Graduating from high school serves as a reflection point full of mixed emotions for many people — marking the line between childhood and adulthood. After COVID-19 altered their final high school years and promises to shape their immediate future, members of the class of 2021 have a bit more to reflect on compared to their predecessors.
“It’s not just that we graduated high school. It’s that we’ve been through a lot, and this is our survivor story,” said Chemery Marte, a senior at Thunder Mountain High School, who will speak at Sunday’s graduation ceremony. “We’ve all learned that life is going to hit you somehow, and it’s up to us to know how to get back up.”
She cited the difficulties of crafting a speech given the happy nature of the occasion, the ongoing concern about the virus and the uncertainty about what the future holds.
“How do I want to end this story? Do I want it to be depressing or very happy? I decided it’s more the end of the chapter, but life goes on. This is not the end,” she said.
Across town at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, fellow senior and member of the senior class council, Anna Wu agreed that the occasion is a complex one for the class of 2021.
“I think we are all extremely proud of ourselves and each other for the hard work and effort we put into educating ourselves and readying ourselves to be great members of society. Not only that, but I think we are also proud of ourselves for pushing through the weirdness of hybrid education,” she said.
Connor Carroll, a senior at Yaakoosge Daakahidi High School agreed that the COVID experience shapes his thinking as graduation nears.
“When I think about graduating, I think how much cooler it would have been if it wasn’t for the pandemic going on,” he said. “But another thing that comes to mind is how awesome it is that the other graduates and I made it to the finish line despite the restrictions of COVID-19. I feel relieved to be finished with high school though heartbroken at the same time. I will miss my teachers and the staff at YDHS.”
Carroll’s classmate, Yarrow Platt, captured the feeling of uncertainty that many graduates experience.
“I am excited, terrified, confused. I think a lot of my classmates are feeling similar emotions as we are graduating from high school, something none of us have done before,” she said.
Looking for normal
Although the school year took a different form than it does typically with remote learning for the first semester and a limited return to in-person learning starting in January, many students reported typical end-of-the-year feelings.
“Because it’s the last week of school, people are happy but just exhausted. It’s so weird and can be emotional,” said Marte, summing up a common end-of-the-school-year sentiment.
Students expressed gratitude for the ability to celebrate some of the markers that typically define the end of high school.
“None of us expected to have an untraditional end to our junior year, and further, an untraditional senior year, so it really feels amazing for us to all come together to have a semi-normal graduation. We want to thank everyone who has been working hard for us to have a regular ceremony this year,” Wu said.
For some students, COVID altered post-high school plans.
“A lot of people are staying in Juneau. Many had a plan to leave, but the year has been so weird. Lots of people are staying local to have time to unwind and de-stress,” Marte said.
Marte will matriculate to the University of Alaska Southeast in the fall instead of a college in the Lower 48, as she initially planned.
“I just finished the pandemic, and now I need to settle down for a while and unwind and take time unpacking and realize what’s happened to all of us,” she said.
Regardless of plans for the future, Wu said her classmates see graduation as a fresh start.
“I think many of us are excited to turn the page to a new chapter in our lives. We are excited for what the future has in store for us, whether it is to go to college, to take a gap year, to work, to receive career and technical education training, or to perform other awesome actions,” she said.
Platt, who is graduating early, offered that some of her classmates are experiencing trepidation as they look forward.
“Something I don’t think is recognized enough is that not everyone knows what they are going to do right out of high school. Some people might not feel as excited as many others have felt, and I want other graduates this year and future graduates to know that is okay. No matter what, we are still young, we have time, you have time, and it’s going to be alright,” she said.
Although COVID has changed the high school experience, Juneau’s students are leaving with fond memories tucked away. Here are their favorites:
Marte: Spirit week assemblies stand out—teachers getting covered in pie and wrapped in toilet paper.
Wu: It is hard to choose out of the many fine memories I have had at JDHS, but my favorite memory has to be when teachers were pied in the face during an assembly. It was part of a fundraiser, and it was definitely a good and enjoyable one!
Carroll: I have so many fond memories to take with me, but I’d have to say my favorite high school memory was when YDHS went on a camping trip during the Halloween season. That was one of the best nights ever.
Platt: My favorite memory so far is today, May 19. We spent the morning at Cope Park playing with dogs and swinging on swings sharing stories. We finished the day off with boat races down by the docks and helping a teacher assemble a desk. What I love so much about this school is the feeling of comfort I have here. The laughing at teachers as they slowly sank in the boats we created, the sharing of stories, smiles, and sun. The second family that I feel I have at Yaakoosge Daakahidi. Even though I only got to spend five short months at this amazing school, I can honestly say I have learned to love school again. I will forever be grateful to the students and teachers at Yaakoosge Daakahidi for supporting me through my last year of high school and guiding me into my next step in life. I can not express how much this school has changed my life and how incredibly sad I am to be leaving so soon.