I have often felt that the month of May in a school year is busy, even more so than December and all of those holidays, shopping, preparations, and planning. This year, May felt like a climb to the top of Mount Vesuvius, followed by a marathon sprint to the finish line of the strangest school year in history. As a mom, wife, educator, principal, sister, daughter – I can see the stress and strain of the end of the year on the faces of every single person I meet. It’s a combination of exhaustion, pain, loss, anxiety, and joy, if that’s even possible.

In our schools, the month of May is full of proms and concerts and field days and Mother’s Day celebrations – and, if you are in a Catholic school, we can add May Crowning and First Communion celebrations – followed by a graduation or two. This year, May was also tinged with grief and loss we felt over not having these celebrations or (gasp!) trying to have them differently as we follow the loosening of protocols. Expectations are high and frustrations rear their heads over the disappointments that sometimes follow.

This year, I had the privilege of not only attending our youngest daughter’s high school graduation outdoors on the football field IN PERSON but I also was deeply involved in the graduation of eighth-graders in the school where I serve as principal, which was also IN PERSON. While my cup of gratitude runneth over, knowing that our daughter had a “real” graduation and so did my students, I was also struck by the significance of graduation this year for millions of students and their families. This wasn’t just graduation season but instead a culmination, manifestation, and realization that we survived.

Students who graduate are thought to have been fully prepared, freshly minted, and well-equipped with the academic, social, and emotional skills necessary for the next stop on the educational journey. No doubt, these amazing young people are accomplished and ready – but with so much more than a diploma or a degree.

We have a whole generation of youth that can pivot from one form of instruction to another, sometimes overnight. We have young people who are flexible, collaborative, and tenacious. These graduates have an understanding of problem-solving and critical thinking that most of us adults didn’t acquire til college or beyond – and that isn’t even the best part!

Our graduating class of 2021 is full of human beings who understand kindness, empathy, equity, and social justice. They have developed a keen awareness to recognize isolation and pain in others and to reach a helping hand out in courage. Our students understand a bit better about how very fleeting life is and how important it is to look for the light each day and how each of us has a responsibility to light someone else’s candle when it goes out. These graduates are our hope. They will be the dreamers and the change-makers and the equity champions of the future.

Yes, let’s put on our caps and gowns, hand out those diplomas, pose for pictures with friends and family, but let’s also remember that these leaders have endured more than we ever could have imagined. When we hear Pomp and Circumstance ringing loud and clear, let’s remember it’s much more than a graduation. This is a celebration of triumph, overcoming adversity, and helping others. Class of 2021, go light your world!

Author: Dr. Molly Cinnamon Principal, Pope John XXIII School,  Evanston, IL