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'Feels Very Anticlimatic': Seniors Reflect On Ending High School Amid The Pandemic

Aaliyah Dade, 18, Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va.
Tyrone Turner/WAMU for NPR
Aaliyah Dade, 18, Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va.

Prom portraits are often windows into the past, capturing a moment in time with a special person, or friends you've lost touch with. It's a celebration of hard work; a well-earned break from studying and stress.

Frozen in time — often to the delight and amusement, decades later, of future generations — are cultural trends in fashion and hair : Why did you pick that dress? Sneakers with a suit --really?

Yet for the class of 2020, that whole experience has been taken away. Ending their educational careers with schools shut down amid a global pandemic wasn't how they imagined marking this milestone in their young lives, or beginning the transition to whatever comes next.


Photographers Susan Sterner and Tyrone Turner wanted to give high school seniors in the Washington, D.C., area (Turner is a photojournalist at member station WAMU) a chance at that moment. They set out with their cameras to memorialize — for the young people and for us — that moment at the end of a long road when students dress up to look their best and say, "We made it."

Here are some of those portraits.

"I think my generation going through this is going to be a huge defining moment for Gen Z, and I think living through this is going to really teach us all that we need to make sure this doesn't ever happen again."

Maya Canady, Woodrow Wilson High School, Washington, D.C.

"I miss school more than I thought I would have missed school, you know? 'Cause when you go to school, you're kind of like, I'm so tired of being here. Like these teachers. They're getting on my nerves ... like all this work. And now that you're at home, it's like, dang, I miss school more than I thought I would have. And all the complaining was kind of like nothing."


Maurice Moore, 18, James Hubert Blake High School, Silver Spring, Md.

"I was looking forward to being able to just take some time and really just celebrate everything we've done and everything we've been through throughout high school. I feel like when we went through a lot of the stress of high school, we always knew that, you know, second semester, senior year, we're gonna have so much fun. We're gonna hang out, we're gonna go places, we're gonna have prom, graduation, all that stuff. And it's like we had the rug pulled from under us. So it just feels very anticlimactic."

— Nick Daniel, 18, St. Anselm's Abbey School, Washington, D.C.

"It's been weird. Like having to see classmates and teachers online instead of in-person. And that just weird feeling like I'm missing out on everything ... Some of my friends, I feel like I've been closer to because of [the pandemic restrictions]. Like we talk more than we usually would. But some, like, people that I would mainly see in classes, those relationships have kind of fallen off."

- Juliana Woods, 18, Academy of Health Sciences at Prince George's Community College, Largo, Md.

"I don't think people understand that we've been waiting for this all year. It may just seem like, oh, one little dance, a prom or a graduation. They can do it at another time. But for having something to look forward to all year, that you've been working hard to get to. It's really hard. It's harder than people might think to have to deal with."

— Crystal Raghunanan, 18, Elizabeth Seton High School, Bladensburg, Md.

"I got accepted into Georgetown University and I was going on a full ride. And because of that, we were going to go to summer school ... they show us what college is like before we actually start the first semester and fall. But they can't really do that necessarily. They just were only able to do the classes for summer instead of like the whole experience."

— La'Rissa Dunn, Bell Multicultural High School, Washington, D.C.

"I think the most challenging thing for me is, like, everyone's been trying to stay positive. And I was that way for a long time. But it's been getting more difficult. It's not affecting my senior year as much as it now is affecting my freshman year of college. My orientation has gotten moved online. So it's just, like, two big milestones in my life, like ending one set of four years and moving on to the next. And it's affecting both pieces. So it's been very hard to cope with that."

— Madison Greene, 18, Elizabeth Seton High School, Bladensburg, Md.

"Well, since ninth grade, I've been thinking about prom. I've been thinking about who I was going to take to prom, thinking about what I'm going to wear to prom, what car i'm gonna pull up in [for] prom. So it's like an event of my life that I was looking forward to. And it's like it's been stripped away. So it makes me feel like 2020 just had the worst out of every class. And it hurts, to be honest."

— Desmond Curtis, 18, Ballou Senior High School, Washington, D.C.

"I wasn't really that excited for prom. But then when I really didn't get prom, then I was like, dang, I really wanted prom. I just felt like I didn't want to go to prom or prom wasn't that big of a deal. But then when it got taken away, it was like, wait, maybe it is something big. Maybe that's something that I would have enjoyed to have."

— Khala Valentine, 18, Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, Washington, D.C.

"The tie and the mask that I have were supposed to be for my aunt and uncle's wedding that was gonna happen in April. But due to the circumstances that we're in, it got postponed until this November. But the little pocket square that came with the tie, I decided to make it into a face mask, you know, to still stay chic — quarantine chic — if you will."

— Phillip Wince, 18, Arlington Tech, Arlington, Va.

"I've gotten to spend a lot more time with my family. My mom is home all the time now, and I didn't really get to see her because she was always working and I was always at school. There's a lot of sadness behind it, but you know that you're part of a community — even if you can't see that community — you know that there's that support. It's nice to know that you matter to people."

— Maria "Pili" Gil, 18, Wakefield High School, Arlington, Va.

Photographers Susan Sterner and Tyrone Turner are married, but did not meet at prom. Tyrone Turner is a photojournalist at member station WAMU. On Instagram @tyronefoto

Susan Sterner is an Associate Professor of New Media Photojournalism, and Assistant Director for Academic Affairs at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design at George Washington University. On Instagram @susanfoto

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