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The Year Without Graduation: A Letter to My Daughter and the Class of 2020

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As a parent, I’ve had to navigate hundreds of unanticipated situations. I’ve uttered scoldings I never thought would be necessary, including “Don’t lick street signs,” and “We always wear underwear to school.” I’ve offered support as they changed schools and sustained concussions. I’ve even seen them through a divorce in which we all demonstrated great resiliency.

Parenting a high school senior through COVID-19 has been the greatest challenge yet.

I’m more familiar with public health than the average layperson. My undergraduate coursework included microbiology, epidemiology and immunology. I spent years volunteering with the [email protected] campaign, lobbying on Capitol Hill for global vaccine access. I have observed public health days in Uganda, where mothers who are two weeks postpartum walk kilometers with their children to receive health care services.

But I have no answers where it comes to how and when the current public health care crisis will resolve. I can offer my children no perspective, no wisdom gained through my own experience, to help them navigate their current circumstances. I’m flying blind on the decisions I make, both for them and for myself.

My struggle is compounded by the fact that my eldest child is no longer a child. She turned 18 this month, and she was supposed to graduate next month. She is part of the Class of 2020, which will go down in history for this abbreviated school year, for all the “lasts” they will miss, and for the future plans that are now suspended in a holding pattern. Nobody knows what college, military recruiting, gap year programs, or even the workforce will look like.

I’m lucky that my senior has been surprisingly blasé about missing prom and graduation, her final season of high school sports, and the traditional Senior Sunset gathering. We don’t know when her graduation party will take place. We don’t know if there will be a panoramic photo of the Class of 2020 to hang in the main hallway of her high school.

At the same time we received word that kids wouldn’t go back to school after spring break, she was waitlisted by her top choice college. She feels as if all of her hard work has been for nothing. She doesn’t do her schoolwork, and I’m hard-pressed to force her to do so. What should have been a triumphant sprint has become a half-hearted crawl toward a finish line that’s disappeared. It’s cold comfort to her when I remind my senior that she has a lifetime of firsts and lasts ahead.

For now, I will continue to do what I can to keep my kids and myself safe, just as I’ve done since they were born. I will also accept, once again, that much as I love being a parent, it’s also confounding. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t make everything better. What I can do is ensure my kids know how much they are loved, and celebrate my senior while we are all safe at home.

-Julie Marsh

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