When Wilson High senior Maya Bryson stepped to the microphone to deliver her commencement speech two weeks ago, she took a deep breath and looked out at her classmates, 864 of whom were set to graduate with her that night. In the 95 years since Wilson opened its doors–and the 136 years since the Long Beach Unified School District was founded–no graduating class had been through a year like the one Bryson and her classmates had just endured.
Long Beach’s 5,000+ seniors began their final year in the K-12 system learning from home via Zoom and Canvas, and didn’t get to return to campus until just a few months before the school year ended. Many of the moments they’d looked forward to throughout their high school careers were denied to them–yet through the adversity of graduating at the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a real feeling of accomplishment.
“I felt proud of myself, I felt proud of my friends,” Bryson said, reflecting back on an emotional evening. “There’s been a lot of ‘Why us? Why right now?’ Lots of those conversations. We were supposed to be growing and learning about ourselves and instead we were in the middle of a global pandemic. There was a lot of ‘Why, why, why?’ Those questions can’t be answered, but we were feeling really proud of ourselves. Everyone was chanting ‘We did it!’ We pushed through it.”
Bryson was one of the students who made the pandemic work for her. She’d been a motivated student throughout her academic career and at the time of the shutdown, her schedule looked like this: school until 1:30 p.m., track practice from 1:30 until 3:30, work at a hospital from 3:45 until 8 p.m., then home to do homework and prepare for the next day.
“I’m a big planner, I have to write down every single thing,” she said. “People always asked me how I did my schedule and the answer is I write everything down and plan every minute.”
Bryson’s goal is to become a pediatric neurosurgeon, and the hospital work she’d been doing pre-pandemic was part of that path, as she participated in a simulation program that included practice surgeries on test dummies.
When the shutdown came on March 13, 2020, Bryson’s very busy schedule disappeared. She didn’t have school, track practice was shut down, and her program at the hospital ended because all medical buildings were being secured to protect against COVID-19.
“It was tough,” she said. “I did a lot of self-reflection at the beginning of quarantine. I deleted all my social media–I had to slow down. I’m thankful for that part of it.”
Bryson’s desire for interaction and connection led her to pursue new outlets, and she said the extra time afforded her the opportunity to connect with more organizations on and off campus. She became the co-chair of first-year LBUSD superintendent Jill Baker’s Superintendent Student Advisory Committee, as well as a Biomedical Student Ambassador for the district, and became more involved with the African-American Advisory Committee as well as Black student clubs at Wilson.
“It was a learning experience and a time for me to grow,” she said.
Bryson acknowledged that most of her friends didn’t flourish with the schedule adjustment the way she did.
“I had a lot of friends who really struggled with the social aspect,” she said. “I had a lot of friends like ‘I need to get out, I can’t be here one more day.’ We went from full days at school with all our friends to being at home by ourselves all day. It was hard emotionally on everyone.”
As students began their senior year online, Bryson said everyone–students and teachers alike–struggled with the switch from Google Classroom to Canvas for online learning.
“We got Canvas on the first day of school and everyone was like, ‘We have no idea what we’re doing,’” she remembered with a laugh. “Some of the teachers had a hard time with posting things, or even getting kids to turn on cameras. Those were issues for the entire year even to the last day.”
All of those struggles made it even more significant when the campus gates opened to students again a few months ago. Wilson was one of the high schools with a higher percentage of students who chose to come back, but Bryson said it was still a challenge navigating that aspect of campus life.
“I was stepping back on campus as a senior who was about to graduate,” she said. “It was difficult because most of my friends didn’t come back, so I had to find a new on-campus friend group. I was happy to get back to my daily schedule of school, practice, meetings, then come home.”
All the while, Bryson said she and her classmates were coming to grips with a senior year that looked very different from what they imagined it would be. They were grateful that they were going to get some form of Prom as well as an in-person graduation, both of which were lost to the class of 2020. But that didn’t make those changes easier.
“I have two older siblings and I got to see their Senior Nights, grad night, prom, their last track meets and senior nights there,” she said. “I was always looking forward to those, thinking about how they’d look. I had planned my prom since I was 12, I knew the dress, the colors, the flowers, I had a whole Pinterest board. My little 12 year-old dream was crushed. We were able to do some things but not to the extent that we wanted–but the one thing that me and my friends really wanted was the in-person graduation. I needed to walk across that stage.”
Bryson and the rest of the Bruins–and the rest of the city–got that chance to be celebrated in person, not just for graduating but for surviving and making it out of a pandemic. The district’s graduations took place during the week of the June 15 re-opening, which meant that there was a citywide celebration taking place. As Bryson stood on stage looking at her classmates, a bright future stretched out in front of her. She’s off to Dartmouth to continue to pursue her dreams of becoming a surgeon, and with incoming students vaccinated, she’s looking forward to a more or less normal start to her college career.
Before that, though, was a night to commemorate and celebrate a year unlike any other, and a speech to sum it all up.
“I talked about our journey, about surviving and persevering through everything, about all the issues we faced and overcame,” she said. “And then we threw our caps in the air and we were done.”