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The lost year: High school seniors reflect on glory days they’ll never have

School closure through the end of the year snuffed out hope that seniors could save some of their beloved rituals

Revere High School seniors (from left) Brianna Senecal, twins Kathy and Astrid Umanzor, and Gianna Chianca met in the school parking lot to talk about losing the end of their senior year.
Revere High School seniors (from left) Brianna Senecal, twins Kathy and Astrid Umanzor, and Gianna Chianca met in the school parking lot to talk about losing the end of their senior year.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Catari Giglio did everything she could to make the senior prom at Fenway High School picture perfect. She had the elegant gown, the handsome date; she had even designed the tickets for the big event.

Vivian Santos-Smith had a lead role in Somerville High School’s production of “As You Like It.” As winter turned to spring, and set and costumes came together, she spent hours memorizing her famous speech, the one that begins “All the world’s a stage …”

Mairead Baker, valedictorian at Boston Latin Academy, was writing the graduation speech that she would deliver to hundreds of beaming teachers and families, reflecting on the hard lessons of her past.

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Like 80,000 other high school seniors across Massachusetts who learned this week that their schools will remain closed through June, they know their personal disappointments are a small price to pay to help end a global pandemic. But for young people whose lives have been defined by school since the age of 5 — who were on a path to high school graduation before they knew the word “commencement” — it was a stunning reversal of fortune, their most assured milestones disappearing in an instant.

Like every senior class before them, the Class of 2020 was supposed to enjoy the long goodbye of their final semester in high school. It was a promise made to them as lowly freshmen, a deeply American teenage tradition: They would be, at long last, the kings and queens of their domain, strutting the halls in a final victory lap before setting off into adult life.

Instead, the time of their lives has turned to heartbreak, as everything from spring sports to high school musicals is snuffed out. Their class now has the unfortunate distinction of being the first graduates in modern Massachusetts history to be sent off en masse without a proper, in-person, springtime graduation ceremony.

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Catari Giglio sat in front of her home with her prom dress. “We all just wanted ... everyone to have the time of their lives," she said of the prom.
Catari Giglio sat in front of her home with her prom dress. “We all just wanted ... everyone to have the time of their lives," she said of the prom. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

So Catari Giglio, stuck at home in Dorchester, smooths the shimmering fabric of her floor-length prom dress and wonders when she will ever wear it. And Mairead Baker, sheltering in the Neponset neighborhood, keeps rewriting her speech for graduation, polishing the prose as she weaves in painful lessons newly learned.

The speech now focuses on the need to be fearless in going after your dreams — because you never know what might happen tomorrow.

Hardest of all for this year’s seniors, perhaps, is the unceremonious way their time together ended, with the temporary statewide closure of schools in March. Unaware, as they hastily gathered belongings from lockers, that they would never be back, they did not have a chance to say goodbye to teachers, mentors, and friends, those quiet exchanges of gratitude and affection that give closure at a momentous passage.

“If I would have known that my last day at school was really my last day, I would have done things differently,” said Zahriana Newson, a senior at Boston’s Roxbury Prep High School. “I would have taken pictures, and told my teachers I loved and appreciated them — I would have created more memories to look back on.”

Gone, too, are traditional rituals at schools across Massachusetts where seniors stand as one, one last time, and reflect on what they’ve been through together.

Roxbury Prep High School senior Zahriana Newson (far right), with her fellow basketball cheerleaders at a 2018 game.
Roxbury Prep High School senior Zahriana Newson (far right), with her fellow basketball cheerleaders at a 2018 game.Nadgee Jocelyn

Mateo Daffin, senior class president at Boston Latin School, said his classmates won’t get to gather and chant “It’s All Over’’ this year, as seniors traditionally do on their last day.

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“You want to spend that time on the lawn with your friends on the last day and cheer. Not being able to say goodbye to your closest friends and teachers is really sad,” said Daffin.

The end of senior year didn’t come all at once, but in a series of extensions to the initial shutdown.

As the pandemic began to surge across the state in mid-March, Governor Charlie Baker first announced that schools statewide would close through April 6, a step that surprised some students, but left most expecting to return. Ten days later, Baker pushed the reopening date to May 4, and doubts about any reopening began to surface.

By the time the governor crushed seniors’ fading hopes with his announcement on Tuesday, most had already accepted that a closure through June might happen. But that did little to soften the blow for those who had held onto their dreams of senior spring.

“Deep down, I knew it was coming, but when it happened, I didn’t know how to react,” said Santos-Smith, the senior at Somerville High School. “I was just walking around, pacing, after I heard, because I had so much going on inside.”

School officials searched their records and memories in vain for another year as fundamentally disrupted as 2020. Stubbornly reliable even in the worst of times, high school has rolled on for generations through wars, depressions, and even disease outbreaks.

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“I am not aware of a time when customary graduation ceremonies, statewide, have not occurred," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “I believe our pandemic has created challenges that we have not experienced in our lifetime.”

Superintendents are brainstorming alternative ways to celebrate seniors, said Scott. Some districts are considering online ceremonies, though most have not settled yet on a plan. But, whatever they come up with, the class of 2020 is likely to remember this year for everything that did not happen, the events, large and small, that were lost, leaving them with almost-memories of moments that might have been.

Catari Giglio and the other seniors on her Fenway High prom committee can picture exactly what their May 29 formal would have looked like: After all, they spent months fine-tuning every detail, from the Roaring Twenties theme to the black, white, and gold color scheme and feather centerpieces that would have graced the tables at the Blue Hills Country Club.

For a while it looked like everything was falling into place. After years of imagining it, Giglio got her “promposal” online from her boyfriend, who planned to fly in from Florida to be her date. She found her perfect dress — a strapless, floor-length, purple-green number — by chance while shopping in Fall River with a friend. Seniors at Fenway High were about to vote on the five different designs she had created for the prom tickets when the coronavirus cut in.

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Fenway High officials are trying to work out an alternative, including a virtual prom, for students to get the send-off they deserve, said head of school Geoff Walker. But he acknowledged it won’t be the same. Not even close.

“It’s not just me, but also my classmates," said Giglio, 18. “We all just wanted ... everyone to have the time of their lives.”

Mairead Baker first started to worry her senior year was veering off course in early March when Harvard University canceled its new student orientation weekend. As valedictorian for Boston Latin Academy, Baker had worked hard to earn a spot at the Ivy League school. Now she was confused: A disease outbreak in China caused a cancellation in Cambridge?

Mairead  Baker is a senior at Boston Latin Academy, where she's valedictorian. She has continued to revise her valedictory speech, though she worries it may have to be delivered over Skype or Zoom. Worse yet, she may end up simply sending it to her principal.
Mairead Baker is a senior at Boston Latin Academy, where she's valedictorian. She has continued to revise her valedictory speech, though she worries it may have to be delivered over Skype or Zoom. Worse yet, she may end up simply sending it to her principal.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

But the cancellations kept rolling in. By the middle of March organizers had postponed the Boston Marathon, which Baker had planned to run in honor of her childhood friend Martin Richard, who died in the 2013 bombing. Then, city officials announced in-person classes would be canceled until late April, and with that, Baker started to lose hope that she and her friends would reap the sweet rewards of so much hard work.

“I burst into tears, because I realized high school was basically over,” Baker said.

Baker channeled her anxiety that weekend by starting to write her valedictory speech, hoping the graduation ceremony might still happen. She reflected on her most difficult experience, the death of her father when she was in eighth grade, as she expanded on her theme: the need to turn what you have into what you want.

Her father’s death had made her a more determined student. She became deeply invested in her school, as a member of the varsity soccer team and the National Honor Society, and placing first in science fairs.

“I wanted to look back and let it help me, kind of shape me into a better person,” she said. “I didn't want to look back and let it destroy me.”

She’s continued to revise her valedictory speech, though she worries it may have to be delivered over Skype or Zoom. Worse yet, she may end up simply sending it to her principal: a grand gesture reduced to an audience of one.

She is not alone. Santos-Smith, the Somerville High School senior, said she’s grateful to have been cast in the role of witty, melancholy Jaques in her school’s production of “As You Like It” this spring — even though the performances had to be canceled days before the show opened, and no audience ever witnessed her achievement.

“I’m very happy I was able to immerse myself in it,” she said.

Reeling from the school closure announcement this week, some seniors gravitated to their shuttered school buildings, seeking comfort in the familiar.

Outside Revere High School, in the parking lot where they once hoped to savor their last day of high school, half a dozen seniors met to process their loss together — sort of — from the safety of their cars, some in masks and some sitting in the trunks of the cars, wrapped in blankets.

Revere High School seniors (from left) Rose Burns, Brianna Senecal, and twins Kathy and Astrid Umanzor chatted during a socially distanced meeting in the school parking lot.
Revere High School seniors (from left) Rose Burns, Brianna Senecal, and twins Kathy and Astrid Umanzor chatted during a socially distanced meeting in the school parking lot. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Among them were twins Astrid and Kathy Umanzor, class officers who spent all year planning activities that might never happen now — the boat cruise; the talent show; the senior prom; the “Mr. RHS” beauty pageant for the boys.

School administrators have urged seniors to consider virtual events as a substitute, but Astrid Umanzor, the class treasurer, said that idea leaves many of her classmates cold. “We want to avoid that at any cost,’’ she said.

In the school parking lot, under overcast skies, the students tried to reckon with their sense of dislocation.

“I don’t know how to explain the feeling,’’ Umanzor said. “It was like we were looking at the school and knowing that we don’t know the next time we will ever set foot back in that building.”


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.