Sometimes a Picture is Worth No Words At All:
What the #Classof2020 Really Thinks and Wants Us to Know

By Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, MAJE, and Members of #Classof2020
Ryann Bloom and Ethan Kerstine

We’ve all seen the posts. Maybe we’ve even participated in them. Our senior photos, accompanied by the hashtag #Classof2020, often with words of support for this year’s graduating seniors. I understand the sentiment. I myself was tempted to post my own picture (and perhaps might have if they weren’t buried in a box somewhere). All of us, parents and educators, have a deep desire to remove any pain or distress in our kids’ and students’ lives. We search for the perfect words of consolation, anything we think will help alleviate the sting of this tremendous loss. We’re doing our best, and sometimes we miss the mark. This is one of those times. Sharing our photos in solidarity with graduating seniors has had quite the opposite effect. For many, it has only further exacerbated the pain they are feeling. It reminds them of all of the things they will miss, the memories they won’t make, the nostalgia they won’t be able to feel in the same way in twenty years. And worse, it really doesn’t have anything to do with them, and it has everything to do with us. So what can we do, and what should we stop doing, to help support and console our teens during this time of loss? If I’ve learned anything over the last fifteen years working with teens, it’s that they know far more about what they need than any of us ever will, and it’s high time we listen. So I pondered, what if I actually asked a few graduating seniors these very questions? So I did. And here is what they had to say. 

Stop posting photos in our honor.” 

We understand why you’re doing it. And we appreciate the sentiment. But it’s not helping us; it’s just making us feel bad. With all due respect, we don’t want to hear about your senior year – ours is ruined and we don’t want to put any more thought into what could have been. We don’t want to stop you from sharing photos and memories that help you cope. But please don’t do that in front of us (unless you’ve asked first). And please don’t say it’s in our honor – it really doesn’t have anything to do with us. 

Please stop apologizing.

We appreciate that you feel bad for us and everything we’re losing. But all your apologies do is remind us about everything we’ve lost. We are in the process of accepting the fact that our senior year has abruptly ended and are trying to get past our feelings of sadness, anger and jealousy. When people continue to bring up everything we’re losing and apologizing for it, it makes us feel worse rather than better. We acknowledge that it is important not to completely brush off the situation, but at the same time, when it’s all adults talk about with us, it feels so consuming. Some of us are finally getting to the place where the sting is starting to lessen; constant apologies only rub salt in the wound. 

Ask before you process with us.

We know we’re not the only ones experiencing loss. You are too. And we want you to be able to process your feelings. But please ask before you process them with us or in front of us. Some of us can handle it. Some of us even want to process with you. But some of us can barely manage our own pain right now. And we understand you’re in pain and we don’t want to disregard that. But for some of us, it’s just too hard to handle. Especially when it’s our losses that are causing you pain – because it brings it up for us all over again. 

Remember that we are all different, and so are our needs.

Everyone deals with loss differently and everyone grieves in their own way. The best thing adults can do is recognize the fact that we all are hurting and to let us deal with it at our own pace. Parents need to be there for the child who needs to talk about their feelings everyday and for the child who doesn’t want to talk about their feelings at all. Ask us what we need and then respect our response. It may not be the same as what you need, but please listen. It is important to speak to your child to understand their boundaries and know the best way to support them. We need you. But the way we need you is different for all of us.  

Your pictures may not be worth a thousand words, but your presence is.

Just be there for us. Understand that we’re going to be really upset, and there will probably be some tears, some anger and some seemingly irrational reactions. Don’t judge us. Don’t try to give us advice. Just be there for us and let us mourn. Communication is vital. Making sure that we know we have the option to talk to you if we need to, or to not talk at all, is extremely reassuring. Telling us that we are not alone is great, but showing us we are not alone is even better. 

Instead of telling us about your senior year memories, help us create new ones.

This virus isn’t only taking things away from us; it is also giving us a lot. It is giving us extra time to spend with family before leaving home. It is giving us an opportunity to create memories we never would have had. It is allowing us to connect with family and friends in a way we would have never considered. We will continue to mourn the memories that will never be, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t grateful for the memories we are creating that we will never forget. Help us make this time special. Instead of apologizing for the memories we won’t have, make new ones with us. 

This is a new normal for all of us and we are all doing the best we can. This information was intended to help, and not to hurt; to clarify and not to criticize. We hope it has done both of those things. Please remember that this is just how a few of us feel. Ultimately there is no one way adults can help us and none of us are experiencing this in the same way. Please ask your teen about their experience and what they need from you. And then listen. Know that we see how much you care about us. And we thank you.

Ryann Bloom, Class of 2020, is a senior at Natick High School. She is heavily involved in NFTY-NE and is co-president of her temple youth group, STIFTY at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, in addition to helping to connect her peers as a Jewish Teen Initiative of Greater Boston Peer Leadership Fellow. She enjoys singing, writing, criminology and hanging out with friends. Ryann also attended Alexander Muss High School in Israel in 2018 as one of its Impact Fellows. She plans on studying Criminology and Psychology at the University of Maryland.

Ethan Kerstine, Class of 2020, is a senior at Plano West Senior High School. He is a proud member of Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, where he has been a vocal advocate for gun violence legislation and LGBTQ rights. In his free time, he loves writing and producing music, playing basketball, searching for fossils, playing with his dog Chip and advocating for change within his community. He plans on studying Psychology, Neuroscience and Music at Brandeis University.

Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, MAJE, has worked to elevate and reimagine Jewish education and teen engagement for the last 15 years. As a consultant, coach and designer and facilitator of professional development, she works with educators, clergy and Jewish communal professionals to help them increase their impact and maximize their potential. She currently serves as Recruitment and Leadership Development Associate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.