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Marny Stebbins.

On my last day of high school, a piglet went blazing through our hallways with a trail of squealing, emotionally charged high school seniors in its wake.

All year long, the janitors kept the hallways shiny and bubblegum-free to the best of their ability, gracefully mopping up gallons of spilled Mountain Dew, thousands of Little Debbie cellophane wrappers, concerning amounts of Marlboro light packs, and I’m sure lists of other questionable items reserved for future investigations. But, on the last day of high school, after the angry pit-pattering of “Bacon Bits” running down the east staircase, the janitors let go. They set out some industrial sized garbage cans, and I’d like to believe, retreated to the parking lot with a box of frosted doughnuts and a smile. The year was over.

It’s funny what you remember about the last day of high school. I have a general memory of signing yearbooks on the steps outside the main doors and discussing upcoming graduation parties and cap and gown pick-up times. But it is with surprising detail I remember those garbage bins and the simultaneous feeling of relief and ache that accompanied tossing a year’s worth of work into the garbage. Literally.

I wondered if the pig was squealing out of fear or excitement as he rounded the next littered hallway, because, in that moment, I felt both. The end. The beginning. The fear. The excitement. The Pivot.

Due to COVID-19, the traditional commencement for the class of 2020 is cancelled. Seniors will not hear their name announced in an auditorium full of family, friends and peers. They will not know the swell of surprising pride in their chests when they are handed a diploma after a long wait on a folding chair and an awkward walk up platform steps. Whether their academic journey has been met with great success or strain, the class of 2020 will not experience this moment of closure together. This is a loss for them individually and for their families.

Parents, I ache for you. I know your child’s Graduation Day has been a dream, safely tucked inside your heart since you held them, newborn pink, in your arms. The squeeze I felt when my children marched in the doors for the first time as Kindergartners is the closest thing I can imagine to the ache one must feel when we see our children march across a graduation stage. We dream for them until they can dream it for themselves, or sometimes, in spite of themselves.

As parents, we share what we hold dearest to our hearts, first with a school community, and next with the world. The ceremony, whether it includes a color-coded nametag and a princess backpack, or a matching cap and gown, is important because these rituals make an imprint on our heart, a touchpoint on a timeline, a needed pause to celebrate and garner courage for the long marathon of loving someone well. It is emotional fuel for the next chapter, for the changing roles of not only the students, but also their weepy parents.

Our home video footage is sprinkled with the (somewhat obnoxious) repetition of the words, “I see you.” It is whispered outside the rail of a crib as I watched their little chests so gently rise and fall, fast asleep in pastel sleepers. “I see you” is cheered from sidewalks or bleachers as they are taking first steps, riding a bike, or walking up to a little league T. It is even mumbled in fear as they jump on the end of a diving board or strap into a snowboard boot. “I see you” is the phrase that marks our active witness of them growing, becoming. This is maybe all we can do for them. We show up. We love them. We acknowledge what they have done and genuinely cheer for them to keep going.

In some (more than one) way, we are the janitor, aren’t we? We prepare, knowing full well, life may come squealing around the corner and our best effort is to simply let it happen, to let our children, experience the immeasurable joy and fear that accompanies the next open hallway.

To the parents who are witnessing their child’s graduation from their living room instead of an auditorium this year, I have to believe the words, “I see you” mean more than ever. Together, you have navigated more twists and turns than any other class has been asked to make. This warrants a good squeal of celebration.

Well done, class of 2020. And well done, parents. The next hallway awaits.

Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a staunch believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.

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