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Lithium A not-so-screenworthy senior year

Senior year is supposed to be life-changing. After years of being insignificant, piddling underclassmen, we’ve finally made it. Senior year is the final hurrah—the year-long celebration of thirteen years of school and the friendships lost and made along the way.  

Everybody enters senior year with expectations and a desire to recreate what we’ve seen in movies. Lady Bird promised us we’d fall in and out of love, find ourselves, and ditch our prom dates to dance with our friends. Superbad suggested that senior year would be filled with wild parties, fake IDs, and magically getting into elite colleges. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off presented the appeal of hooky, midday museum trips, and Sloane Peterson’s hair.

Except senior year is looking a little different right now. The epic parties of yesterday have morphed into socially-distanced porch and roof hangouts. The only halls we have been strutting down are the ones that lead to our childhood bathrooms and pediatrician offices. Instead of mastering Sloane Peterson’s ‘80s-glam-but-somehow-natural makeup look, we’ve been expressing our creativity via fashionable masks. Senior year in the time of COVID-19 is like arriving at school and realizing absolutely no one is in attendance—a constant whirlwind of confusion, chaos, and worry. We’ve been forced to abandon tradition and reject our fantasies of what this year could have been. 

This obstacle to our movie-perfect, overly-romanticized senior year has given us some serious pause. What is high school when all the quintessential high school things are taken away? 

The answer: far too short. While past graduating classes rejoiced in the completion of high school—High School Musical 3 students literally broke into song and dance at their graduation—we are grasping at every last straw. The year moves on and on, and we’re left to watch the last fragments of our youth slip away. 

We’ve been thrown into a situation that is far from preferable, and far from what the silver screen promised us. So how can we pick ourselves up and salvage the irreparably damaged pieces of our senior year? Our perspectives have been shifted dramatically, to say the least, and there’s still no tangible truth that pledges a return to normalcy. It’s up to us to look at our surroundings and accept the situation we’ve been handed.

Consider this: those walks to our childhood bathrooms and socially-distant get-togethers may suffice just as well. And despite what these movies have taught us, senior year happens with or without the usual traditions. Life goes on in spite of a pandemic. The most important takeaway from all of this turmoil and disappointment is actually quite simple: our experience is unique. Yes, those movies may have given us a misconstrued idea of what senior year would be, but 2020 is movie-worthy. Our final year in school isn’t glamorous—not by any stretch—but it’s a testament to the ongoing tragedy we’re living through.

By grabbing the reins of this erratic situation, we can give ourselves a chance to write our own chapter. Losing our senior year won’t stunt us forever. We’re still the same people, just with a few more cotton masks in our pockets. Think about it: senior year is, by nature, symbolic of change. Sure, there’s a lot more change than usual this year, but isn’t there something remotely romantic about going through a historical event together? Our movie ending is allowed to look a little different. 

Plus, we’ll be fine. We can stand to lose this one final year. Our loss is relative, and our hardships don’t even come close to the pain and suffering we see on the news. We lost one year—not a friend, or a family member, or even a job. A “normal” senior year is a mere sacrifice in comparison to the millions of lives lost. 

“I wish I could live through something,” Lady Bird said, her eyes scanning the Sacramento fields that lay outside the passenger seat window. By our estimate, she certainly didn’t mean a global pandemic or civil unrest. It’s time for us to step out with pride into the world that we have been handed—we made it this far already. And while we may never experience that euphoric feeling of standing in a cap and gown with our hometown friends, we can learn to appreciate the way our families are just a hallway away after we finish an eleven o’clock class. We can accept the pitfalls and the haphazard ways of Zoom school. And maybe even more significantly, we can approach our futures with the comfort that we lived through something. 

Lady Bird’s mother glanced in her pink-haired daughter’s direction with something like hope and doubt and tenderness all tangled up in one. “Aren’t you?” she asked plainly, and her eyes returned to the road ahead.

Photo by Joe Darrow for New York Mag