A strange time for youth, but one glowing with light of potential

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After my father died, when it came time to hunt through old family photo albums for pictures that would capture the arc of his life, I came across one image that stopped my breath in my throat.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/04/2020 (978 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After my father died, when it came time to hunt through old family photo albums for pictures that would capture the arc of his life, I came across one image that stopped my breath in my throat.

It was of the two of us, dancing at my high school graduation. His eyes bright with pride; my hand on his shoulder.

I don’t remember sharing the dance, but I cherish the photo. It endures as testament to a moment whose value, I now realize, he understood more keenly than I did.

That is how memories of youth often survive: as seeds grown to a fleeting blossom, then dried between pages to be rediscovered years down the line.

On Tuesday, as the province announced it was suspending classes indefinitely, I wondered what students marking such milestones now will one day remember. Decades from now, how will they look back on these days, when the typical pattern of youth has been taken away, and their photos will be taken mostly in isolation?

As of now, the suspension’s duration is not set in stone: Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the province would “eagerly welcome” students back to school if, and when, public health officers give the approval.

We all know this crisis will not be over by summer; it is all but certain classes won’t resume before then, either.

So the news, though it broke hard, was not surprising.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said it was an easier decision to make than the one to shutter non-essential businesses made a day earlier. On social media, most parents seemed to react with the digital equivalent of a sigh and a shrug.

Students, too, saw it coming, at least those old enough to understand what is happening. That didn’t make it easier.

“There was no way we were gonna be getting back to normal any time soon,” said Rory Ramos, a Grade 9 student from Maples Met School, who is part of a Free Press partnership project. “I know that a lot of people are a bit upset about it, mostly struggling with the isolation piece.”

In a group text on Tuesday afternoon, Rory’s classmate, Alex Payawal, concurred.

“I know, for myself, this news hit me hard,” Alex said. “I already had a feeling that we wouldn’t be going back to school for the rest of the year but it still affected me. Mostly for myself and a lot of my friends, we just feel lonely, we miss our friends and being able to be normal kids.”

For Grade 12 students, the news may sting with grief for the spring they expected. Their public school years will end with a whimper. There will be no last band concerts before most put instruments away forever. No more shy overtures to a hopeful grad date, no shopping for dresses, no photos in gowns with proud parents.

There will be no last hurrahs. No senior skip days. None of those heady last days of school, where sorrow over the end of all they have known mixes with the nervous buzz of the new.

They will not spill into the hallways one last time, will not hug their friends goodbye, will not dart into a classroom to tearfully thank a favourite teacher.

They’d planted seeds for all those memories, and now those seeds will never sprout. Someday, when the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic’s damage to society is counted, when we tally up the toll it will take on lives and jobs and dollars, the loss of young dreams will not be factored into the calculations.

It is still a loss, and deserves compassion.

What is even worse to think about is those unrealized memories are all youth will lose, only if they are lucky. By the time the pandemic subsides, many will have suffered greater losses. They will have watched parents struggle to pay bills. Some will lose people they love to the virus; others will be sickened by it themselves.

If we are diligent, we have a chance to ensure it will not be too many. So let the advice be repeated again: wash your hands. Stay home if you can. Keep practicing physical distancing — so every Manitoban has the best chance to remember these days without too much sorrow.

This is a strange time for youth. They will be shaped by it, in ways they may not understand until many years after. One day, they may define a generation by those who came of age before the pandemic and those who were raised into it, etching the lines of its disruption into the unfinished mental map of their world.

Yet in that fact, a light of potential. What is unfolding around us right now may offer a valuable education: youth are seeing the truth of how society works. They are learning how interconnected we all are, and how resilient. They are learning the foundations of life many of us long took for granted are, in truth, fragile and delicate.

Let them learn, too, when pressed, their community came together to protect what it cherished. Because memories unfurl like seeds, and maybe the ones they must make now are not the ones they planted; but there is hope for what will bloom next, out of the fields of suspended classes.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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