FORT LEE, Va. (June 3, 2020) -- Jihad Banks is himself a story of resilience.
He is the oldest of three raised by a single-mom Soldier putting in long hours as a drill sergeant here. He has endured deployments, seven schools, move-ins with relatives and friends, and living at more addresses than he can count.
Banks’ graduation this year from Prince George High School was supposed to be a triumphal culminating event – the crowning achievement of not only his academic pursuits but his victory over the sometimes arduous road of a military childhood.
Then came COVID-19, the disease pandemic that has virtually brought the world to a standstill, indiscriminately wiping away life-affirming weddings, retirements, vacations and other events, including graduations with all of its associated pomp and circumstance.
Banks was at the very least incredulous COVID-19 had crept into his life like a thief, stealing the moment of glory he had sought for so long.
“We did all this work and just kind of got sent home,” said the 18-year-old about the late-March news the school year was cancelled. “I just started to think like, ‘this is the moment we’ve all waited for, and it happens our senior year.’ It really got me questioning things.”
The youngster was all swagger when classes started back in September. He had earned the right to be cocky. The football and basketball athlete spent his sophomore year with godparents in Fayetteville, N.C., while his mom, Staff Sgt. Shalanda Banks, had moved here for her new assignment. He fought through the reluctance of joining her during his junior year and struggled to make friends. Working out at MacLaughlin Fitness Center turned things around.
“I used to go there every day to play basketball,” Banks said. “That was my outlet. It was a place I could always go to escape, and I met people there. The first day of school, I realized they went to Prince George. During the first month, I felt like this may not be so bad; maybe I can get used to this.”
He went a good ways beyond mere acclimatization. His grades got better. His circle of friends grew. He found a job and felt secure enough to choose a career field, signing up for heating, ventilation and air condition classes with a plan to attend community college in the fall.
Furthermore, Banks took delight in planning for traditional senior-year events like the prom and graduation. He and girlfriend Tamila had already picked out their attire for the former.
“At first, I was going to wear yellow because it’s different, but then I saw an interview with (rapper) Post Malone and he had on this silk purple shirt. It was like half-sleeved. I liked it, so I planned to wear a purple shirt with black pants and purple shoes – loafer types.”
Banks was undecided about wearing a jacket, leaning toward ditching it and opening the top buttons of his shirt “to let my chest breath,” while accentuating the look with earrings and a neck chain. Tamila was set to wear a purple dress. Banks envisioned the couple rolling up to the venue in a rented Dodge Charger.
“We were going all out this year,” he said.
When it became clear the school year would be cancelled, the couple’s vision of prom night dissipated and their feelings sank. It was worse for Tamila, Banks said.
“She was definitely hurt because, once college hits, people start to become more distant,” he said. “She felt like the coronavirus ruined one of our special moments – dressing up and going out dancing. She felt like we wouldn’t get that time back.”
Banks was disappointed too but was more-so about the graduation ceremony.
He had pictured himself in the stadium filled with family, friends and community members, attired in his school’s green and gold colors, standing proudly with his classmates, ready to claim what he earned. Fault him for savoring the symbolism and having the fixated ambition to bask in the glory of his achievement.
“This is what we’ve been working so hard for – to graduate, to walk across that stage,” Banks reiterated.
PGHS has offered alternative events to celebrate the achievement. Restricted walks across the school’s auditorium stage with no more than four family members present are scheduled for June 8-12 and a vehicle parade is set for June 13. The alternative events are fine, Banks said, but seem consolatory. He favors some type of celebratory event with all of whom are familiar with his journey.
“I would still want to gather with all of my family and friends who were going to come to the regular graduation so I can feel like, you know, it wasn’t all wasted,” he explained.
Staff Sgt. Banks said she initially thought her son and his friends would be happy with a school cancellation but came to realize the gravity of it.
“This is a major milestone in his life, especially considering the fact he is a military child…,” said the Victor Company, 262nd Quartermaster Battalion Soldier. “It was going to mean the world to me to see him finally make it – to graduate with that cap and gown on.”
She had not only planned for a traditional graduation but another large celebratory event that would include her godson.
“We (and a dear friend) were actually going to rent a building decorated in my son’s and godson’s school colors,” she said. “We really had these plans to do certain things for them, and now, we really don’t get that chance.”
Despite all the developments associated with COVID-19, SSG Banks said her son earned a diploma and even a pandemic can’t diminish his accomplishment.
“I’m extremely proud of this young man,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a better child. He’s responsible, he’s respectful, he’s a young adult with great potential to do whatever it is he wants to do. … I’m proud of him and honored to be his mother, and even more honored for him to be my son.”