Virtually Incomparable

Author: Mary Kate O’Leary ’20

Oleary 2020 It’s not just rose-colored recollections that make the 2020 graduation such a fond memory. “I think it was seriously that good.”

Did I ever describe how great graduation was? Caitlin texted me about it today, and the memories came back drenched in sunlight. Part of me wants to say my brain edited out the bad parts: the comparison and disappointment. But to be honest, I think that’s wrong. I think it was seriously that good.

It’s been two years since those isolated weeks we spent in South Bend, we off-campus seniors who stayed in town when campus closed after spring break for the rest of the spring 2020 semester. After virtual classes ended, we killed time in May waiting for a Zoom commencement ceremony that would or wouldn’t mean anything, calling it “fake graduation” out of spite.

When the day came, we got up and got ready, a few of us running on about two hours of sleep and day-old makeup. We went to a friend’s parents’ place, and I didn’t want to wear the cap and gown — some kind of protest against COVID or God or Father Jenkins — but I was soon convinced otherwise. I was soon grateful.

Oleary And Alli
“That day, all that mattered was that we were together: exactly what had gotten us through everything else.”

We got 2020 decorations, and Alli’s mom got a cake, and someone catered, but I can’t remember who. Then we sat on the couch as a livestream showed videos of campus; Father Jenkins spoke; we all cried. The livestream glitched, and my mother was watching from her iPad as she drove to Indiana, and my father was watching from our kitchen table, and my brothers probably didn’t watch at all, but I was next to my best friends in the world, holding their hands on a couch, laughing at jokes we’d started writing four years before.

Starting when I was a freshman, I’ve loved the background pictures from graduation more than the formal, perfect ones. Something about graduates standing in a parking lot holding a sandwich, cap ditched in the back seat, makes me emotional: the regular parts of these extraordinary days. So far from the impersonal ceremony, these pictures center on the people and the relationships at the heart of it all. I have photos like that from my graduation, too — Angelica and me in the kitchen with a White Claw in the corner of the frame, a selfie in the mirror with Alli and a piece of cake, blurry photos with one person laughing and one person crying and no one looking at the camera.

We went to the Dome and popped champagne, and I think by that point it was raining. We members of the Class of 2020 all crawled out from our hiding places, emerging across quads and up stairs and along sidewalks, laughing twice as hard because we didn’t think we’d get a moment like that: a moment of our own to say, look, we did it. It felt like when I was a kid, and our neighbors came outside during the eye of the hurricane. Which I guess, in a lot of ways, it was.

And then we walked home, like we did after so many football games and so many classes and so many parties over the years. And we reminisced and we laughed and we wondered — if I would really move abroad, if senior-year relationships would endure beyond Labor Day, if the “real” graduation would feel as good as this one.

In our apartment afterward, we had one last celebratory drink, one more night. We had graduated, and we were leaving, and we had so much to pack and so much (the rest of our lives!) awaiting us. But that day, all that mattered was that we were together: exactly what had gotten us through everything else. And there were no families or events or extra ceremonies to distract us. We had the rest of our lives for those, anyway.

It was us on a couch. My God, it was good.

Mary Kate O’Leary, who majored in the Program of Liberal Studies and Spanish literature, teaches English in Spain through the Fulbright Program.