When graduation ceremonies take place at Brookline High School this Sunday, 482 seniors will be receiving their diplomas. Among them are the 84% of BHS seniors going on to four-year colleges, and 3% taking a gap year.
The class of 2023 faced extraordinary challenges. A worldwide pandemic disrupted their freshman year and kept them isolated at home and dependent on online learning until late in their sophomore year.
Many graduating seniors say the experience had a profound effect on them, socially and academically, but BHS college counselor Lenny Libenzon says he doesn’t believe Covid ultimately affected graduation rates or college attendance.
Brookline.News caught up with several members of the class of 2023 on their last day of school, May 26, to hear their reflections.
The interviews are condensed and edited for clarity. Interviews by Iris Adler, photos by Sam Mintz.
It definitely feels really sad to be leaving this school. It started setting in this week, but I’ve been feeling a little bittersweet for the past couple of months. It was funny, because when Covid and the quarantine first started, people were ecstatic to not be in school. But then people quickly realized that they wanted to go back to see their friends, to be with everyone.
I always like to spend time alone, but just being around people, not necessarily being friends with them, but just being in a place where there are lots of people, lots of ideas, I missed that. Now I really appreciate being around people a lot more.
Social justice movements came out and got stronger during Covid. I think this school did pretty well, allowing a space for those kinds of things to exist. And I did come out of Covid feeling more understanding, feeling more educated about a lot of topics that I never considered before high school. The Black Lives Matter protests were a very big deal during Covid, and I think now in school we’re a lot more open to addressing issues of race equality and allowing a space for there to be advocacy for racial equality at school.
I know it’s not the case for everyone, but for me, there was always a place I could fit in, communities I could be part of. But it’s not true for everyone, so the school definitely needs to make some improvements to make this community more open to everyone.
Being around so many people, so many perspectives and different ideas, made me who I am as a person, and made me see just how many cool people and cool ideas there are in this world. Everyone has really helped me become the person I am.
Joseph Pearlman will be attending Boston University in the fall. He plans to study biology, with a specialization in ecology and conservation.
I was online my entire sophomore year, just being in my little room, doing my school work, and only seeing people on screens. It had a huge impact on my social skills. When I had to go back to school, it was so difficult. You don’t realize how being away from people affects you until you’ve been away from them for months. When it’s finally time to start interacting again, it’s like, whoa, whoa, this is way too much, too much stimulus, too much change.
On Zoom, you only talk when you’re answering a question. There is no dialogue between students, so coming back to school felt not only new, but it was really scary for me because I hadn’t been used to it. I know a ton of my friends had the same experience.
Academically you just can’t replace classroom learning, so obviously everybody loses. I had to learn how to be more organized because I had to figure out how to get all my work done. You lose so many support systems, not only from teachers, but from your peers and friends, too.
I was like, man, this pandemic really shifted my life, but now I’m glad to say that isn’t true. I’ve gained everything back, and it made me really appreciate these last years because I understand how special they are.
I play basketball, and the last two seasons were absolutely wonderful. To have a group of girls who are best friends on and off the court, to have coaches who were great mentors is something that I think a lot of people take for granted, because for a lot of teams, that isn’t the case. When I look back, I’m not going to think of the games we won. It’s the friendships that I built, the memories we made, the little moments that you take for granted — that’s what defined the season, not necessarily the wins. (Margo’s team went to the Sweet 16)
Margo Mattes will be playing basketball next year at Princeton University.
A big thing about high school is meeting new people, but when you’re on Zoom with masks on, it’s kind of hard to connect. So definitely socially, Covid was a huge hit. I only started to branch out again in my junior year. We were sick of being in our bubbles, and we all wanted to be out there. I think this experience has actually brought us together.
This year is so much different. It’s our first normal year of high school, which is kind of weird, because it’s our first and yet our last year of high school.
No one was mentally prepared for Zoom, I feel like it was a complete loss, especially for subjects like science where we couldn’t do labs or experiments. Anything that involved hands-on work was impossible. Hybrid classes (the choice to be on Zoom or in the classroom) weren’t much of an improvement. Having the teacher turn to his computer to talk to the students on Zoom every couple of seconds wasn’t exactly ideal.
What I liked about Brookline High was all of the electives. We have a million electives at BHS. It made me really have to think, what do I want? What do I think would be good for me? My favorite elective was the Music Collective course. We do a lot of jazz standards, but eventually we do a group arrangement. Last year we did an Armenian tune.
It was fun, but we have this emphasis on perfection at Brookline High. We feel like we have to be perfect and we have to get the best grades. It’s not bad to get the best grades, but the pressure drags down a lot of people. We feel like grades define us. An “A” is not just what I got on a test, it’s the direction I’m going in the future. If I get a “B”, I’m going to have a “B” life. But your GPA does not direct where you’re going in life, right?
That pressure is not something a 16-or-17-year-old should have to bear. It’s like a heavy weight but you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Chill out a little bit. Have some fun.
Tomer Schubert will be doing a work/study gap year in Israel next year.
I think the most challenging thing is that Brookline High is a really big school, and with everyone coming from seven or eight different middle schools, it’s hard to reach out and find friends. People have their cliques, their friend groups, and there are so many options that you might not know where to find your people. But I was lucky to join the SWS program, a community where, for the most part, people really do care about one another. (School Within a School is an alternative BHS program.) So my education was very different. I really liked it because we were doing unique classes compared to the mainstream school, and it was cool to be in classes that were majority women.
I didn’t mind being home though during Covid because I’m very much an introvert. I know a lot of other people were struggling. I didn’t come back to school until April of junior year. It was eye opening, and it was definitely overwhelming. People didn’t know how to talk to each other or navigate socially. I definitely felt like our grade was not as connected as other grades, but it was eventually a lot of fun being back and now everyone is so excited to see each other.
The wide range of electives I took was the most satisfying part of high school. Most students who go to other schools don’t have the elective choices that we have. For example, I’m an artist, and it was a lot of fun to take an elective in comic books, or having the opportunity to take a book binding course. I’ll definitely remember these classes.
I’m also really happy because I’m ready to go off to college. I think the thing that will help me the most in the future will be the art teachers here. I know I can always reach out to them for help because they’ve already taught me so much during my time at BHS.
Gabby Johnson is going to the Maine College of Art and Design in Portland next year.
It’s hard to say what we missed by not being here sophomore year since I have absolutely no concept of what a sophomore year in person looks like. It’s like trying to explain it to aliens.
I kind of benefited from Covid and everything going online because I was a really shy freshman and as soon as everything came online, I felt more comfortable putting myself out there. I didn’t have to face confrontations with large numbers of people. It was a unique way for me to branch out, but then over time, it definitely started to suck because now I made these new friends, but I couldn’t see them.
I think the way we really suffered was in our attention span. During Zoom classes we could always look at our phones during class and do other things, to some extent whatever we wanted, without being held accountable. Now we have to get used to focusing on something for a long time without having a lot of other stimuli. I wouldn’t be surprised if that bites us in the back in the future.
What will last for me are the connections I made at BHS. I’m already realizing that there are people who were so instrumental in making me who I am and introducing me to the things I’m passionate about now. I’m sure I will keep that throughout my life.
Alex Cooke is going to Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia next year.