The Amherst Regional High School class of 2021, myself included, walked the stage of the Pines Theater to receive their diplomas on Thursday, June 10th. The setting, characterized by forestry, sun, and low humidity, marked an uncharacteristically pleasant end to our senior year. As full-vaccination rates have drastically increased and we emerge from the pandemic year, graduation provided an opportunity to look back on what it has meant to be a high schooler during COVID times.
In a sense, most of my traditional high school experience ended when the pandemic began. Undoubtedly, remote learning was extremely challenging, and often detrimental to student mental well-being. A common agreement among my friends and me was our inability to focus on the academic content being presented to us, while the world seemed to be shifting from that sense of normalcy. It felt exhausting, and at times mundane, to memorize calculus formulas while civil rights movements or capital insurgencies broke out. The lines became blurred between class lessons, news, social media content, communication with family and friends — all of which generated from the same computer screen.
In my experience, the most meaningful interactions with educators and administrators in high school, especially during the past year, remained separated from lab reports or literary essays. Rather, I will always remember those who prioritized unwavering emotional support for their students and strived to make the online experience as bearable as possible.
Yet the circumstances of our learning superseded the bounds of our teachers’ influence, many of whom still worked hard to keep classes engaging, and to whom I’m incredibly grateful. I feel as though the growth I’ve experienced in the last year was almost entirely separate from my online classes. The definition of “learning” has been softened to include greater life lessons — from the appreciation of solitude, to the value of human touch, to fighting racial injustice. Many of my strongest connections lived beyond people my own age, in the smiles of the nursing home residents I served, and in the giggles of the toddlers at the nursery where I worked.
Throughout the past year, I’ve also been able to watch my classmates through a new lens, outside typical high school friend groups and within their own communities. Those who were previously just faces passing in the hallway became business owners, award-winning musicians, and environmental organizers. I am continuously amazed by the passion and drive I regularly see within the class of 2021, despite the cards that have been stacked against us. I also feel obligated to acknowledge the deep struggles of many students, brought forth by the inequities that coincide with online learning. To maintain well-being and connection is a small victory in and of itself, not to be overlooked by more conventional accolades.
Perhaps the most significant lesson I’ve taken away from the past year is a preemptive experience of independence and establishing a routine. With so much extra time and so little structure, we were forced to decide what to do with ourselves on a daily basis. In retrospect, such a transition has made college and general post-graduation life seem much less intimidating. I have been forced to consider how to make sense of the world when structure is not given to me. When I attend college in the fall, I hope to continue making sense of it — learning from those around me, and observing my own inner growth.
On graduation day, as I looked out through a sea of maroon graduation caps, I was forced to recall my experiences with my classmates. Most have changed dramatically since we were nervous freshmen in 2017, in the last year more than anything. My connection to my high school class is not necessarily associated with school imagery, however. Instead, I remember driving on road trips, working at the same retirement community, going on runs with my cross country teammates, stage managing an online theater production. Overcoming the adversity experienced by the class of 2021 is no small feat, and I am incredibly confident in our ability to carry our perseverance with us beyond high school.
Annalise Peterson graduated from Amherst Regional High School in June of 2021. There, she ran cross country, stage managed for the ARHS theater company, and played ultimate. Her writing has appeared in ARHS’s The Graphic, the New England High School Journalism Collaborative’s The Vanguard, and the Amherst Indy. She will be studying journalism at Northwestern University this fall.