Growing up, interrupted

We’re living in unusual times – and it can be a particularly strange time to be a teenager.

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t just led to classes and holidays being cancelled – it has also made it harder to mark the moments you come of age, whether in a religious ceremony, a birthday party, or graduation.

We spoke to four people – Gideon, 13, Lindsay, 14, Ariana, 15, and Liam, 22 – who had once-in-a-lifetime events upended by the coronavirus. They told us what happened – and how they found creative ways to celebrate.

‘A quinceañera often costs as much as a car’

Ariana Diaz, 15, lives in Florida. Her family had planned to celebrate her 15th birthday with a quinceañera – a coming-of-age tradition that originated in Latin America. Quinceañeras can involve both religious ceremonies and a reception and party – and can take as much time and effort to plan as a wedding.

In Hispanic culture, 15 is when you’re maturing, and people want to celebrate your turning into a woman. We had invited a lot of people – more than 400 – to my quinceañera.

Everyone in my family has celebrated their 15th with a quinceañera, and I’d always wanted one. I used to peek from behind the corner when my older sister practised dancing for hers – I’ve loved dancing since I was little.

Often a quinceañera costs as much as a car – my parents asked whether I wanted a car for my 15th – but I said I wanted a quinceañera instead, where everyone could come over and celebrate.

My friends and I started rehearsing for the traditional opening dance in February. There were 14 of us – seven boys and seven girls – and we were choreographing a Broadway-style performance based on a fairy tale. Every Sunday, after church, we’d go to the park and start practising, so I had my hands full.

The quinceañera was set to happen right after my birthday in May, and I was also going to celebrate mother’s day – I wanted to do a mother-daughter dance, and get my mom and grandma a nice gift.

I’d brought my dresses, and quite a few tiaras – my mom said we’d have one on the cake, one for church, and one to go with my second dress.

I’m not going to lie, when I learned my quinceañera couldn’t go ahead, I was a little mad at first – but I did think, if it’s going to have to be like this because of the coronavirus, then it’s better to wait till it’s safe.

I’d rather have my quinceañera later, than have it now and have nobody come, or have people getting sick. Some of my relatives are older or don’t have good immune systems – I wouldn’t want them to get sick.

We’ve now moved it to September. I really hope it’s only postponed till then – but if it comes down to the worst and we can’t hold it then, I’ll have to turn it into an event for my 16th birthday instead. I might be mad in the moment, but I’ll still think it’s better this way – it’s better that people aren’t getting sick or passing away from this.

I miss school so much. Online classes are harder because you can’t always get hold of the teachers – and Zoom meetings can be strange because sometimes people just stare at each other. A lot of my friends at school are moving, or switching schools – and I think “I won’t even be able to say goodbye to y’all!”. I still text them.

The weekend after my birthday – the day my quinceañera was originally scheduled – my mom surprised me. She told me I was going to have a photo shoot, so I got dressed and my sister did my hair and make up. Then, Mom suddenly said she had to go because she was needed at work.

The photographer told me to go outside – my mom had made a whole bunch of balloons for the photos, and put decorations all over the gate that said “Happy 15th”.

Then I heard a whole bunch of cars honking – and saw my mom’s car at the front! I started crying. A lot of my friends, everyone from the family, and one of my teachers had come for a drive-by birthday parade.

Everyone had their cars decorated with balloons or streamers, and they threw confetti or pulled party poppers from inside their cars.

After that, my mom organised a Zoom meeting for people who wanted to cut the cake with us. She brought two cakes – one was chocolate and fruit, and the other one was zucchini, peach and strawberry.

My mom had organised everything because she felt really bad my quinceañera was postponed – I was like “mom, it’s not your fault – you can’t stop the coronavirus”.

That evening, we did a lot of the dances I’d originally planned for the quinceañera – a sister dance, a mother-daughter dance, a brother-sister dance, and a father-daughter dance. I was crying for all the dances, and so was my mom. I was really touched, and I’ve been thanking my mom a lot.

‘We made cardboard DIY graduation caps and wore trash bags as robes’

Liam Ryan, 22, lives in Pennsylvania. He’s just finished his theatre degree at Drew University – and found an unusual way to celebrate.

My rough plan after graduating was to move to Chicago to start making it as a performer there. My plans have been put on a standstill with the pandemic – for now I’m just at home, trying to save up money.

In March, we’d learnt that in-person classes were cancelled for the rest of the semester, and we’d have to move out of campus. Our graduation ceremonies were also postponed.

It was certainly a blow. A graduation is really the finale of your whole college experience, and your last month of college is a huge, momentous part of your life. To miss out on that was really demoralising. It’s still very bizarre to now be officially graduated, and in the “real world”, without those last moments.

In those last few weeks on campus, we were kind of just in the throes of existential dread. Then one of my friends had the idea to do a mock graduation – it started off as a kind of joke, but then we all got more and more into it – to the point where we made cardboard DIY graduation caps, and wore trash bags as robes.

Two days before we had to leave campus, we put our outfits on, made little fake paper diplomas, and walked across the main road of campus – the same route the graduating class normally takes – while blasting Pomp and Circumstance [a song often used in graduations] into a megaphone.

It was cool – a lot of people started to cheer us on. We gave speeches, and did a procession across the porch of the main building, and had one of our friends hand us our fake diplomas.

I would have preferred an actual graduation – but I’m so glad we had our own little ceremony – because it was kind of art in its own way. It was revelling in the weirdness of the moment, and it felt like a fitting end to the year.

The mock graduation, while kind of ridiculous and stupid, was a really nice moment of all of us being together and working on a project together one last time.

I was one of the ones who gave a little speech, and I got choked up a little bit – because it really was an emotional moment, even given the fact we were wearing trash bags.

‘We had our confirmation in the parking lot of our church’

Lindsay Rebodos, 14, lives in Illinois. Her Christian confirmation ceremony – where a person makes a statement of faith, and confirms the promises made on their behalf when they were baptised – was delayed by about a month, and ended up happening in her church car park.

I started preparing for my confirmation ceremony when I was 11. I went to classes every Wednesday for three years, and liked it because I realised it meant I had a group of people I could be safe and comfortable with, and talk to about my life.

At school, because of the pandemic, we had to cancel field trips, track season, and eighth grade graduation.

It was very hard obviously – to not have the same ending to middle school as my siblings did. Our teachers made a YouTube video for us to watch instead.

I’m very lucky my church made an effort to get us confirmed, given the conditions right now. It happened a month later than planned, in June, in the parking lot of my church.

We parked in every other spot so we could maintain a distance. The confirmands all stood in the parking lot – six feet away from each other – and wore masks. We took turns going up to the front, where we knelt on a bench, they prayed with us, and we were confirmed.

My cousins and extended family couldn’t come, and it was kind of hard with the mask, because I couldn’t really see everyone or their faces, but it was nice outside, the sun was shining, and I really felt God’s presence outside.

It was the first time seeing a lot of my church group again. I’d missed seeing them in person – it’s not the same on the phone.

It was really special. My family were really proud of me and all the work I’d put in – it felt nice to be finally confirmed.

Earlier, I’d also given a presentation on Zoom about how my faith grew. I was very nervous, but I knew that these people wouldn’t judge me. I chose a verse – 2 Corinthians 5:7, “for we walk by faith, not by sight”, which reminds me that while things are dark and I can’t always see what will happen, God has a plan for me.

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‘I had been excited for my friends to meet each other’

Gideon Lopatin, 13, lives in Detroit. His bar mitzvah ceremony – which marks the transition into adulthood for young Jews – was meant to have taken place in June in his synagogue, with about 500 attendees. His family had to cancel the gathering – but marked his bar mitzvah on Zoom. Since they are orthodox Jews, they don’t use electronics on the Sabbath, but held events on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday instead.

When the pandemic started and I learned my bar mitzvah ceremony would be affected, I was upset. I had been really excited for my bar mitzvah. We had just moved – previously, we lived in New York, and Chicago – and I had been excited for my friends from each city to meet each other.

I had spent time before the pandemic preparing and practising my Torah reading. After we knew I would be doing it on Zoom, I also wrote my speech and practised a lot.

I did readings on Thursday and Friday, and on Sunday I gave a speech.

I didn’t really know how it was going to work out on Zoom – would it be glitchy? How would the music work? I was kind of nervous before I gave my speech, but once I started it was OK.

In some ways it was nice – before, we had to think about who to invite because it would cost money and food. Now, I got to see people I wouldn’t have seen if it were a regular bar mitzvah. It was less pressuring than reading the Torah to the entire shul [synagogue]. It was good to read the Torah in front of my family.

To me, a bar mitzvah means you are turning into a man now. I don’t really feel that much more mature – but I’m doing more now that I’m bar mitzvah. I can do more in services. Before, it [living according to Jewish law] was voluntary. Now, you have the obligation to do it.

My birthday was in May, and my friends celebrated with a drive-by where they waved from their cars. One of our family friends ordered football and basketball signs, and spelled out Gideon on our lawn. Another close friend made us personalised masks that read “Gideon’s Bar Mitzvah 2020”. It was a nice surprise.

I get to see my school friends that live near me – but friends that live 20-30 minutes away I just see via Zoom. I miss seeing them in person.

I’m looking forward to going back to school, and being able to high-five people. I really like basketball, so if basketball season happens – both the school season, and the NBA season – I’ll be really looking forward to that.

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