasters, or “current events.”

Compare this to my grandfather, born in 1925, who finished only the eighth grade and spent the days before his 19th birthday as a sailor in the U.S. Navy off the coast of Normandy, waiting for orders to shuttle soldiers to the beaches on a Higgins boat. Or to my baby-boomer dad, born in 1950, who graduated high school in 1968 at the approximate midpoint between the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as the Vietnam war raged, and gave strong consideration to joining the Marines before choosing teachers’ college.

Or now, to my son, born a few months before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, who is currently winding down his high school years with another New York crisis and national emergency to bookend his childhood. Although the bookends are not symmetrical, in that as of this writing, in excess of fifteen times the number of Americans have died in the present emergency, and the losses keep mounting. The economic pain is also epic and literally off the charts. Twenty-six million Americans have thus far lost their jobs – more in the last five weeks as the net job gains made in the nearly 10-year stretch dating back to the great recession. Grief, loss and anxiety regarding existential matters in this moment is real.

Whether or not we have been lucky enough to have dodged existential threats and angst in this crisis thus far, loss concerning seemingly smaller things is also real. Parents in the current moment, myself among them, will naturally harbor some feelings of disappointment for their “seniors,” most of whom are now sheltering in place. This period, usually filled with traditions and recognitions, will likely not measure up to long-held expectations and hopes. Capstone academic achievements will be reduced to pass/fail Zoom presentations. Final artistic endeavors will not materialize in the ways envisioned due to want of access to studios and theaters. Athletes will be forced into early retirement, rather than competing in what for most would be the culminating seasons of their careers. Social distancing mandates will cancel proms altogether, rather than merely tempering affections at them. Moments with friends, many of whom are about to scatter to post-graduation endeavors, will be lost. Indeed, this will all be sad.

But we parents can and should also take solace for them. First, for the group at-large, as terrible and disruptive as COVID-19 has been, the survival rates for their cohort compare quite favorably to the cohorts on the Higgins boats or who didn’t have the opportunity to choose teachers college over Saigon. As is almost always true, it could be worse. Second, their compliance with public health recommendations and appurtenant sacrifice will bend the curve and save lives. This may instill a sense of purpose and meaning in ordinary acts of citizenship on a level not reached for some time.  And third, setting aside those touched personally by tragedy (like the death of a loved one in the pandemic, or severe economic distress), the failure of this senior year’s plans to meet with expectations presents an opportunity for a life lesson encapsulated in one of my father’s favorite old sayings, often quoted when he is in the mood to impart wisdom: “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”  Or as Mike Tyson put it, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Elijah Cummings, born a year after my dad and lost just this past October, had an admonition for his own children that also comes to mind. This one offers a path forward from the disappointment of a given moment: “When bad things happen to you,” he would tell them, “do not ask the question ‘Why did it happen to me?’ Ask the question, ‘Why did it happen for me?’” Not every generation has the chance to come of age in an extraordinary moment. Mine didn’t. Yes doing so may involve sacrifice and loss, but the extraordinariness also presents opportunity.

It will be our job as parents of this year’s graduates to simultaneously validate real feelings of disappointment and loss, while skillfully helping to re-frame circumstances in a way that gets to Cummings’s question. We might not want to be explicit in asking it, lest we risk GIF-worthy eyerolls, but we may try to subliminally convey, “why did this happen for you?” If we can manage to ask this question in a way that lands, we might be catalysts in a high-potential moment. We might help them realize that time, among other things, is not to be taken for granted (a fact that we are acutely aware of, as this phase of our own time with them winds down). This is not the spring that we or they foresaw, but perhaps within it lies a graduation gift that they can carry with them beyond the current emergency.

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