A Love Letter to the High School Experience and a Message to the Class of 2021
On June 13, 2020, the city lit up red, white, and blue to celebrate the graduating seniors from Alexandria’s only public high school, T.C. Williams. Hundreds flocked to the illuminated George Washington Masonic National memorial for photo ops and farewells and the celebration of a pivotal teenage moment, graduation, in an unexpected way.
“I’ve always been really proud of our school, and the fact that we saw the Temple reflecting our colors was very gratifying…and to know that all of Alexandria saw it too,” said T.C. alumna and current University of Virginia (UVA) freshman Anna Jerakis.
Between the tragic death of former T.C. student Montrell Lucas, to whom this article is dedicated, the incarceration of a beloved classmate and friend Mohammed “Moe” Aly, and the coronavirus pandemic, T.C. Williams’ class of 2020 seniors were hit hard. They said goodbye to not only the mundane everyday charms of high school, but more tragic goodbyes to Lucas, among others.
Erick Gomez, a Virginia State University (VSU) freshman, said when he heard about Lucas’ death, “I didn’t believe it at first, until a couple days when I went to his grave—that’s when it really hit me that I lost a friend, and I lost a teammate. That was an 18-year-old, and he’s gone.”
Former class president and current Norfolk State University freshman Amiya Chisolm said, “Montrell was loved by all of us…We weren’t that close, but he had a personality that welcomed everyone.” She continued, “Moe was also loved by all of us and [had a] very promising future.” Chisolm said these incidents along with the pandemic are something “we’re still processing today.”
On March 13, 2020, almost a year ago, Titan seniors unknowingly said goodbye to their teachers, their friends, their sports, their senior experience, their decision day, their prom, and their graduation. So long to the crowded B stairwell and the morning drives to Chinquapin Circle; so long to the bustling bus bay and lunchtime hangouts with friends; so long to the much-coveted senior traditions like March of the Titans and the All Night Grad Party. So long to the high school experience as they knew it.
Fellow graduate Davy Washington recalled the unease he felt the morning of the last in-person day of school. “I remember it being super foggy that morning, which I thought was odd for March,” he said. While walking through the halls to get to class, he heard murmurs of ‘pandemic’ and ‘school shutting down.’ “March 13, 2020 is a day that I will always remember,” said Washington.
Just 10 days after the initial two-week ACPS-wide shutdown, on March 23, Governor Northam announced all K-12 schools would be closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.
“It ended so abruptly,” said Virginia Tech (VT) freshman Cici Brown.
For most, the reality of the situation did not sink in until a few weeks after the announcement, as students held onto hope that they would soon return to school. But for others, the loss was sudden.
“I’ll never forget the moment I knew high school was ‘over,’” said Tillie Davies, now a freshman at UVA. “I was in Mr. Orzel’s Zoom the first day of our new Zoom reality and he said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you guys. I don’t think we’re going back.’” When Northam’s order was announced, Davies admitted “many many tears were shed that day.”
Abigail Lamptey, currently attending VSU, said, “When I heard the news, I was devastated. The first few hours I was in denial, and then I cried for two days straight.”
Another UVA freshman, Dylan Wright, was with two friends a few days after the cancellations when it hit him: “There’s no more high school. Elementary school, middle school, high school, and this is the finale, the pandemic. We just knew things were going to be weird, and they were.”
Valerie Mayo, a Kentucky State University freshman said, “I called my best friend, and I said, ‘Liv, it’s really over.’” Mayo thought, “Wow, my school year ended on a random Friday.”
On March 24, 2020, T.C. Principal Peter Balas released a letter to students addressing the status of graduation, prom, and National Decision Day. He said, “It is with a heavy heart that I inform you that, as of today, these types of gatherings will not be possible for the Class of 2020.” He continued, “I know this is going to be hard for you…This was not what any of us wanted or what we expected. Please just relax and take a breath. We will figure this out.”
There would be no return to school, and these rites of passages would not be fulfilled in their usual way.
During the months of isolation, seniors wondered if they would get a social-distanced graduation or at least a mask-mandatory prom. “I just wished for two things: to say goodbye to all my school friends and to walk across the stage to pick up my diploma. We all just wanted some high school closure,” said Stephanie Bandy, a VT freshman.
But alas, these in-person events were not plausible, which came as a crushing disappointment to most.
Gomez said, “Walking across the stage for graduation—that means a lot to some families. For me, it meant a lot because I’m a first generation student.” While last year’s senior class was not able to get this moment, he said, “I had to accept it.”
Reflecting on their memories at T.C. and senior year experience pre-Covid, class of 2020 Titan graduates remember the Saturday morning football games at Parker-Gray Stadium and the Friday Night Lights at the St. James; they remember the stress of college applications and the senioritis and slacking; they remember looking up to the senior classes from past years, wondering what it would be like someday; they remember the overwhelming excitement in anticipation of their senior celebrations; they remember their last’s, their last performances or games or practices or classes, some of which were totally unexpected.
The class of 2020 also remembers the things they had not done, the games they never attended, the plays they never watched, the people they never met. University of Mary Washington freshman Lauryn Taylor said, “I didn’t go to homecoming or do any other social events because I was waiting on my senior year…I was so devastated.”
More than that, 2020 seniors remember the small everyday parts of high school that shaped their coming-of-age stories. “I took a lot of things for granted in high school pre-pandemic. Seeing my friends every day in 1st period and meeting up again during lunch were just daily occurrences, and I didn’t realize how important [these moments] were, until I lost them,” said UVA freshman Nick Gentry.
Jose Fernandez, attending Virginia Commonwealth University, said when he drives past T.C. these days, “it all hits me all over again…I can see different versions of myself from different years.” He said it feels like “seeing myself grow up.”
Cindi Blanco said she remembers the “good and bad memories” at T.C., but she realized, “Covid-19 taught me to take in the moments along the way.”
A couple of weeks before the graduation ceremony, the ACPS Communications Department with the help of TV & Media Production began filming the speeches and songs that would comprise this unprecedented graduation.
Chisolm delivered the welcoming remarks in a social-distanced setting, reciting her speech from the bleachers of Parker-Gray. “That was my heartbreaking moment,” she said. “It was just me, the camera crew, and Mr. Balas at the end of the field. Being by myself, it was really sad to know that I’ll never see some people again.”
The morning of June 13, marking three months since that fateful Friday in March, Titans tuned into their virtual graduation ceremony from living rooms and backyards. They heard the national anthem performed by fellow senior Winnie Hurd, now a VCU freshman, the Welcome Remarks by their class president, and the loves, fears, and hopes from peers featured in the student films in between.
That night, seniors celebrated by visiting the Masonic Temple with friends and family or driving around, looking at the houses lit up in T.C. colors. “It was a beautiful night. It was warm, and everyone was there,” said Rebecca Walsh who is now at William & Mary. “It felt like the whole city was celebrating us.”
Although it was not the ideal ending for most, it was a necessary ending, as the Class of 2020 began the next chapter of their lives, transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Now in the workforce, the military, a gap year, or their first year of college, not all have fully moved on from high school.
Lamptey said, “I am absolutely not over high school. Sometimes I sit and daydream about what prom and graduation would’ve been like if the class of 2020 had the chance to go.”
Something that helped Morehouse College freshman Alijah Alexander get through the tragedies and losses his class faced was by building stronger bonds. “We checked up on each other more, just to make sure everyone was good and staying safe,” said Alexander.
As the current Class of 2021 seniors prepare for the unknown, returning to school on a hybrid model, returning to sports with masks, and returning cautiously to the senior experience once intended, graduates Mayo and Jerakis have one powerful piece of advice: “Keep your head up.”
“It’s going to be a whole lot of downfalls,” continued Mayo, “but at the end of the day, make sure you build connections. Even if it’s with just one person, make sure if you all are going through a hard time, go through it together.”
“You can miss out on your senior year and still have a great life because there are so many other things besides prom and graduation that are going to be eventful,” said Celeste Amron, a UVA freshman. “We are going to have other things in our lives to look forward to.”
So what? Maybe the high school experience will never be the same. Maybe the class of ‘22, ‘23, and ‘24 are just as doomed as ‘20 and ‘21. Maybe dreams of homecoming dances packed in the Garden with hundreds of students or going to another T.C. football game, crowded in the stands, will be a distant memory.
But one thing is for sure, Titans adapt. Despite the distance, despite the obstacles, and despite the tragedy-stricken year 2020, Titan pride is everywhere—lining the walls of your favorite local pizza shop, on the bumpers of cars and trucks, illuminating the Masonic Temple, and in the hearts of T.C. Williams graduates far and wide.