The Unique Disappointment of Being a High School Senior in 2020

According to one Westside charter school student, the pandemic hasn’t just caused the cancelation of a slew of timeworn American rituals—it’s complicated the Class of 2020’s future

I’d always dreamed of what my senior year of high school would be like. It’s a milestone movies are always showing, so I had pretty high expectations. I’d pictured myself spending the spring relaxing and indulging in “senioritis,” having fun with my friends minus the pressure to study hard and achieve now that our college applications are all turned in. At the moment, I’d be headed into a summer break and preparing to move away from home for my freshman year.

Things were going in that direction—and then the pandemic struck. My friends and I were planning on seeing Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey at Cinemark in Culver City on March 13. That was a Friday, the day school got canceled, the day the quarantine started. Since then, a slew of other senior rituals have been unceremoniously seized away: Grad Night at Disneyland, prom, graduation. And just last week, the Cal State University system announced that it’s canceling in-person classes in the fall, so it looks like I won’t be moving away anytime soon.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold amounts of death and destruction. As of now, 315,000 people have died worldwide; millions are out of work in the U.S. alone. And 18-year-old missing out on some rites of passage might sound trivial, but the disappointment is acute—and I know a lot of people my age are struggling with it too.

Before quarantine, I was on the prom committee. I’d lobbied for a 1920s speakeasy theme, but was overruled in favor of “classy casino.” We made an Amazon wish list for decorations, but never placed our order and never got to decide what food we’d serve.

I actually skipped prom last year thinking I could go this year. After the quarantine started, everyone thought I was joking when I pitched the idea of having a Giant Hamster Ball Prom. We would rent a bunch of human-sized hamster balls, and have socially distant prom in an open area like a park. (Weirdly, I had been researching where I could buy a giant hamster ball since September 2019, so I was ready.) Of course, there wasn’t a prom, giant plastic orbs or none.

When Disneyland’s Grad Night was taken off the calendar, it made me really sad. Since last August, my friends and I had been planning our trip: which rides we wanted to go on, where we would eat. I personally love the corn dogs that are sold near the Disneyland infirmary. I’d also planned on conquering my fear of costumed characters and getting a photo with Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse. Now I’ll never know if I would have chickened out.

Another thing that’s been hard to deal with is the sheer amount of confusion there’s been around the illness and the effects it’s had on the school year. On April 10, I attended an ACLU COVID-19 webinar focused on incarcerated people and immigrants. Those are important topics that I care about, but the organizers were vague about how we could help. I was also hoping they might instruct us students how to advocate for ourselves. None of us knew what was going to happen with school. Were we going to have to finish during summer? Would seniors be able to graduate on time? Transparency was in short supply, and we were frustrated that no one had information about how we could fight for it.

class of 2020
Photo taken at La Ballona Fest in August 2019

Courtesy Alexandra Salkin

All these unknowns have been causing a lot of stress, and my high school, New West Charter, did little to help ease it. I, like many seniors, worked my butt off for nearly four years. But now, just when the work should be tapering off, we are being given large amounts of homework, some of it strange and unwelcome. Recently, I had to film myself doing a dance routine to a Bell Biv DeVoe song (I had no idea who they were). And was it really essential, in my last semester at school, to start learning how to use the TI-84 Plus CE functions on my calculator? Toward the end of the semester, I had to miss multiple classes and a test because looking at my computer was giving me a headache and hurting my eyes.

With just a few weeks left of school, I had to spend part of my weekend doing homework for a health class required for graduation. Most local school districts, including LAUSD and the Culver City School District, decided that grades would be frozen during the pandemic, and could only be raised but not lowered. My school decided against that. What’s more important? Tests, scores, and grades, or students’ mental health?

The coronavirus also made picking colleges difficult. Spring break was supposed to be when I would make campus visits. I was admitted to UC Merced and UC Riverside, along with several Cal States and some private colleges, and was wait-listed at UC Santa Cruz. Throughout April, I attended webinars where they give you scholarship information and tell you the general benefits of a school. I learned that Merced has a lot of connections to Yosemite and can help you get a job with the Department of the Interior after graduation. I looked at photos online, but it’s not quite the same as actually seeing where I’d be spending four or more years of my life. I was so desperate for guidance that during my uncle’s Zoom birthday celebration on April 2, I asked his friends for college advice.

“Should I go to Merced?” I asked.

“You want college advice?” one man replied. It was hard to tell who was talking. He may have been the Trump impersonator who was on the line from Las Vegas. My uncle has interesting friends.


“Santa Cruz is a great place!” said a famous politician’s daughter.

My dad then ran to the camera and said, “Yes, keep telling her that! It means a lot coming from you!” I rolled my eyes. If you couldn’t tell, he was hoping Santa Cruz would admit me and I’d choose to go there.

In mid-May—much to my dad’s delight—I received word that UC Santa Cruz was admitting me and let me know I had only six days to decide which of the school’s ten colleges I’d like to join. I spent this past Sunday, May 17, watching videos about the colleges online so I could make my final decision by Monday. So far, I haven’t received any news about campus housing or what classes will look like, but after the announcement that the CSUs will be going online, it’s safe to say that the UCs and other schools will follow their lead.

At the beginning of this, I could see leaving for college as the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light was keeping me sane. Right now I really don’t see the light, and I am starting to worry that I may never get the college experience I expected. I know our world will forever be changed, but I am just wondering how much it will be changed, and how much I need to manage my expectations for what college will look like.

I’m trying to find some positives from this insane situation. My school is small, so each family only gets six graduation ceremony tickets. Including my parents, brother and sister, I only had two left over to split between three grandparents and a bunch of uncles and cousins—now at least I don’t have to make that decision. I also have time now to make a second art wall in my bedroom using acrylic paints and movie posters.

And I was finally able to start learning piano. I’m doing so via Zoom with a teacher who lives in our neighborhood. He said I have great hand placement. Who knew? I’m trying to fill my time with activities that keep me entertained, even when it’s meant taking liberties with school projects. For a recent assignment, a video report about the coronavirus, I rebelled by using a Kermit the Frog puppet I made in tenth grade and including footage of my sister dancing in the middle of the street in a homemade face mask.

If nothing else, the pandemic has taught me that sometimes we need to be careful to keep our expectations in check. My dad says this will be referred to as “the forgotten year,” the year everyone had to stay inside and let life pass by. But I don’t think the class of 2020 will ever forget the year that might’ve been. Our graduating class’s photo will never hang on the wall by the principal’s office with all the rest—we’ll be remembered by our absence.

History books will certainly chronicle the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic, but the class of 2020 will always remember it as the year we were constantly disappointed.

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