This Year's High School Seniors Are a Class of Their Own

Author Pendarvis Harshaw at his high school graduation in 2005. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

There’s this photo on my wall where I’m holding my niece. She’s in a white dress, precious. She’s three, my daughter’s current age. At the time of the picture, I was my niece’s current age: 17.

I'm in a cap and gown, celebrating my high school graduation.

My niece, Talyah, will never have a photo like that, and no ceremonial experience. Neither will a solid portion of the estimated 3.7 million other graduating high school seniors in America and millions more around the world.

For my generation of high schoolers, there were a few significant events that tied us together. Most notably, here in America, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.  Many of us remember exactly where we were when they happened. They played a significant part in shaping the society we stepped into as adults as well as the world we stand in today.

One can only imagine how this war on germs, like the War on Terror, will shape the future for all of us, especially the younger folks who walked out of their classrooms and into adulthood months earlier than expected.

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One thing is for sure: years from now, my niece will meet someone her age at a bar or cafe, and they’ll have that shared moment of, Damn, so you didn’t have a graduation either?

All around Oakland, there are young folks who were looking forward to that final celebration, an acknowledgement that they successfully completed their K-12 educations. Students from public schools, continuation schools, arts magnet schools and private schools are all dealing with the grief and confusion that come with experiencing something like this. KQED is asking seniors from around the Bay Area to submit videos and share their stories, and yesterday our show Forum featured tales from a few students. To contribute to the effort, I got on the phone and called a few folks from Oakland.

Jayla D. is a standout player on the Bishop O’Dowd High School softball team. Her junior year stats show that she’s just outside of the top 50 ballers in California, and above the national average in every aspect of the game. But she won't have a senior year stat line.

A career 3.5 GPA student, she's looking to study kinesiology and get into sports medicine at San Diego State University in the fall. She hopes to walk onto the softball team. Her future is bright, but Jayla D. still says, “I can’t believe this ended like this. I just don’t know how to feel. It’s just hard to see people who’ve worked so hard, and had everything taken away from them—and there’s nothing that can be done about it.”

On the other side of town, is another Jayla—Jayla H. A talented drummer (part of the band Black Excellence) who attended Oakland School for the Arts for middle school and high school.

Jayla H. on the drums
Jayla H. on the drums. (Jayla H.)

She’s taken the blur of the last few weeks relatively well, spending time reading and making music. And even taking some time to step back from the rat race and learn about herself.

“In school, we’re always on the clock,” says Jayla H., referencing the rush from one period to the next. “Now that we’ve got this break, I can focus on doing both [academics and arts] on my own time and in my own space,” she says. “That’s been really helpful.”

But when it comes to forgoing ceremonies, Jayla H., who plans on attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in the fall, says, “I wanted to have my family and community see what I’ve been working towards. And now, that’s not happening anymore—it’s been heartbreaking.”

Another aspiring artist from Oakland is Fremont High School’s Jacob Hicks. This 18-year-old student has been drawing all his life, and now he's looking to pursue a career in animation graphics.

But right now, he's just getting a handle on this concept of “distance learning.” Hicks says, “People who learn in-person are struggling. ... Emailing a teacher and waiting for a response doesn’t always work.”

Jacob Hicks, future animator
Jacob Hicks, future animator. (Jacob Hicks)

Hicks, who still plans on attending Berkeley City College in the fall, says he’s learning to navigate all of these changes. “We’re on the verge of graduating and living our lives. ... I had everything planned out.” And now just about everything has changed.

About four miles up the hill from Fremont High, at the Head-Royce School, 17-year-old Caroline has been talking to her father about everything that's transpiring. He’s a doctor, and she’s looking to become a pediatrician.

She’s planning on attending Case Western in Cleveland, Ohio next fall, but she laments what she’s missing out on this spring.

Caroline was one of the leaders of the dance program at her school. They had been working on the Fine Arts Dance Ensemble’s big show since September. “We sacrificed so many lunches throughout the school year,” Caroline tells me. The show would have happened last week.

Tayland, a senior from Castlemont High, was getting ready to work a shift at KFC when I called him. The 17-year-old is planning on attending Sacramento State University in the fall. He wants to play football and study public health—inspired by a former teacher, experiences in health classes and “issues in the world that need to be fixed.”

(Great time to jump into solving problems in the public health field, eh?)

On the topic of having a shortened senior year, Tayland told me that not having the opportunity to show your family the person you’re becoming is the worst thing about it. “Especially when you have people who’ve got out of institutions. Or the people you’ve been doing it for. You know, the faces you want to see and show them what you’ve done,” says Tayland. “It’s not a good feeling.”

As for my niece, Talyah?  She told me it hurts to cancel plans, but maybe it’s something she has to go through for something greater to come along.

She’s more bummed about prom than graduation. But over all, she’s not feeling set back. “I’ve always felt like I didn’t need high school. Next year when college starts, I’ll be fine,” says Talyah, a senior at Street Academy who plans on getting into the Peralta College system and focusing on interior design.

Talyah Cole, future interior decorator
Talyah Cole, future interior decorator. (Talyah Cole)

When it comes to be being connected to the larger class of 2020, Talyah says, “Its kind of embarrassing, just to know that we’re the only class that didn’t finish—that can't finish. It’s not like we can go back—nobody wants to go back to high school.”

I asked her about the photo, the one where I’m holding her as a toddler. “I thought about that, and you know, if anything, when May 29 comes around, I’ll buy my own cap and gown and take a selfie.”

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Seems like a lot of students are taking a bad situation and making the most of it. This final lesson of their high school careers is one that's going to be useful in life, over and over again.