By Clay Coleman
I remember when I arrived in town at the beginning of October. The air held a chill announcing the coming winter. I would walk along the town’s leaf-covered streets, the loose gravel crunching under my shoes, searching for people, yet finding only trees; their naked limbs swaying against the overcast sky that even then felt like a precursor of what was coming.
I was lucky, in that my first assignment was a Veterans Day program at the high school. Walking through its doors, a light I had forgotten existed suddenly shone through me and everyone around me. The building was alive with energy, as the students led the veterans to breakfast and to an auditorium where they honored them with speeches and music. Their brilliance blinded me as I aimed my camera at their faces.
This new energy continued during the winter, as I traveled to the high school, taking pictures of seniors being awarded scholarships, and I wrote stories about debate team championships. I also noticed the town, suffering a melancholy after the harvest, came to the school and cheered the students on as they played basketball, or participated in an awards ceremony honoring them for a change. I discovered, as the snow days continued to multiply, that the town was alive within its students.
And for seniors, 2020 was going to be their year. This was the year they’d go to State. This was the year they’d make the school play, hit it over the fence, have a poem they wrote read aloud in class, and discover a passion for something they’d carry with them for the rest of their lives. This was going to be their year, and as the snow melted and the farmers searched for the first signs of spring—and then, everything stopped, like a door slamming shut in their faces.
A pandemic was racing through the country spreading fear and unknown, and as we watched the inevitable creep closer, we scrambled to shut everything down and catch hold of those we loved. In doing so, we shut down the schools for a little while, we hoped, but like being caught in winter’s last great snowstorm, we hunkered down oblivious to everything around us.
The days turned into weeks, and as the air started to warm again, the seniors were still out of class. The governor had announced that schools and businesses would be closed for the duration, that students would have to finish the school year from home. As society continued to dissolve around them, the seniors helped their families prepare the fields for planting, or took the place of a laid-off parent, all the while, continuing to do their schoolwork and making plans for after graduation.
I discovered that summer had finally arrived, after noticing it in the calendar as I penciled in the seniors’ graduation date. The nation had changed since winter’s first gusts greeted me. As we emerged from our cocoons and inspected the confusion still surrounding us, we recognized the seniors’ lives had fundamentally changed and wondered at the cost of it all.
But as I watched them receive their diplomas in the warm summer sun, I realized we had nothing to fear. The idea of them missing out on something, of being a Lost Class of 2020, had a shifted meaning. It represented the opposite I knew to be true, which was that in time, the Class of 2020 would one day govern this country, and when another great catastrophe hits and we are the ones who are lost, they will have the experience and confidence to calm our fears and lead us back home.