Class of 2020: Battle-scarred and resilient amid new crises
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a young woman in Texas -- as yet unaware of the horrors unfolding half a country away -- learns that she is pregnant. She emerges from her doctor’s office to a shocking new reality. “What kind of world will this be for my child?” she wonders.
Two days later, another woman whose husband perished when terror hit New York City’s Twin Towers finds that she, too, is carrying a new life. Her son is born the following May; he screams for months. Did the death of his father affect him, she fears, even inside her belly?
Those two babies are now 18-year-old men, graduating from high school. Like so many other seniors, their young lives have been extraordinarily eventful. Born in the aftershock of one crisis, their generation is entering adulthood amid more calamity.
They’ve been pegged by some as spoiled or coddled. But having made it through a Great Recession, gun violence and devastating natural disasters that have forever reshaped them – and now a pandemic and nationwide protests over police killings – those interviewed and photographed for this story beg to differ.
Yes, they say, they have felt the impact of all that -- and missing prom or graduating in a virtual or socially distanced ceremony, while disappointing, is the least of it. But they also define themselves and their peers as resilient and ready for the challenges ahead.
“Our generation,” says Gavin Walters, son of that Texas mom, “will be the ones to surprise the world.”
Here is the Class of 2020, through the lens of events that have molded them.
April 24, 2005
When his family heard the news about his father -- about the explosive device that detonated near his Humvee -- Gavin Walters had just turned 3.
Army Corporal Gary Walters Jr. was 31 at the time and serving in Iraq, one of the many Americans who joined the military after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Gavin doesn’t remember his father. He does remember crying in kindergarten when asked to make a Father’s Day gift for his dad -- the first time he really understood what had happened.
But even then, he says, he knew he wanted to join the military.
“Some people just feel that call. I feel like I can give back to my dad a little bit, and to my country,” says Gavin, who recently graduated in a small outdoor ceremony with 24 other seniors in Medina, Texas.
He joined the Navy out of respect for his mom, thinking it might be a little less dangerous than the Army. Next week, he will leave his home state for the first time in his life and fly to Chicago for boot camp.
He will take with him photos of the father who still inspires him, though they never met. “This year has definitely been one of the harder ones,” he wrote recently, in a letter to his dad. “There’s days where I wish I had more than just pictures of you.”
But he adds, “I’ve always been told through hardship comes strength. I have to believe that’s true.”
Sept. 29, 2008
Though Abia Khan was just 6 at the time, she was old enough to sense her father’s distress as he watched the stock market crash during the Great Recession of 2008. He lost personal investments, she says, and would lose his job making computer microchips.
“He didn’t have a degree. It was hard for him to find a job,” says Abia, now 18.
Education was always important to her parents, immigrants from Bangladesh. But after her father searched for a job for 18 months, “they emphasized it even more,” Abia says. Her dad now works at an Amazon warehouse, and her mom for the state, with her brothers in school.
Abia pushed herself academically. She is valedictorian at Phoenix’s North High School. She’s also accepted a full scholarship to Harvard, though her cautious parents worry about her living so far away.
Abia will major in math, but she may add a second major in government or political science. She watches the fallout from these latest national emergencies – and hopes to help. She also hopes, people can set aside their polarized opinions and learn “to be more compassionate and more loving.”
She may want to run for office one day. But for now, her dream for herself is pretty simple: “Stability,” she says -- a job she can count on, one that also allows time for family.
Sagia Mitchell was 14 when 90 people were shot to death in her hometown of Chicago -- one of the deadliest months in the city’s history. But that month doesn’t stand out in her memory.
In her North Lawndale neighborhood, she says, “You’re never safe, and bullets don’t have a name.”
Sagia plans to leave this violent place, and study criminology at Lake Forest College, north of the city. But like many, she’s waiting to see if her classes will be online – a trickier prospect for her because, since September, she’s been living in transitional housing for students at her school. Her parents are not in the picture; an older sister asks that the difficult details of their family history be kept private.
Sagia has kept fighting, despite the setbacks.
She was a Peace Warrior at her high school, North Lawndale College Prep, where students use the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to counter violence. In 2018, they formed an alliance with students from Parkland, Florida, after 17 people were killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Sagia also joined a youth program at the Chicago Police Department. She plans, eventually, to become a police officer and return to North Lawndale, to combat crime but also to help build better relations with the community – something she sees as more important than ever as cities burn in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“It could change, but it’s not going to change overnight,” Sagia says. “And it’s not going to change if people don’t come together.”
Aug. 25, 2017
Maria Mendoza watched the rain falling, falling, falling as Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Port Arthur, Texas, her coastal city north of Houston.
“We would just pray and try to say whatever happens, happens,” says Maria, a devout Christian.
When Harvey arrived, her biggest concern was her grandfather, paralyzed and partially blind. How would they get him to safety? The storm loomed for hours, dumping a record 60 inches of rain.
A friend came with a big yellow school bus and helped the family flee as homes around them flooded. They landed a few hours north in Tyler, Texas, with a family friend, and used the bus to help deliver diaper, canned food and bottled water to people taking refuge in churches.
“It felt good to help out someone else in need,” says Maria.
Now, she plans to become a nurse, and the pandemic has only made her more certain.
She worries about her parents, both Mexican immigrants whose jobs are considered essential. Mom works at an oil refinery, and dad helps repair propellers for boats and ships.
Eventually, she hopes to buy a home large enough to house them and her younger brothers and their families. For her, togetherness is “everything,” especially now.
“I appreciate things more than I used to,” she says.
Nov. 8, 2018
The one thing Del Smith hoped his dad could save was his guitar -- that, and Kermit, their orange tabby cat. But the ferocious wildfire approached their home in rural Paradise, California, too quickly.
There was no time to grab the guitar. And the cat jumped from the car and ran back toward the house.
This was the Camp Fire, a blaze that would kill 85 people and burn more than 150,000 acres.
They found Kermit with blackened paws, but alive -- somehow. But the family home was destroyed, and the Smiths were forced to move on, to nearby Chico.
Eventually, Del returned to Paradise High School. Last fall, his football team, the Bobcats, made it to their divisional title game.
Though they lost 20-7, “it felt good to be the glue that pulls people together,” says Del, a wide receiver.
Then, in March, the coronavirus shut down California, and with it his school.
Sometimes he stares at his bedroom ceiling at night and wonders what’s to come. He expects his generation’s “going to have a hard life. ... But we’re ready for it, I guess.”
Del plans to attend nearby Butte College and then transfer to a bigger school. Maybe he’ll be a sound engineer. He’s thought about law school.
He and his brother envision living again on the property where their childhood home once stood. It’s green now, again; he often sits on a large steel tube by his old treehouse, under which a creek runs, and lets his feet hang over the edge.
And he strums his new guitar.
A season of celebration has become a time of unease.
In Seattle, Fran Shannon, a track captain at Nathan Hale High School, was hoping to compete in the triple jump at the Washington state championship. Instead, she was helping care for her quarantined mother, who likely had coronavirus. Her dad, a doctor, slept in their basement to try to keep them safe.
In Tijuana, Liz Prado, also the daughter of doctors, worries for her parents and aches to see the dear friends with whom she attended private high school in San Diego. Unrest in San Diego and elsewhere has made the prospect of seeing them even less likely, for now.
And then there’s Dan Afflitto, the baby who cried for so long in his infancy, after his dad died in the Twin Towers. Dan and his class in Rumson, N.J., are scheduled to join in a virtual graduation on June 19, and possibly an outdoor ceremony in July.
Each Friday, the staff at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School has been turning on the football field lights for 20 minutes to honor the seniors. They like to meet there to reminisce from a distance about their time at school together.
Dan played basketball and was a running back on the football team. His dad played soccer in college. He often thought about his dad during the national anthem.
He plans to study sports management at the University of Wisconsin, his stepdad’s alma mater. But for now, he sits and looks at his empty high school field.
“I kind of just try to live in the moment and prepare as best I can for the future,” he says.
“But plans change.”