The adjustment furor: While the rest of the country complains about having to wear masks, Moffat County High School seniors roll with all the changes
When Tauren Farquharson was a gangly sophomore, unsure and unsteady, she looked to her brother’s prom night as a goal.
Her mother hosted a dinner for him and his friends before the dance, and it hit her that this was a nice way to wrap up the best year of his life. They had all grown up together in Craig. They had the same girlfriends throughout high school. They dressed up and ate dinner together and danced all night.
Later, her brother pulled her aside and confirmed her thoughts.
“He said your senior prom is so much better because you become so much more confident,” Tauren said. “It’s all about you. It’s your year to shine.”
Those words guided her through a difficult junior year, which ended in a lackluster prom, when she went with a good friend in a dress she hated after her best friend went with her boyfriend.
Last summer, she told herself she would have the same senior year her brother had. She called it her redemption year.
She got more involved with clubs and went on trips and made memories. Check. She went to Denver with her parents during a weekend in late February and got the perfect prom dress, blue and white and lacy up top, with cool patterns that swept down the sides. And she looked forward to wearing it on prom night, when she would go with a date and have the same kind of night she watched two years ago. All of it would end in graduation, something she looked forward to since she was in Kindergarten, when she had a “graduation ceremony” before moving on to the first grade. One day, she thought, even then, it would be her turn to walk across the stage at high school.
And then some new, strange illness started to creep across the country, and by the time school became a computer screen in March, she and her best friend were talking about the possibility that prom, unfathomably, could be canceled.
That seems like so long ago, doesn’t it?
“We were talking about how mad we’d be if we didn’t get to go,” Tauren said, “and then we found out a week before that they had canceled it. You dream, as little kids, about walking across the stage, and that’s not reality anymore. We will drive past it IN A CAR. This was going to be my year, and it’s all just gone.”
The virus’ unsparing existence made everything disappear, like a wand-waving fairy godmother hungover after midnight, and the aftermath remains devastating for so many, not just the seniors who are, understandably, heartbroken, bewildered and angry. Sarah Hepworth, the principal of Moffat County High School, seems sad but solemn, like a general who just lost a battle, when she talks about prom. She knows many “ladies,” as she calls them, already bought their dresses, just like Tauren had. The school had already purchased the decorations. Parents desperately tried to save the event by offering up their homes, backyards or pooling their money for renting a community center. But there was just no way.
That solemn shell, however, collapses when Hepworth talks about graduation. She can’t talk about that without crying. She held out hope for weeks that they’d be able to have it, until she knew they wouldn’t.
She gathered ideas with many senior leaders and put together what she believes is a decent alternative, with a drive by, a photo op and a walk across a stage to receive a diploma. That walk, she said, was the most important thing to seniors, and she’s proud she preserved at least a portion of that.
It’s also not graduation, and that crushes her. She remembers her own graduation, and she’s worked in the district for 25 years.
The ceremony was so drenched in tradition that even in her first year as principal, Hepworth wasn’t worried about it. Everyone knew it was a blueprint. Everyone could put it together on autopilot.
“It’s one of the most important milestones in a person’s life,” Hepworth said. “It outranks college graduation in terms of the value we put on it, and they won’t be together as a group. That’s really hard. That’s the hardest for me. There’s a closure for me. They make that transition to whatever is next. It’s how you say goodbye.”
Tauren thinks about what she will remember from the ceremony. She isn’t sure. She knows life will go on.
“I’m sure, one day, it won’t be a big deal,” she said. “But right now it’s a really big deal.”
‘I’m glad she’s alive’
Perhaps a little perspective is in order, before more seniors talk about what feels to them like a lost senior year. The seniors interviewed for this story all understood why their celebrations were canceled. It’s a scary, unprecedented time, and tens of thousands have already died from the virus in just a few months.
However, two seniors understand more than most why the year just had to be this way.
Allie Broyles has a younger sister, Alyssa, but in a stroke of, um, well, let’s just call it luck, they are 11 months apart, and they are in the same graduating class. Allie loves makeup and clothes, and Alyssa loves video games, and they have separate friends and lives, but they are close and loved having the comfort of each other when they had nowhere else to go during, say, lunch or a class full of strange students. They will go to Colorado State University this fall in Fort Collins.
Just before the virus announced itself in mid-March, forcing all those precautions, Alyssa didn’t feel well after working a shift at Wal-Mart. Her throat hurt, and she had a fever, with a bad cough. She stayed in her room for two weeks, with the door closed, while her mother, a nurse, tended to her. The sisters texted through the walls.
It was a mild case — Alyssa was never tested, but what else could it be —but it was a dark reminder of what’s out there. So yes, the girls are disappointed, definitely, but they are also just glad to be graduating.
“I’m glad she’s alive,” Allie said and laughed before pausing. “I mean, no matter what happens, we will always have each other.”
There’s your perspective.
But do stories like that make it easier?
Where did all that normal go?
Just before she left school in early March, Makayla Martinez told her friends that she would see them in three weeks, after the extended spring break ended and some normalcy returned.
It’s not like this was Stephen King’s “The Stand,” where everyone died from a superflu, or not even the movie “Contagion,” a more realistic look at what happens when a new virus rips through the country. And yet…society DID began to shut down, school was canceled, and that normalcy that Martinez was certain would return never did. She’d already bought her dress too, a dark blue dream that she keeps on her bed.
“It felt like a dream,” Martinez said. “It didn’t hit me until we were quarantined, and we couldn’t do anything. That’s when it really hit me.
“My senior year is ruined. No more fun. I thought it was going to be so much fun, but no. Gonzo. I cried. I never thought I would miss school that much. But I cried.”
Aside from the disappointment, the move caused some undue stress beyond the kind caused from math quizzes and term papers.
“I was really worried that if we went online, I didn’t know if I could finish everything,” said Tess Willems.
Tess also purchased her dress, a silver number that she knew was right when she tried it on, in February. She went to junior prom, but man, that’s just not the same.
“I feel a little bit cheated,” Willems said.
Karla Pitha was looking forward to graduation for eight years, after she moved to Craig from New Jersey. Her mother went to Moffat County as well, and Karla looked forward to going through the same traditions. She planned the ceremony around it. She would decorate her cap, and once it was over, she would walk around the field and get her picture taken with all her friends and favorite teachers and the principal, the same way her mother did.
Her mother still has the cap.
“They would have all those memories,” Karla said. “We don’t get to that this year. I was so disappointed. I was just really enjoying my senior year.”
The bright side?
Perhaps to make herself feel better, Hepworth tells the seniors that this is a chance to make history.
“I try to tell them, ‘No one will graduate in the same way as you,’” she said. “When you’re 50, you will look back and say, ’That was really weird and different.’”
David Lopez Gutierrez prefers to smile and throw a light joke at the notion that they’re making history.
“I thought the class of 2020 would be important in some way,” Gutierrez said, “but not this way.”
A few students weren’t as disappointed as their classmates and tried to find the good in a bad situation. The school’s valedictorian, Joshua Gumber, said he even enjoyed it in the beginning, like a break, before a longing to see his teachers and friends crept in. He enjoys debate and especially loved in-depth policy discussions he had in his AP Government class.
“Still, it was probably easier for me than it was for others,” Gumber said. “I could just get the work done, and I’m usually kind of a loner.”
Daniel Caddy said canceling the traditional graduation ceremony “wasn’t that big of a deal to me.”
“I’m not a big people person,” Caddy said. “I don’t like big shows and fancy stuff. So it just made it all calmer.”
He also liked the chance to work at his own pace.
“I could get all my work done on Monday,” he said, “and do my own thing the rest of the week.”
Even so, Caddy admitted that he, too, did miss a few things, mostly the chance to wrestle in some national tournaments, including the championships in Fargo, Minn. He had a chance to do well, as he finished fourth in the school state tournament.
The year feels lost to many, but as they look back, those same students realize that they just lost a portion of it. It was, for sure, the most meaningful, but they did have a senior year, with the moments you can only get that year. Tess played Auntie Em in her last school musical, “The Wizard of Oz.” Karla enjoyed learning about some family history and improving her relationship with her parents (that’s how she knew about all her mother’s graduation traditions).
Some just can’t look at any of this as a positive. When Tauren was asked if she sees any bright to this, she simply said, “no.”
But Gutierrez doesn’t want to consider the year a waste. You’ll understand when you hear his story.
Gutierrez came to America from Mexico when he was 10. He didn’t know any English. But he learned enough where Microbiology was a much bigger stress than communicating with others here. He is the class salutatorian, and as strange as it may sound, the diploma itself is probably the bigger deal: He’s the first in his family to graduate from high school.
It’s sad that he won’t have a ceremony to mark it, and his family tries to hide their pain so Gutierrez won’t be even more disappointed. And yes, Gutierrez had an outfit for prom too, a tuxedo he bought just for the occasion.
But he did fulfill all his goals, even the one he wasn’t sure he could do.
He, like Tauren, wanted his senior year to be special. So he cast away his quiet, shy nature and became more involved — “way more,” he said —which sounds tougher than it was, given that he juggled a second load of classes in college. He was even in student council. He wanted to do some things for the school that had given him so much.
“I did a lot in that semester we had,” he said. “I did do a lot. I really did.”
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