The class of 2020: Three students come of age as pandemic meets racial reckoning

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Aliah Harris, 18, throws her graduation cap in celebration on her dad's South Philly block on June 10, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

The class of 2020 is bound for the history books.

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They were born in the wake of 9-11. Entered kindergarten during the Great Recession. Had their senior years interrupted by a global pandemic. And have now graduated into an uncertain future amid mass COVID-19 deaths, staggering unemployment and civic upheaval in the streets.

In this episode of Schooled, we’re telling the stories of students coming of age in a moment where the world feels both ‘on hold’ and ‘on fire.’

***

Ashely Acevedo, 18, grew up in Juniata and became a star student at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)
Ashely Acevedo, 18, grew up in Juniata and became a star student at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

Ashely Acevedo, 18, Juniata, Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls

For Ashely Acevedo and her family, just getting to this moment was a major challenge in and of itself.

“Their lives were very different from mine,” said Ashley of her mother and father. “I’m very grateful for everything that they’ve done so I could have it a little easier.”

Ashley, 18, lives with her parents in the Juniata section of Philadelphia. Her father, Johnny, 54, grew up poor in Columbia.

“[Not] even a bicycle,” he said.

Her mother Elena Torres, 55, had a similar background in the Dominican Republic.

“My life was very hard,” Elena said. “My parents didn’t have money.”

It’s a story Ashely knows by heart.

“They would have to work at a really early age so they could provide for their family and make sure all their siblings could eat,” she said.

Both of her parents finished high school, but then felt stifled by the lack of options. Johnny grew up working on his family’s small coffee farm — long hot days in the sun picking beans halfway up a mountain, a 45 minute walk from town.

“It’s just — it is what it is — work whatever you can do to make a living,” he said, “and that’s it.”

Johnny had some family in America already, and they convinced him he should risk crossing the U.S. Southern border in search of a better life.

He was in his early 20s when they helped arrange for him to make the dangerous trek through Central America and Mexico into the states.

“It’s something that you don’t want to do again,” he said. “You do one time and that’s it.”

Elena came to the U.S. around the same time. And they both landed in North Bergen, New Jersey, across from Manhattan, working grueling factory jobs.

They met in night school learning English and thought about trying to pursue higher education.

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“I tried to go here, but it’s too hard,” Elena said, “[To] learn the culture, a new language. It was very hard for me.”

They married and wanted to start a family, but were determined not to raise a child in the same poverty they experienced. Over more than a decade, they sacrificed, saved money, bought a house in Philadelphia and became U.S. citizens before having Ashley in their mid-thirties.

“When we came to this country, we suffered. We worked very hard,” Johnny said. “After she was born, we kept working for her.”

They very purposefully had only one child, wanting to pour all of their energy into giving their daughter the best possible chance to succeed in America.

“It’s better to have one,” said Elena, “to spend time with her, to teach her a lot of good things.”

Ashley became their life.

After she was born, Elena stopped working outside the home to care for her daughter full time. Johnny poured himself into work, for a while at a grocery store, now as a cell phone accessory salesman, anything to be able to afford to give Ashley a better shot — music lessons, Catholic school.

“You have to work more — limit time spent with family, that way we can pay for tuition.”

‘Paying back what we invest’

Her parents’ work ethic is an inspiration to Ashley, a motor.

“It just makes me want to work hard and follow in their footsteps,” she said.

When asked about pressure, she shrugs it off. She says she’s so grateful for her parents’ sacrifices that she is beyond willing to help provide for them as they get older.

“I do get overwhelmed sometimes, but at the end of the day I know the reason why I’m doing it, and it’s for them,” she said.

The rules of the Acevedo house are strict. When her peers were out having fun, Ashley was home studying or practicing instruments.

Parties — even going to the movies — happened rarely and often only with a chaperone.

“I mean, I went to parties but just not as often as I wanted to,” Ashley said, “which is, looking back, it might be a good thing.”

“We tried to protect her, maybe we protect too much, but that’s what we did,” said Elena.

The formula seems to have more than worked.

Ashley became a star student. She linked up with Philadelphia Futures, a group that supports first generation college kids, and earned a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also a gifted musician and vocalist. She sang at the Philly-based 2016 Democratic National Convention and has a youtube channel of guitar and ukulele covers.

“We see the results of what we did. She makes us very proud. I don’t have the words to say about her. She makes us feel very good,” said Johnny. “It’s like she’s paying back what we invest in her.”

Given all that she and the family accomplished, Ashley’s graduation was supposed to be a zenith. After all the years of toil and hardship, with Johnny and Elena sacrificing without fanfare, asking for no immediate reward, doing only the quiet, necessary, work of the day-to-day, this was supposed to be their public moment — a time for friends and family and neighbors to see, to join together and savor, the fruits of their labor.

To revel in the fact that, in the end, it all amounted to something.

‘Everything changed’

“We thought we were going to have a big celebration. I mean, we had plans like a year ahead,” Johnny said. “Everything changed.”

The house was supposed to be packed with distant relatives to mark the first generation of their family heading to college in America.

But COVID-19 robbed them of that celebration.

And what they were supposed to get instead felt a little too much like just one more sacrifice.

“My school, we’re having a virtual graduation so it’s kind of like a video, which is alright,” Ashley said. “I know that me and my parents are going to celebrate at home, definitely, maybe take some pictures in my cap and gown.”

***

Gregory Eldridge takes a photo of his children (from left) Bryson, Kennedy, and Blaise in the driveway of their home on June 9, 2020, Bryson's graduation day. (Rachel Wisniewski for Keystone Crossroads)
Gregory Eldridge takes a photo of his children (from left) Bryson, Kennedy, and Blaise in the driveway of their home on June 9, 2020, Bryson's graduation day. (Rachel Wisniewski for Keystone Crossroads)

Bryson Eldridge, 17, Aston, Sun Valley High School

Ashley Acevedo’s parents have a dream for her as an adult — a big house, on a safe, quiet block. Swimming pool in the backyard.

Bryson Eldridge grew up with all of that.

But graduation season wasn’t what he expected it to be either. For a lot of teenagers, the pomp and pageantry of high school graduation is neutral at best, corny at worst.

Not for Bryson.

The morning that Bryson, 17, graduated from suburban Sun Valley High in Delaware County, his outfit was immaculate. His dark blue robes were crisp and clean, the tassels on his graduation cap hung on the correct side, and half a dozen multicolored braids were draped over his neck.

“The yellow and red are Spanish honor society, the blue and blue are math honor society,” he said. “And then this purple is for being in our school’s safe driving chapter.”

The attention to detail wasn’t for a crowd of his classmates, or teachers, or extended family looking up at Bryson crossing a stage. That morning he was standing in his front lawn with just his parents, step-mom, brother and sister, waiting for a school bus to drop off his diploma.

“I am happy that I did it, I am happy that I finally got the diploma,” Bryson said after the bus pulled away. “But then it’s sad, because it’s not the one you envisioned. It’s not the one from the movies you grew up watching.”

Doing the right thing all the time

Tall, broad, and handsome — in a Wheaties-box sort of way —Bryson sometimes seems like he stepped straight out of a teen movie.

Think ‘50s films though: Bryson is earnest, like a grandparent’s dream of what a teenager should be like. Without irony he says things like:

“Once I got used to it, I saw the bright things of quarantine, being able to spend time with my family before I go to college.”

At Sun Valley High, Bryson was the homecoming king, class president, and a solid basketball player.

He was also a Black student at a high school that is more than 80 percent white.

“Going to a predominantly white school it was just like, ‘I need to make sure I am doing the right thing all the time,’” Bryson said. “So, I feel like that’s part of my maturity, and like growing up so much faster than other people in my grade.”

Bryson Eldridge (second to right), senior class president at his school, throws his graduation cap with other class officers after a segment they recorded for virtual graduation. Sun Valley High, in the Penn-Delco School District, is about 80% white.  (Rachel Wisniewski for Keystone Crossroads)
Bryson Eldridge (second to right), senior class president at his school, throws his graduation cap with other class officers after a segment they recorded for virtual graduation. Sun Valley High, in the Penn-Delco School District, is about 80% white. (Rachel Wisniewski for Keystone Crossroads)

Bryson’s kindness, his punctuality, his accomplishments — they are at least in part a coping mechanism to survive as a Black person in a white space.

It hasn’t always been easy. A few years ago, a police officer pulled Bryson’s family over on their way to his brother’s basketball game. The officer said their tail light was out; it wasn’t. He said they were acting suspicious; they were shaking with fear.

The cop let them go, but the memory still stings. “First time I had ever seen my dad cry,” Bryson said.

The experience was painful, but not unfamiliar, for Bryson’s father, Gregory Eldridge. Gregory, 43, grew up in Darby township, a mostly Black suburb nearby. As a kid, he said, he watched new parks and pools get built in the adjacent white community, while weeds sprouted in the tennis courts near his house.

“From the day he was born I had to teach him what it’s like to be a Black man in this world,” said Gregory. “It’s nothing new.”

Gregory and Bryson Eldridge, age 11. (Courtesy of the Eldridge family)

The double standard revealed itself to Bryson in small ways all the time: the assistant principal who falsely accused him and a few other Black students of making a mess in the lunchroom; the way white kids got away with showing up to class late when he didn’t.

By senior year, Bryson had long since gotten used to this and folded it into an otherwise happy high-school life. In March, when the pandemic forced his school to shut down, he was sad to lose the last few months of his senior year — the movie-credit montage of dances and parties that was supposed to culminate in a senior week trip with his friends and girlfriend in Ocean City, Maryland.

They were more plans simply dashed by coronavirus.

And then, on Memorial Day, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

That kicked off uprisings over police brutality and racial injustice across the world — and a shift in perspective among at least some young white people who went to Sun Valley high school.

‘I could tell she wants to learn’

In late May, after George Floyd was killed — but before large-scale protests broke out in Philadelphia — Bryson was driving near his home with his girlfriend Grace Keeley, 18,  when a police officer started tailing him.

For the five or so minutes the cop stayed behind his car, Bryson drove slowly and carefully. He was extremely anxious. Grace, who is white, didn’t understand why.

“She could see it visibly on my face, that I was nervous,” Bryson said. “I dropped her off, and we really never touched on the subject.”

A few days later, Bryson said, as news of the protests grew more widespread, Grace brought the incident up.

“She was very apologetic,” he said. “I could tell she wants to learn.”

Grace agreed.

“Being in an interracial relationship right now, I feel really bad that he has to go through some things,” she said, “and people are treating people like him really badly.”

Bryson said he’s been having similar conversations with other white people in his life in the last few weeks as well.

One friend, who he’s known since 7th grade, asked him for the first time whether school was harder for him because he was Black.

Sometimes these conversations are awkward, or ignorant, or annoying, but Bryson said he’s happy friends are finally interested in understanding.

“At least they are moving in the right direction and trying to have those awkward conversations that their parents don’t want to have at home,” he said.

‘Maybe I don’t have to be that middle ground’

High school movies often end with the main character breaking free of the box they’ve been stuck in and reinventing themselves.

Graduation did not do that for Bryson.

But he’s hopeful that the national reckoning about race brought on by George Floyd’s death could be what does.

Bryson’s planning to attend the University of Scranton next year — the student body is three-quarters white.

“It could be the same exact thing [as high school] over again,” Bryson said. “But I feel like with all the awareness that’s going on now, I maybe don’t have to be that middle ground. Like, I could just relax, for a little bit.”

***

Aliah Harris, 18, after her Paul Robeson High School's virtual graduation ceremony on June 10, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski for Keystone Crossroads)
Aliah Harris, 18, after her Paul Robeson High School's virtual graduation ceremony on June 10, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski for Keystone Crossroads)

Aliah Harris, 18, Olney, Paul Robeson High School

When the world gets too noisy — when its conflicts and complications overwhelm — Aliah Harris goes down to the banks of Tacony Creek.

The small tributary begins just north of Philadelphia and cuts a jagged path through 14 miles of city life before emptying into the Delaware River. It takes Aliah, 18, about 10 minutes to walk from the row home she shares with her mom and sister in Olney to the water’s edge.

The creek is too small — and the city too near — to avoid the whoosh of nearby traffic. But between the fish and the birds and the occasional deer, there is a sense of escape.

“It’s just like a movie,” said Aliah. “We live in Philly. We don’t have a lotta wildlife.”

There is something about the water that calms her. Aliah will stare at the stream as she thinks. And as those thoughts build, they spill out into little conversations with herself.

“Like, if I’m upset, I be arguing with myself,” she said. “If I’m sad, I be crying to myself. If I’m happy, I be over-expressing my joy…Once I let it out, I’ll forget about it.”

Aliah had a lot on her mind in the months leading up to graduation.

When her high school career ended in mid-March, it was the latest disruption in a bumpy educational journey. Almost exactly two years earlier, she’d left her first high school after a hallway fight led to a suspension. After a half-year pitstop at an online charter school, she landed at Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia for junior year.

In a heart-to-heart with her new principal, Aliah vowed to be a better student. And at Robeson she made good on that promise, earning mostly A’s and B’s while participating in an entrepreneurship program run by the University of Pennsylvania.

The small high school also made a perfect home for her big personality. When the entrepreneurship program started a podcast, Aliah became the star. She had the kind of easy charm and infectious energy that projected confidence.

“When I’m on that podcast, they be loving me,” Aliah declared. And she wasn’t wrong.

Behind the cheery facade, though, Aliah grappled with mountains of doubt.

She’d applied to several four-year colleges — and been accepted or waitlisted at a handful — but found herself questioning her readiness. By early May, she’d decided to, at the very least, delay her entry to college by a semester.

“My senior year stopped abruptly,” Aliah explained. “I still feel a little childish. I really don’t feel ready to take that next step.”

She wasn’t alone. Surveys indicate that many high school seniors are reevaluating their college decisions because of the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of wading gently from the end of high school into the beginning of college, Aliah and many of her fellow graduates feel they are being tossed into the deep end of the pool.

“I feel like I was being pushed into adulthood,” Aliah said. “Like they just threw me in.”

‘Living in this…’

As May ended and graduation neared, Aliah’s fears subsided.

Conversations with her mom and stepdad convinced her to attend community college. She still wasn’t sure if she’d go to a two-year school in the city or one in a nearby suburb. She only knew she was committed to trying.

“They helped me open my eyes — girl, jump, jump. Take that risk,” Aliah said. “And I’m gonna take it.”

Once unmoored by the sudden end of high school, Aliah sounded confident and buoyant again. She’d been refining her business plan for the spa and salon she planned to own someday. The planning provided purpose and direction.

But, when the news came out about George Floyd, it knocked Aliah off her feet.

Most immediately was the destruction in her neighborhood, where three shopping plazas were ransacked.

“Everything is just boarded up,” Aliah said in early June, her voice laced with weary frustration. “I need some deodorant, toothpaste. Can’t even get that. Everything is destroyed.”

Deeper, though, Floyd’s killing dredged up long-held anxieties about the police.

She and her mom said that when Aliah was 16, a neighbor called the cops and falsely claimed that the family dog had escaped and posed a threat to the neighborhood.

Aliah was alone in her house, asleep, when, she said, several police officers barged into her room. They ripped off the covers on her bed, disoriented her by shining flashlights in her eyes, and pressed her against the bedroom wall while they searched the house.

The ordeal made a lasting impression. It confirmed to Aliah what she already thought about how police treat Black people.

“I don’t like to accuse, but sometimes they come off like they be nitpicking,” Aliah said. “I feel like honestly they got that badge and they just feel entitled. Entitled to mess with you. Entitled to do things with you because they can.”

As Aliah wrestled with those thoughts, she fixated again on her fears of adulthood.

George Floyd’s slaying wasn’t so much a revelation for Aliah as it was confirmation — confirmation that the world was as scary and turbulent as she’d already imagined.

“We don’t know what the future holds for us,” Aliah said. “Nobody understands the stress and the anxiety of living in this. I’ve been more stressed out this week than ever. I just feel flustered and overwhelmed. And I just wanna go back to some stability and some peacefulness.”

Becoming detached

Aliah’s graduation itself was uneventful.

A miscommunication caused her to miss a hair appointment with a relative, which both bummed her out and made it hard to fit her cap over her head. The ceremony, held on June 10, was done over Zoom.

Aliah watched from her stepdad’s house in South Philadelphia while relatives shuffled in and out and a movie played silently in the background. She stared at her computer screen with wavering interest, reacting with muted enthusiasm when she unexpectedly won an award from the math department.

Mostly, she said she wanted it to end — so she could carry on with her plans and meet up with friends.

Five days later, Aliah was back at her mom’s house in Olney.

As the graduation buzz faded, Aliah reached a striking conclusion about her future. She was still planning to attend community college, transfer to a four-year school, and eventually open her own business.

But she’d decided that to find her way through the world, she’d have to shut parts of it out. She’d made a conscious decision to focus more on herself and less on the furiously spinning news cycle.

“I feel myself becoming more detached to the outside world,” she said.

On this afternoon, she sat on the steps outside her home, opened a spiral notebook and filled a page with her thoughts and anxieties. It was a coping technique her mom taught her.

When she was done, Aliah folded the piece of paper and walked down to Tacony Creek.

A bike path led her to a shadowy, cool underpass covered in graffiti. The water moved a little quicker here, which Aliah liked. The rush of the creek blended with the thundering cars overhead, creating a sort of sonic cocoon.

Aliah stopped, closed her eyes, and held the folded piece of paper to her chest for about a minute. Then she crumpled the note in her hand and threw it into the creek. The water took it away.

Afterward, Aliah walked back to her house and stood again on the concrete steps outside. She reflected on her senior year a final time.

“It’s really been hard,” Aliah said. “And one thing I can say for the parents, check on your kids that’s graduating. Even though it shows that they got it all together — we really don’t. Some of us don’t know what to do next. Some of us are scared.”

Aliah didn’t say whether or not she was talking about herself, her future.

The answer was likely on that crumpled scrap of paper, floating down to the Delaware River and, eventually, out to sea.

***

Ashley Acevedo with her parents Elena and Johnny on graduation day inside Little Flower Catholic School for Girls. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)
Ashley Acevedo with her parents Elena and Johnny on graduation day inside Little Flower Catholic School for Girls. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

‘I can do it too’

Ashley Acevedo and her family did end up getting more of a graduation than staring at a screen together in their house.

The Catholic all-girls high school she attended, Little Flower, did a socially distant ceremony in the gym, but students could only bring parents, no other friends and family.

“Although it’s not in the same circumstances that I thought it would be freshman year,” Ashley said, “I’m still really excited that we still get to do something.”

Ashley’s father, Johnny, thought back to his own high school and graduation in Columbia.

“Small buildings, small classrooms….The way they dress is totally different. We don’t use that. We couldn’t afford to buy these things,” he said.

Inside the gym, the actual ceremony was a breeze. Students in Ashley’s cohort lined up in the middle, six feet apart, and parents shuffled along the bleachers on the side. Pomp and Circumstance played low in the background. Students did not have their names called; they were handed a diploma at center court and sent on their way.

In the fall, Ashley will head to Penn, where she’ll focus on Hispanic studies and medicine.  In one generation, the family went from poor farmers to the Ivy League.

They hope to find a time to honor that leap in earnest at some point. But it didn’t happen that graduation day.

“I probably have to work a little bit in the afternoon,” Johnny said after the ceremony. “It’s no big celebration.”

Before Johnny went into his job, we stood on the front lawn of their modest, but tidy brick row house. It’s a symbol of how far they’ve come — a place they secured and cared for as their daughter grew from barefoot in the grass to high-heels on graduation day.

They’re now 20 years into their mortgage, two decades into their American Dream.

“We are grateful for this country,” said Johnny. “If you want something, just work hard and we can make it.”

Soon, pandemic depending, for the first time in her life, Ashley will be leaving this home, starting a life in college away from her family.

The pandemic may have stolen from them the chance to truly bask in the ritual, but it couldn’t take an ounce away from the full glory of the family’s accomplishment.

“Darling, I feel very proud of you, baby,” Johnny said to Ashley as they stood on the grass. “Whatever you’re getting now, today, is something you earned all of these years, working so hard and sacrificing so many things.”

Ashley beamed with pride, her eyes glistening. No matter the rough roads ahead, she already knows the route.

“Without them I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be doing the things I’m doing today. And I wouldn’t be pursuing challenging things if it weren’t for them,” she said. “Because they did something very challenging and they persisted. And so if they can do it, I can do it too.”

This story was produced as part of WHYY’s Schooled podcast with support from the William Penn Foundation.

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