This year was supposed to be extra special for Keith Mainland and his 17-year-old daughter Julia. She has waited her whole life to walk across her school's stage and be greeted by her dad.
“Him being in charge of graduation and having him hand me my diploma was going to be one of the biggest moments we could have had together,” she says.
"It's heartbreaking," Julia says.
While Boulder Valley School District has canceled prom, graduation is only technically postponed.
“We’re hoping there will be some type of ceremony at some point during the summer,” Mainland says. “I can’t see it happening on the 15 of May but it might. I’m sitting here with everything crossed.”
Mainland’s seven-person committee has met virtually, going ahead with plans in case there is a ceremony one day. Other ideas are in play, too. What if parents drove kids in a massive car train, passing neighbors who stand outside and clap? It's an idea that would take a lot of official permissions, Mainland concedes.
“None of us know anybody who hasn't had a senior prom.”
For Julia, who describes herself as an extrovert, the hardest is missing all the senior traditions and not being able to say goodbye.
“I love seeing all my friends every day and being able to hug them. I can't hug anybody right now and it's really weird.”
Through years of hanging around the gym watching her dad oversee the graduation rehearsals, Julia came to understand the importance of the ritual. One year a student was practicing his speech when he broke into tears.
“He realized that this is actually the final step he’s going to take with his classmates,” she says. “Seeing how much it affected him made me realize how special this event truly is and how connecting it is through all students who might have never even talked to each other before, but it's still a connection you can make with somebody.”
She’s trying to stay positive and hopes one day to be able to say goodbye to her classmates to get “closure.” The most important thing, she says, “is that everybody's being safe and cautious and healthy.”
The no prom thing is also weird. She’d borrowed a friend’s sisters’ strapless baby blue dress with “gems on the top half and flowy on the bottom.” It was a perfect fit.
“It’s just baffling. None of us know anybody who hasn't had a senior prom.”
Or a final season of track and field. Running, even if it’s just by herself, has helped calm and center Julia during the coronavirus upheaval. She also likes that she gets to see her mom more now that she works from home.
Goodbye Class of 2020
Each year’s class has its own personality. Some are very academic. Some are fun. Some are a bit of both. Of all the classes since 2004, Mainland’s closest to — for obvious reasons — the class of 2020.
“It breaks my heart that I haven't had a chance to say goodbye to them,” he says.
He’ll miss watching the intense, complex, jumble of emotions that reveal themselves during the graduation rehearsal. Every year he tells the students it’s the last time they’ll all be together as a group.
“Some of you will come back but there will always be people missing for whatever reason. You will never be this group ever again. It’s a big mix of emotions. You're excited, you're scared, you're worried, you're tense, and you want to enjoy it. Its conflict rolled up inside you. And then because we graduate on the same day as our rehearsal, it's sort of just one big roiling day of fun and excitement and trepidation.”
Mainland says the Monarch graduation is special. When the kids are freshmen, they are videotaped walking through a gauntlet of teachers who greet them. That video is shown during the graduation four years later, alongside their “grown-up” senior photos. Then the teachers form a final gauntlet and clap the exiting seniors out.
“It is one of the most emotional moments in our high school,” Mainland says. “There are tears from kids and from teachers and I'm tearing up now.”
If graduation doesn’t happen as planned, Mainland says the class of 2020 will be unique.
“There will never be another class hopefully that doesn't go through graduation the way it's supposed to,” he says.
It's been a rocky journey
These students were born in the wake of 9/11. They were first-graders when the Great Recession took hold. They entered high school in 2016, a turbulent and divisive election year where tensions spilled into high school hallways.
Yes, the class of 2020 had its school plays, robot competitions, and football games. But this year’s graduates also have peers traumatized by school shootings. Some endured teacher strikes. Some in the Denver area confronted fears after schools were shuttered when the FBI announced a young woman posed a threat. And now, COVID-19 closed the school's doors.
So here’s the message Mainland wants to impart to the class of 2020.
“If you've come through this school year as a graduate, you can survive anything. You can make the most of anything that comes your way,” he says. “There is nothing that you can't overcome because you've been tested as much as any young person can be tested. All the rites of passage that you may not have had the advantage of this time will mean so much more to you when they happen for you sometime down the road, whether it's in college, whether it's a wedding, whether it's any major event. They're going to mean that much more because you know what it's like to go without.”
And this year’s Monarch High graduates should hang onto a lyric from their 35-year-old class song, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” —
“Nothing ever lasts forever.”