THE CLASS OF COVID
By ANDREW MCGINN
The Class of 2020 may be the first in history to have commencement and their first class reunion on the very same day.
And commencement is still a big maybe.
The 99 seniors who make up Greene County High School’s 2020 graduating class never could have expected that when they left for spring break in mid-March, they’d never return because of a global pandemic.
The three students who will finish at the top of the class — co-valedictorians Sophia Ausberger and Kassie Lamoureux, and salutatorian Kaitlin Tjostem — know that even if Greene County Schools organizes some type of commencement exercise in June (June 28 is now the tentative date, depending on public health guidelines), some classmates will never be seen again.
Suddenly being apart from the friends they’ve seen nearly every day for years has been harder than they ever thought.
“Being away from them makes me realize how much I depend on them,” Tjostem explained.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
They were supposed to move their tassels, together, come May 24 like generations of young women and men before them — not scatter to the wind.
It’s a heck of a way to graduate, but it’s also an anticlimactic ending for the 55-year-old building at the south edge of Jefferson as a high school. Next year’s class will be the first to graduate from a brand new high school under construction on the opposite side of town. The current high school building will become a middle school.
“We couldn’t have missed out on second-tri, freshman year?” Ausberger asked. “It had to be this one.”
For Ausberger, who plans to study either psychology or neuroscience at the University of Iowa, the abrupt end to their senior year is particularly bittersweet.
As class president, she was to have delivered a commencement speech — something she put on a bucket list back in eighth grade.
“I feel like I came into my own my senior year,” Ausberger said, explaining how nerves would always get the best of her when speaking to upperclassmen.
“Now,” she added, “there are some people I’ll never talk to again.”
There’s never a better time to be a senior than spring. And for Ausberger, Lamoureux and Tjostem, that appeared to hold true as the snow finally melted away.
Their respective GPAs — 4.0, 4.0 and 3.999; Tjostem forever curses the A-minus in Algebra her eighth-grade year — were likely already solidified, enabling them to take a rare breather.
“We missed out on the best three months,” Ausberger said.
If their senior interview didn’t run before March in Greene Spaces — the long-running student section of the Herald known previously as Ram Page and The Quill — now no one will read about their future plans and their advice to underclassmen.
With Awards Night canceled, there will be no public celebration of their accomplishments, like a $26,000 scholarship Tjostem won from Luther College, where she plans to study biology and environmental science.
And although the school has rescheduled prom to June 26 (the third date in less than three months), there’s a high probability that dresses will go unworn.
“I spent so much money on that dress,” Ausberger said.
Instead, they’ve spent the spring in relative isolation, trying to muster the motivation to finish college-credit courses online amid distractions at home and the allure of their phones.
“I can’t do anything halfway. I work my butt off on everything,” confessed Ausberger, who’s also been working four days a week on average at The Gardens.
“I keep reminding myself, ‘This isn’t optional,’” Ausberger said of her college-level classes.
“I feel bad for slacking,” said Tjostem, who had been working part-time at Cobblestone Hotel until the downturn in business.
So you know it’s difficult to do coursework at home when even those at the very top of their class are finding it difficult.
“That little bit turns into 30 minutes,” Lamoureux said, describing her phone habits as of late.
Lamoureux, who works part-time at Breadeaux Pizza and the Twiins Shoppe, plans to attend Harding University in Arkansas, but is undecided on a major.
Still, while all three are disappointed with the way their senior year crumbled, they also acknowledge the historic significance of graduating amid COVID-19.
Many of them were born in the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, and have heard stories — from “older people” — about life before and after that tumultuous event.
“It’s a generational marker,” Ausberger said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I feel this is going to make us super germophobic.”
She said her Easter basket earlier this spring contained an unusual surprise: an N95 respirator.
“I’m going to remember that with my kids,” she said, adding, in her best mom voice, “You better be grateful for what you get. I got an N95.”
But Ausberger knows from school that it could always be worse.
“Imagine being at war during your commencement,” she said. “That’s definitely worse than this.”