Above: An American flag basks in the sunlight in an empty classroom at Columbia Central High School.
By Matt Schepeler
As I grow older, I find that I am less and less emotional. By now, I’ve seen pretty much everything.
Or so I thought, until a few weeks ago.
So when I walked through the empty hallways of Columbia Central High School this morning and tears began welling up in my eyes, it caught me a little by surprise. But I let them come. It is okay to mourn a little right now, I decided.
Yesterday Governor Gretchen Whitmer notified the state that in-person classes were over, though it came as no surprise. We all saw it coming. There will be no more school gatherings this year, no spring sports, no hugs or tearful goodbyes for many of the seniors or students and teachers.
Superintendent Pam Campbell let me in the building, alone with my camera, to get some shots for a story that two of our reporters are working on for next week’s paper. As I walked through the empty hallways, memories of my own graduation days drifted back.
They were different times. Spring of 1979 might as well be 100 years ago, but as I remembered, the more I realized that some things don’t change.
Spring is extra special here in Michigan. The sun melts the long, gray winter away, and gives birth to hopes and dreams to people of all ages. For high school seniors, spring also serves as the great reminder that the rest of their lives is about to begin in earnest. The pace of their slow, steady march to independence quickens, the time to commence is near. Time becomes fleeting.
“Off you go,” we assure them, as we take pictures of caps and gowns and cakes and graduation parties.
“You will have difficult challenges, but work hard, and you will do well.
“We believe in you.”
I remember the camaraderie I felt with my classmates in my graduation season. We had made it, together, and were about to be dispersed. Even the classmates I didn’t like suddenly became friends, our commonality undeniable, our place in each other’s history encased in our hearts and minds, for better, for worse, forever. We were a part of each other, though many of us would never see each other again.
Some were going on to college and exciting careers. Others were already enlisted in the military. Some didn’t have a clue what they wanted to do, but it didn’t matter. It was a brave new world, and we were going to change it. We were not afraid.
What was there to fear?
The world should fear us.
When members of the class of 2020 look back on their graduation, their memories are going to be different. It can’t be helped. They are going to remember the strangeness of it all. They will remember people wearing masks and gloves when going to the store. They are going to remember the gripping fear as people looked suspiciously at one another, wondering if they are far enough apart, or if there are germs on the gas pump, or if the change they got at the gas station was clean, or could make them sick.
They are going to remember the words “social distancing,” not hugs and tear-filled goodbyes.
But there is one thing that no pandemic can take—the simple truth that fear doesn’t win.
Yes, there are dark nights, but the older you get, the more you realize that the dawn really does come. The human spirit is too great, the light that we carry within is too bright to be denied.
Those are some of the thoughts that quietly came as I walked through the empty hallways and classrooms at Columbia Central High School this morning.
While this commencement season is going to be different, what is important remains. We parents, teachers, friends and mentors have pinned our hopes on the young people who wandered these halls, and our message to them remains the same one handed down to us by our parents.
Off you go now.
You will have difficult challenges, but work hard, and you will do well.
And, most importantly, We believe in you.
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