Carley Ebbenga was used to not having big birthday parties. Since her birthday is in the middle of the winter break, most of the children were out of town, so she kept to small celebrations. But for her Sweet Sixteen, Ms. Ebbenga, who lives in Romeoville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, wanted to do something special. She envisioned a trip to town with some friends, where they would have a nice dinner and dance long in their hotel rooms.
The pandemic, of course, thwarted their plans.
Mrs. Ebbenga made the best of things. She invited two of her closest friends to a campfire in her back yard. They ate chili from Mrs. Ebbenga’s mother and danced around the fire while drinking hot cocoa. The small group also had a “burning ceremony” where they had notebooks and pens to write down “the deepest and saddest things”, read them aloud, and then burn the pieces of paper in the fire. Ms. Ebbenga came up with the idea of seeing one of her favorite YouTubers, The Purple Palace, who had made a video burning things that she wanted to let go of.
A lot of Ms. Ebbenga wrote down the things she missed during the pandemic, like a sweet sixteen or “the nights of laughter that lost this year” and “going to my first art exhibition”. “It feels really good to see the fire burn,” she said.
When the pandemic lockdown began last spring, 2020 class students realized pretty quickly that they were going to miss their proms and started finding new ways to mark their degrees. But few younger teenagers could have imagined that their lives would be so limited by the pandemic a year later. Indeed, with different rules across the country, children have had very different experiences: some schools have worked face-to-face and held proms as usual, while for others spring 2021 is not too different from last year. And since more classic teen milestones like Sweet Sixteens, prom and graduation parties were interrupted or canceled entirely, these kids had to turn their losses into opportunities and forge new traditions with friends.
When the senior year should be “your” year
“It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that for the past three years we’ve been told, ‘Oh, just get into your senior year. It’s going to be a great time. You will have so much fun and it will be a lot easier, ”said Julia Weber, a senior citizen in Athens, Ohio. “Now we’re doing school from our bedrooms without the fun.”
The missed milestone that she is most disappointed with is that she will not have the opportunity to visit the college campus in person. “It’s really difficult to make such an important decision with a zoom tour or just pictures you found on google on campus,” she said.
Amaya Wangeshi, 17, of Justin, Texas, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, has noticed an existential feeling among her friends. “We feel lost in time,” said the high school junior, becoming philosophical about her experience. “It seems like time is moving through us instead of us moving through time. It is a strange limbo. “
Like Mrs. Ebbenga, she also missed a special celebration for her 16th birthday last year.
“My 16th birthday has passed and I haven’t done anything,” she said. “It was a shock because it’s just one of the things you think about when you are little. Because of the media, everyone says, “Sixteen, sixteen, sixteen.” It’s supposed to be such a big deal. “
Getting your driver’s license was another rite of passage that didn’t go as planned. DMV closings in Texas meant she had to wait almost a year to take her test.
“It was really frustrating,” said Ms. Wangeshi. “It sounds childish, but I think a lot of people look at their life by reaching certain milestones. It’s just a natural tendency in the way we sort time and how we also look at performance. “
New traditions – despite the disappointments
While his delay wasn’t as long as Ms. Wangeshi’s, 17-year-old Tommy Sinclair of Worthington, Ohio had to wait several months to get his driver’s license. As a member of his school’s theater repertoire program, however, it was a major hurdle to reinterpret a school musical. Rather than performing “Annie” in front of a live audience, Mr. Sinclair’s school chose to film the year’s productions and sell tickets online for virtual tours on YouTube.
“It’s just so different not performing in front of an audience,” said Sinclair, who noted that while wearing masks is challenging, it is challenging because the actors are unable to express their facial expressions. “It takes away some of the fun, but it’s also much better than doing nothing at all.”
Ms. Ebbenga also had to adapt to her (now virtual) spring musical. For many students like her, keeping traditions alive in 2021 means finding creative workarounds.
In pre-pandemic times, the cast and crew of Ms. Ebbenga’s Thespian Club joined arms minutes before the start of each show in a ritual called a “circle”. Individuals take turns speaking, whether it is words of encouragement or sentimental reminders. This year they plan to “circle” a zoom call with everyone in front of the camera.
“We have to keep this tradition alive because it is the essence of our Thespian Club,” said Ms. Ebbenga.
Mr. Sinclair, who is part of the school board of his school, is currently working hard to make his prom as “Covid-friendly” as possible. This includes dividing participants into groups and setting up activities in different parts of the school such as dancing in the gym, photo booths in the hallways, a movie in one area, and a cotton candy machine.
School dances and social events are not an option for other students. But that hasn’t stopped her from trying to create new memories in a largely disappointing year. Some parents take the prom into their own hands by planning unofficial ones that are not affiliated with their schools.
With her prom canceled, 18-year-old Ianne Salvosa of Lake St. Louis, Missouri, is making her own version with friends.
“A lot of people just buy clothes, take photos and go to dinner with friends, which I try to plan,” she said.
Goodbye prom, hello picnics
For Ms. Weber, setting up small, socially distant campfires was an opportunity to meet friends she hadn’t seen “for months, if not a year”.
“Of course, that’s not exactly a milestone, but I think in this incredibly uneventful year – from a school perspective – I’ll look back on it and say, ‘Oh, that was the biggest social event: sitting by a fire with three people in my back yard “Said Ms. Weber.
Ms. Ebbenga plans to include backyard fires in future hangouts with friends, even after they have all been vaccinated. This is quickly becoming a reality for young people as more and more states open up their admission requirements.
“It’s really cute,” she said. “Everyone is outside and cold, but we have blankets and we are together and that makes it the best.”
Ms. Salvosa has had sushi picnics with her friends outdoors so that they have more space to keep a safe distance.
Another way to keep in touch with friends, maintain a sense of normalcy, and form new traditions is to watch movies together using Teleparties, a browser extension that allows people to share streaming TV services. Ms. Salvosa and her friends use the chat feature to add real-time comments. And thanks to outdoor team sports such as lacrosse and cross-country, many student athletes could still safely compete against each other and root each other.
While it ultimately isn’t the year these kids wanted, it’s one that no one will forget.
“It’s just knowing that I had to go through something that will go down in the history books and that other kids will have to learn about it in the future,” Sinclair said. “It’s just weird. This is definitely not the high school experience I was expecting. “