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Their school days were so different from ours, but COVID-era graduates have an important message for us

What this spring's graduates tell you and what they've become might surprise you, columnist Tracy Briggs says.

Tracy Briggs graduation graphic.jpg
As we watch our children go through graduations, it's hard not to sympathize that their school years were different than ours. From left: University of North Dakota graduates in 1986, Kim Witthauer, Tracy Briggs and Sandra Schultz. (All three have had children recently graduate from either high school or college), and Moorhead High School 2022 graduates, from left, Jordan Jensen (Tracy's daughter), Sophie Schulz and Lydia Horan.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — Perhaps it’s unavoidable as a parent — when your child hurts, you hurt. When they’re sick, you’d rather be sick for them. But it doesn’t work that way, right? Still, the empathy we feel for them never goes away.

Ask any parent of a child who graduated either from high school or college these past three years. The classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 have certainly had a different school experience than their parents did. The pandemic made sure of that with its whole new world of online learning, masked-up, social-distanced events and all-out cancellations.

Taking a test online
Students have had to adjust their school day routines the last three years when COVID called for online learning. Maria Vespa eats lunch while working on her geography test at home in Duluth.
Duluth News Tribune file photo

I can honestly say my two daughters (in the graduating classes of ‘20 and ‘22) have handled it better than I have. I’ve mourned for what they’ve lost — from formal dances to theater performances and graduation ceremonies. I mourned because I knew what they were missing. Surely they’d miss the things that I so enjoyed about being a senior.

But I’ve learned not to assume anything about this generation — and perhaps more importantly, not to underestimate them. While Gen Z gets criticized for plenty, including short attention spans, addictions to their devices and seemingly endless selfie-taking, something else has been percolating in these young hearts, souls and minds these last three years: resilience.

2020 Graduation.
While conditions have vastly improved for the graduating class of 2022, COVID-19 restrictions were still an important part of their high school years, having hit in the spring of their sophomore year.
mj0007 / Getty Images / iStockphoto

A couple of years ago, I was quick to say to the graduates of ‘20, “I’m so sorry your year was the way it was.”

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I said it with good intentions. My heart hurt for them. Like I did when my kids had a cold, I wished I could make it all go away and trade places with them. I would have given them my ‘80s-era graduations in a heartbeat. (Though, perhaps without the Aqua Net, neon clothes and Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers).

But my daughters and their friends have politely set me straight. They don’t want you to feel sorry for them. (And while I never specifically asked them, I doubt they’d want to go back to the ‘80s anyway.)

To put it bluntly, they don’t want your sympathy because first of all, no one likes to be pitied and second, they say it's hard to miss what you never had. They don’t know what a so-called normal senior year is like. They’ve never had one. But what is "normal?" Would people who graduated in 1956 think graduations in 1986 were "normal"?

The bottom line? Just because these COVID-era graduates had a different school experience than we did doesn’t mean it was necessarily worse.

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2020 high school seniors Laura Jensen, Riley Stallman and Maren Twedt pose in front of a pinata designed to look like the coronavirus on May 12, 2020. Clobbering the COVID pinata was therapeutic for the class who faced some of the worst cancellations from the pandemic.
Forum file photo

Of course, this is not to diminish the heartache students feel as they watch millions die from COVID-19. In fact, those are the people some in the classes of ‘20, ‘21 and ‘22 want you to remember instead of pitying them for their unusual last few years of schooling. Here is an excerpt of a speech given by Moorhead High School senior Lydia Horan at a recent National Honor Society event at school:

“ I know many of you have mourned for the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 as we navigate something so unforeseen, but I have learned to not mourn for what could have been, but to instead mourn the countless hours of unknowns for teachers, students and parents alike. To mourn for doctors and nurses still facing backlash for simply doing their jobs for the good of humanity. To mourn for the families deeply affected by COVID-19. To mourn for the 6.18 million lives lost worldwide due to COVID. This is the burden we face, not the school year we spent online."

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Moorhead High School 2022 graduates, from left, Jordan Jensen, Sophie Schulz and Lydia Horan.
Contributed / Rachel Horan

These past few years, students of all ages have faced the kinds of challenges their grandparents, great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents might have faced during the Great Depression or World War II — and they’ve risen to the challenge the way those previous generations did.

My older daughter, Laura, reflected on it in a piece she wrote for Concordia College as she began her freshman year in 2020.

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“I feel like being the class of 2020 and now the (college) class of 2024 comes with condolences. Ever since the pandemic began, I have been getting sympathy from everybody who finds out I graduated this year. 'Congratulations' has been replaced by, 'I’m sorry this is what it has been like for you.' But I feel like my generation was meant for something like this. We were born into the aftermath of 9/11; we have grown up with school shootings as atomic bomb threats and lockdown drills were our fallout shelters; we have been on the frontlines of movements that will change the world. My first year of high school was shrouded by the 2016 election and I have a feeling my first year of college will have a similar result. But it’s exciting, isn’t it, to be in the midst of global reckoning? These kinds of situations only come once in a generation and to be in the middle of it is kind of thrilling. I’m not scared for the future. In everything that I will face, I know I am not alone. And neither are you.”

So I’ll leave you with this: When you parents (or really any graduate prior to 2020) attend all of these graduation celebrations this month and you’re tempted to let pity spill from your mouth, instead take a big bite of celebratory cake, walk over to your COVID-era grad and give them a big hug — not out of sympathy for what they lost from the pandemic, but pride in what they’ve gained from surviving it.

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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