As I walked up the stairs that led to the platform stage, I could feel all 400+ eyes on me. I gulped, closing out my family's screams that followed my every step. It was only three years ago when I'd crawled out of freshman year with the heaviest bags under my eyes and all life drained from my body. Just those years ago, I'd lucked out on my finals, the stress of the next few years finally dawning on me. I'd probably imagined myself finally graduating from the mess that was my grades, and fleeing far away from my small town to a decent college in a bigger city that would look past my grades and focus on the load of activities I'd gotten myself involved in. But somehow, there I was. Three years later. Trying to find something tangible I'd accomplished in the recent years and almost finding none. Turns out the only things I'd brought out of a two year long pandemic were a new haircut and a tik tok personality. It was a reawakening, of course, realizing all that time passed by and I'd only spent it rising in ranks in video games and not in real life. I'd spent those two years learning all texting abbreviations that ever existed and how to access illegal websites to watch the latest movies for free. I was a master at everything but what mattered. Yet, I'd persevered and one way or another, made it to this stage. This stage that I thought wouldn't come for another three years because I realized, a bit too late, that I was still stuck in that freshman class, hearing for the first time, that school may be closed for a few weeks due to the outbreak of a deadly virus. My 14 year old mind had stayed frozen in time for those two years and I hadn't realized how fast time flew, oblivious to my lack of growth as I advanced through high school. So there I stood on the stage, hand extended towards my school's principal, expecting a credential that forged my accomplishments through the fancy words etched onto the cover page. When did accepting my high school diploma start making me feel like a fraud? I shook off the feeling and advanced, collecting the piece of paper while my family and friends screamed even louder. It was weird as I walked off the stage, my diploma clutched in hand and endless possibilities of the future that lay ahead whirling through my mind. It was weird the way the creases of the paper comforted me, reminding me of the tumultuous years I'd scathed through -a testimony not everyone could give. In that moment, an overwhelming feeling of gratitude engulfed every part of me and tears suddenly found my eyes. I wiped my eyes once I sat down and took in the scenery -the people- around me while a friend of mine mounted the stage, making the same face I had when I was in her place. It was then I realized that I wasn't alone in my thoughts. I looked around once more and saw similar expressions on almost every graduate's face. We were all overwhelmed with multiple emotions at once: confusion, surprise, regret and yet, pride. We were stringed along into a global pandemic that put a stop into our lives without warning and forced us into an immediate life of maturity. Just a few years ago, we were many years younger and looked far ahead at adulthood(and all that came with it), as a distant dream. But it came quicker than expected. That distant dream, now as near as the breaths we breathed, pushed us into the scary, unknown depths of adulthood; and all expectations that the 14 year old children of those years ago couldn't comprehend, had now become our realities. I prayed quickly in that second of unison that each of us would be able to make it through whatever else life threw at us, just as we'd survived through one of the greatest epidemics of our generation. In that, I hoped that the sadness that lingered in our hearts would give us the strength to move on with our lives having no hardships or regret.
“I want you all to know that I am very proud of all of you. I don't want you guys to be scared of what is ahead, but just be cautious of the future.” It was the last block of the day and the teacher was giving us the same spiel that the rest of our teachers had been giving us since we found out today was our last day until April 23. “It's only three weeks,” I thought to myself, “we'll be back once the state says the cases have gone down. Once the curve has flattened.” The last bell of the day rang and I ran across the street for my boyfriend to pick me up. Students were scattered everywhere, trying to get to their busses. Everyone was laughing, joking, cheering. Little did we know what was going to come of this. The news did a good job of scaring us though. Every channel. Every platform. “Covid-19 cases are rising hour by hour.” people were starting to work from home. Schools were closing. College classes were being put online. Nobody would have expected where it was going. A few weeks later, we got an email. The email stated, “Due to the continuously rising cases, we have decided to push back coming back to campus until May 1st. As of right now, Graduation and Prom have been postponed.” Thirteen years of hard work. Thirteen years of studying. Thirteen years. Washed down the drain in just 10 words. These words bounced in everyone's head. Possibly no prom, after my dress was already paid for. Possibly no Graduation, after we had already gotten our gowns and counted down the days. All of our senior activities, memories, and chances, down the drain in just one short email. Later, the school decided it would be best if all classes were canceled for the rest of the year. My senior year was cut extremely short and I was in shambles because of it. Emotions were high. Any time I told anyone that I was upset, I got the same response. “People are dying. Graduation is the least of our worries” People are dying. Losing their jobs. Their homes. I was fortunate to be able to have my boyfriend move in with me, to be able to still see my family, and still have a roof over my head. But I still could not get the thought of Graduation getting canceled out of my head. Proms started getting canceled a while later. Then there were no large gatherings. Then it was Graduations. They were getting canceled left and right. Friends messaging me. Cousins messaging me. All of their schools had abandoned their Graduations. Stores were closing early, only allowing few people in. Masks were to be worn everywhere. Six feet apart. Our new normal was not ideal but we got used to it. We had to. Early July we had our Prom. It was parent sponsored and not very big. But we got a prom. I dressed up, got my hair done, and took amazing pictures with the Love of my Life, my best friends, and my family. The cases were low then. They were lowering and it was seemingly becoming better. Or at least that's what it felt like. About a week later we got confirmation that Graduation was still going to happen. No walking into our seats to “Pomp and Circumstance” like every other year, everyone had to sit six feet apart, only six guests allowed per student, and families were separated from other families. But it was a graduation. One we were not expecting. But what we wanted all along. That was four days ago. It was the best day of my life and I have never been more proud of myself, my boyfriend, and my Senior Class. All of our Class Officers made heartwarming speeches that left us all with tears in our eyes and we all cried as we threw our caps slightly in the air to keep them from cross-contaminating. I can't tell you what they will do with this next year or years to come but I hope that they do not experience the heartbreak, pain, and suffering we had to. Wear a mask, keep your distance, and don't judge others. Everyone has their own battles.
The most awaited day has arrived: The graduation ceremony. Excited to receive my high school degree, I woke and prepared myself with enthusiasm. I practiced my speech all the way to the ceremony. As I arrived I saw all my classmates with their families, teachers, and special guest there. We took pictures, talked, and shared our experiences in our professional practice while waiting the ceremony to begin. "Good afternoon" ...and it started. The principal was introducing the staff and began to call our names in order. "Sabrina Rodriguez first place of honor with a grade of (4.78) she's an excellent student and brilliant girl", the principal said; Sabrina was smiling, she approached to the microphone and gave some words. After she finished the principal continued: "Aya Saleh second place of honor with a grade of (4.73) she's a cute, creative and kind girl", I got elated when I heard my name. I walked toward her and received my diploma and gave some words on behalf of the senior class: "It was not easy to be here, but we did it! Everyone of us did our best, and I'm proud of that, so I exhort you, my classmates, to continue with your studies. Never give up! Don't have dreams, instead, set it as a goal to achieve. Life is a blank canvas and it must be painted by us; no one can design our canvas better than ourselves. Everything depends on us. "These were my brief words and I returned to my sit. The ceremony continued, school gave us gifts, roses, and prizes; the representative of the ministry of education gave us motivational words. "There's a scholarship I want to give in the name of the ministry of education", when I heard this I was amazed. Sabrina was called. Everyone was wondering if I will be called next but it didn't happen. In that moment I wanted to cry because it was my only option to continue with my studies. All my hopes came to the floor because my parents don't want to support me, they just want me to get marry because of our culture but I don't want that. I want to continue learning, graduate from university, get a good job and enjoy life. But that moment changed my life. That's why it's was a bittersweet day. Nowadays I'm saved because of quarantine. Everything happens because for a reason. Maybe life is giving me an opportunity to seek for a way to get out of this, continue my studies and get a better life.
I know how heartbroken you are not being able to walk on the stage and be handed your diploma. You worked so hard for just that moment, the moment to shine, to show everyone what you have accomplished during your years in school. Whether to give valedictorian or class president speeches, to raise your diploma high in triumph, to smile for every camera waiting to capture the glint of awesome wonder in your eyes – the moment was yours – or should have been. Then the unthinkable happened. A virus that scientists named COVID-19 started spreading its vicious bacterium throughout the world. It did not care your age or gender, your education or lack of. It is just waiting for that one careless motion to leap onto your skin, invade your lungs and then impatiently wait. Wait and watch to see what medication treatment will be administered in time to save your life while you fight for the very breath we often take for granted. Often, even when that treatment is finally found, it is still too late. How my heart aches for every one of you who so looked forward to your graduation day. Having family members of my own who will have to miss this day, I know very well how disappointed you are. However, please keep one thing in mind. Not being able to walk on the stage in glory and triumph, does not take away the fact that you achieved your goal. You passed your tests! You accomplished what you set out to do. Your family and friends are still proud of you and when this virus is over, while you will still not be given that golden opportunity to proudly walk on the stage, your family and friends will still celebrate with you and for you. No matter what your course of study, you are what you set out to be - and nothing, no virus, no quarantine, no walking on stage, nothing can take that away from you. Yes, you can be disappointed. It is your right! To work so hard for your degree and be denied the opportunity to share that glory and pride with others is not fair. Unfortunately, life is not fair and that is something you will find out if you have not already. Life is the best of what you make it to be. Grieve for a lost opportunity to shine for a day but do not make it a goal. You already achieved the goal you set out to reach. Be proud of who you are and what you have become. We are.