The pandemic defined my high school class in painful and precious ways

This year’s graduating seniors were freshmen when COVID first closed schools.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

As I rubbed my tired eyes, I searched for my phone to stop the 8:55 a.m. alarm I had set for each weekday. Before I could even brush my teeth and form a thought in my brain, I opened my laptop and clicked the login link for my trigonometry class.

Had I been in class rather than doing school online, I would’ve greeted my friends, smiled at my classmates, and talked about how hungry I was. But for the past year — and for what would be the entirety of my sophomore year of high school — the school day started when a teacher let me into the Zoom meeting from the waiting room. I sat in silence on my bed, waiting to speak my first words of the day.

“How is everyone doing?” my math teacher said.

Jasmine Harris (Courtesy photo)

“Good,” I responded, grateful that she was making some effort at normalcy. But with delayed responses and cameras off, were we really engaging, and was I really “good”?

Before the COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020, I was partway through my freshman year of high school. I had just met most of my classmates a few months earlier, so I only knew them on a surface level. When we returned to campus at the beginning of our junior year, I expected things to be a bit awkward, considering we were timid freshmen the last time we were together. However, I did not expect this awkward phase to last all of junior year.

Jasmine, far right, with her classmates during their senior class trip in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of Jasmine Harris)

I think it’s safe to say that many high school students graduating this year had a similar experience. After all, this year’s graduating seniors were freshmen back when COVID first closed schools. For the Class of 2023, our high school career has been largely defined by the pandemic and its consequences.

We spent our junior year — a challenging academic year under normal circumstances — adjusting to being back in a classroom setting. Socially, it was weird, given that it had been almost two years since most of us had seen each other face to face. Conversations were awkward and short. I can count on my fingers the number of times I hung out with my friends the entire school year, and by the end of my junior year, I still didn’t feel a close connection with the friends I had met my freshman year.

So when senior year came around, my classmates and I were determined to make our last year of high school our first normal year of high school. We no longer wanted to be burdened by the strangeness of almost two years without in-person socializing.

Just one month into my senior year, my friend group expanded, and everyone around me seemed so much more extroverted and eager to hang out. My friends constantly tell me how much I’ve changed, that I used to be so quiet and not want to do anything after school. My classmates and I have grown closer by the day and are eager to plan an entire bucket list of things that we want to do together before we head off to college.

It’s like we want four years of high school experiences — so many of them missed to quarantine — rolled into one year. This year, we feel the need to plan parties, go to the movies, and go out for food together constantly. This has also made our senior year all the more precious.

My fellow seniors and I were determined to make our last year of high school our first normal year of high school.

My friends and I often reflect on this feeling and speak about how, even though it is sad that this is our last year together, it feels like we’re just getting started. That feeling has also bonded us and made us more appreciative of our time together. This year has been thrilling in ways that I do not think it would have if we hadn’t been isolated for so much of high school.

But I believe that the lockdowns and the difficult time apart have taught us about ourselves, how valuable it is to live in the moment, and the importance of prioritizing our friendships and relationships.

This year, racing through these four years of high school has come with major (and historic!) challenges for the Class of 2023. But with every hardship comes lessons. These days, we seniors greet each other with a smile and a “hello.” We may complain about how hungry we are. But then, maybe because we know what it’s like to go without these social interactions, there’s a beautiful afterthought about how important our “hellos” and smiles are.

Jasmine Harris is a senior at Bronxdale High School and a Chalkbeat Student Voices Fellow in New York City. In the fall, she will be in the Sophie Davis BS/MD program at City College of New York. She’s glad to have found a good balance between school and social life despite the chaos of her high school career.