Starting school in August was business as usual. The drama started in late October when the Kincade Fire burned over seventy-seven thousand acres in Sonoma County. Not only did hundreds of people lose their home, but PG&E shut off power across Northern California for five days as a preemptive measure to control the burn. Schools closed. Ash turned the blue sky into an eye-burning gray. Food spoiled in our refrigerators. We survived nights with flashlights and candles and extra blankets. We purchased solar batteries to recharge cell phones. We made friends with people who owned generators.
After the fire disaster settled down, we got busy with our normal activities. The Christmas and New Year holidays came and went. Then on January 11, 2020, the United States learned that a new coronavirus had killed a 61-year-old man in Wuhan, China. The World Health Organization recognized the virus as a public health emergency on January 30. Two weeks later, they named it COVID-19 (an acronym for COronaVIrus Disease 2019). This killer virus raced across the globe, prompting WHO to upgrade it to pandemic status on March 11. Five days later, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered forty million Californians to shelter-in-place until we had a treatment or vaccination available. Our way of life changed overnight in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading.
The economy came to a grinding halt as businesses closed their doors. The stock market crashed. Everyone stayed home except for essential trips. Freeways were no longer congested; streets grew eerily quiet. Skys were free of pollution. Home delivery services exploded. We learned how to wash our hands properly, and were encouraged to disinfectant all surfaces. We cut our own hair. We wore face masks in public and practiced social distancing, maintaining six feet between us and the people not in our inner circle.
Schools closed for the rest of the term. For Collette, that meant canceling many enjoyable activities such as hanging out with friends, stage-managing the musical, competing in the Margie Burke speech contest, club volleyball tournaments, and end-of-the-year dance and beach party. Instead of attending regular classes, she experienced ‘remote learning’, sitting at home with her laptop using Zoom technology. She added two guinea pigs (Sky and Star) and a new puppy (Roxy) to her pet family, which helped fill the long hours.
With 114,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19, we knew there’d be no graduation ceremony in the Panther Gymnasium. School leaders rose to the challenge, finding creative ways to honor their students’ hard work. Volunteers planted signs in every graduate’s yard to recognize the milestone. Collette’s core teacher, Ms. Meschery, named her Student of the Year for her commitment to equity and justice, as well as for writing a poignant term paper. She captured sentiments in a video and emailed it to her.
On June 10, my hubby and I joined the Treewaters in their living room for the big day. Streamers decorated the house; Collette wore a navy-blue robe that her parents got on Amazon. She adored the fresh-flower lei that Grandma Devi sent. We gathered around the widescreen TV to watch a pre-recorded ceremony on YouTube. When images of the two hundred and twenty-one graduates appeared on screen, we hummed Pomp and Circumstance like nobody’s business. We were so excited when Collette and eleven others were recognized for achieving a perfect 4.0 GPA. We clapped, hooted, and hollered when she got a special Leadership Award, acknowledging her as a positive role model, a strong decision-maker, and a person who accepts extra responsibilities.
She and I were supposed to be in New York City today to celebrate this happy occasion, staying smack-dab in Times Square. We had tickets to Dear Evan Hanson, the Statue of Liberty, the 911 Memorial, Rockefeller Center, and other fun activities. Sadly, we had to cancel our trip because of the pandemic. We’ll reschedule at the right time.
Truthfully, I don’t believe Collette will ever need this blog to remember what transpired during the year she graduated from middle school. I still remember crying in November 1963 when my fifth-grade teacher told us President Kennedy had been shot. I recall OPEC imposing an oil embargo on the United States in 1973, which caused a gas shortage, making me wait for hours to fill up my car in a line that snaked around the block. Chills permeate my body when I think about sitting with my HPI colleagues around a table in Oakland on September 11, 2001, grappling with the fact that Islamic extremists had hijacked four airplanes and carried out suicide attacks on U.S. soil.
Just as these experiences left an indelible mark on me, 2020 will leave one on Collette. The events surrounding her eighth-grade year were so unique, so extraordinary that forty years from now she’ll tell her grandchildren about the awful fires, the black-outs, and the great pandemic that changed her way of life. But as Principal Tate pointed out in her commencement speech, when circumstances make you feel uncomfortable, there’s an opportunity to stretch and grow. She called it the “sweet spot” and encouraged students to embrace the discomfort to prepare for what comes next.
Get ready, Terra Linda High School. Collette is coming for you. Go Trojans!