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Challenge: Class of 2020

Graduation Gratitude

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While there is no shortage of disappointment and sadness to go around during a pandemic, my heart breaks extra wide for the graduating class of 2020: the eighth graders heading to high school, the high schoolers heading to college or military service or jobs, the college grads heading out to the rest of their lives. As the mom of a daughter in the latter category, I have extra skin in this game.

Of course, the main and most important measure is good health, and in our home we are lucky to still have that. We understand this is a temporary state, that these kids will continue to advance in their lives, and that they are learning important lessons from the pandemic.

And as is their wont, humans are applying all sorts of compassionate creativity to the challenge of how to make the Class of 2020 feel special despite Stay-At-Home orders, from principals showing up at grads’ homes with yard signs, to the recent announcements of the Obamas hosting a universal “Class of 2020” commencement speech, to actor John Krasinki’s upbeat Zoom graduation celebration.

But there’s no mask big enough to hide it: it stinks for graduates to be losing these final weeks of celebratory fun with their friends, and of closure of an important phase of their lives.

We may not be able to replicate the “celebratory fun with friends” part of the missing graduation safely right now. But there is a way to help them achieve closure: Suggest that grads consider write a gratitude letter as part of their celebration.

Myriad studies show that taking a moment to deliberately express gratitude helps us feel more resilient, calm, and connected. Our brains and bodies simply function better for us when we look for positive things around us, rather than dwelling on the negative. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of neurological connection; the more we look for things for which to be grateful, the more efficient we become at finding them. Not a bad tactic to teach someone who has a long life ahead in which to deploy it.

A few weeks ago I met via Zoom with a class of 110 eighth graders to talk about writing gratitude letters. Their teacher is one of my oldest and dearest friends, a dedicated educator worried about the mental outlook of her students and missing them terribly. She hoped that a writing exercise drawn from my book, The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time, would help these adolescents, weeks into their COVID-induced online instruction and weeks away from graduating and scattering to various local high schools, think less about their current challenging circumstances and instead focus on more positive aspects of their lives.

The letters, assigned as homework, started coming in last week. The students had written to siblings, parents, friends in the classroom and friends across the country. From one eighth grade boy to another:

“As I am sure you can imagine, I laughed and had tears in my eyes while I thought about all our memories. The flamethrower, the frisbee wars, the watermelon baseball, I think we may have set one to many things on fire but who's counting….Our friendship is precious to me and I will never let you or it go!”

From a student to his step-grandma:

“You and I have a special bond, even though we're not related in the slightest I treat you as a real grandma and bestest friend…We both have the most peculiar sense of humor and no matter how bad the conditions get, we just can’t stay mad at each other.”

The closing line on this one is pure gold:

“When we first met in kindergarten, you helped me get to know the other kids and played with me during lunch and recess…The most important thing I take away from our friendship is how to have fun. You just need a couple of friends and something to screw around with.”

There’s something powerful about stopping at one of life’s major milestones to look back and appreciate how we’ve grown and changed over time. Writing to the people who have helped, shaped, and inspired our graduates on the path to this point - the teachers, coaches, friends, and family - helps both the gratitude letter writer appreciate the network of support they’ve built, and the recipient to know that their efforts have made a positive difference in someone else’s life. It’s a virtuous circle of joy.

And it’s easy to get started: all you need is a couple of friends and a piece of paper and pen to screw around with.

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