Coming into March, the seniors at the three Catholic high schools in the diocese, were looking forward to wrapping up their high school years.
There were proms and awards nights, spring sports and graduation, and special goodbyes from their teachers and classmates.
But that all disappeared in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s so sudden. It just stopped,” said Penelope Herrero Marques of St. Cecilia Academy. “We thought we were going to come back after three weeks, and then we found out we’re never coming back.”
“I think fourth quarter of senior year is one of the times I’ve looked most forward to,” said St. Cecilia student body president Anna Duff. “It’s been sad to just leave it.”
“It’s definitely discouraging,” said Jacob Lann, student body president at Pope John Paul II High School. “We’re fighting through it and making the best of it.”
“It’s OK to be sad, but at the end of the day there’s nothing you can do but look at the bright side and all the little blessings that are coming out of it,” said Mary Hampton Hayden of Father Ryan High School.
Blessings like getting to spend time with her older sister, Mattie, who is home from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, which shut down its campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been home together at this time of year.”
Hayden, who will study theology at Saint Louis University after graduating from Father Ryan, has had more time for her Bible study group and “lots of family dinners,” she said.
“You’ve got a lot of time to be with your family, which is something I’ve never been able to do,” said Hayden, who in normal times has a full schedule as a member of the cross country, swimming and track and field teams, as well as the student ministry team and serving as student body secretary.
‘I just miss my classmates’
Like the rest of the student body at their schools, the seniors have had to adjust to distance learning at home because of the stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“It’s been a little weird. Not in any good or bad way, just interesting,” said Father Ryan senior Gabe DiGiovanni. “I’ve never been homeschooled, so online learning is a little foreign.”
The biggest adjustment was not going to school every day, said DiGiovanni, who graduated from St. Edward School before moving on to Father Ryan. “Getting the new routine down was the biggest thing.”
All of the seniors said their teachers and the school administrators have been helpful and accommodating as everyone adjusted to distance learning.
“The way the teachers have structured their online learning and our classes have been good for the most part,” said Duff, whose family are parishioners at St. Christopher Church in Dickson. “They’ve been willing to help us with any problems we’ve encountered doing it, so I’m thankful for that.”
“All my teachers are incredible,” said Hayden. “They’ve definitely been very understanding of the situation. … It’s been very accommodating.”
But the thing the seniors have missed most while learning at home is spending time with their friends and classmates.
“I’m a person who really appreciates face-to-face contact,” said DiGiovanni, who is a member of the hockey team, the Latin Club, Mu Alpha Theta Math Honor Society, and a team leader for Relay for Life at Father Ryan. “Going to campus every day and seeing my friends is the biggest thing. … We’ve only got a few months left.”
“I just miss my classmates and all my teachers and the energy and joy we bring to each other,” Duff said.
St. Cecilia is a tightly-knit community, said Duff, who is deciding between the University of Tennessee, American University and George Washington University where she hopes to study international affairs and French.
“Our whole class is friends with each other,” Duff said. “We’re still connected through lots of ways. My phone is buzzing every five minutes.”
“This has definitely reminded us how much we’re going to miss each other and how thankful we are to see everybody every day,” Duff said.
And it’s not just their fellow seniors they miss seeing.
“It’s just kind of sad, I won’t get to see a lot of people who aren’t seniors,” said Marques, who was the lead programmer of the Robotics Team, participated in Mock Trial and tutored other students. “I’ve spent a lot of time with them. I went from seeing them three hours every day after school to never seeing them again.”
There are also senior year traditions at all the schools that the students are missing.
At JPII, one of the highlights of the end of the year is the annual Senior Walk, when the senior class, wearing clothing from the college they will be attending, take one last walk through the hallways of the school, which are lined with their teachers and fellow students offering a goodbye and lots of hugs.
This year, JPII replaced the Senior Walk with a Senior Drive. The seniors and their families drove through the parking lot as the faculty and staff cheered them on.
“It was special,” said Lann, who is headed to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, where he will play football. Headmaster Michael Deely and the staff “are going above and beyond, taking time out of their day to say one last goodbye. Even though it was different, it was special.”
“The teachers do so much for us,” Lann added, “just to see them one last time, it was nice.”
All the schools have tried to do something to honor their seniors.
St. Cecilia teachers and staff delivered a dozen roses to all of its 62 seniors at their homes.
“It was so sweet,” said Marques, who will be attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study physics. “They took pictures of all us getting the roses and put them on Instagram. It was a nice surprise and really sweet.”
“The school is definitely making an effort to show us they appreciate us,” Duff added.
At Father Ryan, the annual Senior Week started with faculty and staff delivering a yard sign to the homes of each of the seniors. And each night at 8:20 p.m., 20:20 in military time, the lights on the football team are turned on to honor the class of 2020.
“It was nice to see they’re still thinking about us,” said DiGiovanni, who is headed to Miami University of Ohio to study math.
‘Find the good’
The three schools are adjusting their plans for graduation, including the possibility of moving the ceremony to the summer when people can safely gather in large groups.
Hayden is looking forward to graduation, even if it’s pushed back to June or July. “I want to go back and hug our teachers and see everybody,” she said.
The class of 2020 has had a senior year unlike any before them.
“Years from now, what on earth will I tell my kids. I don’t even know,” Hayden said. “Enjoy every second of it, because nobody could have known this would happen. Finish it out strong in any way you can. Find the good in every situation. If not, you’re just going to be sad all the time, and what’s that all about.
“In the long run it’s going to benefit us more than harm us,” she said.
Lann falls back on the words of his football coach Justin Geisinger. “He would always tell us adversity is going to hit you at any time. It’s how you’re going to respond to it.”
Despite the disruption at the end of senior year, the seniors’ high school experience has been a rewarding one.
“It’s not how I pictured it,” DiGiovanni said of his senior year, “but I’m really grateful that I got to go to Father Ryan because it’s such an awesome place.”
“I love going to St. Cecilia,” said Marques, a parishioner at St. Matthew Church in Franklin. “It’s the place I’ve felt the most community of any school I’ve been to.”
“My senior year has been fine,” said Lann. “It’s still a great experience.”
“This is a great academic school,” he added. “They prepare you for life.”