AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Today's high school seniors are one of a kind. For them, every year of high school has been touched by the pandemic. NPR's Meg Anderson talked to five seniors about what that's been like and what their hopes are for the year ahead.
MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: In many ways, the students I spoke with are just regular teenagers, into all kinds of things.
JULIA NATALI PEREZ: I recently got into baking.
NATHAN FERGUSON: Overanalyzing films and scrutinizing them.
IKSHA SUBBA: Debate.
OMAR ABDELLALL: Computer programming.
TWYLA COLBURN: Spoken-word poetry.
ANDERSON: That's Julia Natali Perez, Nathan Ferguson, Iksha Subba, Omar Abdellall and Twyla Colburn. They talked to me from Omaha, Neb., Nashville, Tenn., Dallas, eastern Pennsylvania and Portland, Ore. The pandemic first hit when they were all in their freshman year. And for that reason, they told me, they feel like they've had a high school experience unlike any other.
COLBURN: We are the only class who doesn't really know what it's like to go to high school, in a sense.
ANDERSON: That's Twyla. Nathan says he can tell his experience has been different by talking with his older cousins.
FERGUSON: They had a pretty traditional high school experience, so it was something I couldn't really relate with them.
ANDERSON: For these students, the closest they got to that traditional high school experience was in 2019. Here's Omar, Iksha and Twyla.
ABDELLALL: Freshman year, as it started, I was sort of like a social butterfly.
SUBBA: 2020 - like, January, February - I was kind of, like, finding myself and my group of people.
COLBURN: And there were all these things that were upcoming that I was excited for, and then everything pretty much just got canceled.
ANDERSON: Suddenly, they were back at home. They were remote learning for the rest of that year, and they stayed that way through their sophomore year, which didn't always go great.
FERGUSON: There were certain classes where I would find little sections to sleep through while I had it going on in the speaker in the background. I was just absorbing it through my ears (laughter).
ANDERSON: Maybe not music to Nathan's teacher's ears, but he says he was still able to keep up in those classes. Junior year, a lot of them went back. But after so much time learning at home, that was an adjustment, too - plus COVID. Here's Omar, Nathan and Iksha.
ABDELLALL: I didn't talk to anyone for basically a year in person. And going back to school, I didn't really know how to comprehend being in, like, a bigger environment.
FERGUSON: I'd find myself avoiding big crowds or at lunch, maybe sitting by myself at a table rather than to friends.
SUBBA: A few of my teachers had to leave school. Like, kids at my school would, like, randomly leave school. People were just, like, getting COVID left and right.
ANDERSON: Julia says the whole experience changed the way she interacts with the world.
PEREZ: I've grown so much as a person 'cause, like, I'm more focused in school, but also outside of school, getting out of my bubble and trying new things.
ANDERSON: And for Twyla, it's made her want to take advantage of every opportunity.
COLBURN: With us, I feel like there's a certain desire to compensate for everything that we've lost.
ANDERSON: She's in her school's band, and they have to play at the football games.
COLBURN: And I'm not personally someone who would normally go to a football game or want to go. But now more than ever, I've been much more looking forward to things that I wouldn't have looked forward to in freshman year just because it allows a chance to be part of the school community.
ANDERSON: In fact, all the students I spoke with were excited for the return of those classic high school traditions, the big ones and the small ones. Here's Nathan.
FERGUSON: They brought back the senior courtyard, which was actually banned for the past couple years, where seniors get to go outside and eat their lunch on picnic tables, which is super cool. They're also bringing back field trips, homecoming, all this stuff that we're missing from previous years. It feels like it's kind of all coming together.
ANDERSON: Still, for Iksha, after the last few years, it's been hard to get all that excited about high school.
SUBBA: High school used to be, like, a big deal for me in middle school. But I feel like I don't really feel that connected to my school. Right now, it's just a place I go to study, to get my education.
ANDERSON: She called her experience bittersweet, and she's hoping college will be different. Twyla thinks it will be. She's hopeful for what her class can accomplish, not in spite of the pandemic but because of it.
COLBURN: These past few years have shown us that there's nothing that is out of reach for the class of 2023. We can get through things that have been unprecedented for generations, still while juggling all the difficulties of high school. And I think that is just incredible.
ANDERSON: For now, they're focused on enjoying their last and sort of first full year of high school.
Meg Anderson, NPR News.
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