Pandemic, protests leave indelible mark on high school grads

The Class of 2022 wants to shake up the future. For good.

What’s typically a cliche heard at graduation ceremonies landed with more gravity this year, as students reflected on coming of age in the midst of a global pandemic and several local, student-led walkouts and rallies.

“The pandemic caused profound disruption and hardship in nearly every aspect of our lives. Though within this hardship, there was also a gift in disguise. The constant busyness of our lives made us comfortable, and then all of a sudden we were forced into a silence,” Eva Newkirk said to graduating classmates at Monroe High School. “This silence led us into a period of reflection where we were forced to get to know the only company we had, our authentic selves.”

Thousands of students earned their diplomas at ceremonies this month, with the last of the Snohomish County public school graduations Monday night in Edmonds Stadium as Meadowdale High School sent its seniors off with a fond farewell.

Where previous classes lost out on high school traditions like prom and graduation, the class of 2022 did not. Still, several student speakers spoke of how returning for senior year after nearly two years of at-home, online coursework uniquely shaped their high school experience.

Snohomish High School graduate Elliana Wagner told the Herald that the pandemic thrust her class into a leadership role with more responsibility to teach younger students the high school traditions. When students returned to in-person instruction, the class of 2022 was the only one that knew the athletic cheers or remembered school-specific celebrations.

“My junior and senior year, we were the only class who knew what SHS was, how the traditions were, how it was supposed to be. In that sense, the class of 2022 had to be leaders on just one year of experience, when traditionally we would have had three,” Wagner said.

They were forced to mature quicker than usual, said Lillian Thompson, a graduate of Everett High School. That maturity helped the seniors feel more grateful for high school traditions that older classes lost out on.

“Maybe it’s not a maturity that we even wanted. But I think there was definitely something to be gained from having all that time to ourselves and figuring out that we couldn’t really take stuff for granted,” Thompson said, adding that “it almost felt like this year was the culmination of those years we had lost. We put everything we had into it and enjoyed each second to the fullest in a way we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”

For many, the senior year was punctuated with protests centered on social issues that mattered to them. They conducted walkouts to bring awareness to the prevalence of sexual assault and marches to celebrate Juneteenth. They joined local protests against gun violence and pride rallies in support of LGBTQ+ youth.

Kamiak High School graduate Nahoum Giles told The Herald this year’s graduating class stands out from its predecessors because “we really stand for a lot of social change.”

“We take a look at previous practices and we really question and dissect why we have that in place,” Giles said.

But the graduates are still learning how to invoke meaningful change, said Kaitlyn Johnson, of Lake Stevens High. She said some of the student movements were a “snap reaction” from students who want to invoke change but are still cultivating a deeper understanding of social issues. She pointed to local walkouts about “rape culture” in schools.

“The way ours was formulated, there wasn’t really a coherent leader or coherent list of demands. I think that generally speaks to the impulse of my generation to want to make a difference, but we are still figuring out how,” Johnson said.

She added that she is sure her peers will grow into more serious social advocates in the coming years, and adult leaders should stay mindful of that.

“There are a lot of ways for us, especially the most marginalized among us … that we were failed by the system around us,” Johnson said. “For every bit we were failed, I think there is just as much spite coming back at the system that marginalized us. I think that will manifest in some pretty powerful change.”

Looking to the future, the new graduates say they worry about the economy, political division, social inequities, climate change and “hustle culture” that demands more work and constant connection to email to succeed professionally.

Still, they are hopeful, inspired by the passion, grit and perseverance of their peers.

Giles recalled looking at the faces of Kamiak classmates at graduation who weathered four tumultuous years alongside him and couldn’t help but feel proud.

“I stay hopeful because I see glimmers of hope … in the people in my own life. I see it amongst my generation,” he said. “As a collective, we share such a desire for improvement, and that’s what makes me hopeful.”

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; mallory.gruben@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

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