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High School Seniors Reflect On Another Unusual School Year

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The class of 2021 will have stories to tell for the rest of their lives - how their senior year, long-awaited, long-dreamt of, turned into something quite unexpected.

EMILY MCNICHOL: If I had to describe my last school year in one word, I would probably use underwhelming.

KIMBERLY ROCHIN: Considering every day, I didn't know what tomorrow was going to bring. Everything was just kind of in - kind of in a limbo.

GERALD BURTON JR: If I had to describe my senior experience in one word, it would be enlightening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Throughout this pandemic school year, we've heard from students, parents and teachers for our series Learning Curve. With graduation just around the corner, it's the seniors turn to talk about their experiences. We'll hear from three of them, starting with Emily McNichol of Novi, Mich. Emily says when it comes to academics, she had a hard time learning anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCNICHOL: My classes were definitely much weirder than normal because I was a hybrid student. Throughout the year, I had to switch to full virtual and then switch to full in-person. So it was pretty inconsistent throughout, which made all the classes feel much more stressful.

It was really in one ear and out the other because things that were being told to me I never really had to retain because so many of my tests and assignments were open-note. So instead of having the motivation to memorize things and actually understand that information and keep it in my head, it was more so I could just put it on a screen, use it when it was necessary, and then close it and never have to think about it again.

My school had a replacement prom. So instead of holding a traditional formal dance, my school had something called the Senior Sunset, where the kids in my school had the opportunity to dress up, and they got to come to the school and walk a red carpet and get their pictures taken professionally. And then they would come back later at night to do the Senior Sunset, which was basically like a little thing on the football field where they had a bunch of activities and games like badminton. They had Knockerball.

My friends and I decided not to go to the Senior Sunset. Instead, we had our own kind of get together at one of our friend's backyards, where we had a bonfire, and we basically made s'mores. Hanging out with my friends on prom night made me feel really hopeful for the future. I'll be able to continue doing things like that with them and continue to, like, make experiences that I'll remember for the rest of my life.

I think that since I took so many of the experiences that I had for granted, when the pandemic hit, I realized that, oh, I have to actually, like, take control of my life and kind of just go for it. It kind of gave me the mindset of, OK, if another pandemic is going to happen, I want to not regret wasting the time before that pandemic. One pandemic per generation, please. Jeez (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Los Angeles area senior Kimberly Rochin began working part time at a Chick-fil-A right before California's lockdown started. It was a way to help her family and to earn money for college. And for her, work turned out to be a stress-buster. Her online classes at Azusa High made her sick of looking at a screen, and she didn't like socializing virtually either.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROCHIN: Going to work and creating those connections was way better than chatting online, so I really needed that in-person connection and seeing a face rather than just an icon popping on your screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROCHIN: Something I really can take away from this past year is that everyone struggles on their own. It's duck syndrome, meaning that a duck on a surface level of the pond looks like they're OK. They're floating. They're peaceful. But beneath the water, they're struggling to stay up. And this analogy - it can really be applied to us. Like, a lot of the times we see our classmates or just individuals around us in our community, we're like, wow, they're really succeeding. Or look at her. Look at him. They're thriving. But in reality, you don't know the struggles behind them - all the sleepless nights, all the headaches and times they couldn't go out because they had to finish something.

My classes are pretty rigorous, and they expect a lot from us, so we often treated each other as a competition, not wanting to share our ideas or assignments with one another. And as this year progressed, we just got - kind of got closer and started to feel comfortable with one another, sharing our struggles. And that's something I came to realize, that I needed to stop treating those around me as competition because at the end of the day, we're all ducks struggling to stay up the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURTON: I was able to grow closer in a lot of relationships because I was able to bond with other people. I was able to, you know, get a whole new perspective.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Gerald Burton Jr. of Melville High School in St. Louis, Mo. He started senior year all-virtual, a tough thing for someone as outgoing as he is. He says his family struggled financially, too, and it gave him a fresh appreciation for how hard his mother sacrificed to take care of everyone. Gerald also learned how to recover when his expectations became disappointments.

BURTON: Before COVID, like I said, I was most definitely pretty heavy off into football. Going into the season, we didn't know if we were actually going to be able to play a full game. You know, they were like, OK, guys, you're going to get a guarantee of four games. I was kind of already discouraged and out of, you know, the mindset of even being a football player.

Everybody dreams of having that senior year where they can be like, this is my time where everybody can see what I can display. And to, you know, be robbed of that and to have, you know, people around me who were robbed of that - it really took a lot from us. So me personally, I just started to find more things that I can invest my time in that will allow me to grow and not, you know, allow football to be my only source of happiness. So that's when, like, my writing picked up, like, a whole lot. I was literally writing every single day. I was practically writing through the pain, connecting with other athletes and stuff like that, building those relationships to kind of show them, like, hey, bro, I know what you went through. You know, this is how we bonded together. And I essentially made so many friends just because we had that mutual struggle.

Right after, I would say, spring break, they decided for us to go back five days a week. And ever since then, you know, we've just been rocking out the best that we could. We were fortunate enough to have a prom this year, thank God. So we were able to actually get a little bit of that senior experience. There was a lot of negativity - people saying, oh, it's not going to be this, it's not going to be that, because for one, it was literally in the back parking lot of our school. But I'm going to take full advantage. I'm going trying to look the best I've ever dressed in my entire life. And I seized that moment, took thousands of pictures and created so many memories so I can be able to tell my kids, yes, your dad went to prom, and your dad was the best-dressed man in there.

So my graduation will be held June 7. It's going to be so much joy and so many emotions flowing through that arena. I might even but a tear or two. And to be placed in that moment with family and friends who endured the same hardships with me - I don't feel like this is just my graduation. I feel like I'm graduating with my family - with my mother, my brother, my sisters, my uncles, my nieces - all of them. They were part of this journey with me. I'm going to do my best to honor us all in that moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gerald Burton Jr. of St. Louis. We also heard from Kimberly Rochin of Los Angeles and Emily McNichol of Novi, Mich. Congratulations to all the members of the class of 2021, including my niece, Marina (ph). You all made it through such a tough year. Good job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.