Watching my daughter graduate during a pandemic

Jun 22, 2020 | In the moment

It was supposed to be a momentous year. I was planning to throw a party. A graduation party.

Friends, flowers, photos.

Smiles, speeches, tears.

A memorable day where I would watch my daughter walk across the stage, surrounded by her peers, basking in the cheers of their families.

A communal celebration.

A coming of age.

A time to fly.

A time to sigh.

From the time she was four, I had imagined this milestone moment of her college graduation. Almost twenty years ago, I had heard a commentary by Baxter Black about his graduating daughter on National Public Radio. It began with a question. “Did you ever stop and think to yourself – this will be the last time?”

It was a brief monologue, simple and moving, in the way heartfelt words often are. I thought about his words for days, trying to remember the order of those short sentences, trying to grasp the genuine emotions they conveyed. Years later, Google helped me trace the transcript. 

I printed the words on an off-white sheet of  paper with a green trellis design, inserted it into a plastic sheet protector, and tucked it into a cardboard box. The box travelled from America, to India, and then to Singapore. My job was to keep the paper safe until her graduation day. The idea was to hand the sheet to her; to ponder, to keep, to discard, just like all the words I had uttered her over the years. That was the plan.  

To paraphrase John Lennon, Covid-19 is what happens when you are busy making other plans. Instead of the class of 2020, my daughter’s graduating cohort will forever be referred to as the Covid-19 class. 

Without a public ceremony for graduation, there will be no visible marker of an event to signify an end and a beginning. For me, the end of the years of direct parenting; for her, a beginning that would require her to fly away with strong wings and a smile. 

The disappointment of not having a large in-person ceremony was not just hers. I was hoping to vicariously relive the memory of my own graduation that took place more than two decades ago. To temper my disappointment, I revisited commencement speeches that form an important part of the US graduation experience. 

Encapsulating the distilled wisdom of the lived experience of writers, entrepreneurs, and people of substance, each speech is a mini self-help book of sorts, a concentrated shot of a carefully fermented brew that could cause a palpable buzz if swallowed swiftly. Many popular speeches became books that could be handed out as graduation gifts containing words of advice to young people stepping into a world of possibilities. 

But what advice can you give this cohort of millennial youth who feel cheated of their moment in the spotlight? They were denied the chance to post envy-inducing photos of a champagne-popping, hat-tossing, party-hopping day on Instagram. More importantly, they were denied the chance to savor the last in-person class, the last in-class exam, the last time of simply hanging out around campus, and the last chance to say goodbye. 

In an ideal world, my daughter would have heard inspiring words from influential people. All she can do now is hang out with family members with whom she has been stuck at home for months. While I cannot provide her the chance to march across a stage, victorious in a cap and gown, the one thing I can do is dispense pearls of wisdom. After all, I have lived an interesting life. But, as she helpfully points out, I have been giving ‘lectures’ forever. Instead of applause, my monologues are usually met with eyerolls.

Even though I grudgingly agree, I am tempted to install some final pieces of programming code into her before she flies away.

“Uncertainty is inevitable. Doing something is more important than getting it right every time. Take all advice with a pinch of salt.’ 

But in this post-Covid world, I look back on my years of parenting and consider the futility of the insistence on helmets and seatbelts, at the constant attempt to ease my child’s path and smooth the bumps, and wonder if anything I have said can prepare her for a world that has literally turned on a dime.

Words, however,  are not empty platitudes. They carry with them the weight of a person’s experience, and their value is proportional to your trust and respect for the person involved. 

There is much I want to say, but this is the time for action, not words. I once again read Baxter Black’s musings and notice for the first time that like me, he has more questions than answers. 

All I can do is mutely nod in response to his final question – “Where did she go, this little girl of mine?” 

This article first appeared the The Straits Times, Singapore on 22 June 2020.

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