Zuri, left, and Gianna stand for a photo on Friday, May 13, 2022, outside of Trinity High Schol in River Forest, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Life before COVID-19 and after.

That’s how Giana Gallo and Zuri Spencer describe their high school experience. The two college-bound teens from Trinity High School belong to the Class of 2022 – the ones who got a taste of high school before the pandemic blocked out the tail end of their sophomore and junior years, only to return as full-fledged seniors, trying to make up for lost time.

“I remember when the pandemic first started,” said Gallo, 18. “My parents and I were all glued to our television like just watching [and thinking] when is this going to be over? When is this going to be over?”

Gallo recalled seeing Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot flash across the screen, announcing news about COVID, the rise of case numbers and the deaths that followed. Gallo remembered being in class when Trinity officials announced on the PA system that the school was temporarily closing, shifting learning online. She and Spencer were among many asked to gather their belongings from their lockers and head home. “Like I started crying,” Gallo said.

“That day, especially when they came over the intercom, it was just chaos,” Gallo said. “I remember it just being like absolute chaos and running to my locker, looking at everybody to see what they were doing. I just had piles of stuff in my locker. I said, ‘Oh, two weeks, it’s fine. I’ll leave my stuff here.’”

Spencer said she saw students with garbage bags stuffed with personal items and quickly thought: Is school over? And as the weeks turned into months, Gallo and Spencer wondered if they would ever return to the school building.

“You think,‘Oh,I’m a sophomore.I got so many more years of high school,’” Spencer said. “But then you’re sitting in your bedroom, and it’s like another month, four more weeks, more cases, more numbers. You’re just sitting there waiting for the next notifications to come through.I think that’s why it was so fulfilling to come back this year.”

When Gallo and Spencer came back to Trinity last fall for their senior year, they said they felt like freshmen, discovering the campus as if for the first time. They were excited but nervous, overwhelmed by changing routines. As the new seniors, the pair explained that they wanted to emulate the same confidence, set an example for the lower division students and honor the traditions from previous graduating classes, but the pandemic, in some ways, rattled them.

“Do I remember my locker combination? Do I know what floor this class is on? Do I know where I’m going? Did I wake up at the right time? Am I late? Is late start still a thing? What does ‘full uniform’ mean?” Spencer said of the questions that popped into her head during those first few weeks of full-time in-person school.Gallo, too, said she put on a brave face to let first-years know to not be scared. That things, in time, will be OK.

Settling into the fall semester of senior year, the familiarity crept in as well.“I missed these hallways, and the lunchroom, and sitting with my friends, and sitting in the library,” Spencer said.

“It’s like that feeling of like rose-colored glasses,” Spencer said, stumbling to find the words.“I’m like I can do this. This is my senior year, and it’s fresh, and it’s new, and I can do this.”

Gallo agreed, adding that living in the pandemic taught her how to adapt to change.

“I feel like teenagers nowadays really learned how to be flexible and how to just go with the flow of things because of how life just suddenly changed,” she said.

And like most seniors, the two seniors wanted to leave high school on high note. They picked up where they left off, navigating through the “new normal” on their own time, on their own standards. They slipped back into packed schedules, balancing homework with hangouts and activities. This year, Gallo was president of drama club, co-editor of the yearbook and a member of the marketing club, while Spencer focused on leading the school’s Black Student Union (BSU).

Spencer, who is Black, said she and another friend toyed with the idea of creating BSU during a history class, long before the civil unrest sparked by the deaths of innocent Black men and women such as George Floyd, collided with the pandemic. They initially brushed the idea off, only to revive it as news surfaced about Floyd and many others who died at the hands of police brutality and white supremacy. Spencer and her friend wanted to create a safe space for themselves and other Black students to unite, grieve and heal.

Spencer thought back to BSU’s first Zoom meeting where students logged in, one by one, filling up the computer screen.

“We were scared because we didn’t think anyone was going to show up,” she said. That meeting was pivotal, as it allowed them to connect with each other.

“The first day, we didn’t even talk about policies or change or things like that,” Spencer said. “We were just like, ‘How is everyone doing? How are you feeling? What do you want to talk about?’”

“That’s when we knew this is something that has to stick because this is something we all needed,” she continued. “It’s something we didn’t even know was going to succeed, and when it did, we were like, ‘This has to stay. This is what we have to do.’”

Spencer and Gallo, who is white, spoke about their generation’s efforts in social activism and move toward inclusivity. At Trinity, other student-led clubs hosted assemblies, celebrating the cultural traditions of Asian, Latinx and Black students and their families. There was food, music and dance, not like typical assemblies where people “sit here and talk for an hour,” Spencer said.

Those events, some of which were a first at Trinity, were prominent, a milestone mark for the longstanding Catholic institution. Spencer and Gallo said they felt the love in the room when their school community gathered together in those moments, a momentum they hope the lower division students would carry on.

“We were like even if the world closes again tomorrow, we want this experience to be one we’re going to remember,” Spencer said.

For Gallo, Spencer and other graduating seniors, this year was all about one thing: “Go big or go home.”

“I like to think about it in that way: Go big or go home – and we were home for way too long,” Spencer said. “So, we go big, because I don’t want to go back home.”

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