Growing up, Carley Ebbenga was used to not having big birthday parties. Since her birthday falls right in the middle of winter break, most kids were out of town so she stuck to small celebrations. But for her Sweet Sixteen, Ebbenga, who lives in Romeoville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, wanted to do something special. She envisioned a trip into the city with a few friends where they would eat a nice dinner and stay up late dancing in their hotel rooms.
The pandemic, of course, foiled her plans.
Ebbenga made the best of things. She invited two of her closest friends to a bonfire in her backyard. They ate chili made by Ebbenga’s mother and danced around the fire while drinking hot cocoa. The small group also had a “burning ceremony” where they had notebooks and pens to write down “the deepest, most saddest things,” read them out loud and then burn the slips of paper in the fire. Ebbenga had gotten the idea from watching one of her favorite YouTubers, The Purple Palace, who had made a video burning things she wanted to let go of.
A lot of what Ebbenga wrote down were those things she missed out on during the pandemic like a Sweet Sixteen or “the nights of laughter lost this year” and “attending my first art show.” “It feels really good to just straight-up watch the fire burn,” she said.
When pandemic lockdowns began last spring, high school students in the class of 2020 realized pretty quickly that they’d be missing their proms and started creating new ways to mark their graduations. But few younger teenagers could have imagined that their lives would still be so limited by the pandemic a year later. Indeed, with different rules across the country, kids have had wildly varied experiences: Some schools have been operating in person and holding proms as usual, while for others, the spring of 2021 is not all that different from last year. And as more classic teenage milestones like Sweet Sixteens, prom and graduation were disrupted or canceled entirely, these kids have had to turn their losses into opportunities, forging new traditions with friends.
When senior year was supposed to be ‘your’ year
“It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that we were told for the past three years, ‘Oh, just get to your senior year; it’s going to be a blast. You’ll have so much fun and it’s way easier,’” said Julia Weber, a senior in Athens, Ohio. “Now we’re doing school from our bedrooms with none of the fun.”
The missed milestone she’s most disappointed about is not having the opportunity to visit college campuses in person. “It’s really hard to make such a significant decision with a Zoom tour or just literally pictures that you found on Google of the campus,” she said.
Amaya Wangeshi, 17, of Justin, Texas, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, has noticed an existential sentiment among her friends. “We feel lost in time,” the high school junior said, waxing philosophical about their experience. “It seems like time is moving through us rather than us moving through time. It’s a weird limbo.”
Like Ebbenga, she also missed out on having a special 16th birthday celebration last year.
“My 16th birthday passed and I didn’t do anything,” she said. “It was a shock because it’s just one of those things you think about when you’re little. Because of media, everyone is like, ‘Sixteen, sixteen, sixteen.’ It’s supposed to be such a big deal.”
Getting her driver’s license was another rite of passage that didn’t go as planned. DMV closures in Texas meant she had to wait nearly a year to take her test.
“It was really frustrating,” Wangeshi said. “It sounds childish but I think a lot of people look at their life by reaching certain milestones. It’s just a natural tendency in the way we sort time and also the way we also consider achievement.”
New traditions — despite the disappointments
While his delay wasn’t as long as Wangeshi’s, Tommy Sinclair, 17, of Worthington, Ohio, had to wait several months to get his driver’s license. However, as a member of his school’s theater repertory program, reimagining a school musical was a greater hurdle. Instead of performing “Annie” in front of a live audience, Sinclair’s school opted to film the year’s productions and sell tickets online for virtual viewings on YouTube.
“It’s just so different to not be performing in front of an audience,” said Sinclair, who noted that wearing masks, while necessary, was a challenge because the actors couldn’t show facial expressions. “It takes away from some of the fun, but it’s also a lot better than not doing anything at all.”
Ebbenga had to adapt when it came to her (now virtual) spring musical as well. For many students like herself, keeping traditions alive in 2021 means finding creative workarounds.
In pre-pandemic times, the cast and crew of Ebbenga’s thespian club would link arms in a ritual called “circle” minutes before the start of each show. Individuals take turns speaking, whether it’s sharing words of encouragement or sentimental memories. This year, they’re planning to do “circle” over a Zoom call with everyone on camera.
“We have to keep that tradition alive because it’s the essence of our thespian club,” Ebbenga said.
Sinclair, who is part of his school’s student council, is currently hard at work to make his junior prom as “COVID-friendly” as possible, which includes separating attendees into groups and setting up activities in different parts of the school such as having dancing in the gym, photo booths in the hallways, a movie playing in one section and a cotton candy machine.
For other students, school dances and social events aren’t a possibility. But that hasn’t stopped them from wanting to create new memories during what has been a largely disappointing year. Some parents are taking prom into their own hands by planning unofficial ones that are not affiliated with their schools.
Because her senior prom was canceled, Ianne Salvosa, 18, of Lake St. Louis, Missouri, is making her own version with friends.
“A lot of people are actually just buying dresses, taking pictures, and going out to dinner with their friends, which is something I’m trying to plan to do,” she said.
Goodbye prom, hello picnics
For Weber, hosting small socially distanced bonfires has been a way to catch up with friends who she hasn’t seen “in months, if not a year.”
“Obviously, that’s not necessarily a milestone, but I do think in this incredibly uneventful — from a school perspective — year, this’ll be what I look back on and be like, ‘Oh, that was the biggest social event: sitting at a fire with three people in my backyard,’” Weber said.
Ebbenga plans to incorporate backyard bonfires into future hangouts with friends even after they are all vaccinated, which is quickly becoming a reality for teens as more states open up their eligibility requirements.
“It’s really sweet,” she said. “Everyone’s outside and cold, but we have blankets and we’re together and that’s what makes it the best.”
Salvosa has been having outdoor sushi picnics with her friends so that they have more room to keep safe distance.
Another way she stays connected to friends, maintaining a sense of normalcy and forming new traditions is by watching movies together using Teleparties, a browser extension that lets people use streaming TV services together. Salvosa and her friends use the chat feature to add commentary in real time. And thanks to outdoor team sports like lacrosse and cross-country, many student athletes have still been able to safely compete and root for one another.
While it’s ultimately not the year these kids wanted, it is one nobody will forget.
“It’s just knowing that I had to go through something that’s going down in history books and that other kids are going to have to learn about in the future,” Sinclair said. “It’s just weird. This is definitely not the high school experience I expected.”