Last week, I said goodbye to my seniors, the class of 2020. We gathered, social distance-style, at the Coconino County Fairgrounds. Graduates and their families decked out their cars like parade floats, tailgated with cake and sandwiches, and at the end of the evening each family turned on their headlights so graduates could step out of vehicles and throw their caps for all to see.
From the stage, where valedictorian and salutatorian made their speeches, where faculty (including myself) read letters parents, friends and loved ones wrote for their graduate, the scene was oddly beautiful: a checkerboard of cars strung up in holiday lights or plastered with pictures. Just beyond the parking lot, aspen trees and mountains.
Before the ceremony began, we saw each other for the first time in months—teachers, students, staff. Instinctively we rushed toward one another, then stopped as if struck by an invisible wall, and hugged air instead of hugging each other. This “stop hug” was agonizing, but like the trees and the mountains, we also had an epidemiological backdrop: COVID-19.
The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death had just begun to reach their boiling point. A colleague, one of our history teachers who the seniors asked to speak, invoked Floyd’s name as she addressed them.
When the ceremony was over, when I was off the fairgrounds and finally had cell service again, I had texts from friends in Chicago—some encouraging, celebrating the masses of people demonstrating, others terrified, describing to me burning buildings, gunshots and broken glass.
Terror and hope commingled, but not for the first time in American history.
I felt raw after the graduation ceremony. I had to bid farewell to kids I’d taught since they were in eighth grade without so much as a handshake, much less an embrace. From a distance I had to bid farewell to the cohort that, with humor and kindness, elevated me after I was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
I wanted a proper goodbye.
Everyone wants a proper goodbye. George Floyd’s family wanted one. Philando Castille’s family wanted one. Breonna Taylor’s family wanted one. This list could go on and on.
Proper goodbyes aren’t guaranteed to anyone—there’s the unexpected heart attack, the car wreck, the sudden aneurysm, the pandemic. That said, we shouldn’t be denied proper goodbyes because those tasked with protecting civilians murder civilians over small matters: broken taillights, loose cigarettes, possibly counterfeit bills.
We all deserve a proper goodbye.
A virus is a virus and cannot be legislated out of existence. Bigotry, on the other hand, is a choice. Inhumanity is a choice. Gassing your own citizens to hold a Bible upside down in front of a church you’d never enter of your own volition is a choice. Denying the existence of systemic racism is a choice.
At FALA, our seniors wanted a proper goodbye—however we could manifest that.
What does a proper goodbye involve? A little bit of chaos, eyes squinting over masks, some laughter, some tears. A proper goodbye does not contain an ounce of violence. A proper goodbye is preordained, necessary, warranted. No proper goodbye ends with a knee to the neck.
When this posts, I will be well underway for yet another PET scan to see if my cancer has spread to distant organs. As I lie still in the machine, I will not be thinking about burnt buildings—which are of no consequence compared to lives—nor will I be worried about the police (it’s time for a reckoning), but I will be thinking about how we live such a short time, and how desperately we need each other, how we need our goodbyes not to be violent and unnecessary, but dignified, organic and proper—full of hugs and tears and kind words.
Too many BIPOC have been denied the right to a proper end, a proper goodbye. There is, sadly, no PET scan to detect racism in those who are charged with preserving so-called law and order. Nevertheless, racism is a sickness, a social cancer, and there are many ways we can treat it. If you’re an educator, revamp your curriculum; if you’re healthy enough, attend a protest; spend money on black-owned businesses (there are PLENTY); and if you’re white, shut up for a moment, put your ego aside and listen. Maybe take some notes.
Let’s no longer tolerate improper goodbyes.
Allison Gruber is an essayist and educator whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals including The Literary Review, Brevity Magazine and The Sonora Review. Her debut collection of essays, You're Not Edith, was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. She lives with her wife, Sarah, their menagerie of animals and teaches English and creative writing at Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy.
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