By Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Twenty years from now adults who graduated high school in 2022 will have an interesting story to share with young people. It will be the tale of a great global pandemic, the first of its kind since 1918. Their stories will be peppered with unreal realities such as suddenly not returning to school or adjusting to learning from computer screens. They will speak of the interruptions the coronavirus brought into their academic lives and how they coped as athletic competitions, proms and other events were canceled to beat back the spread of the coronavirus.
“… I knew a lot of kids who dropped out or had to work extra hard to keep up.” – Brejaē Chapman, a Belleville West High School 2022 graduate.
Brejaē Chapman, 18, who graduated from Belleville West High School, started 2020 convinced she had contracted the virus. In March, the World Health Organization declared the existence of a global pandemic. News outlets were pregnant with details of a horrifying disease that was sending people to the hospital or the morgue because of this fast-spreading bug called the “coronavirus.”
Brejaē, who was already immune compromised, had trouble breathing. Turns out, she had pneumonia, not COVID-19. Still, it was a startling start to her sophomore year.
Asia Brantley, 18, a recent Cardinal Ritter College Prep graduate, did contract the disease. In early 2020, her mother was diagnosed with the virus and was hospitalized. Asia, the youngest of her parent’s 13 children, wasn’t surprised she had COVID.
“We hang out a lot,” Asia said, explaining her relationship with her mom. It took her mother months to recuperate…if you can call it that. Asia said her mother is still dealing with “Long COVID.” Asia, on the other hand, bounced back after a couple of weeks. Her symptoms were akin to a sinus infection and stomach flu, she recalled.
Kali St. Julien, 18, who graduated from Christian Brothers College (CBC High School) this spring, realizes he has a unique last name.
“My dads’ family comes from New Orleans, so I guess it’s a French or Creole thing or something like that,” Kali said.
The last two years of his academic life wasn’t impacted by a COVID-19 diagnosis, but the disease put a serious cramp on his extracurricular activities, derailing his football and track ambitions.
“The problem for me was I couldn’t hang out with my friends,” Kali said.
Brejaē, Asia, Kali and other youth of this generation, will have quite the tale to share with young ones of the future. Unlike the youth of generations since the 1918 Spanish Flu, these kids will speak to surviving and coping during the coronavirus pandemic.
Brejaē is enrolled at Tennessee State University where she plans to major in business marketing and minor in fashion design. She already has a modeling portfolio and wants to capitalize on her talents by creating a business in the fashion industry. Although she kept her grades up during the periods of virtual and in-person learning, Brejaē described a “weird” period where teachers and students were challenged to teach and learn.
“A lot of the assignments were designed for in-person classes, not virtual learning. Teachers had to adjust, and I knew a lot of kids who dropped out or had to work extra hard to keep up,” Brejaē said. “It seemed to me, many sophomores and freshmen were cheated, and it took a lot of time for them to get in the groove again.”
Like Kali, the hit on Brejaē’s school activities was challenging. She’s involved with church activities, cheerleading and groups such as the Harambe Organization, Girls International and Jack and Jill of America, a leadership organization.
“I’m involved with a lot of stuff,” Brejaē explained, adding, “Zoom meetings are boring. You couldn’t plan ahead, and, as a senior, I didn’t want to miss anything.”
Asia, who graduated valedictorian of her class, is a musician (trumpet player), was a member of North County Tech’s big band and is a vocalist with the Healing Center for the Arts. She will attend Washington University in the Fall with plans to major in business administration with a concentration on finance.
“I plan to leverage my business degree in music and many other businesses,” Asia confidently explained.
Not only did she have to cope with she and her mother getting COVID, Asia had just transferred, by choice, from Riverview Gardens High School to Cardinal Ritter Prep.
“My experience was a little different from everyone else’s. I had to adjust to a whole new environment and a hybrid schedule (online and in-person classes). We went on spring break in 2020 and never returned to school.”
Ironically, Asia saw the pandemic as a way to recuperate physically and mentally.
“I was able to take a step back and reevaluate life,” the valedictorian explained.
Asia said she also found motivation among her friends. Although they couldn’t “hang out,” meeting with them virtually and playing online games together became “a huge game-changer” for her during the pandemic.
But, as someone who contracted COVID, Asia said she found some of her peer’s cavalier attitudes about the virus and their refusal to wear masks, somewhat “annoying.”
Kali discovered respite in weightlifting and his only older brother, who came home from college during the pandemic.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Kali said. “I was never depressed that I know of. There are lots of ways to get distracted with virtual learning. If you don’t pay attention, you can fall behind. But I did really good in school, all my grades are fine.”
Kali will attend Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. For now, he plans to pursue a degree in physical therapy but admits he might change his mind once he’s in college.
All three 2022 high school graduates pondered the question of how they will tell future generations about the Great Pandemic during their graduating years.
“I’ll tell them that we lived in a time that no one expected, but I’ll also tell them to expect the unexpected,” Asia said. “I’ll give them as much positivity as possible, telling them how to go about difficult situations while encouraging them to be open-minded and give them as much input and information as possible.”
Brejaē said she will start her dissertation to youth with the word ‘hard.’
“I was in shock when the pandemic hit. I was like, ‘Is this really happening?’” Brejaē said, adding that she wants young people to be prepared for the unknowns of life.
“I would hope they won’t be taken by surprise like we were. I want them to be more prepared for anything in life.”
Kali imagined a more philosophical explanation to future generations.
“I think I’ll tell them that they must be able to adapt to certain things; they must be prepared for the unexpected so that, if it happens again, they’ll be able to handle it,” Kali said, while further emphasizing the need to be independent and self-confident.
“I’ll also tell them it’s OK to be by yourself. You’re not going to always have someone around you to keep you happy or whatever.
“At some point you need to be OK being on your own.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.