High school seniors reflect on an unusual year

The coronavirus forced them to finish their learning at home and miss proms and other events

By Dan McWilliams

The coronavirus pandemic brought attending school to an early end this spring, and the impact may have been felt most by high school seniors.

Sarah Eiselstein proudly displays her surprise box delivered by Notre Dame High School librarian Becky Light (left) and science teacher Barbara McGirl.

Diocese of Knoxville seniors Sarah Eiselstein and Jason Oliver of Notre Dame High School and fellow Class of 2020 members Alexandra “Alex” Dally and Parker Griffey of Knoxville Catholic High School, representing their senior classmates, reflected on their unique senior years.

Sarah said the experience “is definitely different and not at all what I had imagined my senior year would be like.”

“It seems so strange that we left for spring break with all the hopes that we would be back in a week— and never returned,” she said. “It has been heartbreaking, knowing that we won’t have another class at the place we have spent our last four years. With that being said, I have loved having all this extra time spent with my family, knowing that I will be leaving for college in a few months.”

Jason called the experience “both unusual and challenging, yet positive as well.”

“Before spring break and the pandemic began, I was staying up all hours of the night to finish my work,” he said. “Without knowing it, there was a day I put on my uniform for the last time. For me, remote learning and being at home all the time has made finding silence and getting rest much easier. Even though both my parents have been working every day, I have been able to spend more time with them. However, being alone most of the day has required more discipline on my part to stay motivated and engaged in my studies.”

Jason said “there is a facet of education that is, in my opinion, essential but extremely difficult to acquire when remote: a genuine connection with others.”

“Despite our remoteness, my school has found a way to provide this as well—through prayer and service,” he said. “After the tornado hit Chattanooga, remote learning was suspended for a week to aid those affected. Because of this, I was feeling sluggish with little motivation to do anything, but at the same time, I felt awful for those who had lost their houses or been hurt. I reflected on the decisions throughout my high school career and the things I may have done differently.

Jason Oliver and Sarah Eiselstein of Notre Dame High School offered their reflections on their senior year i

“I sat down with my father because he could tell something was wrong, so I told him about the thoughts that were troubling me. After offering words of comfort, he said, ‘Life is random; we have to look at it that way or we might not ever be happy. It’s really very simple; we just overcomplicate it.’ I then thought to ask, ‘If life’s so simple, why do we mess up so much?’ He said, ‘Because it’s simple!’ ‘Whoa,’ I thought, ‘all right, if countless people have no power and damaged houses and our school is offering their constant support, then the least I can do is find the motivation to complete my work to the best of my ability.’

“We were recently notified about a senior awards night video that the school put together and put on their website, and it was absolutely wonderful. The awards portion was very nice, but I think what everyone savored the most was the slide show of pictures from our years together growing up. I couldn’t help but think how much can happen in that short amount of time, how much everyone can change. It was much too quick. This experience brought us closer together without us even realizing it.”

Although many, if not most, public schools closed for the school year in March when public health experts warned of expanding coronavirus infections, the Diocese of Knoxville’s 10 schools continued teaching students via distance learning programs, where students were taught at their homes using Internet-based teaching tools.

Knoxville Catholic seniors wave to onlookers in the parade on campus May 6.

Alex dubbed the coronavirus shutdown experience “very strange—I definitely miss all of my friends, teachers, and doing things in person, but I’ve really loved being at home and being able to do my work on my own time,” she said. “It’s given me more flexibility to practice music things, take other online courses, and spend time with my family. My dad’s job is located out of town, and it’s been awesome to have him home this whole time— otherwise I rarely get to see him!”

Parker used the words “rather sad” to describe the experience.

“When my principal, Mr. [Dickie] Sompayrac, came on the intercom to tell us we would get the day off in order to prepare for at-home learning, I had an idea of what was to come. However, I never knew the extent of how much our lives were going to change,” he said. “I hated being away from all of my friends and teachers at school. I never thought I would miss the simple luxury of being able to hang out in the hallways between classes with all my friends.

“The worst part was missing the adventures every other senior class before us had the opportunity to embark on, such as: my final baseball season, senior retreat, and prom. Every ‘game day’ I was supposed to have was a painful reminder of the senior experience I was supposed to have. Although it was not all bad: I’m happy we have the chance to have a graduation ceremony in June, as well as the fact I got to spend more time with my family. But, this is a year I will regretfully never forget.”

Parade-goers show their enthusiasm for Knoxville Catholic seniors.

As the seniors at Notre Dame and Knoxville Catholic continued to learn by attending class virtually, they were able to complete their senior year academically.

“At Notre Dame, we have been using Microsoft Teams to do all of our classwork,” Sarah said. “My classes have consisted of video lectures, PowerPoint notes, online quizzes, and even tests. We have Zoom meetings so that we can see our classmates and teachers, and I even got to attend yoga class on Zoom! Although we aren’t able to go to school, having this platform makes ‘at home learning’ feel a little more normal.”

Jason called remote learning “an adjustment for both teachers and students.”

“However, after a couple weeks, all the teachers were assigning and asking that we upload our work through Microsoft Teams,” he said.

“This was the new platform and schedule for our learning, and it eventually became very routine. Teachers would record themselves giving a lesson and had virtual office hours—times they’d be readily available for a call or message and to take care of any questions or other aid we needed. Every so often, we would have live classes that would occur at the times we might have had that class at school.

“For me, it was a psychology lecture, a yoga practice, or a debriefing before a biology quiz. Zoom calls were surely the highlight of every week, for teachers to help us catch up, review for exams, or just connect with friends. Our school put together many videos: one every Friday from our president, Mr. [George] Valadie, to offer hope and prayers.

There’s no doubt what class is represented in this car during the KCHS senor parade.

Students and teachers would organize videos for the school to watch or participate in: ‘minute-to-win-it’ competitions, arts and crafts, weekly Mass and rosary celebrated by [chaplain] Father [Christopher] Manning, and most recently, underclassmen and senior awards nights.”

Alex said that “until May 6, all of our classes were conducted online, as well as counselor advising and senior spotlight events (academic signing day, etc.). Several classes simply posted assignments for us to complete and submit, while others hosted online meetings through Teams to review material, troubleshoot how everything was going, and prepare for AP exams.”

Parker was able to do “all my homework and class notes on my computer.”

“Knoxville Catholic High School has class meeting days every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” he said. “In most classes, they handed us work to do or had us do homework every class-meeting day. Teachers did try their best to allow students to learn the material as closely to regular class as possible.”

The suspension of in-school attendance forced the cancellation of spring sports and that most quintessential of high school events: the prom.

“I had not bought a prom dress, but many of my friends had and are trying to sell them due to the cancellation of prom,” Sarah said.

One sense of normalcy remains: each high school is having a graduation ceremony. Notre Dame’s graduation is set for 9 a.m. Saturday, June 27, at Eberle Field on the NDHS campus (weather permitting; otherwise it will be in the Jim D. Phifer Gymnasium on campus). Knoxville Catholic’s commencement will be held at 8 p.m. Friday, June 19, at Blaine Stadium on campus.

“The fact that we are still having a graduation ceremony is really exciting to me,” Sarah said. “Graduation is something you look forward to all year! I think it gives us a way to finalize our senior year in a bittersweet   way. At Notre Dame, our graduation has been moved to the football field, and I find it special that our school is doing all they can to give us this special day, despite all the other changes this year.”

Graduation “helps bring back some normalcy for sure,” Jason said.

A KCHS senior in the parade has a nice message for her teachers.

“Mr. Valadie had continuously promised the seniors that Notre Dame would hold a graduation ceremony for us. At first, he couldn’t tell us when it would be, but it helped tremendously to know that it was ultimately going to happen,” he said. “Of course, the end of the year has been like no other, but having that knowledge that we’ll be together again helps me remember all the things we were able to do our senior year: retreats, house competitions and events, homecoming dance, and every single day in class, which we never thought we’d miss so much. It’s not the same as it would have been, but that goes for everything else I think.”

Alex said graduation “somewhat” fails to completely alter her senior year.

“I’m really glad we’ll get to be honored in person and see everyone again, but it’s definitely still weird that we didn’t get to physically be at school for the last few months of high school,” she said.

Parker said “the graduation ceremony has certainly given me a little closure with the loss of my senior year. I am very happy for being able to be with all of my classmates for one final farewell.”

Notre Dame staff made the seniors’ stay-at-home experience more pleasant with a special act.

“At Notre Dame, we had surprise packages delivered to each senior’s home by faculty members,” Sarah said. “The packages contained handwritten letters, our cap and gown, rosaries, senior T-shirts, and advice for college from our teachers. This was one of my favorite memories from all of Notre Dame because it was so special!”

Each senior “was truly surprised to receive a wrapped gift box (Irish-themed of course), which was delivered right to our homes—in a socially distant manner—by one of our teachers,” Jason said.

“In the box, we found cookies,” he said, “a rosary, used to pray specifically for us and blessed by Father Manning, our 2020 class T-shirt, personal handwritten notes from Mr. Valadie and some of our teachers, honors cords, tassel, and our cap and gown. Seeing one of my favorite teachers at the door made me feel incredibly special and reminded me how much I love my school and its sense of family.”

Knoxville Catholic seniors were given a celebratory drive-through car parade on campus May 6.

“The parade was so much fun!”  Alex said. “I’m actually captain of the drumline, and we got permission to grab our drums and play for the seniors—so what would’ve been our tradition of playing at lunch on the seniors’ last day became playing for the senior parade (and of course I had everyone wear masks and stand spaced apart outside!). It was great to get to do our ‘one last thing’ as this year’s drumline!”

Parker said “the parade of seniors was a very fun idea.”

“It was fun to be able to go through the line with everyone cheering for you, and overall it was a great experience,” he said. “I would not say it was a really emotional experience for me, but it did give me a sinking feeling of a final goodbye.”

Sarah plans on attending college at the University of Kentucky and studying nursing.

Jason will attend Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business and major in business administration.

Alex will attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and major in percussion performance with theater, leadership, and business minors.

Parker will attend UTK and do the pre-med track to “become some sort of doctor. My major is not yet decided.”

Besides losing the prom, the seniors were unable to participate in a number of other events.

“I had decided to be in the school play this spring,” Sarah said. “We were going to be performing High School Musical, but due to the outbreak our play was canceled.”

Jason said he “greatly missed playing bass during Mass this last quarter, service at Clifton Hills Food Bank, our last Games Day, and of course, our senior prom.”

Alex lost out on a number of events in her senior spring.

“The biggest thing for me was the postponing of Catholic’s spring musical. This is my second show as music director with the KCHS Theatre Co., and I poured so much work (though it doesn’t seem like work because I loved every second) into this year’s production of Little Women, and we had almost made it to tech week,” she said. “It was amazing to see the group of musicians I was working with for the pit orchestra grow from the beginning of January to where we ended up with rehearsals, and I’m really sad that hard work and amazing musicality most likely won’t get to be showcased.

“Even if the musical is done over the summer, it’s very unlikely that everyone from the original pit orchestra would be available for the new dates. Theater is so important to me—even though I just got involved during junior year, it has become my true passion and what I’m really striving to do for the rest of my life! Other things I wasn’t able to do included All-State (percussion), my final Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra concert, the KCHS band spring concert, various spring percussion events, and my senior trip to New York City to see Beetlejuice the Musical three times.”

Parker was unable to play baseball for the Fighting Irish this spring.

“Overall, I think that was the worst part of my high school closing down. I miss the family bond I created with my team,” he said. “I miss the game-day feeling in every class and the excitement it brought. I miss the pregame meals where everyone could just joke around and relax. I miss playing third base and looking to my left and seeing my players right next to me. I miss the feeling of squaring up the baseball and knowing it’s hit very far.

“Finally, I miss celebrating a win with my friends. These are the simple pleasures of playing high school baseball I will miss the most. Being a part of Knoxville Catholic High School baseball changed my life forever.”

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