Many of Wisconsin’s high school seniors have now graduated, capping off one of the strangest ends to a school year ever. The coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of in-person graduation ceremonies. Many of these rights of passage were moved online or postponed.
This was no exception for seniors at Monona Grove Liberal Arts Charter School for the 21st Century — or MG21 — who held their graduation on June 4, 2020 via Zoom. We talked with a few of the students who filled us in on what it was like to end their high school years online and what they missed out on. Each of these students was featured in last year’s “Wisconsin Life” documentary, “Classroom Frequency: Student Voices From Wisconsin.”
The MG21 seniors recognize that they’re graduating during an historic moment. As their teacher Ian Lowe noted, most of these students were born right around 9/11, so this is one of their first shared, traumatic before-and-after experiences. Despite the challenges, the MG21 seniors have been doing things outside of school to keep their spirits up.
(The responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Maureen McCollum: How does it feel to be graduating during the coronavirus pandemic and ending your high school years online?
Cierra Riederer: It feels great, but it’s sad with the quarantine. I watched my older brother graduate and that was cool. I was like, “Dope, I get to do that!”
And now, it’s a Zoom… I’m not with my friends. I’m not walking across the stage. I’m not shaking people’s hands. I’m still giving my senior speech, but not the way it was supposed to be. I’m going to have my diploma, but it’s not the same.
Matt Schlaefer: It’s been pretty rough. MG21 is such a good people place. We rely heavily on our social interactions with one another.
It’s kind of hard because all that community building is kind of gone. It’s kind of like fending for ourselves.
Dante Murray: It’s not the greatest. I still work at a grocery store. So, that’s the best for me. When I’m working, I’m having the most amount of, like, normality.
Simon Schlosser: I have trouble working at home, focusing specifically. And now I have to do everything at home. So, I have trouble getting my work done.
At the beginning, I felt like this isn’t going to be too long. I can do it. But as it went on, I started to become less motivated to actually do the work I was supposed to do, which is not the greatest.
Harrison Farnam: I feel like it’s just like a lack of motivation to do anything. I wake up for about four hours and I go back to sleep. And in that four hours, I normally take a bike ride or go on a walk.
Tierra Byrd: I think if you’re not the parent of a senior or a teacher, it’s hard to understand why this is so hard for us right now. It might seem like a really small thing, like, “Oh, they don’t get to graduate together. They have to graduate online. There are bigger issues going on, like a pandemic and coronavirus and all of that.”
But it’s more meaningful to us. We’ve spent almost half of our lives in school and this was the moment we were all waiting for. Thinking about something for so many years and when you get down to it, it’s just not what you expected, like, at all. It’s going to be hard for anybody.
Cierra Riederer: I was talking with my dad the other day. They had a meeting with parents and he said some of the parents started crying because their senior wasn’t getting to go across the stage.
I thought I didn’t care. My senior year I thought, “Screw graduation. I’m not going.”
Now I’m like, “Damn, this is a really important milestone that I never valued.”
Maureen McCollum: What do you feel like you missed out on your senior year?
Dante Murray: I was going to teach a class on writing to the middle schoolers. I was really looking forward to doing that.
It kind of sucks, but at the same time, I’m coming to grasps with the fact that this is how the senior year is going to go. There’s nothing I can do about it, so there’s no point being super upset about it.
Simon Schlosser: I had a plan to introduce to my Dungeons & Dragons group to a Tabletop RPG that I made and have them play test it. Unfortunately, this happened. So, that’s not that great for me.
Harrison Farnam: I mean, I was hoping to go to prom.
Dante Murray: I danced in my basement by myself!
Cierra Riederer: School made life a lot better for me. Because I had a baby, I was really excited to go back and see my teachers, see my friends and just live in the moment. Now, I can’t live in the moment, I have to plan everything out with the baby.
Matt Schlaefer: Just seeing people, interacting with people, hanging out with my friends, hanging out at the school. It’s weird, I’m not going to see you guys regularly. It just ended so abruptly.
Tierra Byrd: I miss the connections with like my classmates, even the ones that aren’t the seniors. All the friends that I’ve made this year that I thought I was never going to be friends with. But now, I might not ever see them again or see them every once in a while. And also, [I miss] being around the teachers.
When I look at this year— as in my last year — I wanted to make my mark in the school. It’s hard to do that when I’m not in school right now.
Maureen McCollum: What do you want people to understand about the Class of 2020?
Harrison Farnam: I can’t think of any other time — my parents or my grandparents can’t even think of any other time — when the entire country’s senior population didn’t get to graduate normally.
Dante Murray: I think it’s going to be nice in the future when I can sit around with my future kids — maybe — and be like, yeah, this happened.
Harrison Farnam: You can’t skip school because you have a cold. I went through a pandemic!
Dante Murray: (Laughing) Something like that!
Tierra Byrd: Everybody is going through the same thing right now. Some people are having a harder time than others. Any senior can reach out to any other senior. We’re going to be supportive because we know what we’re going through.
I’m here to support anybody that needs support.
Maureen McCollum: How are you passing the time outside of school?
Matt Schlaefer: I’ve been kind of occupied creatively — music, as well as a lot of drawing, cartooning and animation, little doodles.
Music-wise for me, [the pandemic] started and I was thinking, “I can’t play anymore. What’s wrong with me? What’s going on?” I had a creative block. But now that I’ve started getting back on the horse, it feels better to write and play music.
Plus, I have a new kitten to take to take care of. That’s been really taking up a lot of my time.
Simon Schlosser: I’ve been writing. Mostly writing. All of it writing, really.
I finished a musical. It’s about these two people who go to another world.
Dante Murray: Outside of working at the grocery store, I play games with my friends. Playing a lot of “League of Legends” and other things. That’s been really nice.
Other than that, I’ve just been sitting here. I’m not going to say it’s like fun, but it’s relaxing — sitting around doing nothing.
Cierra Riederer: I try to go for a lot of walks. It’s hard. I take it day by day. Our morning routine takes up a lot of the day. So we wake up, right? [Cierra’s baby] gets changed, he gets dressed, he gets fed and he gets to play. And then it’s my time. I get dressed. I pump. I feed myself. We watch “Curious George.” We have more play time. Then, he goes with my mom. I get to do my schoolwork, then.
When [Cierra’s boyfriend] comes home, we’ll go for a walk. We’ll eat dinner. Maybe go for a drive or something. We’ll have some family time and then wrap it up. We kind of have a structured day, I guess.
My mom and I have grown closer over this two month time period because we’re both not working and we’re just home all the time or we’re out with each other. If you’re with a person all the time, you make sure you don’t get on that person’s bad side, because then it’s going to be like a tough two months for all of us! I learned to work with how she’s feeling. She’s learned to work on how I’m feeling. That’s been a big, important piece.
Maureen McCollum: What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?
Tierra Byrd: I’ve learned to push myself. Some of the schoolwork that I’ve done, nobody was really like, “You have to get this done.” It was just me — in my mind — saying, “You have to get this done or you’re not going to graduate.”
Harrison Farnam: I like writing a lot more than I thought I did.
Cierra Riederer: I’m stronger mentally than I thought I was.
Matt Schlaefer: I’ve learned that I’m a lot more extroverted than I thought. I’ve always been such an introvert. I’m realizing I kind of rely on being around people.
Dante Murray: When I have these really long breaks away from all my friends, I get really depressed and stuff. It really sucks. But, I haven’t really been experiencing that much.
I’ve learned during this whole thing that it’s really easy to reach out to other people. Before this, I expected people to reach out to me. That’s not a very efficient way of thinking, because they don’t know that you’re in this kind of state. So I’ve been reaching out to a lot of people whenever I feel like I’m starting to get down. It’s really nice to have that kind of connection.
Maureen McCollum: Do you have a message for your teachers or classmates?
Tierra Byrd: Just that they’re doing a really good job of making us feel good and making us not sad about this whole situation! It’s all the little things that MG21 teachers are doing right now, like checking in.
Some of the teachers the first week dropped off a cupcake. The second week was a plant with this really cool meaning behind it. They’re trying really hard to make sure we aren’t losing our minds. And it’s working. It’s really working.
Dante Murray: They are extremely nice. They’ve done so much for me. Coming to MG21 was one of the best things that ever happened to me. So even now, through all this stuff, it means so much to me that they’re working their hardest like they always are normally.
Harrison Farnam: I’m really grateful that they’re not just giving up and that it’s the end of the year and they’re actually trying.
Simon Schlosser: To my teachers, I’d want to say thank you for always trying your best to keep things as normal as you can keep them. And to my classmates — don’t give up.
Matt Schlaefer: I’m going to miss you guys. I’m going to really miss the teachers. You guys taught me so much and have been with me every step of the way.
Thank you all for being my peers and my classmates, as well as really good friends of mine. We’ve always been resilient. We find a way to make things better with the utilities that we have.
Cierra Riederer: It’s just a big thank you because they made me the person I am today and they helped me through my struggles. I’m happy that I met everyone along my high school journey. Everyone I met along the way made it so, so much better.
MUSIC: “I Was Here” by Beyoncé
“All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem