In early May, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo threw a 98-mile-an-hour fastball and struck out the remainder of traditional classes for the academic year. He officially announced that the schools would not reopen due to the quarantine, which meant not only the end of classes on campus but also the end of athletic contests, theater events, band concerts, formal dances, field trips, class picnics, award nights, and graduation ceremonies. Say it ain’t so, Mr. Cuomo.
The decision made perfect sense, of course. No one wants to unnecessarily put anyone’s life in danger, and, for the most part, we have the technology today to continue educating students at home. By comparison, too, many of the previously mentioned extra-curricular activities are much less important than the general principle of sacrificing oneself for the health and benefit of others. Still, some of this year’s seniors are currently missing out on three traditional experiences that provide valuable life lessons of their own.
First, they don’t get to lead as the big dawgs on the athletic fields.
Second, they miss the entire experience of the Senior Ball.
Third, they miss the shared thrill of receiving an award in the presence of classmates and loved ones.
How do I know all this? I know because even 50 years after my own high-school graduation, certain memories take me back to my youth and make me smile. I recall the spring of 1969 as one of the most memorable times of my life, and I’m confident that most high-school graduates have similar recollections.
For example, I remember my final year on our baseball team. I had already played two years on the junior varsity and one year on varsity, so some could say that missing that last year might not be a big deal. Wrong! That final season was a big deal because as a senior, I was finally one of the big dawgs. My two fellow seniors, Joe Bialabok and Wayne Stebbins, and I made up three quarters of the infield, and we led a team that included seven juniors and five sophomores.
Prior to that year, I was fortunate enough to be on a lot of good teams during high school, teams that won championships, but that senior season was especially important because I felt like I was more than merely a minor cog. I can still vividly recall that perfect spring day in Cohoes when our Bishop Scully Mohawks won the final game over Keveny Academy for the Parochial League Championship. I enjoyed leading that team through our championship season more than any other athletic accomplishment during my many years of competitive sports.
Next, I recall my Senior Ball, also with a smile but with a different kind of smile.
Again, some people might argue that one special night of dinner and dancing is overrated and unnecessary. But the people who say that may have forgotten all the emotional drama and personal growth that precedes the big dance.
In my case, as an immature 17-year-old, I was still pretty much incapable of having an actual conversation with a female, so asking one of them to go with me to this special event required a herculean effort. Yes, I had decided to invite a cute senior cheerleader, but I never got to ask her the question because by the time I found my courage, she had already said “Yes” to another young man, one, apparently, less terrified than I. So, next, I focused on another senior, an attractive girl who lived up the street from us and who had been in classes with me since kindergarten. Again, I had to summon up even more courage for this second attempt, yet when I finally popped the question just before lunch on a Friday, she gave me a response that I had not anticipated.
“I would like to go with you, but I’ll have to see if it’s okay with my boyfriend.”
Boyfriend? I didn’t even know she had a boyfriend.
“Jim, I’ll see what he says and let you know my answer on Monday.”
I was completely unable to process this answer in real time. I had assumed my request was a simple yes-or-no objective question, but she had answered with a conditional multiple-choice response. Completely stunned, I somehow said “Okay” and stumbled off down the hallway to the cafeteria, mumbling to myself all the way.
Apparently, her boyfriend didn’t go to our school and didn’t want to attend our dance, but she, naturally, wanted to be there with all her friends — and with her boyfriend’s approval. By the time Monday rolled around, I was hoping for a veto on her boyfriend’s part, but he had signed off on the deal, so I was stuck. I probably should have reopened the negotiations at that point and rescinded my offer, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the confidence to pull off such a complicated conversation. Consequently, we double dated with friends, we had a pretty good time, considering the unusual circumstances, and I brought her home after the dance and the dinner, so she could see her number-one guy, and number two could at least attend the parties afterwards on his own.
Finally, about three weeks later, I experienced possibly the finest moment of my high-school career at the annual sports banquet. Yes, I had previously attended three of these events, but this one was extra special. By then, that cute cheerleader I mentioned earlier was no longer seeing her Senior-Ball date, so I was able to secure a seat next to her at the banquet. She was so sweet and conversed with me so easily that we began dating soon afterwards, and that summer, we spent every Friday night together enjoying every movie that appeared at the Tryon Theater in downtown Amsterdam.
Thus, that sports banquet was special because it marked the beginning of the first such relationship in my life. In addition, my parents, two of my biggest cheerleaders ever, were in attendance that night, and I was fortunate enough to win the Most Valuable Player award for baseball. Half a century later, I still have that particular plaque stored away with all my special mementos, but being able to experience that unique moment with Mom and Dad and the new love of my life was a wonderful experience I will never forget.
Today, on the short street where we live, we have two seniors who are missing out on some of those wonderful extracurricular activities that high school provides. I spoke to one of these seniors a while back, and I expressed to him my sorrow over the loss of his baseball season and the other distinct experiences that he would miss. Surprisingly, he was much more understanding and considerate than I would have been at his age. This mature young man seriously acknowledged that the health and safety of his family, friends, and neighbors outweighed his personal desires for fun and recognition.
So as I think about the entire nationwide class of 2020, I hope and pray for the following: one, that they will have some big-dawg, leadership moments in the near future; two, that they will realize painlessly that even when events don’t go as planned, they sometimes lead to a funny story; and, finally, that in the end, they will see that temporary setbacks and minor disappointments can often lead to even bigger and better experiences down the road.