Students clustered together Thursday night on the lawn of Samford Hall at Auburn University, but it had nothing to do with social distancing.
These kids were graduating over the weekend – in person! – and they were gathering with friends before the big ceremony to say goodbye to the campus. Yes, selfies were involved.
This scene reminded me of my own college graduation experience, long before we all had cell phones. The night before my parents arrived in Nashville, my favorite fellow graduate (Bess) and I spent an evening saying goodbye to the Vanderbilt campus, winding along the brick pathways and stopping to tell little stories about what had happened here and there.
Bess said goodbye to the concert hall where she played French horn in the chamber orchestra and the building where she tackled big issues as a member of student government.
I said goodbye to alumni lawn, where once on a beautiful spring day I happened to be carrying a milk jug full of beer and passed my Latin teacher, whose class I had missed that day because of an alleged illness. He stopped and grabbed me by the arm and said, “Mr. Kendrick-Holmes! You’ve made a remarkable recovery!”
“I know!” I said. “It’s a miracle!”
That night before graduation, it seemed like a miracle that I would actually be collecting a diploma, and also that I had fallen in love with a beautiful young woman who somehow loved me too, and it felt good to recall the memories we’d formed and the friends we’d made and the things we’d learned in that idyllic place. It felt good to say goodbye, and to move on together to new places.
Graduates last year didn’t get that chance.
Our college senior flew back from spring break in Puerto Rico to learn that he couldn’t return to campus in Athens, Ga. He came home and finished his classes online, received his diploma in the mail, and moved to North Carolina to start an engineering job.
Our high school senior missed out on prom and senior dinner and senior parties and walking across the stage. He marked his graduation by driving alone in a parade of student cars while parents cheered from the side of the road. He got his diploma in the mail too.
For each of the graduates of 2020, that spring was a cloud of uncertainty and a blur of virtual meetings. You can’t really start a new chapter when you don’t have an opportunity to properly close the last one.
Things are still strange, of course. On Saturday, graduating students and their loved ones were required to wear masks as they filed into Jordan-Hare Stadium. Inside, they sat socially distanced on bleachers.
But at least they were on campus. At least they were in Jordan-Hare. At least they had a chance to say a proper goodbye.
That will help them say hello as they take their next big step in life.
Dimon Kendrick-Holmes is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org