The pale yellow house on Queen Anne Hill was built in 1918, the year the Spanish flu appeared in Seattle.
Ivy climbs to the second floor up a brick chimney. Up here, Lily Tatge’s bedroom offers a view of the Callery pear tree she used to climb; balanced on its highest branches, she could catch a glimpse back into her window.
Through the front window of the yellow house, you can see fabric and elastic — mask-making materials — spread over the family’s dining room table. A red cap and gown are draped over a dress form. A lawn sign in the yard reads: GRADUATE Class of 2020.
Lily has spent nearly every moment of the past 94 days here, the number since the novel coronavirus closed school buildings in Seattle. This is home. Where Lily has lived her young life. It’s where, as she dons her graduation cap, gown and sash this week, Lily will graduate from high school, too.
Lily, whom The Seattle Times has been following since schools closed, is one of roughly 480 seniors who will virtually celebrate their graduation from Ballard High School on June 16 — and one of millions across the U.S. who will graduate from their respective schools at home. Ballard High plans to broadcast a ceremony of sorts on YouTube and public television. Lily won’t walk across a stage, or toss her cap into a sea of red. Instead, she’ll crowd around a TV with her parents. She’ll listen to recorded speeches from her peers who volunteered to film themselves for the occasion.
Lily was born 18 days after two hijacked planes hit New York City’s twin towers; the lives of her graduating class are bookended by international catastrophes. It’s an extraordinary moment to move into adulthood. Seniors’ launchpads toward jobs or college are obstructed by a global pandemic and economic turmoil. Police brutality against Black people has called many students into the fold of the city’s protests; Lily and her dad attended one in late May.
On a recent Wednesday morning, she’s out on her porch when a neighbor calls from the street.
Lily smiles, slightly. She has on a gray sweatshirt that reads “Senior 2020 $#&T getting real.” The zeros in “2020” are shaped like toilet paper rolls.
High school was difficult. College didn’t feel right for her. Her new chapter — a move to Berlin — was interrupted. “I’m trying to be positive about graduation,” she said. “I’m trying to smile.”
A changed world awaits her.
It’s late March. School buildings had abruptly closed two weeks ago, and Lily’s teachers are just beginning to send notes about learning online.
She’s not interested. Other things feel more important.
Without a clear schedule, Lily has created her own. She bakes, cuddles with her cats and writes in a diary. She wants to visit her grandmother, who lives at an assisted living center within walking distance. But she can’t.
She’s also canceling plans. A summertime cross-country adventure, a long-awaited choir trip to New York City. Lily had auditioned, and made the cut, for a choir that was to perform at a choral festival at Carnegie Hall. She’s learning German, but her imminent move to Germany won’t happen, either.
Lily, who was adopted through an open adoption process, was born in Springfield, Oregon. Her parents say she was an anxious child. Drop-off at school and day care was difficult for years. “Velcro girl,” her mom, Anne Espo, nicknamed her — which, looking back, “isn’t very nice,” she said. That anxiety clung to Lily for years; it’s fading now, Lily said.
She’d been turned off by school since freshman year. Her friend group shrank after leaving middle school. President Donald Trump was newly elected. A constant pelt of news about school shootings was overwhelming. “I was like, OK, I’m not really sure if I want to be in the U.S. anymore,” she said.
But senior year was different. Lily enrolled in fewer classes, and had more time to do the things she is good at, like choir and photography. She’d spent hours dreaming up what life would be like afterward, and crafting plans to live and work in Europe. Then came coronavirus.
“Having that last day and not knowing it was my last day is killing me,” Lily said in early April. “I don’t think I was ready to be done with school.”
Then, a letter arrived. It was a note from eighth-grade Lily to her future self: a middle school teacher had kept the letters penned by students four years prior, and finally sent them off.
“I asked myself a lot of questions including, ‘Where are you going to college?’ and ‘Are you taking a gap year? You better not,’ which both made me cry,” she said. “Part of it was how I didn’t live up to the expectations I had four years ago.”
As Lily’s mom describes it, the days leading up to graduation feel like trudging through mud.
But by mid-April, Lily’s days are evolving.
Lily is spending her days sewing. She and her mom set up two sewing stations — one in the kitchen, another in the dining room — and Lily devises a plan: launch an online shop and donate masks, or a percentage of proceeds from her sales.
She spends 10-12 hours a day measuring and sewing, sourcing elastic and sending off masks at the post office. Orders are coming in fast. Some days, she’s awake until 1 a.m. cutting fabric. It keeps her hands busy and her mind occupied.
It’s not a perfect salve. She’s now thinking about her friends with plans to leave for college in August or September. Who will she spend time with, she wonders. “Especially when stressed about the masks, I find myself getting angry at little things. I would say I have probably one meltdown a day, which I’m really not proud of,” she said. “I guess I just feel a little lost.”
Her English language-arts teacher Gordon Macdougall proposes an idea to create a special senior “journal,” where the graduating class can write notes to each other and share photographs. Lily volunteers to lead the project — a way to feel connected to and remember her classmates.
Entries are coming in slowly, so she creates a flyer to send off with students when they collect caps and gowns.
A month before graduation, Lily heads to Ballard High. Staff hand off graduation regalia, and Lily passes out flyers as a procession of students in cars snakes through the parking lot.
Only a few classmates sent journal submissions. Everyone’s checked out, Lily said.
During a typical spring, Macdougall, Lily’s teacher, loves watching his seniors “break free of the school.”
“I mean that. It’s such a joy to see them approach their graduation. They’re worried, they have trepidation,” he said. “But they’re emerging out into the world and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
This spring: “I abandoned my curriculum,” he said. Instead of finishing out a set of assigned texts — “The Handmaid’s Tale” was next — he’s asked his students to search for hopeful songs and write journal entries.
“The main feeling for me is, I can’t be there for my students.”
Lily’s parents want to help her find closure. “She needs to launch,” said her dad, Steve Tatge. She’s now wrapping up the senior journal. Her graduation party is canceled, but they’ve ordered a cake from a local baker and organized a few virtual celebrations.
She has something new to look forward to — a reboot of her plan to visit New York City.
She won’t perform at Carnegie Hall, but in a few weeks, she plans sightseeing with a cousin who lives there, if it’s safe to do so. She’ll also help her cousin clear out her apartment; her cousin’s work has dried up because of the coronavirus, and she’s moving back to Seattle.
Lily says her own plans are on pause, not canceled. But her vision of what’s next looks different now. She may eventually move to Europe, but, “I don’t see myself staying far away from [my parents] forever.”
“I think that’s something that’s changed,” she said. “I kind of just realized how much I [would miss] them. And I don’t know if, without the pandemic, I would have realized that.”