Norman North senior Ryan Sutherlin misses the simple things most of all when he thinks about high-school life.
“We have this thing called Lunch on the Lawn — it’s like a picnic,” he said. “It’s put on by student council, and I would have been the one grilling the hot dogs and playing the music.”
Sutherlin, like millions of graduating seniors across the country, could not have imagined what his last few months of high school would look like in 2020.
There will be no prom or in-person graduation ceremony at Norman North. Instead, there will be a virtual ceremony later this month. Some parents also organized a Facebook group to “adopt” seniors and send them notes and gifts in a show of support.
“There’s been a lot of disappointment,” he said. “I miss my friends. I just wish I could go back to school. I miss the people in my classes and interacting with them every day.”
For parents, the loss of the usual milestones and photo opportunities in tuxedos, prom dresses and caps and gowns is painful. Sutherlin’s mom, Michelle Strain, has struggled to cope with the end of her eldest son’s life in high school.
“When I finally realized he wasn’t going to get to go back and do all those things you plan as a senior, I cried big tears about it,” she said. “Not just for Ryan, but for all the seniors. The best way to describe it is that it has been anti-climactic. He’s had such a bond with his friends. That’s the hardest thing for me as a mom — seeing him miss out on those things.”
Sutherlin keeps in touch with friends via Snapchat and other social-media platforms, but it hasn’t been the same, and may not be for a while.
“I hope we all get to see each other this summer and have something like a normal summer,” he said.
His mom hopes so, too. There’s still time to make a few memories with other new high school graduates before their next chapters begin. In many ways, they already have made more than a few, given the uniqueness of the experience.
“He will always have a different story to tell than I did or other parents do whenever the subject of high school comes up,” Strain said. “The class of 2020 has had a unique experience that’s all their own.”
Sonic becomes cool again
Going to Sonic and hanging out with high school friends seems like something from a bygone era of Americana, but for Aaron Corbin, a senior at Deer Creek High School, it’s become one of the few ways he sees his friends.
“We roll down the windows, get some food and talk,” he said.
Corbin, who is heading to Fort Hays State University in Kansas this fall on a football scholarship, is just trying to go with the flow when it comes to the novel coronavirus.
“It’s been weird not being in school,” he said. “I don’t miss the class part so much. It’s the fun stuff, like prom and the senior trip — that part sucks.”
For his mother, Lorrie Bamford, the experience of not being able to live out a scene she’s imagined in her head for so long has been difficult.
“When graduation got canceled that was the biggest letdown,” she said. “You have this vision and dream of your child walking across the stage.”
Bamford was slated to be a chaperone for a senior trip to Mexico, but that has been canceled also.
“We had a graduation party scheduled, and my brother who owns a BBQ food truck was going to bring it up here (from Texas) as his gift to Aaron, and now all of that is off,” she said. “We had a trip to Mexico with 34 rooms that I had to cancel today, which was hard because I know everyone was looking forward to going.”
Corbin has been focused on staying in shape. He said he is looking forward to starting college, hopefully late this summer, when he heads to Fort Hays to start pre-season practices.
“In a lot of ways, it feels like high school is over,” he said.
The view from rural Oklahoma
Hartshorne High School senior Holli Lindley and the rest of the Lady Miners basketball team were on the bus, about to head to the state tournament, when they got the news it had been put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association later canceled the tournament.
“The mayor got on the bus and told us it was postponed,” she said. “I didn’t really know how to react. I don’t think I was really ever angry about it, more so confused than anything. It’s nothing I can control. I prayed a lot and just worked through it myself. I realized it’s much bigger than me finishing my senior year in high school.”
Today, Lindley finds herself on a front line of sorts. Her family owns the only grocery store in Hartshorne, a town of about 2,500 tucked away in southeastern Oklahoma. She now enforces limits on how many people can be in the store at any one time, among other unusual tasks.
Living through a pandemic in rural Oklahoma has been especially odd, she said.
“In a small town, everyone does everything together,” she said. “McAlester is our big city, and we’d go there and eat and drive around. It’s kind of crazy we can’t do the normal things we’d be doing. Just regular stuff high school kids do in small towns. I miss that more than anything.”
And she’ll always think of that canceled tournament and wonder what could have been. Years from now, girls from her team will likely be asking the same question at reunions.
“When they said they wouldn’t be able to reschedule the state tournament, I had a day of grieving,” Lindley said. “It was always on my bucket list to bring a gold ball back here. That probably hurt the most out of anything. We would have had a great shot, but we’ll never know how it would have turned out.”
A lesson in the chaos
Deliasha Brewster, a senior at Santa Fe South High School in Oklahoma City, struggled with the shutdown of her school. But even in the loss of what would have been an exciting time in her life, she found a lesson.
“When I got the news we had to switch to online classes, it was devastating,” she said. “I cried, and I complained that everything wasn’t going as I had planned for my senior year. But then I realized you have to take precautions, and that everyone’s health matters more than what I had planned.”
Brewster said she’s found the academic part of life out of school something she’s been able to adapt to.
“I’ve learned that I can manage my time pretty well, especially while I’m doing homework for school,” she said. “I’m not as distracted by my friends or finding myself being bored in the classroom. It’s been better than I thought.”
She plans to attend Oklahoma City Community College in the fall, and then transfer to a degree program in hospitality at a four-year school. Brewster hopes Santa Fe South will have some type of commencement ceremony in the summer, but those plans are unclear.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but hopefully we’ll be able to have something like a normal summer where I can get together with my friends face to face, because that’s what I miss most,” she said.
‘What are we supposed to do now?’
Like most high-school seniors, Melody Trost felt a sense of loss as Collinsville High School, in northeastern Oklahoma, shut down for the year. The worst part has been not being able to say goodbye.
Coronavirus puts plans of college graduates up in the air by Matt Patterson
“I feel like for most seniors, myself included, the hardest part is that there was no closure,” she said. “I’ll be OK without a prom, and I’ll be OK with not walking across a stage and receiving my diploma, but the thing I’m having the hardest time with is that I never got a chance to say goodbye to all my teachers and the faculty that have watched me grow up the past four years.”
Trost, who was active in student council during high school, hasn’t let the time go to waste. She said quarantine has helped her understand that her calendar doesn’t always have to be packed.
“I think people will learn how to slow down,” she said. “Someone once said to me that you are never too busy. You either make time for people or you don’t. I feel like people will start making time to connect with others after this is all over, and start to value their friends and family more.”
Trost said she’s picked up painting and gardening, two things she wasn’t into before. And she said her friends are handling things relatively well. Still, there’s a sense of a story without an end.
“It’s like the last couple pages of a chapter are ripped out of a book and everyone is like ‘What are we supposed to do now?'” she said.