Class of 2020
What high school seniors have learned from a year unlike any other
JUNE 7, 2020
Class of 2020
What high school seniors have learned from a year unlike any other
JUNE 4, 2020
Class of 2020
What high school seniors have learned from a year unlike any other
For the high school students who graduated in spring, what began as a temporary interruption to senior year soon stretched into a strange, anticlimactic ending. As the coronavirus tore through the United States, forcing schools to close and cities to shelter in place, the students of the class of 2020 found their long-awaited proms and graduations canceled, their final sports tournaments replaced by solitary workouts at home, their last memories with friends restricted to FaceTime and Animal Crossing, and their rapidly expanding worlds — and newfound independence — suddenly confined to four walls. A generation brought up in the shadow of catastrophe, from the Great Recession to school shootings to the climate crisis, they watched as loved ones fell ill or lost their jobs. But even amid the long, shapeless weeks, there were lessons to be gleaned and milestones to be found.
As told to Meher Ahmad, Ann-Derrick Gaillot, and Andy Wright
Photographs by Mark Jayson Quines
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
I’ve played baseball all my life. On the team this year, there were 14 seniors, and I’ve been playing with some of those guys for eight or nine years. We’ve been looking forward to this year since we were children, and we expected to do a lot of good things. All these tournaments and invitationals and competitions are where colleges look for players. Now we can’t even finish the season.
Last year, I had one of the highest batting averages on my team, and in the month before the quarantine happened, there were six or seven schools talking to me. The scouts were all saying, We’re looking forward to seeing you play at this tournament in Arizona. Now that can’t happen. But whenever I think it’s unfair, I remember that the whole class of 2020 is going through the same thing. I don’t know if it makes it easier, but it makes it more bearable that it’s not just one city or one school — it’s everyone.
I miss my teammates so much. We have a group text, we call each other, and we have group FaceTimes. We’re trying to stay close. My friends play soccer and football and basketball, and they’re all trying to shoot baskets wherever they can or using the fields to do sprints. I have my own little setup of weights at home, and I’ve been keeping my routine of lifting three to four times a week. I have a net, so I still hit baseballs. As hard as it is, I try to keep as much normalcy as possible. I’m watching what I eat and drinking a lot more water; I just feel like it’s going to keep my body feeling good. It’s about consistency. If you’re not consistent, there’s no way that after all this is done you’ll be able to compete at all. In times like this, if you can’t keep to the standard of what you were doing before, how much love do you have for the game you’re playing?
Whoever’s in my household, I’ve been hugging a little tighter, a little longer. I live with my dad and stepmom and my grandma and grandpa. I have two brothers who are 5 and 2, and I’ve been spending a lot more time with them. My brother who is 5 is doing online school with all his little friends, so I try to help them with that, and I play a lot of Lego games with him. Whenever I bench, I give him a little kettlebell, and he does squats, or he goes on my elliptical. He sometimes ends up complaining that his chest is broken, but he’s just tired.
— Dominic Martinez, Chino Hills, California
“Having to take care of my brother, making sure my parents are OK in the hospital — I think I’ll be able to handle things in the future.”
My parents got sick the week after I got sick. I thought it was a regular flu because I didn’t have a shortness of breath. My dad first was complaining about not being able to breathe, and he felt weak, so I took him to the hospital. They put him in the emergency room, and then I went to drop off my mom at work. Then my mom called me to say she felt really weak, asking me to take her to the emergency room. She ended up being in the hospital for six days.
That week, it was just me and my little brother. He’s 16. It was a little rough, I have to admit. We’re not used to being alone without our parents.
The last time I talked to my dad, it was 3 in the afternoon the day we dropped him off at the hospital. He’s in the ICU, so we call them every day just to check up. We’re not able to talk to him because they sedated him and he’s on a ventilator. When my mom got out, she could barely walk up the stairs. She’s getting a lot better now. She’s really worried about my dad because we’re not sure what’s going to happen. I just tell her, “It’s going to be OK.” When I watch the news, and they’re listing how many coronavirus cases there are, I think about my parents and how they’re part of a statistic.
My teachers and counselors asked if we needed anything, like if they could get us groceries. I didn’t want them to. I’m the type of person who doesn’t like asking for help. I had my mom’s card with me, and we pay our bills online, so I learned how to pay the bills. But when it came to the mortgage, I wasn’t sure how to pay. I just called and asked if I could pay on the phone, so that’s what I did.
Before, the thing I was most nervous about was being able to handle whatever came my way — having to take care of my brother, making sure my parents are OK in the hospital, and doing what they usually do. This whole coronavirus thing hit my family out of nowhere. I think I’ll be able to handle things in the future.
— Angelica Djokonirmolo, Aurora, Colorado
“This situation has forced me to think: Who is Hannah when she’s not required to learn?”
I’m a try-hard. I love school, and I’ve joined every club. I’ve been a leader of them. I’ve gone to two state championships for flag football. I’ve been a part of speech and debate. I’ve been an all-around good student. The end of senior year is supposed to be the time you reap the rewards for your hard work. You have prom, you have senior week, all these things that have been canceled. In the beginning, I thought, I’ve done a lot for this school. I deserve these things. This was supposed to be when senior year gets fun, but one of my friends made a good argument. She was like, “Girl, we should have been having fun already!” She was going through all these memories: homecoming, cross-country, parties we went to. She was reminding me, “You did have a good time.”
Now, the way my brain is working through this is, OK, we might not get to finish high school strong, but you can focus on the next chapter. So I’ve been doing tons of research on the colleges I’ve been accepted to, on sororities and Greek life and intramurals and clubs. I always have a checklist. I color-code.
In philosophy class, we learned about stoicism. A lot of the stuff my teacher said in her lecture was this idea that if we can’t control something, what are other ways we can have control? My identity has been associated a lot with my academic success or my athletic success. This situation has forced me to think: Who is Hannah when she doesn’t have to go to school or when she’s not required to learn? I don’t have an answer. It changes every day.
— Hannah Serquina, Henderson, Nevada
“A loss is a loss. It’s not smart to say, People are dying. Why don’t you get over not having a prom?”
We were at brunch, and someone in my friend group said, “My dad said to stay away from you specifically because you’re Chinese.” It was kind of funny at first. You process it with humor. We’re Gen Z — we take everything sarcastically. I was like, “Cool, next time I see your dad, remind me to cough.” At that point, the coronavirus was just in China and hadn’t come to the U.S., but people were already becoming so mean about it. I went to Whole Foods and coughed, because it was morning and I had a little congestion, and some guy did a double take and briskly walked away.
I grew up in the Bay Area, and for two years I lived in Singapore, so I’ve always been in a majority-Asian community. My school is 85 percent Asian. I guess when you grow up Asian American in a majority-Asian community, you feel safety in numbers. This was the first time someone was like, Stay away from Nicole because she’s Chinese.
We can talk about racism on a big scale, but it’s hard to have conversations like, This is affecting me. Can I have some support? — especially in a largely immigrant community. We’ve had a semblance of unity for so long, and now you have these things that nobody knows how to handle. When my friend repeated what her dad said, I realized I don’t know how to deal with this. The Asian community is diverse, but now you have these intra-Asian community tensions. The person whose parent said this was not white; they were Indian.
This is one of the first times people in my generation have had to consider something we can’t see for ourselves. School shootings are tangible — if someone is coming at you with a gun, I can see who I’m running from. But I don’t know what surfaces the virus is on. You can’t see what you’re fighting against.
It’s important to take time to process things. A loss is a loss. It’s not smart to say, People are dying. Why don’t you get over not having a prom? And it’s OK to feel sad for losing things that were big for you. My grandparents are in Singapore, and they were supposed to come back to the U.S. and stay with us for six months, and obviously that didn’t happen. I’m the first kid in my family to do high school in the U.S., and I wanted my grandparents to see me walk across the stage. I cried over my grandparents not being able to come, and I don’t cry a lot.
— Nicole Ong, San Jose, California
You can’t be ready to be a parent, whether you’re 30 or 25 or 17. You learn how to be a parent once you have the kid. I got pregnant very young, and a lot of my teachers assumed I was probably not going to graduate. I’m graduating on time, and I’m going to the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the fall. I’m going to school for my son, so that I can give him the life he would have had if I had waited. Teen parents aren’t stupid. We’re scared, but we’re not stupid.
I’m not going to lie. I miss school, and I miss everything being normal, but this whole pandemic gave me a break. When my son turned 2, I started working a lot, and I started doing cheer and joining clubs and taking EMT and CNA classes. I was at the brink of having a mental breakdown. The pandemic has been hard on people, and I can’t imagine what they’re going through, but it’s given me time to calm down on school, to work out, to get eight hours of sleep and drink more water.
Before, I would send my son to day care, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been with him all day. I can now soak in all these sweet moments. When he was a newborn, I thought, He’ll be a boy. I don’t know if he’ll be so polite. But he’s very affectionate. For everything, he says, “Thank you, Mommy. I love it, Mommy.” He’ll even say “I love you” out of nowhere.
It’s not that hard to balance at-home school with work and parenting. I know how to time-manage. My mom showed me: As a single mom, she would work, come home, do all this stuff, and then go to sleep. If I’m cleaning or doing house duties, I do the biggest task first. Then I feel more accomplished, and it gives me motivation to do more things. And the more I do that, the faster I get. Eventually, I’m able to do all the tasks in one day.
— Alexia Alvarado, Longmont, Colorado
I started day trading the summer before my junior year. The thing is, being at school is a big obstruction to day trading. I can’t always be looking at my iPad and phone to find buying opportunities. So when we were out of school, I was able to get back into it.
In trading, there’s the phrase ‘Stop chasing.’ If a stock is skyrocketing, people might feel like they’re missing out, so they keep trying to buy it. And if the stock drops right after they buy it, then they’re stuck with a loss. Having patience is important — so you’re ready when the opportunity comes, and also so you’re not stressing or freaking out when you don’t need to be. You can’t be buying or selling whenever a dip comes.
Senior year, patience is hammered into you, especially with college decisions. With the pandemic, there are people who want to open the economy. And there are the people who drank the aquarium cleaner because Trump said that one of the chemicals could beat the virus. Sometimes, regardless of whether you’re patient or impatient, you have to wait it out.
I’m privileged to just watch everything happen. As a kid, you don’t have to worry about getting fired or putting food on the table. Investing is definitely a form of watching: You’re basically profiting off of uncertainty, or off of whether the world is benefiting or worsening. The detachment is kind of unreal.
At first, I was spending around eight to ten hours a day on trading. Those hours weren’t sustainable; it takes a toll on you. In the end, you have to figure out what you value. The money you gain from stressing out for ten hours a day — is it worth it? I decided I wanted to take time to slow down and focus on other stuff. I needed to figure out what college I want to go to. I’m not one to read books, but I have been thinking of reading some.
This year, I learned that I really enjoy art. I’ve been trying to make art that’s abstract — I like the meaninglessness of it. Once, I painted with tissues — I dabbed the tissue in paint and pressed it onto paper. The tiny holes in the tissue leave a nice pattern. It’s relaxing because nobody has to like it. It’s just, you do you. It’s part of being human — figuring out who you are.
— Dennis Zhong, San Francisco
Being physically at school, in a classroom, is really important to me. I have ADHD, and at school I have a lot of support. There’s a special place for me to go that’s quiet and conducive to focusing. I’m very into face-to-face conversations, and even though I can now email and Zoom a teacher when I need to, there’s something about being in an environment that isn’t home that makes it easier to absorb what I’m learning. But I have strategies that I’ve found. Not doing work in my bed has been huge — I move to the dining room or living room so I feel less trapped in the space I use for relaxation.
When online school started, I began keeping myself on a schedule. I have this notebook where I draw these fancy color-coded schedules for each day. I have categories to organize my brain. There’s school, homework, and personal. For personal stuff, I write things down just to hold myself to doing it, because if I don’t vocalize it, it’s easier to just not. So for one day, I might need to check out a Facebook Live college tour, or put my clothes away, or exercise. On days without school, I allow myself to enjoy doing nothing, but I do sometimes schedule little things that are semiproductive, like emptying the dishwasher or painting my nails.
As young people, we’re used to dates: Graduation is on this date; your final is on that date. They’re trying to give us dates for when we might go back to school, but now there’s no definitive anything.
— Lulu Savageaux, San Francisco
One thing I’ve perfected is my cooking skills. Typically, I wouldn’t eat breakfast, or I’d get to school and grab something from the Snack Shack, then go to class. But during the first couple of weeks at home, I started getting hungry, so I watched YouTube and Food Network videos. Then I was like, All right, let’s go make some omelets. I learned to make different breakfasts: eggs Benedict, pancakes. I’ve been going all out for dinner and making pork chops. I’m trying to keep my mind busy, finding a challenge.
Learning to cook isn’t that hard — you can find videos that’ll teach you step by step. With cooking, sometimes you want to take something out of the oven or off the stove really soon, especially if you’re hungry. But you need to let the seasonings kick in, let it do its thing before you enjoy it. I’d say the same thing is true for now: Keep waiting, and once we get through, we can enjoy our lives again.
— Isiah Martin Lopez, San Francisco
I was born in one of the most dangerous places in El Salvador. It’s called Santa Ana. My dad was constantly targeted by gangs. They’d threaten him like, Oh, you better join. If you don’t, then something’s going to happen to your family. I was 12 back then, and they started approaching me at school. They’d steal my lunch money; they’d bully me. That was the point my dad said, “This is enough. We have to get away from here.”
We crossed to the U.S. that year. I was in middle school when I first got here, and I was so shy. I wouldn’t even feel comfortable asking someone if they spoke Spanish. I started speaking English when I got to high school. And then I was able to read and understand what was going on. I started to realize being an immigrant was hard. I started to understand that, being undocumented, there were serious consequences if I did certain things. That’s when I began to feel kind of exposed.
Watching the news infuriates me. I get angry because I experienced the immigration process, and I know what it’s like to be in a detention facility. Even though we were detained for only a few days, those few days were hard. I was separated from my dad, and they put me in a cell crowded with young people. My family, we’re always together. Even through all the hardships, we’re there for each other. When I got separated from my dad, I felt like … how can I explain it? I felt insecure.
In a way, the quarantine has been easy because we’ve been together, spending time. Before the quarantine, we didn’t spend that much time together. My mom worked, my dad stayed at home, and my sister and I were at school all day. Now, we listen to music, we watch movies, we play soccer in the little space we have inside the house. We work out, all of us together, for at least an hour every day. My dad leads us to do some cardio, like jumping and pushups. Spending time together, compared to other things, is really easy. I’ve learned we can’t be separated.
— Ivan Franco, East Palo Alto, California
I’ve lived in Missoula my entire life, in the same house with the same people, kind of on a loop. I make a lot of internet friends because it’s Missoula, and being a black girl, it’s hard to make friends here. But when you actually meet an internet friend, it’s not as fun anymore — you’re like, OK, now what? But quarantine has rekindled those relationships. FaceTime check-ins are a lot more personal now. Everyone appreciates each other more because we don’t know when we’re going to see each other again.
I have one Instagram account that Missoula people follow, and my junior year, I made a new account that has just black creatives from other places. I realized, Wow — these people exist. Social media can make you feel horrible, but, to some extent, it’s helpful. I can distance myself from my physical reality and find another community I’d want to be in.
My dad doesn’t want me to leave for college. He’s nervous about me being in a big city. He grew up in Grenada, in a black family, and he doesn’t realize I never got the opportunity to be around people who look like me. I can’t fully blossom here. Ever since I started applying to college, I’ve thought, Wow, what if I never get out of here? It’s something I am anxious about — if freshman year of college has to be delayed. I have been preparing to leave for nine months. I applied to ten different schools, wrote all those essays, took the SAT multiple times. I’ve done everything I possibly can to get out, but it may not happen. Nothing’s normal, and everyone’s plans are getting changed. Maybe the universe or whatever has a path for you, and there’s only so much you can do to guide it, you know?
— Makenna Alick, Missoula, Montana
Both of my parents are immigrants from Mexico, and they don’t speak much English. They’re on these messaging groups where people are spreading conspiracy theories about the virus. They come to me to talk about the conspiracies, and I’m like, “I don’t believe that.” I have been taught in my classes how to find reliable sources. I’m not trying to say that because they didn’t have an education, they can’t tell the difference, but that information is spread so much, they start to believe it.
Right now, my dad is the only one working. He’s a janitor. We’re hopeful that we’re not going to get kicked out of our home. We already talked to the landlord — she’s letting us pay a little bit less this month. I’m grateful my dad still has a job, but I’m scared he’ll get sick. Once things get better, I’ll probably start working with him because I need to make more money to pay for college next year.
We’re Catholic, so we’ve been praying a lot. We pray every night, and it’s helping me feel like our life is still normal, like everything will be OK, because that’s what we always did. While Mom leads the prayer, I think about who I want God to protect, like the health-care workers and people in the hospital. I think about my classmates and how they’re all handling it. Something I’ve learned is valuing the connections I had with people I took for granted before, like some kid I only spoke to in my math class. It’s weird to text people like that out of the blue, like, “Oh hey, I know we barely talked before, but I want to say hi and that I’ve been thinking of you.” I’ve been reaching out to some of them about schoolwork as an excuse to talk to them, just to see how they are.
— Keidyfer Leon, Denver