My mom drove me to my high school for the last time this morning. I walked through the halls, while I was on the phone with my A.P. government classmates for the last time. I was still saying goodbye to my classmates over the phone when I returned my textbook in the gym. Then I walked to my locker and tucked binders, a letter my English teacher encouraged us to write to ourselves at the beginning of the year and the pocket constitution I had left behind into my periwinkle backpack.
This was not how I pictured my senior year ending. My class will never be together as a whole again because even at our ceremonial in-person graduation, if it happens in July, many will have moved or set off on their next adventure by then.
The school year began like any other. I enjoyed the benefits of being among the oldest students in our school and looked forward to the waning days of my senior year, when I’d inevitably suffer from “senioritis.” While I was nervous about the future, I treasured this last year with the classmates I had grown up with.
Then in March, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the closing of all New Jersey schools because of the coronavirus outbreak. By May, we knew that schools would remain closed for the rest of the school year. My internship was canceled. My prom dress hangs unworn in the closet.
Some of my classmates are considering taking a gap year in the hope that maybe if they just wait, they can have the same college freshman experience that generations before us had.
As of now, Tulane University in New Orleans, the university where I’ll major in political science, is scheduled to reopen in August. But I could well find myself muddling through online classes in my childhood bedroom again if the fall brings a second wave of coronavirus infections.
This not the first crisis my generation has faced. The high school class of 2020 was born in the shadow of Sept. 11 and the start of the war in Iraq. Our nursery school and first years of elementary school were marked by Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession, which left many of our parents unemployed.
We were in the fourth grade when Trayvon Martin was killed and Hurricane Sandy roared through my town. In fifth grade, active-shooter drills became part of our curriculum after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Suddenly, in addition to learning basic algebra and U.S. history, we were also taught how to hide under tables and where the silent panic alarms that would alert the police were. By middle school, we were old enough to watch the terror caused by the Boston Marathon bombing on TV.
We had just found our stride in high school when the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School happened. This was the first time we saw a school shooting through the eyes of students who were our age. We listened as those students spoke up in an effort to make sure nothing like this ever happened again. Once again, our school routines were disrupted with even stricter security measures.
The coronavirus has now stripped us of the milestones that traditionally signal the transition to adulthood. In a way, it’s a fitting end for a generation that is far from the stereotypical teenagers portrayed in the movies and on TV. Many of us came of age participating in demonstrations like the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives and the Youth Climate Strike. We have learned that if we want to change things for the better, we have to raise our voices and organize.
We are also part of the largest student population in the country that shifted overnight from our brick-and-mortar classrooms to virtual classrooms, adapting to an entirely different way to learn on the fly. Education and school as we all know them will never be the same.
As high school graduates, we must now strive to become the next generation of medical researchers who develop cures and vaccines, or the elected officials who put laws and policies in place so that we are better prepared to help prevent a future pandemic.
We can be the corporate leaders who empathize with parents who have to work remotely. The engineers who build better technology tools and platforms for online learning. The teachers who ensure that the education of our nation’s children continues seamlessly no matter what life throws at us
This afternoon my mom, dad and sister, along with my best friend and her family, will gather round in our family room. We’ll order food and plug someone’s laptop into our TV. I’ll put on my navy blue gown and the cap I decorated with gold glitter paper, a picture of the cast of “High School Musical” and beads. Our graduation ceremony will begin at 6:30. When it’s over, my best friend and I will toss our caps and eat cake.
While we may not have photos to show our children and grandchildren what our final days in high school were like, we have something much more important to teach them: resilience. To borrow the message that one of my senior-year teachers sent all my classmates when our school doors first closed, “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” The high school graduates of 2020 will be one tough group of adults. Expect great things from us.
Darcy Schleifstein is a graduate of Randolph High School in Randolph Township, New Jersey.