The senior year of high school is the toughest academic year in a student’s life, but the rewards – prom, senior trips, class rings, the signing of yearbooks, college acceptances, scholarship wins and the act of walking across that stage to receive that rolled-up scroll – add up to a rite of passage that forms lifelong memories.
Heartbreakingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has squashed many of these dreams for the class of 2020. As March stay-home orders were extended to May, educators and the community at large have been scrambling for ways to celebrate seniors. In Florida, a principal lined her high school’s scenic driveway with oversize photos of the school’s seniors, and this elegant display has drawn drive-by tourists who don’t even have kids at the school. Churches are organizing car parades for grads. Schools are planning virtual graduation ceremonies and using their Instagram and Facebook pages to commemorate each senior, sharing stories, TikTok videos and news on college acceptances.
Planning the unplannable
Frances Suavillo, who is valedictorian at Carson High School, has a lot riding on her shoulders. After immigrating to the U.S. in 2010, she will be the first in her family to graduate here. She’s editor-in-chief of the school yearbook, president of her school’s California Scholarship Federation chapter and founded Share the Love, a program to help homeless people in L.A. Both of her parents work in the medical field, which leaves her, the eldest of their two children, in charge of “holding things down at home.”
Suavillo is also the student representative for the Los Angeles Unified school board, and after campuses were shut down, Superintendent Austin Beutner appointed her to lead a task force to help the district devise a plan for graduation. The district has a whopping 254 high schools.
When I speak with her, she has just gotten off a call with the graduation task force of about 15 seniors and the superintendent. “My job has been to sit in the board meetings and make sure that student voices are being heard,” she says. “We’re working together to try to figure out the best way to incorporate everyone’s ideas for a virtual graduation. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. I’m excited that the district asked for our input.”
Suavillo is trying to balance her school board role with her own feelings. “I’ve been pretty bummed out, to say the least,” she says. “All teenagers thrive off social interaction. It’s so hard to try to be OK without your best friend next to you laughing about nothing at all. Some students are so drained, and they just want to get this over with. ‘Just mail me my diploma’ is how some students feel.”
School board member Nick Melvoin, who had a series of meetings planned with seniors, including Suavillo, understands the seniors’ fears and frustrations. “No amount of video conferencing can replace these celebrations, but we will do our best to commemorate the end of a truly unprecedented school year,” he says. “While graduations and end-of-year events will have to be celebrated virtually for now, I know how meaningful these achievements are for our students and families. We are exploring the best ways to give our high school graduates the opportunity they deserve to walk across a stage and receive their diploma as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
Gracie Wilson, student body president at The Archer School For Girls in L.A., says that while the quarantine has been difficult, she’s tried to wring as much learning and social contact out of virtual interactions as she can. That, plus focusing on her future, is getting her through.
“Because I got into college through early decision, I have been committed since first semester and therefore have not been awaiting any acceptances,” she says. “That being said, I have definitely used this time to get excited about college and research course options, housing and extracurricular opportunities. Fantasizing about my future has provided me with a sense of relief and allowed me to envision a time devoid of social distancing, fear of virus contraction and loneliness.”
Elizabeth English, head of schools at Archer, says that students and their parents want a live and in-person graduation, “even if that means we have to have it in a massive place and be socially distanced from each other.” However, whether or not that can happen, she says, will depend on the status of stay-at-home orders over these next weeks or months. “I think all of us heads of schools are concerned about what the fall will bring, frankly,” English says. “Without widespread testing, without a vaccine, we just don’t know. We’re all bracing ourselves, all trying to scenario build.”
And while school leaders build, our Class of 2020 seniors continue to find ways to cope with their disappointment, because there is nothing like an in-person communal send-off full of congratulations, well-wishes and hugs. Their reflections are heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.
Everything she had wanted
Samara Johnson, a senior at Marymount High School in Holmby Hills who was recently accepted into her dream school, George Washington University, says the good news is tempered by the uncertainty of the future – since no one knows yet when college campuses will reopen. She compares the times to her favorite dystopian novels.
When I was younger I would read dystopian, fantasy and sci-fi novels, always wanting to be in them. I wanted to live through a natural disaster, be a demigod, or experience an apocalypse. But now that I am somewhat experiencing one, I take it all back.
Right before the pandemic, my life was going so well. I got accepted into colleges, my friend group was stabilizing, I got my first boyfriend, I got asked to prom, I was making summer trip plans with my friends. My friends and I were literally talking the week before quarantine about how we are finally getting everything we wanted. I remember getting my dress fitted for graduation and picking out the flowers I wanted for my flower crown. I was so excited to cross the stage at graduation because it would have made everything I have worked so hard for (and my family has worked so hard for) worth it. I was going to sing at graduation, too, something I was so scared, yet excited, to do. I told myself that graduation was going to be the moment I would conquer my fear and perform in front of people again. And prom. My two best friends (of 13 years) and I got asked to a dance for the first time. Since we all go to all-girls schools, this was a big deal for us.
Even though I am literally brought to tears writing this reflection, I know this struggle is not even close to the millions of other Americans who are going through harder times.
Thinking of her friends
Reed Maruyama, a senior at Clark Magnet High School in Glendale, writes about her disappointment over the senior experiences that will not happen, and is especially concerned about the mental health of her peers who were already struggling.
I was really excited for graduation and prom. I had ideas for what dress I was going to wear, what I was going to do with my nails and hair, and where me and my friends would go after. My school doesn’t have a junior prom, so I don’t think I’ll get to experience a prom in my high school career, which is pretty disappointing. As for graduation, I was looking forward to designing my cap and seeing my classmates one last time before we all left.
I’m the head designer on my school’s yearbook committee, and we really wanted to make sure that the Class of 2020 got a yearbook this year. With everything else being taken away from them, a book to show the good memories we did have this year is crucial. We’ve been using the software at home and phoning it in to our publishing company, and the book should be done in June. The staff hasn’t said much about a virtual graduation, so we’re in the dark there.
I was accepted to Fordham University with a partial scholarship, so that was super exciting, especially because it was my top school. I’m hopeful for the future and I’m excited to go to New York, but I’m scared that part of my freshman year will be taken from me because of the shutdowns.
Normally, when I am faced with a problem, I try to do everything I can to solve it myself. I can’t do that with this problem because there’s nothing I can do to help myself or my friends. I see a lot of my friends who deal with depression and anxiety hurting, and I can’t do more than call them and reassure them that this won’t last forever.
Remembering why she started
Calah McGraw, a senior in the Academy of Performing Arts at Alexander Hamilton High School in L.A., says a quote she read a couple of months before the pandemic – “When you want to quit, remember why you started” – has especially come in handy now.
I stress over learning virtually, which is something that I’ve never had a good experience with. I’m trying to spend time on work that will raise my grade, but I often fall behind due to the massive amounts of work being thrown my way. It’s like I’m trying to juggle my classes within a system of “who’s more important?” The first few weeks, I was devastated. I got so sad that I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t do work, I barely ate, I slept most of the day. That lasted for about a week and a half. I still have those random days of sadness and devastation. No prom, no graduation, no school. As much as I disliked the pressure and the unnecessary stress and drama, I genuinely loved school.
My vision for senior year? The Tuesday before school went on “break,” I had my first prom dress fitting. I had finally found the dress that I wanted after a year of contemplation. My senior prep was staying up doing extra credit assignments to get those tiny point boosters. Finding scholarships from the college office. Spending as much time with my old math teacher before I leave. Being in as many performances as possible. I was to make sure that I went out with a bang. That’s kind of ironic looking back: Corona was a bang in itself.
I got accepted into my dream school, Cal Baptist University. College is the only thing that’s pushing me to work right now. It’s my main motivation to do my work and to keep going, even though it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Imagining a path forward
LAUSD school psychologist Natalya Bogopolskaya, Psy.D., says that for all our seniors, a grieving period is necessary. “My advice would be to grieve this reality. Embrace that this is a very real and rational disappointment,” she says. “Find ways to connect with favorite teachers and classmates (virtually or via real mail). Take time to talk about, blog, vlog or journal about the pain, anger and disappointment. Allow yourself to feel whatever feelings come your way. Don’t force yourself to feel happy if you are sad, nor sad if you are happy. There is no ‘right’ emotion to feel at this time.”
Even so, she says, it’s important to eventually begin to develop a sense of perspective. “Don’t catastrophize,” she warns, by forming beliefs such as “I’ve missed out on the most important event of my life.”
“While these events are important, they are not the only important events we can experience in our life,” Bogopolskaya says. “Recognize what is yet to come. Balance the present grief without losing hope.”
One way to do this, she says, is to start to reframe thinking from “my world is shattered” to “my world is open. I’m now a stronger person. I discovered talents I didn’t know I had. I developed deeper connections with certain friends or family members. I became an advocate. I didn’t think I could make it through this, but I did!”
So many of our area seniors are already on their way with this reframing. Suavillo’s good news this year was getting accepted to Stanford University, where she plans to major in international relations. “I’d like to be an ambassador or diplomat,” she says with enthusiasm.
The future is, indeed, bright.
Cassandra Lane is Managing Editor of L.A. Parent.