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I spent at least a twenty minutes ironing her gown and 45 minutes curling her hair before she put on the $40 white dress hastily purchased on Amazon because we couldn’t go to the store and shop for one. Chalk that up to another senior-year moment missed. No wandering the mall with iced coffees to find the perfect white dress followed by lunch at the restaurant of her choice.

I put on a dress, makeup, and sandals — the first time I’d worn anything but yoga pants or shorts and a T-shirt and hoodie in months. Dan and my mom dressed up, too. Lauren chose to stay in her tank top, shorts, and flip-flops, something she wouldn’t have gotten away with if it were a traditional graduation.

I remind everyone to bring their masks as we pile into my mom’s car for the drive to the school at 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in May. We’re greeted at the entrance by a handful of principals and teachers, all wearing masks.

It was there Kelly found out she’d gotten the Outstanding Student Award for Chorus and Student of the Month from the Kiwanis Club. They handed her a faculty honor roll certificate and one for perfect attendance, too. Ironic given she and all her classmates certainly missed the last two months of school.

They left school on a random Friday in March and just never went back. Lunches molded in lockers. Gym clothes festered. Plans, activities, and events fell by the wayside. Everything just gone.

At the beginning of the year, I made a few pages in my bullet journal to record notes about her graduation and graduation party. A place to help me keep track of all the  many things I expected to have to remember, deal with, attend. Those pages are still blank.

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Our little graduation contingency (no more than five people total will be permitted), were escorted to auditorium, empty except for a guidance counselor handing out the diplomas and “graduation” directions and a videographer who was standing on a catwalk that remained from the spring musical, the very plywood Kelly stomped across in her performance as Ursula in “The Little Mermaid.”

Thank God she got to do that show before COVID-19 stole the rest of her senior year. For that early March show run, I’m eternally thankful.

This is what I’m thinking about when she’s given the “thumbs up” from the videographer and begins her procession down the aisle and across the stage. She holds up her diploma, smiles, turns her tassel for the camera and exits stage right. that’s it. It’s all over in a minute, maybe two.

We’re escorted to the commons area, where we can take as many photos at we want in front of the school’s backdrop. “No hurry,” our teacher escort tells us. “We don’t have another family coming for a little while after you.” We can even take off our masks, which I’m thankful for.

When we’re done hamming it up and taking photos in various combinations, we’re escorted out a maintenance entrance, er…now exit. I snap a photo of all of us in our masks/bandanas (for posterity) before we yank them off in relief.

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I remember when I was trying to decide to send Kelly to school when she was five or six. She was a late summer birthday, so I had the option to wait. When I realized if I waited she’d graduate in 2020, that sealed the deal. (I’m not even kidding). I thought it would be the coolest graduation year ever.

Boy, was I wrong.

We had been told not to linger on school property, but we stop at the school entrance signs and take some more photos. There’s nobody there and who is really going to give any 2020 grad a hard time right now? Motorists honk when they drive by and see Kelly in her cap and gown.

The world feels sorry for the Class of 2020. Robbed of the best two months of high school, senior prom, senior trip, senior skip day and other traditional rites of passage, all the pomp and circumstances, the final goodbyes to classmates — some they hope to see again, some they hope never to see again, some who will likely turn back up in their lives in unexpected ways.

We’re back home by 4:15 p.m. and the whole thing, while nice, felt anticlimactic.  “Uh, so, who wants a beer?”

But everyone has really tried. They’ve done the best they could with what they had to work with. So many people have went out of their way make the Class of 2020 feel special. Signs, salutes, parades, and more.  A local mom and high school teacher “adopted” Kelly through an online “adopt a Class of 2020 senior” program designed to allow community members to support students with little gifts, cards or notes to bring them joy.

Kelly sure smiled when she came home from work that night to find her sister and I waving over over to the front porch where at least a half dozen gift bags in her school colors and graduation theme awaited from her “adopted” mom, who filled the bags with all the things Kelly loves — dogs, baking, chocolate, Penn State, school supplies, and more.

Thursday the school will release a video mash-up of all the graduates walking across the stage, so that families can watch at home, virtually, as social distancing guidelines are still in place.

We’ve invited some family for an outdoor viewing party and they’re sure to be loud and rowdy — it’s the Cass way — and we’ve got two Cass’ in the Class of 2020, three if we count her cousin who graduated from college.  We’ll watch it together, maybe from the pool with drinks in hand, dinner on the grill. While it will be an unconventional high school graduation, I actually think it’s going to be a whole lot better than some stuffy, long, formal ceremony at the school.

I’m not sure Kelly agrees, but I keep reminding her that different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. COVID-19 has taken a lot from the Class of 2020, but it hasn’t diminished their accomplishments.

Whether she and her cousin walk across the stage at the high school or walk across the deck next to our pool, they graduated. And they will be members of one of the most memorable classes of graduates in history.

Born in the shadow of 9-11, they graduate in the year of COVID-19. I can’t help but wonder what 2024 — the year most of them will graduate from college — will bring. I hope it’s all the good things they deserve.

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About Just Write: Just Write is my adaptation of free writing, a technique in which a person writes continuously and quickly without little regard for spelling, grammar, or topic. It helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and explore everything from meaningful topics to mundane observations with the same effort and without the pressure of crafting perfect prose. I just start writing.

“What ends up revealing itself when free writing is that everything has meaning. That is a magnificent gift of writing. If we write from a free heart-gut place, our souls start speaking.”