I’ve enjoyed looking at everyone’s senior photos from back in the day trending on social media. I also understand that although the intent is to encourage the Class of 2020 amidst the coronavirus quarantine, with a laugh at our expense, it could end up hurting as well as helping. In an effort to help, I’m adding my senior photo to the worldwide yearbook to offer hope for today’s graduating seniors.
Seniors, you can do this. You can graduate (however that looks) and go on to live a full and productive life reaching your goals and realizing your dreams.
Looking at myself in the photo, I don’t even remember my senior year — or 10th or 11th grade. I never attended one high school dance, including prom, due to crippling social anxiety. Pep rallies, extra-curricular activities, field trips, and basically anything outside of structured class time sent my anxiety into a tailspin.
Bucking tradition, I did not attend my high school graduation. Rather, I walked into the school office that summer and picked it up from the secretary who found it tucked away in a file cabinet.
Why did I skip it? I could not emotionally handle hearing classmates’ family and friends clap for them as they walked the stage; or seeing everyone take photos afterwards and enjoy parties for themselves and their friends knowing I didn’t have an audience for me. I was merely trying to find the strength to get out of bed and take a shower every day.
My mom was dying of breast cancer my entire junior year. I spent as much time at the hospital as I did in class. She passed away the summer before senior year, and twice divorced, there was no father in my life.
My grandparents and sister were grieving the loss of my mom as much as I was in their own ways. Frankly, I spent any extra energy apart from daily survival on trying not to fail math.
Years later, I found a letter from the principal congratulating me on my academic success of my senior year. I have zero memory of those days, so seeing I made honor roll was a shock. The letter was addressed and written to “The parents of…”
I was one of those students who fell through the cracks. The school evidently did not realize I had no parents and that my grandparents signed on as legal guardians to keep me out of foster care my senior year since I didn’t turn 18 until August after graduation.
My boyfriend broke up with me to date my best friend during my mom’s illness. Within a week of her death, life began to free fall and all I could do was watch frozen in horror.
As a minor, I had to legally vacate my childhood home and our belongings had to be sold in an estate sale to pay off family debt. I was forced to put down my 13 year-old dog (my 4th birthday present and BFF) because the stress of everything caused her to starve herself. She was emaciated beyond help and having to end her suffering was one of the worst moments of my life. My cat ran away, and the only mentor I had in the whole world announced they were moving out-of-state for a new job. Friends told me my life was a trainwreck and they didn’t know what to do with me.
I totaled my ’74 car (which had been my grandmother’s, then my mom’s, then mine), which meant losing my driver’s license and gaining a probation officer with community service hours to work off — the night before my mom’s funeral.
All of this happened the summer before senior year. I had nothing and no one except Christ, my sister’s hand-me-downs, and ironically, an empty hope chest.
I was devastatingly lonely, had no college fund to rely on, and began to struggle with an eating disorder as a result my mom’s death — with which I still wrestle.
There is always a story behind the smile.
I read a Facebook post regarding ancient senior photos floating around the world wide web which said today’s seniors don’t want to see others’ senior years in tact. *In tact* is a huge assumption.
No life is perfect. Every life has a story. It’s what we do with our story that paves our journey forward.
2020 Seniors, your grief is real. Your feelings are valid. Do not deny yourself working through the loss of your senior year. In your grieving, I encourage you to stay there only as long as necessary to heal.
Use grieving to help you take the next step forward.
From someone who spent more time wanting to die than live because of trauma upon trauma, with no coping skills or outside help, I can tell you that you get to choose what you do with this senior season.
You can let it destroy you, or you can tap into strength you did not know you have and lean on God in ways you did not think possible.
Not only can you make it through this, but you can emerge stronger, more determined and more focused than you ever imagined on what you want for your next chapter.
Want to know what I chose to do instead of attending my graduation? I got on an airplane with my (then) boyfriend and flew from Florida to New York to meet his family. Four years my senior, he served in the Air Force and his mandated leave time overlapped with my graduation.
I had a choice. I could either attend graduation, which highlighted what I didn’t have while unresolved grief & social anxiety swallowed me alive walking across a silent stage, or forego tradition and take a leap into my future to meet a family who I already knew would be my future family.
He and I celebrated 30 years of marriage last month. My decision then was absolutely the right call and I would make the same decision a million times again. They welcomed me into their family when I was 17 and I married at 19.
We worked hard. He worked day, swing, and midshifts full-time with full class loads and I worked two jobs and took day and night classes. We put ourselves through college debt-free with every cent we had plus scholarships and grants we earned. I completed my B.A. four years later. He completed his B.S. the year after.
We bought our first home when I was 21. A tiny foreclosure on a cul-de-sac, our nicotine-drenched, ripped wallpaper, nasty bathrooms, abandoned house needed a lot of love. It was our little nest, and we slowly remodeled it room-by-room while working and going to school.
If someone had told me only four years earlier at 17, when I didn’t know what home address to put on my high school contact card, that I would own my own home — I wouldn’t have believed it.
If someone had told me when I skipped my high school graduation that I would go on to earn my bachelor’s degree and graduate on time — I couldn’t have believed it.
What I knew that night, donning a black silky robe and balancing a mortar board on my head, as I waited to take my turn to walk the university stage with my husband, grandparents, sister and her then boyfriend (now husband) and our best friends cheering for me in the stands, is that God can most certainly redeem what was lost.
The loss may be irreplaceable — as nothing could bring back my mom or replace everyone and everything ripped from my life — but if we stay in a posture of being willing to receive the gifts God has planned for us, and we continue to take a new step forward each day, then our hearts and lives can be genuinely full to overflowing with good things. Soul-filling, goal-accomplishing, dream-realizing things. Things beyond what we could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
An awesome, fulfilling and rewarding life is possible after traumatic loss.
During my junior year of college, someone I highly respected flat out told me that I would never graduate. They genuinely did not believe in me and it broke my heart in ways that silently hemorrhaged for years. I chose to extend forgiveness toward that person, and felt a personal cathartic release proving them wrong, as I shook hands with faculty on the stage that night.
Moving my tassel from right to left was a symbol that I did it. God gave me the strength and work ethic and I used all of it to run through that finish line.
I skipped my high school graduation because I was embarrassed and overwhelmed that I didn’t have a traditional posse cheering for me. One thing I’ve since learned is me cheering for me was enough. Accomplishing a goal is personal. And when I walked the stage to receive my college diploma, I was eternally grateful for those who came to cheer me on, but most of all I looked to heaven and gave thanks to God that he completed a work in me and we did it together. (Phil. 1:6)
Everyone’s journeys looks different. My husband and I were blessed to rear three kids who have grown into amazing adult children whom I highly admire. They have my heart.
One out-of-state move, three houses, multiple jobs, and being blessed to live out our heartbeat for international missions and relief work, I never could have dreamed that God would raise up beauty from ashes in the brokenness of my life. All glory goes to him.
He is absolutely the God of the impossible and only asks we trust him and take the next step that he puts in front of us.
2020 Seniors, I know inconsolable grief. Overwhelming loss. Desperate disappointment. Uncertain futures. Gripping fear. Unquenchable loneliness. Paralyzing hopelessness. Catastrophic helplessness.
I also know that you have the choice to allow how much this surreal season affects your present and future. I know there is purpose for you. I know there is an entire world waiting for you. A world who needs you to do what you were born to do. And I know that you have the power to choose whether this season breaks or benefits you.
If you’re quarantining in your home with those you call family; food in your pantry; an education to continue online or otherwise; and you have one friend who misses you; and a sport, club, volunteering or work that you miss, then you already have everything you need to graduate abundantly blessed.
Embrace what you have. Trust God that he can work for your good if you give it all to him, including your grief. Choose to let this season make you better, not bitter.
Keep looking ahead. Keep stepping forward. Take Bruce Lee’s advice and “Be water, my friend.” You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. (Phil. 4:13) And keep smiling, knowing the best is yet to come.