August 4, 2022 – Graduating high school can be a bittersweet experience for many, marking the end of a life you’re used to and the beginning of a new future. This was particularly true for the Class of 2020. Our long-awaited milestones came at a time where the entire world was in a state of confusion and fear during the pandemic lockdowns.
My graduating class took our senior trip to Paris and Barcelona in February of 2020. My grandmother was so excited for me to travel to Europe for the first time, taking me out to breakfast and spending the morning with me before dropping me off at the airport. The day before I left, I had participated in one of my last debate tournaments ever, so my debate partner and I spent much of the trip proud of our performance and excitedly planning for the upcoming Boston Debate League (BDL) City Championships.
Our timing in being able to take the trip was incredibly lucky, as COVID started hitting the news right upon our return. Fear began to brew slowly but surely as we returned to school like normal, but discussion about the virus quickly became rampant as we began to realize the severity of the situation. I had brought back some souvenirs from Paris for my grandmother, but with all the COVID speculation going around decided it would probably be best to just drop them at her home and wait to visit her until this all blew over.
Before I knew it, school had shut down and we entered the first lockdown. My parents and siblings were considered essential workers, so I spent all day, every day, alone in my house while they were working. When they returned, I did my best to try and ensure social distancing between them and myself in case they were exposed.
This took a serious toll on my mental health. Senioritis was hard enough to begin with, but with an abrupt transition to online school, it consumed me entirely. It was difficult to show up to all of my classes or extracurriculars – except for one.
My debate coaches still decided to host a Zoom every week at our normal meeting time. It was the one thing I was sure to still show up to every week. The City Championships my partner and I had been so focused on planning for had been canceled, but I was so proud of my debate team. I was a co-founder and co-captain. Debate was something I quickly saw great value in and I did not want COVID-19 to change its presence at my school. My coaches created a space for us to convene to express how we felt about everything going on in the world and how we were doing. They didn’t prioritize academia or debate itself, they prioritized the well-being of their students during such a trying time. It truly made an impact on our entire team. We became a family, with students becoming closer than ever, and our coaches reaching out to each of us individually to provide any support they were capable of.
When news came that we could not return to school for the rest of the year, it was crushing. We were seniors and there would be no prom or graduation ceremony, but I was most upset for my grandmother. This woman was truly my best friend. I spent all of my birthdays with her and she attended all of my milestone events and celebrations. We got breakfast together every Sunday morning and she sat with me for a cup of tea any time I was stressed out. I hadn’t seen her in months, trying to ensure her exposure to COVID was limited, and I missed her dearly. More importantly, I knew her missing my high school graduation would leave both of us heartbroken.
I expressed this concern to Ms. Varon, one of my debate coaches. Ms. Varon also served as a school administrator and put together some lovely events for our graduating class. Our graduation ceremony was a drive-thru, where students drove up to our school in their cap and gown to receive their diploma before driving away for the next student to pull up. I thought this was a great solution, but it did not solve my dilemma regarding my grandmother.
Ms. Varon took my concerns to heart. The day of graduation, she showed up at my grandmother’s house to facilitate a personal graduation, just for me and my family. My grandmother had made a banner, bought balloons and cupcakes, and absolutely decked out her porch. My family showed up and parked outside to watch the festivities. Ms. Varon didn’t just show up. She brought a photographer, my debate trophies, a debate cord for my gown, a goodie bag, and even the contents left in my locker at school. She shared a touching speech with my family before presenting me with my diploma and prompting me to move my tassel. Ms. Varon made this day one of the most memorable I have ever had. It was even more special than if I had a regular graduation ceremony.
Just a week later, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly. I like to think she stayed around just long enough to help me reach adulthood and watch me graduate. I got to spend one last day with her and now have professional photos of it to cherish for a lifetime – all thanks to my debate coach.
I went on to intern with the BDL that summer and then returned to my high school as an alum coach the following year. I am now working with the BDL again through the White & Case NAUDL Fellows program. My university, unfortunately, does not offer debate, but debate has still had a major impact on my college career. While I have always planned to enter college as a linguistics major, debate is what prompted me to pick up my second major in political science. I even completed my Capstone project my freshman year of college through our Model UN program, something I never could have done without my debate experience.
Debate is so much more than just an extracurricular activity. It is empowering, fosters community, and is truly meaningful. It has opened up so many opportunities and given me life-long connections and friendships. Most importantly, it gave me the confidence I never knew I needed to become the woman I am today, which I know would make my grandmother proud.
Annamarie Lyons is a 2022 White & Case NAUDL Fellow. An alumni of the Boston Debate League, Annamarie attends the University of Southern Maine with a double major in linguistics and political science.