Graduation, Adulthood, and Irony: Real Voices from the Graduating Class
The moment NIST’s Year 13s found out that we’d be pursuing the non-exam route for the May 2021 session, our year was unified by shock. Of course, we considered for many weeks that the worsening circumstances could lead to potential cancellation. That fateful email from Mr. Cooper, though, symbolized an even graver fact: the mental pictures we had spent years building — of stressful exams, post-exam relief, senior prank day, graduation — were decaying before our eyes, and there was nothing we could do about it.
I’m sorry if that introduction might’ve suggested dullness or emotional withdrawal among my peers and myself. This could not be farther from the truth. Text messages in group chats varied from “ZCBJFSOUWHWIEF 😆😆😆” to “AAAAAAAGHDIFHWRUOEHUO 😭😭😭” within minutes of the announcement. Passions were running high, and everyone seemed to have an opinion. Many of my friends breathed a sigh of relief. Many others felt stress invade any feelings of relaxation: all of a sudden, our university offers were at the mercy of an unpredictable algorithm and the IB, the most opaque bureaucracy many of us have encountered.
No single emotion was universal, yet everyone who I’ve spoken to seems to have shared a sense of psychological confusion. As I was writing this piece, an analogy came to mind that perfectly captured this fuzzy concoction of emotions. COVID, staying-at-home, and watching our days of studying online has felt so surreal. And thus in my mind, I likened it to playing a virtual-reality game. We are forced to traverse the foreign environments of online lessons, impromptu Zoom calls with friends, and virtual games of Texas hold ’em. We learn to adapt to the new normal, shifting our attitudes and habits to the psychological demands of the situation.
However, when our adaptive reflexes have been exhausted, we suddenly realize we are trapped inside the virtual world. Social influences (watching my elder brother graduate, sheer joy in his eyes, ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ playing in the background) combine with cultural perceptions (like the joyous flash-mob graduation in High School Musical 3), forging our cognitive representations of future events. We are left with a kind of cognitive dissonance, feeling lost and uncertain as we brace ourselves for an online graduation that so drastically violates our norms and mental precepts.
For example, every year between 2014 and 2019, my peers and I cheered and high-fived seniors during NIST’s iconic Senior Walk. I always idealized that experience. Circling the school in which we grew up, learned to love, and realized our identities symbolized the finale of our conquest through secondary school. Hardwired in my mind was the notion that I’d receive closure, that I deserved closure, following this wild rollercoaster of adolescence.
Slowly, we’re realizing that the future we so strongly believed in doesn’t exist outside of our imaginations. When I texted my friend Maia shortly after the cancellation of exams, “it feels like the world is ending”, this was not a frivolous sentimentalization. Struggling with angst and denial, we are trying to turn our paradigms upside-down. The Zoom world is the real one; the world in which we complete the Senior Walk, that’s the virtual one. Our brains are still catching up to this surreal, ironic reality.
And amid all this we are faced with the imminent question: what comes next? All of us are moving in different directions: many headed abroad for college, some studying locally in Thailand, and others taking gap years, seeking to explore their interests and passions before university begins. Whether university is your path or your future lies elsewhere, this is a strange and exciting time. The looming impossibility of life amidst COVID remains in perpetual battle with the sense of freedom and possibility that arises as we begin the exhilarating transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Even with the diversity of paths that my fellow seniors and I will undertake, we are all, to some degree, in the same boat. For many of us, we are simply in search of a shiny ribbon, something that’ll allow us to tidily wrap up the chapter of high school as we start our respective new chapters. We have to come to terms with the fact that, this year, that ribbon will look different than it might’ve in the past.
Speaking personally, my metaphorical ribbon ended up being pretty good. Since NIST and Mr. Cooper invited us to campus to take photos, I was lucky enough to experience a sort of quasi-graduation, leaving me with a partial sense of closure that was not identical to what we’d experience in a normal year but was nevertheless meaningful. Not everyone in NIST’s Class of 2021 (and the global Class of 2021) had that opportunity, though. Everyone’s ribbon is unique. Some are satisfied with it, while others continue to search for a more perfect ribbon that will optimize their own feeling of closure.
With this in mind, I’d like to leave my peers with a simple message: we must carve our own paths, and this year, we graduates are responsible for deciding what our own ribbons look like. Whether you want to Zoom your best friends during our video ceremony, take the family out for a celebratory ice-cream (while following COVID protocols), or to memorize the dance to We’re All In This Together, the onus is now on us to forge our own ribbon and create our own sense of closure. It’s up to us to tie our high school chapters to a close.
To my peers: celebrate, relax, and try your best to feel like more than a victim of circumstance. Wear your best clothes during our Facebook ceremony, and don’t refrain from making that symbolic end-of-highschool Spotify playlist that you had planned to make. While many of us have encountered numerous difficulties and even tragedy amid the circumstances, we must do our best to enjoy our graduation and make it ours.
I wish my fellow classmates all the best in their future endeavors, and I can’t wait to see how our new chapters unfold. I sincerely hope this article reflects some of the ambivalence I and my peers have been feeling, and am happy to discuss further the things we can all do to make our graduation as special as possible.