Bloomfield Hills High School hosted a socially distanced prom for its senior class outside in the school’s courtyard.

Bloomfield Hills High School hosted a socially distanced prom for its senior class outside in the school’s courtyard.

Graduation is a bit sweeter when it’s earned amid a global crisis

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 14, 2021

 BHHS grad Alexandra Yaker said finishing her senior year during a pandemic taught her how to push through challenges and make the best of any situation.

BHHS grad Alexandra Yaker said finishing her senior year during a pandemic taught her how to push through challenges and make the best of any situation.

Photo provided by Alexandra Yaker

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BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD — About every two years or so, the marching band at Wylie E. Groves High School takes some kind of a trip toward the end of the school year.

It gives the musicians a chance to perform in front of a new audience and have some fun with their friends.

The 2021 trip was cancelled for senior Joshua Wallington and his bandmates. It was just one of numerous celebrations this year’s graduating class had to give up because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But when the Eagle caught up with Wallington in the first week of July, he was exploring Universal Studios in Orlando with three of his band pals. Even though the official trip was cancelled, they opted to make their own way down to Florida and mark their graduation with the adventure they had always dreamed of.

That’s the takeaway of this past school year for many of the graduates in the Birmingham-Bloomfield area: Make the best of it. Completing high school is a huge achievement for a student in an average year, but to earn a diploma amid a global pandemic is pretty astounding.

“This was a really special class,” said Susan Smith, the principal of Groves High School. “I would speak to principals in other districts, and they would talk about how their students were complaining about their senior year being ruined. Our students were just so cognizant of keeping each other safe while still trying to keep some of those high school traditions. This group is so unique and special.”

Alexandra Yaker, 18, graduated from Bloomfield Hills High School last month. After completing her class work virtually from home for most of the year, she was thrilled to be able to celebrate her commencement with her friends.

“At the beginning of the year, we were still kind of in the midst of the pandemic. We didn’t really know how the year would look. We kind of got into the groove of things though, and sometimes it was disappointing because we couldn’t be together for so long,” Yaker said. “But in the end I felt really proud of my class. We pushed through this really weird time and we made the most of it.”

Yaker tipped her mortarboard to the Bloomfield Hills Schools staff, which she said worked to create fun pandemic-friendly activities for the senior students, like an outdoor pancake breakfast and an open-air prom held in the school’s courtyard. The interactions between peers were few and far between, but Yaker said they were all the more memorable.

“We took advantage of every little thing we could. Everyone really tried to make it somewhat normal for us. We couldn’t have a typical prom at a fancier venue; we were outside with a tent and food trucks. But that honestly made it more special and more important in my life,” she said.

Smith said her 2021 grads at Groves had a similar attitude and an unfailing determination to get everyone through.

“We would meet with our student leaders and say, ‘What if we try to do this,’ and they would say, ‘As long as everyone feels safe.’ They made modifications (for activities) for students still doing virtual. They really thought of the group and not just themselves. It was so fascinating to watch how they really stepped up.”

Social life is a crucial part of the school experience, but from time to time, students need to throw in a little bit of academia, too. As tough as it was for students to engage with friends this past year while taking virtual classes, the learning curve was even steeper when it came to, well, actually learning.

“Our teachers really stepped up, too. At first we were all virtual, the hybrid. They learned a new management system to be able to accommodate two different groups of students. A lot of them learned new technology. It was hard. But they were just always trying to keep the students connected to them and to the content, despite not being in the same physical place,” Smith said.

Wallington, 18, said that despite his genuine interest in some classes, like psychology, it was hard to focus on hours of virtual instruction every day.

“The online aspect of school was definitely the hardest part. I was unmotivated to do the level of work I normally would’ve done in person,” he said. “I worked with some friends that were in the class, too. At least one of us would watch the lectures and take notes and make sure we all understand. We really tried to make it fun and get each other through.”

You could say Wallington did more than just get through, though. He was named a winner of the Tom Carson Memorial Award, a longstanding honor for outstanding Groves graduates named for the school’s first basketball coach, who passed in 1968.

Wallington also secured a spot at Howard University this fall, where he’ll study computer science. He said having such an atypical experience this past year will come in handy when he faces new educational challenges.

“I’ll definitely take with me perseverance. I know if I could push through online classes, I can definitely push through and find a way to get through the in-person classes in college,” he said. “And I know I can do it despite uncertainty. That was another takeaway this year. It was sort of sad to see what was happening in the world and not know what was going on.”

For Yaker, the pandemic school year taught her life skills like creative problem solving and tenacity, which she’ll take with her to the University of Michigan in the fall.

“I really just learned how to handle difficult situations — how to be mature about them and take advantage of whatever I can to make the best out of them,” she said.

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