WIESBADEN, Germany -- The Wiesbaden High School graduating class is having a year to remember, and not for typical rites-of-passage associated with high school commencement.
Their worlds have been turned upside down by COVID-19: learning at home via computers and online meeting spaces; cancelled sports seasons turned into private or not-at-all workouts; spending more time at home with family at a time when they are usually out and about with friends; prom and all of the social functions of high school cancelled; and a graduation ceremony transformed from traditional to the unimaginable.
“Along the way there are milestones to transition from kid to adult, and you want to be a senior,” said Marcy Grayson, teacher and advisor to the senior class. “You look forward to those traditions as it cements in your head that it is happening, ‘I’m going to graduate.’”
Emily Young, senior, watched her older sister have those experiences. “I do not feel the fulfillment of being a senior,” she said. Perhaps the poignant loss for Young and many of her classmates revolves around the loss of their final varsity spring athletic season. As the first baseman and backup pitcher on a championship team, Young said, “This was supposed to be my year.” Instead of defending the title, she is inside, missing the sun and dirt and fellowship of team sports.
Ivan Friel, senior soccer player, felt confident about his team’s ability to rebound after losing in the semi-finals of the Euros last year. “It was going to be our season,” he said. He plays year-round soccer, including with a German team, which is also finished for the season.
Becca Adams, also a senior soccer player, said, “We didn’t know our championship would be our last game; we didn’t know that we would not have our senior season.”
Adams’ teammate, Erin Goodman, reflected on the final practice as her coach called each senior out with praise. “We sat in the locker room and cried.”
Steve Jewell, the high school’s athletic director, said, “It’s not all doom and gloom because it affects everybody; it’s a different vibe.” Not only are local seasons over, but all Department of Defense Education Activity schools, high school teams in the states and even professional sports are all on hold.
It’s not just athletes facing both loss and change as the graduation date looms. Advanced Placement students have lost valuable instructional time and face vastly different testing circumstances. Instead of two to three-hour exams with multiple choice and essay answers, students will take a 45 minute exam with one or two free response questions. On top of those changes, there are three global times for the tests, 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., requiring Wiesbaden students to take exams late at night.
Young, who is taking AP Statistics and Seminar, has found the more isolated learning a disadvantage in preparation for the exams. “You need intrinsic motivation to make it work; it’s up to me now.” She misses the feedback and insight of her peers and teachers from traditional in-class instruction.
Adams is enrolled in four AP classes: Calculus, Statistics, Literature and Research. She worries whether colleges will accept credits given the changes to instructional time and testing. She’s grateful, however to teachers who have creatively implemented alternative teaching strategies and create office hours for one-on-one help.
Goodman, also an AP student, appreciates the creativity of AP teachers. Her AP Research teacher requires video submissions to demonstrate understanding of key concepts. In AP Literature, students are journaling where classmates can comment. “It’s good to be able to talk (in written form) to a group mass of people who are going through the same thing as you,” she said.
Adaptation and creativity are common threads as seniors reflect on their final year of high school. They’ve appreciated the efforts of teachers who have subjects not easily translatable to virtual learning, like ceramics and drama. Young said the submission of videos in Advance Drama “has changed the whole dynamic.”
Zachary Kirk, senior student council president, teamed up with council peers to boost school-wide morale in a digital learning environment. Spirit week included show-and-tell and bring your pet to school day, concepts that would never work in the normal classroom setting. “Senioritis is a thing,” he said. “We want to finish out fun and strong.”
Seniors are also taking their down time to self-care, explore new hobbies and catch up on upcoming responsibilities. Goodman said, “I’ve accepted it and the time is a gift to work on my physical self.” In addition to morning bike rides, she’s doing a physically intensive Marines quarantine workout to keep herself in shape for James Madison University, where she hopes to earn a walk-on spot on the school’s soccer team.
Friel said, “I see something very useful because we have a lot of time now.” He’s doing morning runs, training for when sports open back up, particularly for his German team. “I’ll be ready and I feel like, in my opinion, I’m a better player right now.”
Besides becoming a runner and a morning person, Adams has taken up baking sourdough bread. She’s perfected a two-day process that her family enjoys. She bakes in the mid-morning and the bread “doesn’t make it to dinner time,” she said.
“I have become much more self-aware,” Adams continued. “I have a healthier mindset; journaling is therapeutic; I’ve taken this experience to step back and analyze.”
Kirk took his new-found time to apply for additional scholarships and get ahead on the requirements for the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, his college in the fall.
“In the last four years, this is the most time I’ve spent with my family, which is especially great before I go to college,” he said. This sentiment was echoed by every senior interviewed for this article. Under normal circumstances, seniors would participate in after school activities and sports only to get home after 6 p.m. with a long list of homework assignments, leaving little time for family.
Grayson is the parent to a graduating senior, Ari. “It is a gift to have that time together before this jumping off point,” she said.
Perhaps the most stressful aspect of the cancellation and structural changes to school is the uncertainty students have faced. What started as a few weeks became a month and ultimately turned into full-scale cancellation of most traditional school functions.
Ari Grayson, senior and director of the senior directed play, has tried to remain optimistic despite the uncertainty and rolling list of cancellations and changes. Grayson is directing 10 peers in a special performance of “The Great Gatsby.” “If we could have done it on stage, it would have been amazing: fancy lighting, stage design,” Grayson said. “I had big plans for it.”
Instead, the performance has turned into a 1920s style radio show with student generated animation overlay on a video edition. “It’s an interesting opportunity and one of the best solutions given the chaos of right now,” Grayson added. “I get to do something very novel to the program.” They still do not have a firm release date as they wait for special licensing for the script and work through distribution options.
“There is always so much uncertainty at this time when you are 16, 17, 18,” said Najla Munshower, vice president of the senior parent association and mother to three graduating seniors. “Normal and reasonable uncertainty has been exponentially changed.”
The association helps coordinate a series of senior-related activities. While they facilitated early year programs like senior breakfast and volunteer days, they’ve cancelled bachelorette, the end-of-year trip to Europa Park and fun activities including laser tag and soccer games.
Graduation plans remained uncertain at the time of publication. However, seniors and their advisors are holding out hope for a creative graduation ceremony. Kirk said, “In 20 years we’ll say that was pretty cool.”