As I interviewed Hermiston School District’s band and choir teachers last week about the challenges of teaching such an interactive subject virtually, I asked what it had been like to have such an abrupt ending to the school year almost a year earlier.
They described canceled concerts, choir festivals and field trips that students had worked hard for and looked forward to. Band recruitment activities never took place, and the high school’s spring musical, “Grease,” never finished production.
It struck a chord with me as I thought of how devastated I would have felt as a high school senior if our spring musical production of “Cinderella” had been canceled halfway through. Some of my best high school memories came from rehearsals and performances of that show.
Recently, I saw an article about what experiences teenagers have missed because of the pandemic, and there were comments underneath about how students needed to stop whining when having virtual classes was nothing compared to previous generations who had been shipped off to war when they turned 18.
It is true, there are teens who have had it worse. However, we would all be better off if people stopped giving in to the instinct to pop up and shout “But something worse happened to someone else!” every time another human being says they’re having a hard time. Pain is pain, no matter where it falls on the scale of Every Bad Thing That Ever Happened.
Many of the experiences youth are missing out on right now, taken in singular, aren’t essential to their growth and development. I didn’t bother to go to half my high school’s dances and yet I turned out fine; I doubt missing prom will leave today’s high schoolers with some essential missing ingredient to their character either.
This is about more than a missed milestone, though. I can’t point to a singular event in my senior year of high school that shaped my life, but the year in general certainly did. I was testing the limits of the newfound level of independence that came with a driver’s license, getting over my first taste of heartbreak and navigating social dilemmas and complicated friendships that seemed to come with higher stakes than the playground dramas of years past.
Long after memories of the formula for the Pythagorean theorem have slipped away, I still treasure the memories I made in the choir room, on stage and in the stands. I remember funny moments in the classroom, and spirited conversations about religion and politics over lunch as we slowly shaped our worldview. It is cruel that a generation of students had those memories, and others had them ripped away suddenly last spring, even if it was what was needed at the time to save lives.
The question is how this past year will shape them. Older generations have accuse my generation — the Millennials — of being soft and entitled because we got too many trophies (I don’t know why they’re so mad at us when they were the ones handing them out, but that’s a discussion for another day). So what will a year without trophies bring?
Perhaps the generation that grew up with active shooter drills will be extra resilient. Perhaps the generation that spent a year of high school online will be particularly adaptable and self-motivated. Perhaps those that came of age during a racial justice reckoning will be more enlightened. I hope so.
It seems likely that for some students, however, the toll may be darker. As the pandemic slowly recedes, the adults need to make sure that there are resources available to help students whose anxiety, depression, loneliness, low self esteem, eating disorder, addiction or other struggles were exacerbated by what a year of the pandemic wrought.
What will come of Generation Z, only time will tell. Their teachers have helped them the best they can through this difficult time, but as they leave school over the next few years, it seems likely the effects of the pandemic will linger.