Seniors Reflect on a Historic End to Their Upper School Careers
Story by Melody Guyton Butts // Senior Portraits by Braden Saba ’16
Looking back on that joy-filled day — March 6, 2020 — no one could have imagined all that was to come. After spending an extended assembly period pondering the science of gratitude and then expressing their gratitude for classmates and teachers via Kenan Auditorium shout-outs, Durham Academy Upper Schoolers were heading off to spring break on a positive note. Out on the newly minted K Family Outdoor Commons, hugs and handwritten thank-you notes were exchanged. Spring break plans were discussed.
Just five days later, the World Health Organization declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Halfway through DA’s planned spring break, families and students were notified that the break would be extended, followed by an indefinite period of remote-only learning — which ultimately continued through the end of the school year.
As Daniel Park ’21 put it, “I learned that as fun as it may sound for your junior year spring break to get extended because of a weird virus going around, it’s definitely not worth it.”
The Class of 2021 has come of age during COVID-19, and it’s safe to say that from spring 2020 on, they have been through a lot. As juniors, they had to quickly adapt to a whole host of challenges and coronavirus-related restrictions — and during a year that even in the best of circumstances can be anxiety-ridden. Students had to pivot to learning online. Student-athletes missed out on their spring seasons. Musicians and dancers had to rehearse for culminating performances via a Microsoft Teams connection. The speech and debate team participated in national competitions on Zoom.
And everything, it seemed, was canceled. Cavalier Capstones — including international trips
— were canceled. Prom was canceled. Community service was canceled. Riding around in a car with friends was canceled. At a developmental stage when it’s natural for teenagers to increase their independence from family and form strong bonds with their peers, stay-at-home orders made that nearly impossible.
In the summer, members of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 joined with DA alumni and called on the school to prioritize its commitment to racial equity as part of the largest racial justice movement since the civil rights era.
The fall brought a return to campus two days a week, with Upper School students split between two cohorts that took turns learning in person and remotely. They learned how to listen to lessons through teachers’ masks and how to recognize friends’ emotional expressions through their eyes. At a time in their lives that might have been traditionally marked by small acts of rebellion and rule-breaking, they dutifully adhered to every safety protocol. With modifications to follow COVID-19 safety protocols, sports resumed. Performing artists were able to rehearse together, albeit outdoors, once again. Students found joy and friendship on campus, and eventually fell into the familiar patterns of a somewhat unfamiliar version of school, in spite of the uncertainty in the world around them. In November, some members of the Class of 2021 played a part in determining their own futures and the future of the country by voting in the presidential election.
After wondering much of the school year if long-anticipated senior year traditions — Senior Challenge, prom and a group graduation ceremony — could safely happen, they did. Spring 2021 marked a historic moment — the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations for students and teachers — that provided a sense of hope, and opened a window for the return to traditions. Within the span of a week in late May, members of the Class of 2021 hiked mountains, danced the night away on Alumni Field and marched to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance to the K Family Outdoor Commons — where nearly 15 months prior, they’d had that last gratitude-tinged taste of normalcy.
“Whether in the classroom, in the art and performance spaces, on the fields, or as voices of activism and change, the Class of 2021 has pushed through the distance and screens of the last year to engage more with the things that matter most to them,” said Laci McDonald, Upper School dance teacher and a lead advisor for the Class of 2021. “I am proud of the seniors for not only wondering and questioning, but for activating and doing.”
The last year and a half has created unimaginable challenges for the Class of 2021. But these months have also been ripe with opportunities for the class to learn more about themselves, to put things in perspective, to find moments of gratitude. So for the following reflections, please stay seated for the seniors.
Q — What were those first few months of COVID-19 — marked by stay-at-home orders, remote learning, a toilet paper shortage and widespread uncertainty — like for you? How have things changed as the pandemic has continued?
A — Xander Wilcox ’21: So at the end of junior year, it was definitely odd, but we were only doing it for what, two months, maybe. So it felt more like a little trip, like something a little bit different. Then having the summer experience — like, wow, we’re actually [still] in lockdown — then coming back to school felt weird, like, wow, we’re actually hanging out with people on campus, even in hybrid. And then as the school year wore on, it’s kind of like, OK, this is what it’s like. So for me, it was definitely unique for sure. But it was also just like, this is what life is like. And so it kind of didn’t feel as crazy as I think it will feel looking back on it when we get back to what we used to be like.
A — Emma Larson ’21: Initially, when we didn’t expect it to be this long-lasting, I at least had a bit more of a lighthearted approach because I really lucked out with my standardized tests — I already had those done, so I wasn’t really too stressed. But as the end of [junior] year approached and they were talking about COVID numbers, you start to realize the summer’s not going to be the same, and the next year is not going to be the same. And then when we got back to school, I was certainly grateful that we were in hybrid mode, because I think that it definitely helped with the learning experience, at least from my experience talking with my friends [at other schools] who didn’t really have hybrid mode until really recently. It was still pretty imbalanced from my point of view, because I basically spent my whole senior year, for the most part, focusing just on school. And I had this conversation with multiple teachers because there was sort of a point where I was really drained. Like, I felt like there was nothing I was doing to sort of balance out my academic life with a social life because we weren’t really able to do anything, at least I didn’t feel comfortable doing anything. And so I was quite exhausted, I think, coming into February.
Q — What are some of the things you are disappointed to have missed out on? How have you coped with some of the challenges posed by the pandemic?
A — Ryan Norris ’21: Well, for me, the athletics program has meant a lot to me in my time here. So it [was unfortunate] not being able to go to my friend’s last soccer games, or basketball games that they were playing because of all the COVID restrictions. And I’m really happy that by this spring, we were able to go to games, but for the stuff that happened earlier in the year, that was definitely like the biggest loss for me. Last year, we were making all these plans, you know, we’re seniors now. We’ll be in the front row. Like, these are all these chants we’re going to be doing during the basketball games and stuff.
A — Teresa Ibeanu ’21: Before [the pandemic], I just generally didn’t really go to a lot of school events … I just didn’t want to. But [just before COVID hit], I guess I realized that since it’s my last year, look, why not? Why never do it, why never have the experience? And so when it hit and everything was supposed to be canceled, we weren’t sure that we were going to get any of the things that seniors usually get. Then it was kind of disappointing because, you know, I had planned that if I was to do anything, it would have been this year. So I’m glad that everything was able to be pulled together [for senior events]. We were told by our advisers that it would be kind of last minute or it’s very tentative and stuff like that. But they were able to pull it together very nicely. Even [college] T-shirt day — which is something so simple, but it’s still going to happen, and we’re still going to be able to be with each other.”
A — Felix Liu ’21: I think we, at least my friends and I, really cherish the time we get at lunch, for example. We all sit in the same area outside and we try to play as much soccer as possible or go and get some food together. And we always really look forward to that time during lunch because it’s one time where we get to have our masks off outside and chat, joke, play soccer and all that good stuff.
A — Chris Burkhard ’21: I’ve learned that human connection is critically important. I’m a bit of a recluse, and I’m quite introverted. I didn’t realize how much I relied on others. This pandemic has made me truly appreciate the connections I’ve formed at DA, and how they help to make me a better person. With friends, I’ve shared laughs, tears and countless stories, and those things didn’t stop just because we couldn’t see one another in person. It’s cheesy, I suppose, but I’m grateful to have realized what people truly meant to me.
A — Raguell Couch ’21: In a way, when I was deciding on which colleges I want to choose or should I take a tour or should I not take this class because I need a break this year, it became very apparent that I had to think for myself and think about myself in that time.
A — Jackson Tupper ’21: I’ve learned a lot about my own personal drive. I’ve been able to put my mind to work (without anyone chirping on my shoulder that I had to do it) and get it done. Through this, I’ve become a lot more self-reliant.
A — Caroline Aldridge ’21: I have learned just how important this time in our lives is and how vital it is to be grateful. A lot of my time in high school has been worrying about the next step, and this time has given me the opportunity to reflect on the significance of the present moments that I have with my classmates.
A — Larson: Now you realize that social life is quite imperative to having, at least in my opinion, good mental health and in general just feeling more well-rounded and having structure. … Initially with the pandemic, I definitely feel like you got a taste of what not having a social life really means. And so I feel like much later down the line, if I had kids who are teenagers, I feel I would be gracious when they would want to communicate with their friends. I feel like I would understand more so that having that outlet is probably more important than it initially seems.
Q — Have you experienced any silver linings in the pandemic?
A — Norris: I think everyone has kind of started to value the time we have together a lot more. Like whenever there’s an opportunity for people to get together for something that’s been planned, everyone is really excited about it and enthusiastic, as opposed to maybe the years before.
A — Couch: A lot of people I knew took up causes this year, even though we couldn’t go out of the house that much and you couldn’t really talk to your friends in person. A lot of people championed issues that were important to them and just found something new within themselves. So I think we all just found a sense of self that you maybe wouldn’t have, had you not been pushed to the limit.
A — Ibeanu: I feel like I did grow a lot closer to my teachers that I had this year just through small things on the days we were in person. It’s easier to strike up a conversation with them because, I don’t know, it just didn’t feel so disconnected — like the teacher-student divide.
A — Wilcox: I’ve definitely had more time to kind of just engage in other things, like on the academic side, I’ve started doing things a little bit differently. Now I have the time to actually kind of redo the stuff I’ve been doing and create new habits. I’ve started taking my notes with Overleaf instead of on paper … . I’m learning a slightly more professional industry standard program — that’s something that I thought was probably going to be worthwhile. You have more time just to kind of hang around and do research on random things that you’re curious about. So there have been a lot of subjects that like, oh, wow, I’m curious about this during class online on a Teams call, I can just Google it and read the Wikipedia page for it. After class or during asynchronous time, I can go watch videos on Khan Academy about it. There’s more time and also less rigor, so you can kind of just experiment with what you want when you’re bored and learn new things.
Q — What has it been like to regain a bit of normalcy at the end of the year, as the availability of vaccines has made it possible to participate in some senior year traditions?
A — Couch: I feel like we started this year with a lot of uncertainty. So you don’t really know what to expect or what this year will sort of turn out to be. But I think having that sense of normalcy has really made it a better time to celebrate each other. Just kind of reflect on the fact that this is our last year and this is really it. And to have this normalcy just makes it so we’re able to enjoy what we have left a little bit better than just, oh, who knows if we’ll be back in school or who knows if we’ll be able to meet again.
A — Ibeanu: I realized in March when we had a field day [the first time all students in each grade level were on campus at one time] that I hadn’t seen the other cohort since March of my junior year. … And so being able to do all the activities in the last week, it’s kind of overwhelming. But it’s a chance for all of us to reconnect, because usually, I guess the seniors doing this would have been with each other or they would be spread out throughout the year. So it’s not as much at one time, but it also just feels right now like everybody’s bonding with each other a little bit more since we had been so disconnected beforehand.
A — Wilcox: I’m very grateful to have had Senior Challenge. … Being able to just hang out with your classmates that you haven’t seen all year and people you often haven’t really interacted with at all over the past four years, being able to spend a week with them was really cool. With prom, I’m very excited — I think that will be super fun, and it is definitely something that I didn’t expect to happen. Had you asked me in October, will any of this stuff happen, I would be like, no way, there’s no chance. But now, I’m really impressed by how the DA community has handled it and how they’ve been able to allow us to have these events.
Q — Looking back on your DA experience — both during COVID and before — what will you take away with you?
A — Norris: I guess the thing DA does best, in my opinion, is just the teachers and the relationships they’re able to build with their students. And that’s taught me just the importance of relationships going throughout life. You want to be like the type of person where you can have a conversation with someone who might be a coworker just to build more trust with them. And then that makes it easier down the road to work together. I would never feel afraid if I needed to go to a teacher for help or if I thought they might have messed up a grade. I know they wouldn’t take that personally because we had a good relationship, we could just have casual conversations. Obviously they’re still my teacher, but also regular people as well.
A — Liu: I think what DA does best, for me at least, is teaching its students how to be a proper member of their community and a good member of their community, and just learning how to be a good person in general. And I think that comes from guest speakers, assemblies or hearing people from the community speak to students and all that stuff. It has made a really big impression on me to hear what people do in their lives and how I may learn from that.
Thanks to the expanded availability of vaccines, the Class of 2021 was able to enjoy several senior-year traditions — albeit with some modifications — in late May.
Under the lights of Alumni Field, seniors enjoyed a memorably unconventional prom experience. The event was held outdoors, with students walking down a red carpet of sorts (luminarias lined the steps of the K Family Outdoor Commons) before having photos snapped by Upper School photography teacher Harrison Haynes. They then made their way down to Alumni Field, where they dined on food truck delicacies, watched a surprise senior slideshow and boogied into the night with their classmates.
College T-Shirt Day
Just before commencement rehearsal, seniors gathered for what has become a much-anticipated, student-organized tradition — a huge class photo in which each member proudly displays their chosen college or university on their T-shirt. Lead class advisors Michael Meyer and Laci McDonald helped line the seniors up with appropriate social distancing, while drone pilot Dave Chandler (member of the Office of Information Technology and father of DA alumni) got the shot. In all, members of the Class of 2021 are headed off to 64 colleges and universities (see back cover).
Senior Challenge — a five-day backpacking, orienteering adventure in the North Carolina mountains — typically occurs at the start of the school year. But in a year in which very few things took place as usual, members of the Class of 2021 went on Senior Challenge in late May, becoming the 42nd DA senior class to test their mettle hiking, rappelling, cooking over campfires and sleeping under the stars. Director of Physical Education Greg Murray has been a part of the Senior Challenge organizing crew (affectionately nicknamed “the Mountain Men”) since 1986 and has served as director of the program since 2005.
“Even though it was super challenging and was different than any of us expected, the biggest part of it was that we got to do it together, which I know sounds incredibly cheesy,” said Elle Gross ’21. “Getting to do it with other people made it a million times more fun. Alone it just would have been a brutal challenge, but together it was a great experience.”
Among the efforts that had to be reinvented this year was community service. Learn how the Class of 2021 worked together to learn more about the community in which they live at bit.ly/SeniorService2021.