I never expected how happy it would make me to see an acquaintance.
Not even just an acquaintance, but maybe just the familiar face of old so-and-so from that one class two years ago. I think that’s why I felt elated to be on the Rupp Arena floor on Sunday. I smiled when unsilenced cell phones briefly interuppted pre-recorded speeches and one daring graduate-to-be took a not-so-covert puff off his pocketed e-cigarette.
It felt for just a moment like before. Before when we’d all pack into crowded lecture halls without thinking. Back when you could count being able to see your friends — not in a neat grid on a screen — but after class at the coffee shop or at the bar on the weekend. On Sunday, it felt like I was leaving class one last time, just like before, I could walk away from an academic setting flanked by friends.
I don’t like to dwell on the past, but it was nice to just celebrate everything that came before.
Just days after Kentucky’s first confirmed COVID-19 case, I bought my cap and gown in a hot, crowded basement. That was over a year ago in the second week of March 2020.
Rumors of a coming campus shutdown floated through my head as dozens of us future graduates crammed through a series of booths espousing the benefits of the alumni association, asking us what size gown we needed and finally paying for and receiving the UK-blue uniform we needed to cross the Rupp Arena stage in just a few short weeks.
No one was wearing a mask or even thought they should be. “Social distancing” was yet to be a household term. Only the suddenly very popular bottles of hand sanitizer — strategically placed by laptops we all had to share to enter our personal info — foreshadowed what was to come.
We obviously didn’t walk across the stage in May 2020. Finishing my last college exam online in my apartment felt like it lacked the finality the moment deserved. My virtual graduation involved slapping my cap on my head for an hour in my bedroom, then messaging my editor when it was over to let her know I was ready to get back to work.
For so many people around my age — 23 — the pandemic has been our first society-wide before and after moment. I’m not 100 percent sure where I was for 9/11 and I was in no position to make a money decision during the Great Recession.
But I know I’ll never forget that world-halting, heart-racing, read-the-news-til-your-eyes-bleed feeling that was the onset of the pandemic. When your history professor emails you to say you’re “living history right now,” you know you’re in for a bad time.
I haven’t lost as much as so many have — and as much as so many still are. But I know last spring I missed out on getting to say goodbye and good luck to friends who have moved on and are already out in the world doing their thing.
I’ll never get that back, but being able to dress up, see familiar faces and move my tassle across my head in tandem with thousands of others takes away the bitterness of so much of that loss. I’m so glad I could have a moment to celebrate what was before and look forward to a brighter after.
Rick Childress has covered the University of Kentucky and higher education in the state for the Herald-Leader since May 2020. He graduated from UK the same month.