Dear Class of 2020: I Get It

On a warm August Friday in 2005, my friends and I headed home from our high school in St. Bernard Parish, just southeast of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico. We all felt a little uneasy as we waited for the massive hurricane that was said to be barreling toward the shores of Louisiana. But it wasn’t just the hurricane that was on my mind; the next morning, I had to go to the funeral of a friend who had died in a drunk driving accident. Things felt off-kilter, like my senior year was already in disarray—and at the time, I had no idea it was just the beginning.

A few days after my friend’s funeral, Hurricane Katrina hit. It ravaged my hometown, destroying most of the buildings and leaving the rest uninhabitable. And in just a matter of days, everything I knew and counted on was turned upside down. No more going to school and hanging out with friends afterward; no more waking up and going to bed at home, with my family safe and sound. We lost everything. In what seemed like no time at all, we became homeless and were displaced to a hotel in East Texas until we could no longer afford to stay there. We then moved into a shelter and spent night after night on tiny cots surrounded by strangers. An East Texas family eventually found us in that shelter and offered us a trailer in the small town of Henderson—and I’ll never forget the care that I received from people there.

It was in Texas that I had to learn to find solace in places I’d never envisioned. I wrote; I read; and I tried my best to stay connected to people online (Myspace was the happening social network back then). My family and friends were scattered across the nation, so we couldn’t lean on each other in person to get through the aftermath. I had to find new ways to deal with everything, so I went on walks, listened to music, and tried to meet people. I did what I could to make the best of it, but nothing replaced what I had lost. To put it plainly, I felt devastated. Every day, I woke up with a weight on top of me that made getting out of bed and starting my day a significant challenge. Only later was I able to identify that it was the weight of trauma.

I’m telling this story not to elicit sympathy—it’s a hard story to wade back through, so I don’t tell it often. Instead, I’m sharing this because I empathize with what’s happening now—and I want to let seniors know that I get it. Like them, I lost my senior prom, my senior trip, and all of the time and experiences I wanted to share during my final year of high school with the people I grew up with. So I get having to create new, different memories—and always wondering what could have been. Not having the senior year I expected and looked forward to felt much harder than I could have imagined—harder than I can explain, and likely harder than most people can understand. And right now, today’s senior class is facing its own life-altering situation—and many are facing the weight of trauma.

I get it. I get how it feels to be stuck in an in-between place filled with uncertainty. I get dealing with massive setbacks that steal what’s supposed to be a milestone year. But I also get that this particular setback, this pandemic, doesn’t minimize seniors’ accomplishments—not by any stretch. I get that this pandemic can’t devalue all the hard work and dedication that they put into their studies and extracurriculars. This pandemic can’t minimize all of the meaningful relationships they’ve created over the years—and it does not have the power to diminish the fact that their senior year is still, in fact, a major milestone. Most of all, the pandemic does not have the power to take away their dignity or define their lives. I get all of that, because Katrina could not rob me of my accomplishments, my hard work, my relationships, or my dignity. It shook me, but it did not break me.

I also get what many seniors may not yet realize. In some ways, my experience with Katrina positively shaped who I am and molded my identity—but I couldn’t possibly envision that then. Katrina challenged me and forced me to confront who I am and what I value, and it put me on a faster path to figuring that out. It gave me a greater sense of empathy for others who face hardships, and it started me on a path to giving back, to dedicating my life to my community. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely shape students in similar ways that may not materialize until much later in life. I get that—and they’ll eventually get that, too.

After college, I returned to the area that faced so much devastation and became part of the rebuilding process. But it almost felt like I skipped a step, because though I’d left in 2005 as a high school senior, I returned as a teacher, following in my mother’s footsteps.

Chalmette High School in St. Bernard Parish, where Chris Dier teaches today.

As someone who lost my senior year to Katrina and also taught this year’s high school seniors during the 2020 stretch of tumultuous upheaval, I have a unique perspective and can see through their lens. I get that it’s not easy, but I know that it gets better. I also get that the class of 2020 is going to persevere in the face of adversity, because this is a generation that embraces change and isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. They’re going to use this learning experience to pay it forward, just as I try to draw upon my own personal experience to provide comfort to others during this time. Many students are already helping, from sewing masks for health care workers to organizing food drives. Those who can are already stepping up to the plate.

Eventually I was able to see that themes of inspiration, perseverance, and hope bubbled to the surface during my personal saga—and they’re already beginning to rise to the surface for millions of teens today. I hope it is these themes that will ultimately resonate, and at the end of the day, students will gain lasting life lessons as they move through this extremely challenging experience. They’re in the process of learning painful, sudden-immersion, real-life lessons that no school can truly teach. They don’t need inspirational quotes or stories from historical figures, because their individual stories serve as the true inspiration—or they will.

As part of the Katrina class of 2006, I lived through what ultimately became a story that inspired and shaped my future—and today, the class of 2020 follows a parallel path, uncertainly moving toward a future that may be inspired by today’s hardships and hard-won lessons. Today’s seniors may not feel that way now, because they’re in the thick of it, but it’s true—and I get it.