The seniors had big plans for their last semester in Casper’s high schools.
They planned to sit next to friends before walking across a stage. They planned to win state in soccer. They planned on picking a song for the choir to sing at graduation. They planned to say goodbye to friends and teachers. They planned to wear a black suit at prom. They planned to bask in the energy and relief, that euphoria of senior spring, the final weeks after 13 years in public education.
The coronavirus pandemic — and the school closures required to blunt its devastation — have ruined those plans. There will be no replacing them, no delaying traditions until next year for Kelly Walsh and Natrona County’s departing seniors.
“It’s the milestones that everybody talks about, graduation and your last concert, the sports kids aren’t getting their last meet — those things you imagine happening that you see everybody else getting, that you don’t have,” said Kelly Walsh senior Andrew Brown. “That’s tough.”
Six seniors who spoke to the Star-Tribune last week said they understand why school had to be closed; the buildings are a breeding ground for a virus that can kill grandma and grandpa. Most of the students even anticipated it happening. After state basketball got canceled in mid-March, after KW’s debate team had to turn around and come back, after closure orders across the country, the students figured it was coming.
The teens may have expected it, but they didn’t think it would wipe out the rest of their senior year. And they didn’t expect it to happen so suddenly. They left on a Friday in mid-March as if it were any other day, ahead of a typical weekend with a typical Monday to come. KW student body president Maya Eathorne would continue giving the morning announcements. NC senior Isaac Palomo figured he’d had to give that sociology presentation. Kelly Walsh’s Katie Johnson laughed when somebody in her yearbook class said schools might close.
Those expectations of routine and normalcy changed in an instant. That Sunday, March 15, Gov. Mark Gordon sent out a recommendation that all K-12 schools close. In a rolling wave, school districts announced they were complying with the suggestion. Within a few hours, Natrona County said it would shutter its schools through early April.
Palomo said he thought the closures would be more like a hiatus and that everything would go back to normal in a few weeks. Students would look back on it as a bizarre, unique memory.
“We’d come back – almost like when you come back from a winter break or a summer break, you meet up again and then you get back into it,” he said. “I was anticipating going back and then everybody would be talking about — ‘Oh man, that was so crazy how school closed.’
“But obviously that never happened.”
In April, the closures were extended again. And then at the end of the month, the Natrona County school board decided there would be no coming back this academic year. The semester would end with virtual learning.
Spring sports were canceled right after that. Palomo’s dream of avenging a playoff soccer loss last year ended, right after practice started. He’d missed much of the last season with a torn ACL; he wanted to prove to his team — and to himself — that he could still play.
Johnson had just started training for Kelly Walsh soccer, too. Because of the pandemic, she wouldn’t get to have the senior year she’d seen her older teammates have before her. She wouldn’t get to be on the receiving end of coach Jerry Realing’s end-of-year speeches for seniors.
Still, she understood.
“I mean, your grandma or those people in your life just matter a heck of a lot more than sports or even going to school,” she said. “Those things just — it really just puts everything into perspective, and we need to think about that a little bit more.
“But it’s still tough.”
The defining high school moment is graduation. What makes it so profound — beyond the sending-out of students into the real world — is the relief and weightless feeling that comes with completing something, with looking toward a new life.
But it’s also a nearly universally shared experience. Graduates across Wyoming, across the Mountain West, across the country, we have all donned the caps and gowns. We’ve all been handed a diploma by our principal or the head of our school board. We’ve all thrown our caps into the air, embraced friends and acquaintances and strangers. All of our families have blown air horns and screamed embarrassing nicknames when our names ring out.
The pandemic will largely rob the American class of 2020 of this moment. Some districts are holding virtual ceremonies. Health officials pitched a limited ceremony, with no parents or relatives in attendance. The traditional Casper event — filled bleachers, rows of students, an indoor arena — was off the table entirely.
District officials, students and families rejected a virtual ceremony. In its place they pitched a compromise with health officials: a drive-in graduation in the parking lot of the Casper Events Center. Students would emerge from their cars in groups of 10 to walk across the stage. They would take their own diploma from a pile. There would be no direct human contact. They’d walk back to their cars. They’d all get out together to move their tassels over, and then get back into the cars. Speeches would be pre-recorded. The choir wouldn’t sing its graduation song.
The seniors said the idea was better than the alternatives. They appreciated the care and effort school administrators had put in to make the event as special as possible. But it isn’t the same.
“I’ve gone to every graduation since I was in high school,” Brown said. “I’ve always seen them walk across the stage, and every year, I’ve said, ‘I can’t wait for that. I can’t wait for them call my name and my family to blow air horns. That’s hit pretty hard.”
Kelly Walsh senior Katie Owen said she had family coming into town for the ceremony, family that won’t be able to attend now.
“Just thinking about how the end of everyone else’s senior year ends with graduation and the events center and all their extended family. Graduation, state soccer — just those things that I was sure I was going to get,” Johnson said.
If it’s any consolation, the seniors will replace a lost memory with a completely unique one. The class of 2020 won’t have that shared experience that their parents and brothers and sisters and older friends have. They’ll have something entirely of their own.
“Everybody realizes we won’t get those milestones and memories that literally everybody else has gotten,” Brown said. “But in turn, we get this memory. No class after us will have these memories and what we went through. It’s unique to us.”
There are the tangibles that these students will miss, the prom dresses and the handshakes and state tournament titles and goodbye hugs. But just as absent are those intangibles, the universal experiences and the energy of a school year ending, the closure that comes with wrapping up a senior year one day at a time, the organic ending of casual friendships built over years in school together.
There are those friends you socialize with, that close circle you see outside of the bell ringing. Then there are the friends you see and hang out with in school; you don’t socialize with them outside of class, for whatever reason, but for seven hours a day, they’re part of your life. They’re the friends you’re not likely to see after you graduate and move on.
Those friendships are the ones suffering, the seniors said.
“I was looking forward to this last semester to kind of, like, say goodbye to those people because you’ve been with them for so long, but that’s just not really the reality we have,” Eathorne said. “And I feel like our last chance to do that is after graduation, when everybody goes and congratulates one another on the Events Center floor. And that’s going to be limited somehow.”
“It’s the people that I’m friends with that I don’t see outside of school that’s gotten to me,” Brown added. “Knowing that I’ll see them from my car at graduation, but I won’t be able to have a conversation with them, that’s been tough to deal with.”
In-person school has been out for two months now. There’s one week of classes left. Owen took a calculus final last week. Students are looking forward — to the University of Wyoming and Black Hills State and Colorado Christian University and Michigan State. But this doesn’t feel like the end. That lightness, the raw and infectious excitement that builds as the last day of class draws closer, it’s not there this year.
“I still don’t even understand how we only have a week left after this one,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t feel like the last week of school like it has for the past 12 years. It’s not exciting. We’re just going to go back to, ‘What am I going to do now?’ It’s not going to have that fun ‘we’re out of school’ attitude because we have been out of school for two months.”
“It doesn’t even feel like we’re attending school anymore,” Owen said. “It kind of feels like a halfway-done vacation. It either seems like the last bits of it are crawling or flying by without knowing what day it is. That momentum isn’t there anymore.”
Ready or not, college and the fall are coming. The seniors are looking forward to it. Several are playing collegiate sports, and training has already started. Some have careers in mind. Others are ready to explore. But the loss of that momentum, of proms and ceremonies and empty lockers, it won’t be replaced. It will last, a nostalgia for memories that don’t exist.
Editor's note: Corin Carruth is a graduating senior at Kelly Walsh High School. A caption on this story misidentified Ms. Carruth's last name.
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