The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Class of 2021 graduated this evening.
I always look forward to graduation, but this one felt very different. Obviously, COVID made this year ridiculous, so the normal relationships I have with my senior students was all but absent. On top of that, these were the students who were freshmen on 2/14.
I wasn’t really thinking about graduation the past few days. I knew it was coming, but it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind, most likely because I didn’t have students sitting with me in my classroom. A coworker stopped by the table where I was distributing yearbooks and mentioned that she’s been dreading graduation. She said that she knew it would be heavy, but also didn’t know what to expect. I knew that Admin would give out shadowboxes to the families of the victims, but I didn’t know if they’d also be speaking when they accepted them. I didn’t know how emotional I would be, if at all. I didn’t know how the students would be before, during and after the actual ceremony. I hadn’t even thought about how these unknown elements would play out.
I came home from school, took a shower and started to get ready. I decided to *actually* do my makeup and feel/look like a human being. I can count on one hand the number of times I wore makeup to school this year. I wanted to do it tonight because I figured I’d take pictures with students, and I wanted to also look nice for the occasion. I wore a black t-shirt dress with pockets, black flat sandals and matching orange beaded necklace/bracelet set I made. I also wore my Jaime pin.
A few days before graduation, I got my nails done. I didn’t want to do what I do for the anniversary, so I decided to do a silver heart on burgundy nails. I saw it in different colors on Pinterest. As usual… the reality didn’t exactly match the inspiration, but I was still happy with how they came out.
When I arrived at the venue, I caught up with so many coworkers I literally hadn’t seen in over a year. It’s just been such a stupid school year. I moved my Jaime pin to the MSD Strong stole and got in my faculty robe/hood. We then went to the arena floor and waited for the students to start coming in.
There was just an odd vibe around graduation. Again, due to COVID, there wasn’t the usual pomp and circumstance. There was no processional or recessional. Students were seated farther apart on the arena floor as well in the sections in the stands. Everyone was so spread out. Students kept getting up to use the restroom and sit with their friends during the ceremony — which they NEVER do. It just struck me as the perfect caption to the year and to this graduating class.
I didn’t see as many students as I usually do. Very few students sought me out and only two took pictures with me. I know that the event wasn’t about me, but it was in a way. I was there that day, too. I wanted to see the students I watched grow up. I wanted to take pictures of them and with them. I wanted a hug and a thank you. I wanted to wish them well and let them know I’ll always be here if they need me. I didn’t have any of that this year. It hurts. It’s hard to know if the students didn’t know where I was to find me, if the faculty in their area wouldn’t let them move around, or if they just didn’t think of me. That was honestly the most difficult part of the event for me… the realization that I’ll never see these students again, and that they mean more to me than I mean to them.
During the ceremony, there were the usual speeches by the valedictorian and salutatorian, as well as the principal, school board member and teacher of the year. At the 2018 and 2019 graduations, we had A-list in-person guest speakers; Jimmy Fallon came in 2018 and Dwyane Wade came in 2019; there were video messages for the virtual 2020 graduation. This year, I was able to play a small role and get two clips for the big video. Through the help of a friend, I got a video from Tim Tebow and another one from Charles Barkley & the TNT NBA crew. The whole video can be viewed here.
When the ceremony was over, there was no orderly way of getting the students off the arena floor. It was like at the end of any concert or sporting event. It was chaotic, messy and disorganized. I stood in the sea of graduates looking for familiar faces. I waited a few minutes, made my way through the crowd and headed to my car. I drove home and was glad that it was finally over.
I didn’t cry during graduation. I didn’t know if I would. Of course I was sad for the parents who received a shadowbox of what would’ve belonged to their child. As a parent and as a teacher, it broke my heart. No tears came. I know this will sound insensitive and awful, but I’m glad the class has graduated. They’ve been through so much and deserve to go off and start fresh outside of MSD. I’m also glad they’re gone for my own mental health. It’s been very difficult to maneuver through my journey of healing and PTSD while being the sounding board, sponge and makeshift-therapist for my students over the past three and a half years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to help, listen and support, but at some point I need to stop and take care of myself. I will always be here if they need me, but I’m glad to not have to do what’s become part of my job every day for the past three and a half years anymore.