Born in the wake of 9/11, the graduating high school Seniors in the Class of 2020 got to experience the Great Recession and the election of the first Black President when they were in elementary school. Then they matriculated through high school during one of the ugliest political eras in the history of this nation. The Class of 2020 then had the end of their senior year disrupted by a deadly global pandemic, but they have proved their resilience by making it to graduation. All that said, they won’t be defined by the politics of the era. They now get to define themselves, rewriting whatever narrative had been placed on their lives by others.
I recently spoke with four graduating Seniors in Oakland from the Class of 2020 about their perspectives on some of the impactful historical events during the past four years and how COVID-19 has impacted their senior years.
Emily Martinez, Madison Park Academy, Oakland
“I grew up here.”
That’s the reason that Emily Martinez wants to continue her education in Oakland, and eventually become a kindergarten teacher here. “This is my community and I understand the kids and their struggles.”
The 18 year-old is graduating from Madison Park Academy in East Oakland, where she has attended for the past six years. Next year, she will attend Holy Names University in the Oakland hills, where she plans to study Childhood Development.
“I’m not ready to move from home,” Martinez says about her choice of schools.
She says that sheltering-in-place has been hard. There are five other people in her household: a 13 year-old brother, a six year-old sister, mother, father, and grandmother.
While the family had internet access, they only had one computer for three students. Fortunately, her sister got a Chromebook from school. Of the three children, her brother has adapted better to distance learning than either her or her sister, but as the oldest, Emily has had to help both of them.
“For me it was difficult to get used to,” Martinez says about distance learning, adding that she feels that she needs a teacher to be present to help keep her on track. “There’s not the same motivation as in school.”
She says that she is “disappointed” about the disruption that COVID-19 has caused in the final weeks of her senior year of high school. “Honestly, I feel sad.”
Martinez is most sad about the social aspect of getting denied the joy of the last two months of high school with her friends. Madison Park Academy is a combined middle school and high school, so she has been with her classmates for six years.
She was planning on going to prom, but was spared the expense of having to buy a dress. She is more disappointed about missing out on grad night, which would have been at Disneyland.
“You hear it’s so much fun,” she laments.
Martinez will have a drive-through graduation this week where she will receive a “Senior package,” and then a virtual graduation ceremony next week. She will also be having a small celebration with her family as well.
“You work so hard, especially your last year,” she says about the disappointment of not getting a traditional ceremony.
Overall, she enjoyed high school, mostly because she had good friends. “I matured mentally a lot,” she recalls of her high school journey.
She also remembers how a few months into her freshman year, there was a presidential election, the aftermath of which she says was “scary.” “No one knew what the new laws would be,” she adds.
She says that her teachers talked about current events all the time in class, so she felt more informed.
With regards to the pride that she feels about having grown up in Oakland, Martinez says, “If something gets serious, the whole community will come together.”
Sure enough, she says that her teachers have been checking up on the well-being of her whole family to make sure that they are doing okay even beyond academics.
Cami Smith-Dahl, International High School, San Francisco
“It goes beyond disappointing,” says Cami Smith-Dahl about the disruption that COVID-19 has caused.
The graduating Senior from International High School of San Francisco had family coming in from Atlanta and Bulgaria to celebrate graduation day with her and her twin sister Mica.
“It’s really difficult to process,” she admits about being denied the chance to see her extended family. “The work was still worth it, but it’s really frustrating not being able to celebrate with my family.”
Smith-Dahl, who will be enrolled in the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts next year, has grown up in West Oakland. She lives with her mother and twin sister.
“It’s definitely been a struggle,” she says about quarantining with her family. However, she makes sure to take time for herself and get some fresh air when she can.
There was apparently a silver lining to the coronavirus shelter-in-place order though. “Not having to take BART every morning was amazing,” she admits.
She also says that she has had some social issues at her private school in Hayes Valley in San Francisco, where she feels that some of her classmates were just not used to interacting with a Black girl from Oakland. “People say stupid things.”
Smith-Dahl says that her first two years were the worst with regards to classmates saying insensitive things to her, but it got tolerable as she progressed through high school. “How I reacted to it,” is what changed, she reflects.
Now, she has more confidence in herself. She is adjusting to distance learning, and likes the fact that she didn’t have any tests. However, she says that it is hard to stay focused during lectures.
She hasn’t had internet access issues, but her laptop broke a few weeks ago. Fortunately, her sister Mica has a laptop from Oakland Unified since she is a Student Board Member, and has been sharing it with Cami.
“Being a Senior is a huge deal,” she says.
Smith-Dahl was going to prom but didn’t buy a dress yet. Her school has a grad night, and a Senior Prank Day, but the bigger deal to her would have been the Senior luncheon.
“These are monumental moments that we were robbed of,” she said. “We were told that if we worked hard, we would get rewarded for that hard work. The past four years we worked really hard.”
Her school will have a virtual graduation, and then plans on having an in-person graduation in August or December, but Smith-Dahl says that, “It doesn’t even begin to make up for it. There’s a real process of grief going on.”
“Now there’s also all these college things we might miss,” she adds referring to the possibility that she might miss out on the opening weeks of her freshman year in college.
Her high school community is politically aware, and she remembers that classes were shut down to watch the Presidential Inauguration in 2017.
“People were booing,” she recalls. “Generally, everyone agreed that it was bad.”
Speaking of being politically aware, Smith-Dahl says that she is very proud of all the revolutionary politics that has come out from Oakland. She attended after school programs at Defremery park, which some people call Lil Bobby Hutton park after a former Panther, and she is well versed in the history of the Black Panther Party.
“The roots of revolution are in Oakland, and you see that in every generation that comes out of Oakland.”
“You have to be a little bit fearless,” she says about growing up in Oakland, and she feels that that fearlessness will help the Class of 2020 recover from the pandemic and move on with their young lives.
“We’re all gonna come out of this stronger and more braced for the world.”
Isaiah Thomas, Castlemont High School, Oakland
Isaiah Thomas, who is graduating from Castlemont High School in East Oakland, says that after he “messed up” academically during his junior year, he worked really hard to get caught up in his senior year before the coronavirus disruption. Like his fellow classmates, he is disappointed that he will not get a traditional graduation ceremony.
“Walking the stage in front of my family would have been a big moment for me,” he says. His class has chosen to have a virtual graduation instead of a drive-by ceremony.
“I was kind of devastated,” he says about being denied such a cathartic moment.
Thomas says that he originally wanted to take a year off after graduation before resuming his academic career, but sheltering-in-place has changed that. “I realized school is kind of fun,” he admits.
In the Fall, he will take classes at Laney and Alameda Community Colleges. As far as distance learning during quarantine, he says that, “It’s been stressful, but it’s been okay.”
His mother works at a grocery store, and so in addition to his own school work, he has to take care of his 10 year-old brother and help him with his schoolwork.
Fortunately, his school has provided him with a Sprint hotspot and a Chromebook so that they can both participate.
Thomas says that he is “not really” that disappointed in missing out on prom, though he was planning on going. He is, however, bummed out about missing Senior Ditch Day, Senior Prank Day, and graduation itself.
His class has also missed out on the “Senior Sunrise,” where the students would show up to school before sunrise and then watch a movie on the football field.
He will celebrate graduation at home with his mom and brother.
Throughout his four years at Castlemont, Thomas participated in an afterschool program called Representing Educated Active Leaders Having A Righteous Dream (REAL HARD), that organized monthly lunch time activities. Through that program, he became involved in a citywide program called the Youth Organizing Council.
This year, YOC wanted to organize students to lobby the City Council to place a measure on the November ballot to allow 16 and 17 year-olds the right to vote in School Board elections. Thomas organized his classmates to email their City Councilmembers, and he even got to meet with Councilmembers Loren Taylor, Rebecca Kaplan, and Noel Gallo. The resolution was passed unanimously in late May, and Oakland voters will get to decide on whether or not to become the 5th US city to lower its voting age for School Board elections.
“I really enjoyed it,” Thomas says about doing the advocacy work. “It was really fun to be a part of.”
He says that giving students a say in how their schools are run is the “best place to start” with regards to empowering marginalized communities. He is interested in continuing to do advocacy work, but wary of becoming a politician.
He remembers that at the beginning of his freshman year, his parents were talking about the upcoming 2016 election, and recalls thinking to himself, “If this guy wins, I’ll be devastated.”
Sure enough ‘that guy’ won, and Thomas remembers that there was a student walkout in protest of the election.
Overall, he is neutral on his high school experience. “I made amazing friends,” he cites as a highlight.
He recalls that he was quiet as a freshman, but because of his involvement in REAL HARD, he has gained confidence and invaluable experience as a public speaker.
He is also proud of Oakland’s history of resistance. In particular, he cited the Black Panthers.
“It shows how deep activism is here,” Thomas says. “People won’t stand for something that’s wrong.”
Whenever it is safe and allowed, he and his friends want to celebrate graduation by going on a road trip to Arizona. “I just want to catch a lizard out in the wild.”
Mica Smith-Dahl, Life Academy, Oakland
Speaking of the OUSD School Board, Mica Smith-Dahl, Cami’s twin sister, has been serving on it as a Student Director this past year.
Mica is graduating from Life Academy in the Fruitvale district, and will be attending Mills College to study Education. Like Martinez, she wants to become a high school teacher, and ideally would like to teach Social Studies or Ethnic Studies.
Smith-Dahl says that early on in high school, she didn’t think that she would graduate, and she lacked confidence in herself. She got kicked out of ICA Cristo Rey Academy, a private Catholic school in San Francisco, during her freshman year. She then discovered that she had a previously undiagnosed learning disability, and things started to turn around her.
In her Junior year, she started taking AP and college-level classes, and proved to herself that she could do it, and has since gained confidence in herself.
“I had a really hard journey,” she says, noting that overall, she considers high school to have been a good experience.
Smith-Dahl didn’t take the quarantine and closure of schools seriously at first, thinking that it would just be a short break from reality. Now that it has sunk in as the new reality, she says that she is coping with being locked down by cooking.
“At the end of the day it really does bug,” she says about the disruption in the final months of her senior year. She believes that every graduate deserves to walk across the stage, but her school will have a virtual graduation instead.
“It’s hard to come to terms with that,” she says about being denied the live ceremony.
She was going to prom, but is not really trippin’ on missing out on it. She says she is “Sad, but not heartbroken.”
However, she is very bummed to be missing out on her senior trip, which would have been a camping trip on the coast where she would get to read a letter that she wrote to herself as a freshman while on a similar camping trip.
“I was looking forward to reading the letter,” she said.
Grad night at Disneyland would have followed that camping trip.
Smith-Dahl was nominated to be Student Director by former Student Director Gema Quetzal-Cardenas, who also attended Life Academy, but Mica then earned her seat on her own.
“It means so much for me to represent my community, to be a voice for marginalized communities,” she says about her opportunity to serve on the Board.
Though her year on the Board was marked by protests that disrupted the majority of meetings, she still remembers the experience fondly, and describes it as, “Beautiful. I just had a great time.”
Like Thomas, Smith-Dahl helped lobby the City Council to get the Youth Vote initiative on the November ballot.
She also remembers the 2016 election at the start of her freshman year. “It was really weird,” she recalls. “Everyone was taken back. How could this even happen?”
Life Academy is predominantly Latinx, so most of her classmates and teachers were concerned about a President who was elected based on promises of building a wall. “People were angry.”
In her Ethnic Studies classes, she says that the politics of hate was often discussed.
Of the turbulent four year period that served as the backdrop to her high school journey, Smith-Dahl says, “I hope this inspires people to be more politically engaged.”
She is shy, and says that she is not into public speaking, but she is engaged, and plans to stay that way.
Asked if she was interested in staying in politics, she says, “We’ll see what my future holds.”
We also talked about what she is most proud of as an Oaklander, and she responded by trying to define what it even means to be from Oakland.
“I can’t explain it,” she says. “It’s a little bit different for everybody.”
She then said that she values “honor,” which she defined as knowing that she represents others, not just herself, so she just tries as hard as possible to be genuine, and authentically ‘herself.’
“It’s more of a collective understanding of what it means to be from Oakland,” she said.
With regards to what she would change about Oakland if she could, she answered without hesitation: “Gentrification.”