In May, I sat on my elementary school field, masked and distanced from three friends. I’d slowly grown to know these people over four years of high school, in classrooms, hallways, blue library chairs, cross country courses. On that day, I saw them for four hours. I spent much longer than four hours on calls with them, but those calls were small in my mental quarantine timeline. Those calls were separated by boxes on our screens: screens many roads and a river apart. Sitting there, sharing words through masks and transferring glances through real, moving eyes, made more sense than any Zoom lesson I’d attended.
It was a month before my “drive-thru graduation,” but that small moment on the field was a culmination of every year of school I’d experienced. These friends I’d known for four years blurred with the pasts I’d lived on that elementary school field—seven-year-old me building a kingdom out of stray bamboo shoots, nine-year-old me running after a soccer ball and pretending to be Abby Wambach in a sea of boys, ten-year-old me helping my best friend memorize definitions of big, big words for a vocabulary test.
Seventeen-year-old me sat on a blanket facing three friends, masked, each twelve feet away, cautious. We brought our own watercolors and painted—each other, sea creatures, abstract scenes, colors lacking much thought but equipped with hidden feelings. We listened to music, and sometimes we sang along quietly.
And we talked. We talked in this place where our words could float in the air around us—because our words came from a mouth and not a screen.
Since that May day, I’ve had a few more of those small in-person moments, relearning how to understand a person far from a computer screen. In June, my high school principal handed me a diploma in the front seat of my car, and I officially graduated high school. My parents and sister were in the car with me, and we drove past cheering and waving high school teachers and staff. I hoped my eyes could show my huge smile through my mask.
If I had graduated in 2019, I would have been surrounded by friends and classmates throughout the whole ceremony. Afterwards, I could have cried in my friends’ arms and said goodbye to my teachers in person, taking photos next to them—with our entire faces and smiles showing.
But my informal, lonely graduation isn’t what haunts me. Graduation was only a small event amid months of loss and fear, months of learning how to become an adult in a broken world.
I went 25 weeks without hugging a friend before moving in with two of them in September.
Now it’s been eight weeks since I’ve hugged my family.
Back on March 13—my last day of in-person school—I drove to school like I had every morning for the last few months.
I crossed Chain Bridge, trying to sneak a glance at the beautiful, raging Potomac River as I went by.
I drove down DC’s Nebraska Avenue, the site of so many exhausting track practices, with my friends beside me. There, I tried to learn all of my school’s secrets from a senior. We created a fake reality TV show. I stopped running just to laugh a little harder at a joke. I tried to teach all of my school’s secrets to an underclassman.
I passed all those memories and thought about the future runs that I had assumed I still had time for. My eyes teared up as I kept my foot hovering between the gas and brake pedals. It’s ironic we waited so long for 2020, my senior year. This awful, terrifying, insulting year.
Back then, I was mourning the end of my high school experience and focused on what I’d lost while holding onto gratitude for what I had. I still feel all that loss, all that gratitude, but, now, the uncertainty of my future is what plagues me.
My future. It’s all so confusing now. The future became hard to imagine when I started measuring time in how long it’s been since I’ve hugged a friend.
I am a recent high school graduate grappling with a lack of goodbyes, but I’m also waiting to reenter a world radically changed by months of isolation, fear and death. I’m teetering on the edge of adulthood, and, frankly, I don’t know what that means because I may not receive the adulthood I always expected.
I’m going to college at some point in time—not this year, like I’d always envisioned.
Instead, I went from being student to graduate to staff member at my high school within a matter of months, spending a gap year doing environmental sustainability work.
Fighting climate change is what first taught me to deal with something like coronavirus. Pollution and disease both float in the air around us, largely unseen, and their full effects can only be understood through extensive studying—a studying where high schoolers have never had much control. Both present us with an inevitable, hard-to-understand doom.
My grade was born in the wake of 9/11. We’ve grown up facing constant reminders of a broken world: news notifications that there’s another active shooter somewhere, viral videos of the murder of another Black American, scorching hot summer days and winters without snow days, a stock market rapidly dropping. So, a nationwide lockdown because of a global pandemic doesn’t seem too shocking.
Before coronavirus, prom and graduation were two constants we had amid chaos. Losing those events definitely stung.
But a bigger constant we had was a future of possibility. When you’re locked down at home and the world a few feet away is changing in indeterminable ways, dreaming of possibility makes less sense.
Thinking about the future becomes nearly impossible.
Fear and gratitude bounce back and forth within me. They teach me how to move on in a world frozen in place.