Aniyah Nesmith bought her prom dress before she knew the coronavirus would cancel the event

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Aryanith Hernandez would’ve been first in her family to walk across a stage and accept a high school diploma. She was eager to make her immigrant family proud at an in-person ceremony.

But the graduation processional has been at the very least postponed — and likely canceled altogether. That’s true across the School District of Philadelphia, including Hernandez’s school, the Kensington Health Sciences Academy.

“My family not being able to see that breaks my heart,” said 18-year-old Hernandez. “I’m the first one to do it, and I can’t even do it the correct way because of a virus.”

Philly high school seniors have been speculating for a month whether milestones they’d been anticipating for years would still happen: prom, graduation, starting college.

Superintendent William Hite officially announced Wednesday that the big end-of-year celebrations are off. Hite did say he’s working on a virtual celebration for departing 12th-graders — and might even hold in-person ceremonies a few months later.

“We understand everybody is disappointed,” Hite said during his weekly Facebook Live session. “We have put this off as long as we possibly could.”

For seniors, the announcement was a blow. Some had already bought dresses, or ordered caps and gowns. They’d scored dates and started planning parties.

“That’s all I was talking about, how I can’t wait to graduate,” Hernandez said. “You finally are almost there, and it just gets taken away from you.”

Emely Jimenez and her friends hang out at Little Flower school before the stay-at-home order was imposed Credit: Courtesy Emely Jimenez

Dusty prom dresses and motivation on hold

A few months ago, Aniyah Nesmith found the perfect dress for the dance at George Washington Carver School of Engineering and Science. The light pink mermaid dress is emblazoned all over with silver jewels, and it meets the floor with layers of tulle.

“I really love my prom dress. I tried it on like three different times: when I first got it, when I came home [and] then the next day,” Nesmith said.

“Now it’s just sitting in my closet. Hopefully it doesn’t collect dust.”

Now Nesmith isn’t sure she’ll get a chance to wear the dress at all. She’s not sure if she’ll get to participate in her school’s traditional parking lot trunk parties, or ceremoniously accept her diploma.

For Lamar Reed, the disappointment started back in September.

The Science Leadership Academy senior struggled his first three years to keep up with his academics. The school runs on a project-based curriculum with a heavy workload, “especially in math class when you have both projects and tests,” Reed said.

This was the year he planned to turn it all around. Over the summer, he resolved to commit to schoolwork and participate in clubs to focus on his passion: making short films.

His plans were interrupted almost immediately. SLA opened late due to construction on its new building — and then closed temporarily due to asbestos found on the premises. Reed and his classmates were out of school for a few weeks, then spent a few months with modified learning inside the school district HQ.

Shortly after SLA’s asbestos was finally remediated, the coronavirus struck. Somewhere in all the constant disruptions, the 17-year-old lost his motivation.

“I really just wanted to prove to myself and to everyone that I really could do it, but given the circumstances that’s not happening no more,” Reed said. “For this to happen, it’s crushing.”

Emely Jimenez, a senior at the private Little Flower school, virtually learns in her uniform Credit: Courtesy Emely Jimenez

Even missing ‘potato sack’ school uniforms

Learning from home isn’t a disappointment for everyone. For 18-year-old Steven Garcia, the suspension of in-person education was a huge relief.

The Edison High School student has transferred twice in the past four years, and hasn’t been able to connect easily with his classmates. He wasn’t planning on going to prom, and he wasn’t eager to get his diploma alongside a graduating class of virtual strangers.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Garcia said. “I kind of intentionally separated myself.”

Time away from a school setting has been healing for Garcia. He’s already been accepted to Harrisburg University, so he’s been focusing on projects that are fulfilling for him — like helping his dad paint his auto body shop.

Other Philly 12th-graders say the loss of regular day-to-day life can be just as hard as missing milestones.

Emely Jimenez, a senior at the private Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls, said she’s even started to miss her uncomfortable school uniform. “We have these potato sack uniforms,” Jimenez said. “I didn’t realize I could miss it so much.”

Nesmith, the Carver senior, misses her daily after-school homework club, where she could hang with her friends and be productive at the same time. Her class did hold a remote version of Senior Spirit Week, she said. Each day, students sent in photos of themselves dressed to a different theme, like pajama day or throwback day.

“Even though we’re not there in person we could do it virtually,” Nesmith said. “It was just something fun the seniors could do.”

For Hernandez, the soon-to-be first generation high school graduate, this was the first year free of a toxic relationship with a partner. She realized that she’d compromised her education and extracurriculars for them, and her mental health suffered, too.

“I messed up so much of my education and things I could’ve accomplished because of that person,” she said.

She gets teary-eyed thinking what some teens fought through to get to this point.

“That’s where it makes me want to cry,” Hernandez said. “Certain students, you don’t know what they went through these four years of high school — if they were depressed, how hard it was to get out of bed and attend school. And you don’t even get the chance to celebrate that or make your family proud.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...