In These Tumultuous Times, Baltimore City High School Grads Say 'I'm Here For It'
One car at a time, seniors at City College High School drive up, have their names announced, and then pick up their graduation packet complete with caps and gowns, awards, and their diplomas.
Their principal Cindy Harcum, and their teachers cheer them on, waving signs and calling their names.
It's not quite how anyone pictured this moment in time, but this party of sorts is one of many efforts to make the best out of the circumstances for high school seniors graduating in the shadow of COVID-19. There have been car parades, balloon drop-offs, and semi-formal photo shoots on the steps of the seniors' alma maters.
Here in Baltimore, all week, public high schools are hosting online graduation events.
Ndaneh Smart-Smith teaches social studies at City and she’s a parent of a 2020 senior. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no prom this year, no senior trip, and no academic honor ceremonies. It’s been hard, but she says her son is very pragmatic.
"He gets it but it’s still sad because it’s a rite of passage especially for an African American boy in Baltimore City," she says.
That rite of passage is coming amidst a public health crisis, a high unemployment rate, and demonstrations calling for an end to systemic racism.
Paulina Lagos was born in Chile but now lives close to the city/county line, near Dundalk. She’ll be graduating from Patterson High School in a few days. It's a school she describes as "very diverse," from the teachers to the students. And that diversity makes her feel comfortable and welcome. But, she says it’s unsettling to think about “the real world” that’s waiting for her.
She’s protested in the past for the rights of undocumented immigrants, but she says her mom wouldn’t let her go to any protests these past few weeks. She’s too scared.
"All these people were going out to protest and then like cops will come and stuff like that but like you don’t know if the cops will be with you or against you. It's risky," Lagos says.
It’s a risk Quincey Fireside is preparing to take. She graduates from the Baltimore School for the Arts on Thursday. But on Wednesday, she’ll be marching from her school to the Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters on North Avenue.
She says being a high schooler in Baltimore has been an education - in activism, as much as anything else.
"Immediately upon entering freshman year, everything that everybody talked about was politics...and what protest was going on this weekend. The kids I’ve met in high school are the most politically involved and most change-focused people I’ve ever met."
Graduation is kind of an afterthought, right now, she says.
"There are bigger things happening right now. We’re going through such an important time. And it’s so loud. It’s so here."
She and her classmates around the city have witnessed - some have experienced - systemic racial problems in their communities. And it’s brought about a younger generation of Baltimore-bred activists.
They recently reached out to their peers at several schools across the city. After researching and revising their demands, Fireside says the group’s mission became clear.
"What we’re asking BCPSS is that they put more concerted and targeted effort into requiring schools to be more conscious of the books they choose and about the things they teach...and telling the history less from the perspective of white people."
They're prepared, not only with those demands, but also with extra masks, hand sanitizer, and donations of food, money, and water. Fireside says there's not escaping these tumultuous times and they wouldn't even if they could - they're here for it.