We have arrived at the parking lot of this presidential election. The drive is over, but we don’t know when we can safely enter the building of this country’s future. Even after election night, we may have to sit, wait and worry.

I grew up a pedestrian in New York City, so I regard parking lots as wasted space. I attend meetings, so I know that a parking lot is where you write down ideas that don’t fit the agenda – too messy, irrelevant, brilliant, whatever. I hate this 2020 parking lot.

But COVID has altered my attitude about parking lots. A clear public health message of the pandemic is that being outside is safer. Portland Adult Education, where I work, adapted by moving some school operations into the parking lot. Students can’t get textbooks through Zoom, so we developed elaborate distribution systems, under tents. With sanitizer and social distance guidelines in hand, we gave out Chromebooks and hotspots for internet access. The white lines marked for parking separated people, but people aligned to help each other.

In June we hosted Parking Lot Pomp. Although an online graduation made sense in order to keep our 51 graduates safe, we craved an event in the physical world to celebrate the long years that students invested in studying social studies, algebra and U.S. history while parenting and working multiple jobs. And nothing is virtual about caps and gowns. They are worn in public, for people. Plus, no one deserves pomp and circumstance more than students who are cleaning COVID hospital rooms from Thursday through Sunday, so that they can take adult ed classes during the week.

We lined up a professional photographer, a megaphone, a ukulele, handouts about masks and rules and staff who craved seeing students after four months of remote learning. Students came in their finest clothes or uniforms from overnight shifts. They arrived with children, mothers and spouses. Graduates also brought longtime tutors, American flags and platform heels. The sun hit the parking lot, “Celebration” blared and teachers cheered or honked in cars.

One graduate, a Somali refugee with seven years of education before arriving in the U.S., zipped into the parking lot in his wheelchair. In 2010, he had started in an English Level One class, writing on his placement test, “man. car. Stret.” Getting to school in a wheelchair through drifts of snow was impossible, so he’d sit out winter term. Unfaltering, he kept studying through the decade to earn a high school diploma.


He was particularly loyal to me because I once assisted him when his motorized wheelchair broke down. It took hours to arrange a ride, but he never complained. I wanted to be sure he got home safely, so I rode along on the school bus. After he settled into his home wheelchair, he smiled widely and thanked me. Until that day, I didn’t know he rode his wheelchair nearly three miles to come to school each day.

Years before COVID, he asked us to shift our exclusively face-to-face school online. He was among the first students who requested virtual course options to prevent wasting time in winter when he could be learning. In 2017 I met him at one of our programs, the Street Academy for Homeless Youth, because they were piloting a new online course platform. That same software that he politely requested has enabled many other chronically ill adults, parents with new babies and students holding down multiple jobs, to study at home. He blazed the online trail, and now all of our classes are remote. We are struggling to catch up to him.

As I watched one of our teachers help him put on his cap and gown in the wheelchair, my Achilles heels ached from standing on pavement, but I grinned. He was a graduate. With his wheels, he owned the parking lot.

May we meet this anxious time, this wretched parking lot before history happens, with the grace and gratitude that this student brought to the 10 years it took him to graduate. We can turn up radios, scroll on phones, smile through windows, breathe and wait. We, the people, own this parking lot.

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