The Class of 2020 went from studying history books to enduring enough to warrant a chapter in one.
Class members were born just after 9/11. They began their academic careers during the Great Recession. Now high school seniors are graduating in the midst of a global pandemic and modern civil rights struggle.
Graduation ceremonies, proms and other milestones have been moved online, severely altered or canceled. Baseball and softball fields are empty. Songs have gone unsung. Prom dresses remain on hangers in closets.
These seniors have had to reckon with more than the teens who came before them. In a sense, they’ve lost their last moments of innocence, fully aware that the future they face is masked in uncertainty.
But with such uncertainty comes an opportunity to develop resilience. And members of the Class of 2020 in Lancaster County are vocal about being up for the challenge.
In early March, as the coronavirus pandemic’s threats were becoming clearer, Diana Lamont, a senior at Manheim Township High School, went to the mall.
She was shopping for a prom dress and shoes when an older man stopped her and asked where she was from. Lamont, who is adopted, told him she was from China. The man asked how long ago she was last there. Lamont patiently told the man 18 years ago — when she was born.
“At first I didn’t know what was happening and I walked away, and then I was like ‘Oh my god; I just was discriminated against,’” says Lamont. “I was in shock because I’d never felt targeted in America. Like, are people seriously attacking Asian-Americans who have been here before the coronavirus?”
The uneasy feelings have remained with Lamont, who says that weeks later, while shopping at Target, she found herself wondering if a person moved away from her because they were maintaining social distancing guidelines or if it was because they noticed she was an Asian-American.
As a high school senior, Lamont’s concerns should have revolved around graduation parties, vacation plans and preparing to study business at Drexel University. Instead, she is overcome with anxiety about the future. She sees an economy in turmoil and worries that every time she goes out someone will think she has coronavirus because of her skin color.
These new worries come on top of an already incredibly sad and stressful spring.
“When school was first canceled I was excited, but a month in I wanted to go back. I wanted that feeling of a routine,” says Lamont, captain of the school’s swim team. “I was sad when prom rolled around and I couldn’t celebrate with my friends. I was frustrated with the world for quite a while. Four years of hard work and then you get to celebrate with everyone, and to have that taken away just feels so unfair.”
On June 4, the night Lamont was supposed to be attending her graduation, she and her family ordered takeout and watched a YouTube video Manheim Township High School produced with speeches and pictures of the seniors as “Pomp and Circumstance” played. Then she turned on YouTube TV and watched a few episodes of “Friends.”
Ben Shumaker, a senior at Solanco High School, spent his senior year as an intern with a local HVAC company through a program at the Lancaster County Career & Technology Center in Brownstown.
“I wasn’t wild about going to a four-year school, and I didn’t want to pay all that money,” says Shumaker on his decision to enroll in a trade program.
Instead he chose to find a practical path directly into the workforce, and he was inspired by a particular instructor.
"The teacher runs his class very strictly, but 90 percent of his students get hired at HVAC companies full-time after they get through that program,” Shumaker says.
In March, Solanco High School informed Shumaker that his internship program was canceled.
“I was confused and disappointed,” Shumaker says. He wasted no time in coming up with a Plan B. He applied for a two-year HVAC program at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology and is currently on a waiting list.
“It’s a bit frustrating, but that’s kind of the Class of 2020’s M.O.,” Shumaker says. “We were born around 9/11, and then this pandemic. Everybody is going to remember the Class of 2020 and how we persevered and thought outside the box.”
Kendra Halpin, a senior at Garden Spot High School, wrote “You were good to me” on a softball and buried it behind home plate at the school’s softball field.
“This was my last year of playing sports for a school,” Halpin says. “I’m going into the pre-med program at Penn State University so I wasn’t really trying to focus on too many other things.”
Halpin also spent part of her senior year interning with the New Holland Ambulance Association.
“I’m very big on helping others and doing things for the goodness of others, so being a student athlete has really pushed myself to make sure that I’m a team player,” Halpin says. “Over this quarantine, I understood the precautions that were being taken. It was something that needed to be done to keep our country and the world safe.”
Tim Hermansen, a senior student athlete at Penn Manor High School, had been getting notifications on his phone reminding his of scheduled, but later canceled, baseball games.
“I need to delete those from my phone,” Hermansen says. “You realize you’re not out there with your best friends playing like you should be.”
Hermansen, who also played basketball and served as Penn Manor’s class president, says it’s not even playing in the games that he misses most.
“It’s the practices and the bus rides,” says Hermansen. “Our team goes to Infinito’s Pizza after we win. We call it Winfo. Just those kind of memories.”
In the fall, Hermansen will attend Geneva College, where he’ll continue his baseball career and study business. He was supposed to intern with the Lancaster Barnstormers this summer.
“I was going to shadow their general manager and their CFO during office hours, but that’s on hold,” Hermansen says. “That’s my dream job. I was looking forward to seeing how that worked.”
During the recording of Penn Manor’s virtual graduation ceremony, Hermansen took the opportunity to speak to his fellow classmates.
“Live the rest of your life like it was March 13, because that was our last day of high school,” he said. “How would you have spent that day if you would have known that that would have been your last day of high school?”
Amani Kaufman, a senior at J.P. McCaskey High School, was supposed to play Wednesday Addams in the school’s production of the musical “The Addams Family.”
“I worked my whole high school career to get a lead, and I worked really hard on the part,” Kaufman says. “There’s one signature song that Wednesday sings called ‘Pulled.’ It’s really challenging vocally, because it’s belted and it goes up to a really high note. I had to work really hard on that song.”
Kaufman didn’t get to hit the high notes on stage, though she performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” during a virtual graduation ceremony.
“I always wanted to perform that,” says Kaufman, who plans on attending West Chester University in the fall. “I’m really glad I get to perform it my senior year.”
Kaufman admits she struggled during the beginning of the pandemic.
“I’ve suffered with pretty severe depression and anxiety throughout my whole high school career,” Kaufman says. “I’ll have days where I can’t get out of bed. I think being in quarantine makes people’s mental health worse in general.”
Like so many did during the stay-at-home order, Kaufman turned to baking to relieve some stress.
“For me, making cookies distracted me from what I was going through,” says Kaufman, who sold cookies on social media and donated more than $1,000 to the Lancaster County Community Foundation’s Lancaster Cares COVID-19 response fund. “It made me feel better to know that I was helping people despite what was going on.”
Jason Brown, also a senior at McCaskey, was set to take the stage alongside Kaufman as Gomez in “The Addams Family.”
“I really wanted to play that role in my last year of high school,” says Brown, who will attend Michigan State University in the fall and major in music education and vocal performance.
Brown will be the first person in his family to go directly to college after high school.
“I can’t wait until I’m out there using music as a tool to teach about the things that are going on in the world,” Brown says.
Brown, like many of the members of the Class of 2020, expressed disappointment at not being able to participate in the traditional celebrations, but says he got over that.
“Not being able to walk the stage or go to prom, is not as important as fighting for the future, fighting for the younger generations,” Brown says. “For us to dwell on the fact that we’re not able to graduate in the normal way would hinder us, as far as progressing in the bigger picture of us moving on as a society. You gotta roll with the punches. Our class has been going through that since we started.”
He’s already thinking like a future educator.
“I feel bad for the students in the future that have to study this year,” Brown says. “They have a hefty essay coming their way.”
The spring of 2020 began with silent sheltering in place and ended with people taking to the streets protesting against racism and police brutality.
Instead of gathering together to celebrate their graduations, high school seniors from all over the county, from Warwick High School students protesting in front of Lititz Springs Park to McCaskey students in downtown Lancaster, have found themselves gathering to create a more just future.
“This year is not what I was expecting my senior year to be like at all,” says Draven Andresen, a senior at McCaskey, who participated in the recent protests in Lancaster city against systemic racism.
“Since this, all this Black Lives Matter stuff, has been happening I’ve been trying to do as much as I can, as a white male. I’ve been trying to sign all these petitions and donate all the money that I possibly can, even though I don’t have much,” says Andresen, who is also raising money with the music he writes and records under the name Draven Fury Andresen. “We’re all trying our best out here.”
Fikir Simegn, a senior and National Honor Society student at Penn Manor High School, also attended the protests in Lancaster.
“I was looking around and I saw kids my age and younger, and there was a lot of us,” Simegn says. “Those are the people showing up and showing out. It’s sad. Like we can’t come together to graduate and celebrate education, but like you’re forcing us to go out there and fight for what’s right. But it has to be done, pandemic or not. What has to be done, has to be done.”
She says she has experienced racism on a daily basis.
“Basically, like every day I’ve gone to high school, I’ve heard some white person say the N-word,” she says.
Simegn, who moved to the United States from Ethiopia with her mother in 2008, is a recipient of the Mrs. Abner McLaughlin Houseknecht Memorial Scholarship and will be attending Johns Hopkins University in the fall with plans to major in chemical and biomolecular engineering.
“I’m an only child, so my mother was only going to have this one (high school) graduation, and now she’s not getting it,” Simegn says. “But at the end of the day, public health is much more important than me getting to experience sentimental things in high school.”
Simegn, who is a manager at a local Papa John’s Pizza, spends her spare time volunteering at the Mountville Church of the Brethren and Tinsae Kristos Evangelical Church.
“It’s what my mom taught me,” Simegn says. “It’s what my faith taught me. It’s what I believe in. Giving back. It’s the right thing to do.”
Simegn is inspired that so many people her age feel the same way.
“It’s definitely the young people that are going to be making a change, and we just have to keep pushing and using our voices,” says Simegn. “As for the Class of 2020, we’re going to be in history books.”