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Challenge: Class of 2020

What to expect when you're expecting graduation

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"That was the thing about the world: it wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways that you didn’t expect.”

― Lev Grossman

I’ve thought a lot about expectations and assumptions in the wake of the coronavirus; in particular the ones regarding my children.

Looking back, I realized that much of the last six months has been spent planning the celebration for my son’s college graduation slated for May 2020. I was feeling pretty smug about my diligence and forethought, as no detail about the travel, meals or ceremony had been overlooked.

Except a global pandemic. That one was not on the checklist.

We held our collective breath as the university incrementally shut down. Each announcement was like salt in the wound of disappointment. A semester dedicated to an exciting on-campus internship, spring break travel, bartending to earn money and a family-filled graduation weekend was all upended through a series of crisp, official emails.

Equally as unnerving were the pending interviews for post-grad opportunities each of which disappeared like ether in these nebulous times.

When my senior appeared on my doorstep bringing a car laden with possessions and a heart weighted in sadness, there was no sign of my driven, organized child. Having completed all his classes, save the internship, he had no direction. No job interviews to prepare for. No friends that he could see. No sports to occupy his time or entertain him.

The paradox was that his situation was shared with millions of students across the nation, making a personal, individual experience very impersonal. What right did we have to complain when so many others had it worse? When this had nothing to do with us, really, but rather the safety of the world at large.

Were we self-absorbed to assume that graduation celebrations were his rightful due? To expect that he would be rewarded for his hard work over the last four years?

Even in uncertain times, I knew one thing, my 2020 graduate deserved to wallow a little. Grieving the loss of our expected path seemed selfish but the reality was, it was a necessary step to moving forward.

In the absence of a solution, I watched him aimlessly move through his days for a week or so. I didn’t force him to unpack right away. I did let him eat bad food and play video games non-stop and sleep so long I cracked the door and watched the rhythm of his breathing for assurance.

It seems that relaxing the household expectations and assumptions was healing for all of us. We as parents were shouldering a decent amount of disappointment as well. We needed to absorb and process in our own ways without casting judgment on one another or trying to manage someone else’s reactions.

I didn’t force him to talk or ask questions in those early days. There was nothing to say. And as I suspected, he eventually came around to his new reality. The focus shifted from what wasn’t happening to what he could make happen. The resiliency I had always suspected was there, emerged in its rightful time.

The same tenacity he employed to balancing a college sport, studies and a job was channeled into finding a new path. An unexpected path that will, no doubt, bring unexpected benefits.

We have no way of knowing whether the new tentative graduation date will transpire and that’s ok. The one thing we have learned through this experience is that you should expect the unexpected.

It sounds trite but it is true. Up until now, my kids’ lives have pretty much gone as assumed. Yes, there have been bumps and adversity but nothing as sweeping as what we are facing now. Assumptions and expectations can trip you up even when they are logical conclusions to life events. I am grateful that my sons have learned this reality early in life. It will prepare them to navigate the inherent curve balls of jobs and parenting.

There is a gift to knowing what you can control and that will be the take-away at the end of this crisis. We controlled the time-line, didn’t deny our feelings and emerged stronger and more humble.

And as unexpected as this has been, that is something to be celebrated.

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