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The Class of 2020: learning to roll with it

Graduates lived through traumatic era, but adapted with resilience

She was only a month away from giving birth to her first child, Josiah. 

Jennifer Metcalf remembers the emotions she felt as she watched the World Trade Towers go down on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was very pregnant and I was thinking my goodness, we are bringing children into the world as everything was so uncertain,“ said Metcalf, a choral director for Byron Center High School. “I was so frustrated because we didn’t know what the future would be for him.

“And now we have come full circle.”

From 9/11 to the Coronavirus

It is not uncommon for a graduating class to look back over its 13 years in school — and about 18 years of life — noting the historical events that have taken place. But many soon realized that the 2020 graduates have had their lives bookended with major events that have changed how schools operate, how people work and travel, and in general, how we go about our daily lives.

Many were born within months of 9/11, a series of four coordinated attacks by the terrorist group al-Qaeda. The tragedy brought about major changes in security at airports, government facilities, entertainment venues and schools.

photo by Janice Holst

The 2020 graduates’ final year of school would start with the Eastern Equine Encephalitis, a potentially fatal virus transmitted by mosquitoes. This resulted in football games being moved to the late afternoon and almost all homecoming activities rescheduled or canceled. 

Their senior year ended with the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered a global quarantine effort to reduce the spread of the disease. Due to a governor’s executive order schools were closed and districts across Kent ISD were forced to move all classes online

For the Class of 2020, this meant many cherished school moments, such as the senior walks, lunches and proms were canceled, and graduations significantly altered, delayed, and in some cases, canceled as well.

But for many students, it was not until others brought up the discussion through social media and graduation speeches that they even realized their class’ connection with 9/11 and the coronavirus.

“I honestly never really thought about it,” said Metcalf’s son, Josiah. “I was aware of 9/11, but growing up I never realized how close it was to when I was born.”

‘Often high school is seen as such a massive part of life and these students have had a huge chunk of it just sideswiped.’

— Meghan Aupperlee, Kent School Services Network

Grand Rapids’ Union High School graduate Luis Fernandez echoed Josiah’s response.

“It was something you just adapted to,” Luis said. “I think you are kind of beginning to be aware of things changing and progressing, the way schooling just happens.”

Like most students, both Luis’ and Josiah’s primary focus while in school was to complete school. World events of school shootings and the 2008-09 recession were not the main topic of discussion. However, students held mass protests after the 2018 Parkland, Florida shootings that killed 17 students and staff, and to call attention to climate change.  

“Looking (at) it now, the school shootings and the world culture … yeah it is kind of frightening,” Josiah said.

Students locally and elsewhere turned out in mass protests following the 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (photo by Dianne Carroll Burdick)

Shared Experiences

However aware 2020 graduates may be of them, the major events surrounding their schooling will leave an impact, said an official who helps school families meet their needs. 

“Broadly, they are collective traumas,” said Meghan Aupperlee, a community school coordinator for Kent ISD’s Kent School Services Network who has done social work in a variety of capacities.

A collective trauma is a traumatic psychological effect or event shared by a group of people, “Such as when we lose somebody,” Aupperlee offered as an example. “We connect over what it was like to be around that person. 

“The Class of 2020 will have that same collective connection over many of the events that took place during their school years.”

Sept. 11 and the coronavirus were not the only historical events to impact the Class of 2020 and the world around them. As the students entered kindergarten, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, when a student shot and killed 32 others and wounded 17, took place. In their fifth grade year, one of the most horrific school killings, Sandy Hook Elementary, which took the lives of 20 first graders, would send shock waves through the nation.

Jennifer Metcalf with her son, Josiah (courtesy photo)

“I remember Sandy Hook,” said Metcalf, who was teaching elementary music at Byron Center at the time. “It sent a chill right through the school. I remember just feeling numb.”

Unfortunately, the school shootings would not end with Sandy Hook, forcing school leaders to look at security within their buildings. New entrance ways were designed so visitors could only enter through the office before having access to the rest of the building. Many districts added active shooter drills to existing fire and tornado drills.

While he was aware of the shootings, Josiah said he was more focused on school, and like many of his fellow students simply adapted to the changes as they happened. 

For Luis, personal changes such as attending different schools and having his stepfather deported were more his focus as he learned to adjust to societal changes, he said.

Part of the Collective, but Still Individual

Aupperlee pointed out that even though a group of people may have a shared event, their response and how they adapt is still individual to the person as they are shaped by their own personal experiences.

“Think of it like if we all see the same storm but we are all on our own individual ship,” she said. “One person may have had a safe ship or home while another student has navigated that same storm totally differently.”

‘There is constant change, but to me, these things, they are not like challenges but more like things to overcome.’

— Luis Fernandez, Union High School graduate

For example, a student who has experienced homelessness might be more flexible with change and not experience as much anxiety as a student whose home life has been more stable, Aupperlee said, adding one of the greatest attributes of a changing world is to showcase how resilient the human spirit is. 

44th U.S. President Barack Obama poses with the siblings and cousins of Emile Parker, one of 20 children who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting (photo from Wiki Common Media)

Social Media Babies

One of the most impactful influences on the Class of 2020 has been social media. Dubbed “digital natives,” the class grew up with it as Facebook was founded in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011. 

“When you think about it, in the past students were able to turn off on Friday from their peers and school and come back to it on Monday,” said David Jangda, a clinical psychologist who is a mental health liaison for Rockford Public Schools. “These students are with their peers every day through social media.”

Some students have been able to adapt using social media for what it is intended — connecting and networking — while for others it has become a consuming, almost destructive force.

“Think about it, a student with even a slight self-image or self-esteem issue, and now they are sitting there consuming everybody’s stories and feeding that insecurity,” Jangda said, adding he works with students and families to educate them on the tools they can use to deal with social media.

There Were Good Times, Too

In any timeline, there are storms, but also there are plenty of inspiring moments. 

The 2020 graduates were in first grade when the United States elected its first African American president, Barack Obama, and he would be their president until the middle of their freshman year. 

They were in fourth grade when NASA received confirmation that there once had been water on Mars. They were just finishing eighth grade when the 2016 Summer Olympics were in Rio de Janeiro, the first time for a South American nation. And of course, who can forget that the Cubs finally won the World Series in that same year after a 108-year drought. 

‘I think it is more the journey and how as unexpected things happen you keep going.’

— Josiah Metcalf, Byron Center High School graduate

But most would agree that the single biggest shared experience for the Class of 2020 is the coronavirus pandemic and the efforts to reduce its spread as a vaccine is developed. This is because it is an event they can remember and had the most impact on a big part of their lives, Aupperlee said.

“Often high school is seen as such a massive part of life and these students have had a huge chunk of it just sideswiped,” she said. This has left students with mixed emotions about the future, she added, especially come fall with many graduates heading off to college. 

Luis Fernandez, a 2020 Union High School graduate, believes the challenges his class faced have made it easier for him to handle life’s ups and downs (courtesy photo)

Just Roll With it

For Luis, who plans to attend Grand Rapids Community College, he believes his experiences — both personal and global —  have allowed him to easily adapt to life’s ups and downs.

“Every day is changing,” Luis said. “There is constant change but to me these things, they are not like challenges but more like things to overcome.”

Josiah plans to attend Grand Valley State University in the fall to study music education. His instrument of choice is percussion, which can be difficult to practice and perform in a world of social distancing. 

Whether classes are in-person, online or a hybrid of the two, Josiah said he knows he is ready to move forward.

“I think it is more the journey and how as unexpected things happen you keep going,” Josiah said. “You keep rolling with the punches.”

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma was born in the Detroit area but grew up in Brighton where she attended Hartland Public Schools. The salutatorian for the Class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and minored in photography and German. She expanded her color palette to include orange and black as both her daughters graduated from Byron Center Public Schools; maroon and white for Aquinas College where her daughter studies nursing and also brought back blue and maize for Grand Rapids Community College where her youngest daughter currently is studying music. Read Joanne's full bio or email Joanne.

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