On Aug. 17, 2017, a hundred or so freshmen were congregated outside the gym doors, standing awkwardly in the sticky sunshine with their class schedule jammed in their pockets. Some were already well acquainted with one another and spent the time chatting away about hopes and dreams they held for their high school career. Others, however, had to suffer the agony every 14-year-old loathes… not knowing a soul. After about 15 minutes though, every single one of those students was ushered into a noisy gym, overwhelmed by a mob of students, pom poms, and principal dancing in a bright purple suit.
Now fast forward four years.
The first day of school, Aug. 20, 2020, looks a bit different. The sun shines all the same, but the sounds of screaming leadership students and that infamous Usher song blaring on the gym speakers has faded into a quiet din, a distant memory, and is replaced with the sound of a teacher asking his students if they can hear him with the new microphone he’s plugged into his computer.
Looking back, there’s a stark contrast between the senior class’s first three years of high school compared to what they face now. A normal week in September might have consisted of presentations in English class, club applications, lunch at the blue tables (or the media lounge so long as you weren’t caught with food inside), rallies at the end of the day, and football games Friday night. But this year? A normal day usually includes Webex meetings, homework in between classes, babysitting, housework, jobs, and emails.
Lots and lots of emails.
These new conditions have forced the class of 2021 to modify not only their lifestyle but their expectations as to what the climax of high school will look like. As expected, these new adjustments haven’t exactly come easily. Senior Briley Dahlem summed up many students’ feelings on the subject, saying, “It doesn’t really feel like a senior year… I don’t get to know how being a senior feels like. We don’t get to experience what we normally would, and we’re missing out on a lot of things.” Others like senior Benjamin Esau feel more burdened by the monotony of all. “Honestly, it’s been increasingly more difficult to cope with,” said Esau. “Last year it seemed temporary… this year it feels like an endless drag.”
Some students like senior Lilly Kier, however, are choosing to have a more positive mindset. “Having your senior year be during a pandemic isn’t something anyone could have seen coming,” Kier admits. “I think this makes it more challenging to stay motivated but remaining positive and looking towards the overall outcome has become more important… I’m glad we have the opportunity to come together online and learn as a community how to deal with the unexpected.”
The pandemic has forced seniors not only to re-evaluate their experiences but also to take into account what the pandemic has done to their mental health and how it must be managed moving forward. Similar to Kier, senior Gianni Bellucci has decided to make the best of things. “Mentally, the pandemic has placed me within a situation that allows unbridled creativity to stem… As a result of that extended frame of knowledge-seeking, I feel as if I’ve bettered myself as a human being.”
Dahlem expressed agreement, saying, “I feel like [my mental health] is better actually. I’ve had time to express myself in new ways, and I feel that because I’ve had more time to myself, I’ve grown up more.” In regards to her social life, however, Dahlem added, “I don’t really get to see any of my friends anymore… and that’s been awful. You’re supposed to remember your senior year with the stupid things you do with your friends, and now I only get to see them maybe once a month.”
Students have also agreed across the board that the pandemic, the riots, the fires, and other unfortunate events of 2020 have all caused them to solidify their worldview and their understanding of where their place is in it. “It’s enabled me to become more aware of current events as well as prepared me for future circumstances which could possibly be more difficult,” said Esau. Dahlem answered similarly, saying, “I’ve been more into social issues and politics..I’ve had more time to figure out who I want to be and not what I need to do to fit in.”
But perhaps the most daunting challenge that still lays ahead of seniors is preparing for college, specifically applications. Kier expressed her discouragement with her college search, saying, “We have to kind of figure it out on our own with limited communication between counselors and students. It’s also difficult to pick colleges because we can’t go and look at them due to quarantine.”
A few weeks ago, the University of California system relaxed their policy on requiring SAT/ACT scores to be included in students’ applications; if students have scores, they may be submitted, but a waiver is given to those who haven’t tested yet or who don’t want to submit their first attempts. Though this comes as a relief to many seniors, the competition to get accepted has not necessarily eased. “[The pandemic] has motivated me to maintain good grades as there no longer will be an SAT test,” says Esau. “College admissions will have to be based primarily on grade point averages.”
Even students who’ve planned to take the gap year route following graduation must deal with the potential repercussions of the pandemic as well. “Currently, my plan for the future entails taking a year-long break… to hone in on my passions,” said Bellucci. “I’d like to travel a bit, that is if COVID-19 isn’t as prevalent within that period.” Whether students plan to attend a university, community college, trade school, or take a gap year, all must face the possibility of modified education or a delay in travel plans if the case count does not begin to trend downwards.
Overall, the general mood of the graduating class is one of semi-optimistic realism. “I think it enforces that life is unpredictable, and we need to learn to adapt and get creative!” said Kier. Dahlem, however, expressed more of a resignation. “We don’t know what we’re missing out on, so I can’t be happy or sad or mad,” she said. “I’m just taking it and accepting it.”
Regardless, most of the senior class has their fingers crossed as to what school might look like following the winter break. “I certainly do hope we’ll be able to return to school next semester,” said Esau. “Graduating high school in quarantine is a grim thought that I try to avoid.”
Though the beginning of this class’s high school experience may have started with chatty crowds and socialization under the sun, it is still unsure at this time whether that experience will conclude the same way. The jury is still out, but many continue to be hopeful for a change in circumstances. That seems to be the theme of the graduating class of 2021. Hope.
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