10 senior stories: What it feels like to finish high school in Anchorage in a year when coronavirus stopped, or changed, so many things

Most 12th-graders are disappointed that spring rituals were canceled, but each has a unique outlook for life after graduation. “The strength and resilience of this class, I feel like, is going to carry on,” one said.

Some of the defining moments for the Class of 2020 might be the moments that never were. In Anchorage, high school seniors left school at the start of spring break on March 5, just before a pandemic rerouted American life. The students never again reconvened. Classes shifted online, sports were canceled, and annual traditions that make the final weeks of high school special became collateral damage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disappointment is a shared experience for nearly 3,100 high school graduates in the Anchorage School District, but no two seniors see the shutdown in quite the same way. Anchorage Daily News spoke with 10 students from across the district, each of whom shared a unique perspective on this moment in history, the meaning of high school graduation and how it shapes a vision for the future.

Kalala Masalosalo, Bartlett High School

If things had turned out differently during the 2019-20 school year, Bartlett senior Kalala Masalosalo figures she’d hear a lot of noise from her big Samoan family as she crossed the graduation stage in Sullivan Arena. She’d probably be piled high with leis made of flowers, cash and candy. And she’d see her proud father, Tommy “Sam” Masalosalo, in the audience, cheering from his wheelchair, just as he had done at so many events before.

But Sam died in November after many years of health complications. Then the coronavirus pandemic canceled any chance of a big graduation gathering. Lala, as Kalala is known, hopes she’s handling the challenges as her dad would, with positivity and without complaint.

“Why would I want to burden someone else with my issue?” Lala said. “You don’t know what other people are going through.”

Lala’s father was her example. He was in and out of the hospital since she was little, she said. Sam had diabetes and arthritis. He had vertigo and seizure-like episodes. In 2012, his left leg was amputated below the knee, and eventually he lost feeling on the left side of his body.

“When he was in the hospital, he could be close to dying, but he wouldn’t show it,” Lala said. “If any visitors came in, he would be laughing and making jokes.”

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Lala said her father wouldn’t want to be mourned. Instead, she thinks about whether her actions would make him proud.

“When I do my prayers at night, I’ll talk to God and then I’ll talk to my dad. And sometimes I’ll call his voicemail, just to hear his voice,” she said.

Lala said her father approved of her plans to join the Navy after graduation. She leaves in June, nervous but excited. Her father and her faith helped change her perspective from the sadness and disappointment she might otherwise feel as her senior year comes to a close, she said.

“I would feel like my life was falling apart,” Lala said. “But really it’s falling in place.”

Ellie Laufer, West High School

Ellie Laufer thinks there must be a better way to end high school, an occasion that feels more like reaching the finish line than drifting by it.

“In a lot of ways, it feels kind of surreal,” she said about the final weeks of her senior year at West High School. “I guess I haven’t really comprehended that it’s just pretty much over. There’s no moment I’m going to be like, ‘OK, now high school’s over. I just submit my last assignment and now I’m done.’”

She was prepared to take the final test for the International Baccalaureate program, something now canceled everywhere.

She had been looking forward to prom, a night she and other members of the cheerleading team would rent a limo and space at a restaurant. Her boyfriend “was going to be dragged along.”

She described it on the day that was supposed to be Senior Fun Day. She and her classmates were supposed to be jumping at a trampoline park, crowding into photo booths and goofing off. Another memory that will never be.

Instead, Laufer spent part of that day exchanging emails with the Anchorage School District superintendent, pushing an idea that she thinks would restore some sense of normalcy to graduation.

Laufer’s idea is to move graduation ceremonies to football fields, where people could congregate at safe distances. She even started an online petition to explain how it could work and rally support.

“I did the math. A football field has its 57,600 square feet, so that would allow for 1,600 people to stand on it six feet apart,” she said. “West’s graduating class is less than 370 people.”

Laufer described Superintendent Deena Bishop’s reaction as “reluctant.” If it doesn’t happen, she’ll be disappointed, but she won’t be surprised. She’s read about other ideas being floated in which grads would drive up to receive commemorative boxes. Homes would display yard signs.

“I was definitely a little bit underwhelmed by that response,” she said.

Laufer, who said she finished her coursework in the first couple weeks since classes launched online, said she knows lots of teens who get together to socialize, despite the state and city guidelines against it. To her, gathering anyway seems disrespectful to the community, especially those at high risk.

Lately, Laufer has spent her time doing puzzles, hanging out with her dogs, painting and cooking. She’s been learning to quilt with her mom too, something her mom hasn’t even done much since Ellie was a baby.

“We haven’t spent this much time together in years,” Michelle Laufer said. “I think your time with your brother and sister has been really nice,” she said to Ellie.

“Yeah, I guess,” Ellie said.

Ellie plans to attend the University of Oregon in the fall to major in chemistry, if universities are back in session by then.

Hyrum Nelson, Chugiak High School

Hyrum Nelson stood for senior portraits at the Chugiak High School track in late April. He had other plans for that track prior to the shutdown.

Nelson’s times at the state championship track meet last year established him as one of Alaska’s best in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter events. As a junior, he ran the 1,600-meter (about 1 mile) in 4:15.48. He had even loftier goals this year.

“I wanted to go for the state record,” he said after he wrapped up his cap-and-gown shoot. Kodiak’s Levi Thomet set the 1,600-meter record at the state championship meet in 2015 with a time of 4:12.17. But Nelson’s goal was Trevor Dunbar’s best high school 1,600. Dunbar once ran it in 4:05.22.

Nelson hit the required pace in training, he said. But the team had only one practice before the whole season was history.

“I’m kind of bummed, but oh well,” he said.

In November, Nelson signed a Division I National Letter of Intent to run for the Brigham Young University cross-country team. He plans to join teammates for training there in July.

Nelson said he will have lots to get used to: Utah’s heat and altitude, the D-1-level competition and races that are longer than high school races. But he’ll have just one semester at BYU before he intends to leave for a two-year mission for his church at a location to be determined.

His last weeks of high school haven’t been entirely miserable. Online classwork is less stressful, he said, and allows him to set his own pace. He’s a week and a half ahead of schedule. The free time isn’t so bad either, he said, though it might not be much of a story to tell his future children.

“They’re going to ask me what I was doing during COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m going to be like, ‘Well, you know, I just sat at home most of the time,’” he said.

Muna Aden, East High School

The sadness Muna Aden feels about missing graduation might be the best evidence of how far she has come. She had particularly looked forward to wearing her East High School cap and gown.

“It was blue and red. It was so good,” she said.

Aden’s memories of her first days in an American school are very different. Her family moved from a refugee camp in Ethiopia to Springfield, Massachusetts, about 5 1/2 years ago. Aden remembers a happy childhood in Ethiopia, but said her parents wanted a better life and a better education for their children.

“It was so hard,” Aden said of her first days at a Springfield school. “Nobody can understand you, and you don’t even understand what people say.”

Aden said all she could say was “yes” and “no” at the time, but didn’t understand the questions she was being asked, even when a teacher offered her food.

“I know I was so hungry, but at that time I didn’t know how to say I need it,” she said.

Aden’s English wasn’t much better when her family moved to Anchorage in 2017, she said. She recalls going to sleep frustrated, wishing she could wake up fluent. Instead, she worked hard at Bartlett High School and through Anchorage School District’s Newcomers Academy, which provides intensive English instruction.

At East, which she has attended for the last two years, she was surprised to find a community of Somali students. (Aden’s family is from Somalia, though she hasn’t yet been there herself, she said.) She has friends she looks forward to seeing in the halls between classes. “Hey, what’s up girls,” she’d say to them.

“They speak my language and wear the same thing as me,” she said.

She also enjoyed the classwork, particularly forensic science and economics. Sometimes in school, she saw newcomers who are struggling and frustrated. She can tell they feel like she felt not long ago. That happened in English class last year, she said, when two sisters from Mexico joined.

“I don’t even understand what they’re saying, but you know human(s) can understand each other ...,” Aden said. “I feel (at) that time they need my help, and I help them.”

Aden gave advice that she’d give to any newcomers.

“I’d tell them never give up. Never give up to learn something new ...,” she said. “Try and try and try.”

Aden said she hopes to go to college one day. Finishing high school means more to her than she says she can express in words. Now that the traditional graduation ceremony is canceled, she’s not yet sure if she’ll need to pick up her diploma or if it will be brought to her house. Either way, it will be special.

“Oh my goodness, how exciting on that day,” Aden said. “I cannot wait to see my diploma.”

Jeffrey Contreras, S.A.V.E. High School

S.A.V.E. High School has a unique graduation tradition, at least during normal years. Each grad who wants to make a speech is given the opportunity. It’s an emotional moment for the students, each of whom had traveled a winding road to donning a cap and gown.

Jeffrey Contreras probably would have spoken up, if plans for a normal ceremony weren’t scuttled. He had a few things to share about his own path. He started as a freshman at West High School, but his progress slowed a year later when he moved to Eagle River High School.

“I started to tend to miss a lot of school and just not do my work,” Contreras said. “I didn’t really have any motivation.”

He lacked confidence, he said, but he made a bold decision. He signed up for Alaska Military Youth Academy, a discipline-heavy semester for at-risk teens located on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

“It was completely my choice,” he said.

The rigorous program wasn’t always fun. Some cadets ran away and others were dismissed, he said, but he stuck it out, and by the time it was over he had earned a GED. As he rode the bus to the AMYA graduation, he felt torn — proud of his accomplishment, but sad to part with his fellow cadets.

Contreras said left AMYA with a new mindset, and that affected his thoughts about returning to high school.

“I felt like I wasn’t going to be satisfied with the GED in the long run,” he said.

S.A.V.E., which stands for Specialized Academic Vocational Education, is an Anchorage School District alternative high school. Coursework is designed to help students who have fallen behind on credits. It combines vocational education with academics.

Contreras found he often did much more than the required work there this year. The school also exposed him to careers in construction. He’s interested in learning more about iron work after graduation, he said.

If Contreras had the chance to give that speech on stage, he said he probably would’ve used it to give advice to other students who are struggling to achieve their own diplomas: Don’t give up.

“Any situation that they put their mind to, they can get through it,” he said. “Even if it’s the most difficult thing they’ve encountered, it’s a bump in life.”

Kira Young, Service High School

One day, when Service High School senior Kira Young looks back on this time, she thinks she might recall a moment when society came to appreciate clinical professionals.

“On a day-to-day basis, without COVID-19, people don’t see how much health care workers do for us,” she said.

Her own appreciation stretches back to childhood. Young recalled that when she passed the scene of a car accident, she wondered what treatment the victims required. Years before high school began, she knew she wanted to be part of Service’s Biomedical Career Academy to learn more about the field. She took part all four years at Service.

Young likes the idea that her work can make a day better for someone. That’s what draws her to nursing, she said. It might also be what drew her to Service High’s Partners Club, during which she linked up with students with intellectual disabilities for reading and activities in the spirit of inclusivity. She said it was definitely her favorite class in all of high school.

“Having the respect for everyone in our community I think is really great, especially going into a health care field,” she said.

Young is already a Certified Nursing Assistant. In fall, she’ll head to Washington State University to begin prerequisite courses for nursing school, she said. She hopes to land in the fast-paced world of emergency nursing one day.

For now, Young is trying to sustain the motivation she had at the start of the coronavirus shutdown, but she admits she’s running out of steam. She’s bummed to miss the moments that make the end of high school special. She had a date and a dress for her prom in March, but it was just the first of many canceled plans.

Young said she sometimes joins a couple of her best friends in a parking lot, vehicles backed into a circle with proper distancing, just to talk. But mostly she’s sticking to the stay-home guidance.

“The strength and resilience of this class, I feel like, is going to carry on,” Young said.

Derrick Taylor Jr., Bartlett High School

Derrick Taylor Jr.’s senior year has been all about rolling with the punches.

“He’s really worked his tail off to have a great senior year,” said his mother, Nekeysha Taylor. “He just keeps moving forward to what’s next.”

Lots of potential memories got called off for Taylor. That started just before his junior year ended, when he sprained his ankle so badly that he missed the football season the following fall. In winter, things were starting to go well for his basketball team when postseason tournaments were canceled. Now there are no classes, no prom and no traditional graduation.

“It’s definitely going to be memorable,” he said.

Taylor’s attitude is to appreciate the good times he did have — the bus rides with teammates, the school dances and spirit days — and to make the most of his time at home. He likes being a big brother to his two sisters, Taejah and Ania. The closure has made them closer, he said. They play lots of Uno and dominoes, make TikTok videos, and generally “be loud.”

Though the pandemic means he won’t have visiting family members from out of state for graduation, he’s using FaceTime to talk to his grandparents and aunties and he’s been texting more with his cousins.

“It’s bringing us together,” he said.

Even the sprained ankle may prove to impact his future in a positive way. It’s one of the things that inspired him to pursue a career as a physical therapist. He plans to study kinesthesiology at Oregon State University starting this fall.

“It sucks to be home, because I’d rather be in school,” Taylor said. “But there’s some good to it.”

Heather Kim, South High School

It’s nerve-wracking but thrilling, that feeling when Heather Kim takes her place at a piano in front of an audience.

“It’s super scary whenever I’m walking (across) the stage and you have like 50 billion eyes staring up at you when you’re about to play,” Kim said. “But then the moment you start playing, you just kind of forget about it because you’re so drawn in.”

Kim, a South High School senior, won’t have that experience this spring. The Alaska Piano Competition, for which she has been preparing three pieces, will probably be judged by a submitted video recording, she said.

During the school closure, Kim has been focusing her attention on the piano, the instrument that has become her passion since she started playing seven years ago. She practices and composes for hours each day.

“This is going to sound super cheesy, but I feel like it has the perfect sound of an instrument, like an ideal, perfect sound,” she said. “There’s something about the way it sounds that makes me feel so bubbly inside whenever I play.”

Kim said the noodles she was making bubbled over on the stove when she got word from Berklee College of Music in Boston. She was distracted, screaming about the news to her parents.

“I cried when I got my acceptance letter. It’s been my dream school for years,” she said.

Kim said her parents, who came to the U.S. from Korea, rarely miss her performances. She’s happy they’re supportive of her plans to continue her musical journey. One day, she hopes to build a career from performing and scoring music for films, perhaps an emotionally charged drama, she said.

In the meantime, she’s working on three pieces for the upcoming competition — a Bach prelude and fugue, a Beethoven sonata and a Chopin ballade.

Breckynn Willis, Dimond High School

Breckynn Willis has a lot of swimming to look forward to. Her Dimond High School results earned her a scholarship to keep swimming at Concordia University Irvine in August.

While in high school, Willis won two individual state swimming titles and seven relay titles. She was part of a state championship squad all four years. As she looks forward to more, though, there’s some things she’s happy to leave in the pools of the past.

In fall, Willis was the focus of national attention after a meet official disqualified her from a race she won. The official said Willis’s school-issued suit hadn’t properly covered her body. West High School swimming coach Lauren Langford wrote a widely shared opinion about the incident in support of Willis, and local news outlets followed up.

The disqualification was overturned, but outrage erupted about the initial ruling. Before long, attention on Willis seemed to be coming from around the globe — the Washington Post, CNN, a column in the Times of London, and many more. Her name was an active Twitter hashtag. Willis said fellow Concordia recruits from other states knew her story before they first met in California.

“Looking back on it, it is kind of ridiculous,” Willis said outside her family’s Anchorage home. “When I think about it, I laugh a little bit, because I’m like, ‘That was even a conversation? It had to be that big of an issue?’”

But at the time, she wasn’t laughing. She remembers feeling emotionally drained. She worried people would recognize her around town. “I had a lot of support, but there’s always those people who aren’t on your side,”she said.

Some accused Willis of hatching the scheme to draw attention from college recruiters, she said. But it’s hard to fake the clock. Among her other accomplishments, she swam the 100-yard butterfly in 57.4 seconds when she was a junior, her best result in her best event.

“My times are fast. I earned my spot on the team I’m going to swim for,” she said.

Willis was happy when the attention faded. But there were a couple good memories, too. She called the chance to fly to L.A. to appear on Kelly Clarkson’s talk show “the reward.” She lent her voice to a message of body positivity with Jolyn, a swimwear company. Her legacy at Dimond also includes a change in the rule book. The Alaska School Activities Association removed the “modesty rule” in December.

“In the moment, it was not a fun situation,” Willis said. “But I know that I don’t have to worry about it happening to my younger siblings who also swim.”

With schools and pools closed now, Willis stays fit outdoors, careful to keep proper distance from others. She hopes to head to college in August and can’t wait for the chance to swim again.

Brooks Christian, Eagle River High School

As senior class president, Brooks Christian’s last official act would’ve been to lead the class during its final moments together. He would’ve made a closing statement at the graduation ceremony, signaled for the turning of the tassels, then led them in the final hat throw in a crowded Sullivan Arena.

He’s disappointed that won’t happen, he said. He tried to be a pretty good leader, both in student government and as a hockey team captain.

Christian plans to attend Montana State University, where he’s considering majors in political science or environmental studies. But before he goes, he’s trying to make the most of his last opportunity to lead at Eagle River High School. He wrote and recorded a short speech to give to his classmates as part of the commemorative video that is being created to honor them.

“I know that it is irreparably disappointing to not have your last prom, band concert, club meeting, sports game, et cetera. And I’m truly sorry that this is the way it had to end,” the speech began.

Christian reminds students that they’ve seen several challenges unfold, including the daylong traffic nightmare he called “bridge-ageddon” when they were sophomores, to the magnitude 7.1 earthquake when they were juniors, and now the current public health crisis.

None of them define the class of 2020, and none of them should overshadow the countless good experiences they’ve shared, he said.

“I want you all to realize how much we have grown and flourished during these successes and failures…,” he wrote. “Though all these times, we’ve learned so much about ourselves and the world, both in school and out, and we’ll forever carry this knowledge with us.”

“Class of 2020, we will be a force to reckon with,” Christian said. “And we will change the world.”

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Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.