Occasionally we witness a special story unfolding before us. We do not know the exact time and place the story began, but we seem to realize we have reached the climax. While we watch the participants experience the moments falling into place, we wonder if, by watching, we become part of the tale people will remember for a lifetime.
I see my high school seniors in front of me, those I have taught through a masking-wearing, desk-cleaning, sanitizer-using, anxiety-causing pandemic this year. They stand in formal attire on the steps of the White Palace at Wheeling Park, posing for the perfect prom photo that never seems to happen. They are a mass of excitement, nervousness, and tranquility as they embrace a moment many wondered would ever occur.
I decide to stand back from the crowd of attending guests and away from the uneasiness of mingling with too many people when my batteries are low. I just watch. The seniors process down the steps across a red carpet. Couples, groups of friends, and individuals take their moments on stage to enjoy the applause of the gathering throughout the parking lot; it is a gathering applauding more than just a group of high school students at a prom, though.
The previous graduating class did not have this experience. Across the country, uncertainty, safety concerns, and social distancing shut down everything in school last year. There were no in-person classes, no spring sports, no graduation ceremony, and definitely no prom. Schools joined the rest of a world on pause until a more safe, more comfortable moment for all to arrive. That pause left people everywhere on the proverbial edge. Many lived with an anxiousness about whether we could plan too far into the future and whether a normal beat and rhythm would ever return to life.
A different world exists inside the ballroom atop the White Place. Their story continues to unfold with the "Hollywood" theme spreading across the back wall and throughout the candle-lit tables at the prom. Anxious smiles of trepidation are now supplanted with joyous smiles of celebration as the seniors realize that life can have a better ending.
From the teacher table near the rear of the ballroom, I can observe the festivities from a comfortable distance. I can see those seniors who spent the entire year facing not only the rugged trek of their last year in high school but also the dark shadow that life could possibly grind to a halt yet again, transporting them back to a time where doubt and frustration permeated their lives.
I see the students who struggled with remote learning, missing the day-to-day interaction with their peers and teachers. I see the student-athletes who occasionally had to contact-tracing quarantine, never fully appreciating the type of senior season they anticipated when they were young. I see the students who had covid, experiencing isolation while they joined us with brave smiles on a Google Meet. I see those who hated masks, constantly allowing last week's reused and ill-fitting mask to fall off their nose. I see those who showed up day to day, putting on a brave face even though doubt hovered in the back of their minds.
I see those students who persevered and made the best of a situation no one ever expected. Who are they? As audience members and role players in this story, we see the people we know in the starring roles. As parents, we see our children. As brothers and sisters, we see our siblings; as teachers, we see our students; as coaches, we see our players; as previous graduates, we see ourselves; and as a community, we see our future.
After a night of breaking bread together, celebrating the comical awards ceremony, and taking countless pictures and selfies, the young celebrants realize that the end of this magical evening has arrived. The graduating class slowly gathers together for a final dance with stragglers only prolonging the inevitable. The dance is one traditionally done in a circle to a slow song which reflects the finality of the dance and their time together. The lights dim slightly as the graduates sway to the last song. In this closing scene, all of the seniors are able to see one another, knowing that they shared this story together.