grad pack

GRADUATION FOR ONE - What happens when all the end-of-year rites of passage disappear?

In a bathroom stall on the 25th of January my life changed forever. I was at the Phoenix Theater for the first time, an old, local punk and rock and hip hop joint that has witnessed some of the greats including The Ramones, Green Day and Sublime. I was there for my friend’s band’s first show, and halfway through the show I found myself alone in a broken stall, overwhelmed with a strange and unwelcome anxiety. I pressed my back against the door and stared at the wall above a toilet seat cover dispenser, gazing at the legacy of teen angst scrawled across the walls. And then I saw it, on the green wall in all caps: “DONT WAIT TILL FRIDAY! BE ALIVE NOW!”

Sophie Bartolotta

Sophie Bartolotta is (was?) a senior at El Molino High School. 

For some background about me, I am a senior at El Molino (or was) and plan on heading to Bard College this fall. I was an Advanced Placement (AP) student and passionately joined almost every club my freshman year, completing hours of community service for Green Team and Interact clubs. I was also president of the Journalism Club from my sophomore to senior year and attempted to show unwavering interest in our production despite the fact that it is very difficult to produce real hype for a high school newspaper. I was an okay student, always advocating for my other talents: a B+ student who loved her teachers and could write a mean essay that would probably have some spelling errors and might be late.

I always found myself wishing I would be better academically and also wishing for a big creative break some day — an amazing and show-stopping painting or short film that would finally in some way, prove my worth. But that never happened, and on the last day of high school I sped from the school parking lot, a mass of unfinished paintings in the trunk of my car.

It hurt when quarantine began. I missed my close knit AP classes, I missed my friends from art, and I missed the feeling of walking through my school’s quad with my headphones in — the extreme sense of both fear and boldness I felt associated with the independence I was given by my most trusted teachers.

I missed the outside world too — loud punk rock shows at the Phoenix, getting bagels after school with my best friend and the cool, dark Friday nights I had spent at Montgomery High School the last few months painting a feminist mural. I missed feeling like I was part of something, in everyone’s life, learning about myself through every interaction, every revolt, every moment spent being.

One day, a few weeks into quarantine, I pulled over on the side of the road and sobbed to my journalism cohort through a scratchy voicemail — worried that our newspaper was never what it could have been, and that it was all my fault.

I had kept the words from that night at the Phoenix in my head. I repeated them to everyone I knew, wrote them on an extra-large sage green shirt from Goodwill even. It was a beautiful idea to me, living really, instead of waiting every Friday for my chance to be edgy and cool at the Phoenix and instead being myself all the time. But it was a philosophy I didn’t put into practice at first. I began to dress more punk, I wrote more poetry and danced a little more in the crowd. But I still waited in my car before school, before shows, before getting out of bed even, wondering, Was I really living like my anonymous bathroom stall philosopher had wanted? Or was I always just waiting for next Friday?

But quarantine changed all of that. Like many others, I lost my sense of time. There was no next Friday, no next day of school to plan an outfit for or to do homework for. Eventually there was no last newspaper, no art show, no senior project presentations and no graduation. I had lost all of these moments I had been anticipating, lost all these final chances to “start living” or whatever that meant to my temporary, fast-paced sort of teenage brain. And the thing was, I fought it at first. I wanted MORE time. Wanted those chances back, wanted my people back. I was so angry at the idea of this stolen time. But it all began to fade as I stayed up till 3 a.m. every night, began to paint angry and sad self portraits, began to put off homework, dance alone in my room, and drive through the dark of a quarantined town.

I finally understood what she had meant, the desperate pain the words of the bathroom stall had been trying to convey. You will spend so much of your life waiting until next Friday. You will feel you owe people things — owe your teachers and the College Board and your boss and your friends— your time and your effort. And that’s true, you have to remain responsible, but you also have to remain in control of your own life. Understand what you need. I was never angry that someone was stealing those final high school moments from me. I was really angry at myself for fixating on the imaginary significance of these milestones.

My heart goes out to every student who is impacted by this historical event. I completely understand the devastation of isolation and how intense that feels as a teenager specifically. But I believe the graduating class of 2020 will grow to value themselves and their work more than they may have. Without closure, we have all begun to create endlessly, think in an infinite way as our lives begin without a definite end to our isolation. There is no next Friday. Only now. Let’s begin living, class of 2020.

(3) comments

dbadger

I really enjoyed your article - direct, powerful, thought-provoking. Thank you!

RenataBrillinger

This is a great piece of writing and good advice for everyone, not just high school seniors. Thanks for sharing, Sophie!

Chuck The DJ

I share your love for the Phoenix. I haven't spent a lot of time there but I did see Metalica there when they were rehearsing for the "Black Album" tour. Hell of a show. Tom Gaffey has done an amazing job there, and in fact, I went to school with Tom, he's a year older and was in the Journalism class that put out our school paper and if memory serves me, Tom was the editor.

I became a mobile DJ and for years played proms, all night grads and many school dances and while now my gigs are mostly weddings and corporate events, this time of year was so much fun in terms of schools and I am so sorry that so many students are missing out on something that they should have been able to remember forever.

But you are right, and the bathroom wall is right, do it now, do not wait.

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