NEWARK, NJ — Senior year of high school is supposed to be unforgettable, but for the class of 2020, “unforgettable” is an understatement.
Torn away from their teachers and classmates, thrust into remote learning and denied senior year rites of passage like prom due to COVID-19, Newark’s graduating seniors have been through the ringer. While they waited patiently for news about in-person graduations, Newark Public Schools opted to hold virtual ceremonies on Thursday out of concern for safety.
In cooperation with the city, NPS also honored their grads with a caravan of first responders who blared their sirens throughout the city, passing the residence of every graduating senior.
Devon Christopher Corry, University High School’s salutatorian, waved his diploma cover in the air while his family clapped in the background.
He has plans for a socially distanced gathering of family and friends at his house, masks mandatory, this weekend. Corry supports the district’s decision to hold remote graduates, saying that he feels for friends who have lost loved ones to the virus. But it has been hard to reconcile with the way his senior year ended.
“It does hurt to not be there in person, to know that March was the last time I’ll see some of my classmates,” he said. “But I think I’ll be unstoppable in college.”
Bound for Rutgers-Newark to study journalism and media studies, the Newark top scholar has dreams to one day star in his own talk show. He had an opportunity to interview the singer Faith Evans, a University High alumna, during his time in the school’s journalism club, and his aspirations have only grown stronger since.
One of the top students in the entire district academically, the W.E.B. DeBois Scholar and mentor to other young men said he’s learned the most important thing is making himself happy before others.
“I call it the Airplane Rule — you have to put the mask on you before you help someone else. I apply it to my happiness,” he said.
The senior had to learn that lesson the hard way, he said. After being sexually assaulted in middle school and relentlessly bullied for being gay, he spent a lot of time hiding behind a facade, trying to please the people who were making his life difficult.
“It’s a life-changing experience. When I finally came out, it was like a huge weight lifted off my chest,” Corry said.
Going forward, Corry said he’s focused on doing what’s right for him, and credits his family and teachers for helping shape him into the person he is today.
Nasire Branch, also a University High graduating senior, said as far as he knows, about 10 of his family members are coming over to watch the virtual graduation ceremony and enjoy refreshments. But knowing his family, they might have something creative up their sleeves that he doesn’t know about yet.
“I think they might be putting together a little stage for me to walk across, so I appreciate they're trying to recreate that moment for me,” he said.
For Branch, acceptance has been the hardest part of graduating amid a pandemic. Growing up and succeeding in a school district where he was surrounded by negative influences, the senior moments that may seem trivial against the backdrop of a deadly virus mean a lot to Branch.
The disappointment of not getting to have a prom or graduation, he said, weighs heavy on his spirit.
“Knowing I was academically at a disadvantage compared to other students, that was a big challenge for me. I didn’t get the opportunity to take SAT prep classes, so I had to work harder,” Branch said. “Being where I’m from, a lot of my peers went to the streets. I had to learn how to separate myself from that and stay focused.”
Though he may not be celebrating the way he’d hoped, he’s grateful for the lessons he’s taken from being a student during the pandemic, which he feels prepared him mightily for Morehouse College next fall.
“This experience has taught me that perseverance and the ability to adapt to change can take you a long way,” he said.
Imani Everett, an East Side High senior, tuned into a FaceTime call with TAPinto Newark with a bushel of graduation balloons behind her.
Her family is having their own small graduation ceremony with cake, decorations and a cookout to boot. They’re even thinking about renting chairs and a stage for another informal graduation ceremony in the park with a few of her classmates.
The occasion is an exceptional accomplishment for Everett, who almost wasn’t able to graduate due to a spinal injury she suffered during a car accident her junior year. The crash put her out of school for four months, putting her credits off track.
An active student, Everett was also unable to play basketball, run track or cheerlead. Determined to graduate on time, she took on a heavy load of core classes online and in school to make sure she crossed the finish line with her peers.
She’s still undecided about what college she wants to attend in the fall, but what her personal obstacles and the pandemic have taught her is to never take anything for granted.
“Take advantage of every little moment, it can be taken away from you at any second,” she said.