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Lessons no book could teach, perspectives about hardship

Johnson City Press • Apr 19, 2020 at 10:00 AM

Social media outpourings of sympathy for the graduating Class of 2020 have been appropriately prolific in recent weeks. Many have posted their own senior pictures — bad hairdos and all — to show solidarity.

All area school districts followed Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s necessary request on Wednesday to close their buildings through the academic year’s end as the state continues to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. The state is essentially in homeschool mode with online support from teachers.

So unlike generations before them, this group of high school seniors will not finish their senior years enjoying the traditional rites of passage. They will have no proms. They will have no senior awards assemblies. Even standard commencement ceremonies seem far fetched at this point. College transitions have been made tougher. Perhaps the hardest aspect of the shutdown is the lack of bonding time. After 13 years together, goodbyes will be hard to come by.

Parents of all schoolchildren, not just seniors, and their teachers likely are just as troubled by this makeshift situation’s potential effect on academic progress.

All are justifiable concerns, and we share them.

Let us offer some perspective here, though.

During World War II, senior classes saw many of their classmates leave to don military uniforms and head off to battle. Many volunteered. Many were drafted into service. A large portion of them returned with life-altering injuries or never came home at all. The average serviceman was in his mid-20s.

Meanwhile, the nation was in rationing mode. Because certain commodities were necessary for the war effort, the federal government took steps to conserve essential supplies. Each person was issued a limited number of “points” used alongside money to buy goods made with such items. Gasoline, fabrics, sugar, coffee, meat, butter and cheese all made the list. Manufacturing needs for military vehicles meant rubber was in high demand, so only certain people could buy new tires.

This was soon after the Great Depression, when many American families were forced to live in shantytowns and to wait through breadlines just for basic sustenance. This was not akin to wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart in supermarkets filled with unlimited choices.

Decades later, the classes of the 1960s and early 1970s also lost peers to the Vietnam War soon after graduation. The average serviceman was in his early 20s.

We share this not to dismiss the unexpected social changes high school students — and all of us — are experiencing during this pandemic but to add a little context to the levels of hardship. The experiences of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were hard life lessons, much harder than those young people are experiencing in 2020.

Nonetheless, COVID-19 offers members of the Class of 2020 lessons of their own. Life is not always as you expect it. Sacrifices must be made in times of crisis. A challenge means rising to the occasion. Necessity brings new ways of doing things.

We trust that with the support of their schools and parents, many members of the Class of 2020 will find ways to parlay this experience into something meaningful. Regardless of which paths they take in life, they will have weathered a unique period in American life, perhaps with new tools in their belts.

Inspiring teachers, academic rigor, supportive parents, social interaction and personal commitment remain the keys to success in American education. Hard knocks, though, can be just as illuminating.

To the Class of 2020: Use this experience. Use it wisely.