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Arts & Life

For This Lawrence Teen, Graduation Means More Than Just A Diploma

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Gina Kaufmann
EV Heironimus-Bishop flashes a big smile at a drive-thru celebration marking graduation from Free State High School in Lawrence, and the beginning of a happy new chapter.

After a high school experience defined by struggle and grief, EV Heironimus-Bishop celebrates a joyful triumph over adversity with a graduation ceremony for one.

Across the country, high schools have been adapting graduation ceremonies to fit the weirdness of the times, scrambling to come up with crafty ways to bring the class of 2020 together one last time, even though being together in any traditional sense isn’t an option. Some have co-opted drive-in movie theaters. Others use Zoom. Free State High School in Lawrence, Kansas, postponed its official ceremony until July and turned the original date into Senior Appreciation Night: a drive-by affair with more than four hundred students taking a victory lap through the parking lot in decorated cars, basking in the cheers and applause of their teachers.

On the one hand, a milestone’s been kicked down the road, but while valedictorians and star athletes will have to wait for their day in the sun, one Free State graduate is fairly content with how things turned out.

“I'm lucky that I'm not one of the kids that are peaking in high school,”says EV Heironimus-Bishop with a laugh. “I am not getting an award for football.”

For EV, the car parade at school was an important chance to get closure after finishing high school on a computer, without high fives with friends, or marching out of the building one last time. But the real rite of passage, the celebration of what high school was really about, was a private graduation ceremony in front of a little blue bungalow on Mississippi Street.

EV, who is transgender and uses they/them pronouns, didn't take it for granted that this day would arrive: "For a long time, I didn't think I was going to make it out of high school.”

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Gina Kaufmann
EV Heironimus-Bishop graduates alone, at home, under semi-lockdown in Lawrence.

For the first two years of high school, EV battled severe anxiety and depression. It was so debilitating that a therapist recommended EV try virtual school for the spring semester of sophomore year. But it turned out that losing the structure of the classroom was a nightmare. EV, a smart kid who has taken numerous AP classes since then, straight-up failed multiple courses that semester. It was scary. The report card brought the already-depressed teen to a very low place.

And then, in the fall of junior year, EV’s dad's health deteriorated. EV was on the way from one final exam to another when they got a note to leave school -- it was time to go to the hospital. EV sat by the side of a parent dying in a hospital room, while their friends finished exams and went to grandparents' houses for Christmas.

"I didn't know how to handle it," EV recalls. "And so I was making a lot of jokes. It made my friends very uncomfortable."

Coming back from all of that has taken determination, grit, and lots of support.

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Gina Kaufmann
EV Heironimus-Bishop sits in the back of a stationwagon with a proud mom beaming from the lawn, and a kid-brother hiding in the back seat.

Which brings us back to that driveway by the little blue bungalow, where EV sits cross-legged in the back of a station wagon, watching a parade of friends and relatives cheering and holding up signs to show their love.

On the lawn sits EV's mom, Sarah, who worked to make this day special. To decorate the lawn with paper flowers and real flowers that match EV's trademark yellow hair. To string pennants between ladders. To place hand-written "no parking" signs out front.

In the backseat, EV's kid brother stays quietly close to his sibling, hiding from the guests, some of whom are surprised when he emerges because they didn't even realize he was there.

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And driving by are the people who were there to soften each and every blow along the way. They're the people who set up GoFundMe campaigns for the mom who needed time off work to care for grieving kids, but still wanted to get them Christmas presents that year. They're the people who get the pronouns right. They're the people who are a little bit miffed that EV won't be home for Thanksgiving this year, because college is three hours from the nearest airport.

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"Before I got locked into my house forever," EV says, "I was doing really well for the first time in years. I've started a new, happier phase of my life at the same time that I'm leaving high school."

For EV, leaving high school means leaving Lawrence. A lot of Lawrence kids stay at home and go to KU, but EV is headed to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

"I love Lawrence a whole lot," EV says. "I'm very grateful to have been raised here. Highly recommend it. But I have also lived here for 18 years, and it is time for me to leave, and I would like to get far away."

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When EV talks about leaving for college during a global pandemic, Sarah looks worried. She agrees it's time for everyone to be separate, especially after isolating at home together at exactly the time in a teen's life when you'd expect the opposite: more freedom, more space.

"EV and I vibrate at different frequencies," Sarah says with a laugh. And nothing about this departure is certain.

"Part of me worries we're going to see a resurgence, there could be future lockdowns," Sarah says. She recognizes a very real possibility of EV having to stay in Lawrence instead of moving away, depending on how the next month or so plays out with COVID-19 — or even moving away only to return again if dorms close this fall.

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But Sarah is confident in something that many parents aren't at this stage in child-rearing, even without the added worry of a pandemic. She's sure of her now-adult child's inner strength and self-knowledge. A lot of teens are rebelling against social distancing rules, Sarah says. Not EV. There's too much for this survivor to live for: studying film, hopefully moving to New York someday, and most importantly, catching up on lost time, now that the fog of depression has lifted.

"I can tell how much I've changed," EV says. "I hated myself my freshman year, but I can like myself now. I wouldn't say that I'm quite to the point where I love myself, but I'm working on it."

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