You usually have to wait until the holidays to see the Henderson Street bridge into New York Mills decorated with strings of lights. This year, however, Kevin Conley and his brother-in-law Mike Lyons did it in the spring.
“We thought it would be a sign of hope,” Kevin said.
Every Christmas, people stop to tell Conley and Lyons how much the lights mean to them. This time the reaction has been more emphatic and heartfelt. They added a sign that actually says, “Hope.”
Mike Lyons’ daughter, Kiley, is graduating this year from New York Mills High School.
“It’s breaking my heart her missing so much,” Mike said. “You get to be a senior, and you have this close-knit group you want to do things with…but she’s positive.”
The proud father describes his daughter as a “whiz” in math and science and says she is excited to be attending Niagara University in the fall to study digital forensics.
“The family is healthy,” Mike says, “and she’s looking to the future.”
Conley grew up in the tight-knit community of New York Mills and graduated as part of the Class of 1972.
“I would not trade my youth in this town for anything,” he insists. “People here are close.”
He still gets together with some of his classmates once a year. His family has kept up the tradition of lighting up the bridge for thirty years. This time, more than a celebration, it is a sign of unity and of recognition for the students, like his niece Kiley who has lost the last few months of their senior year.
“We felt like we needed to do something,” he said.
Last year I was a long-term substitute English Language Arts (ELA) teacher for the Class of 2020’s. I wanted to do something for them myself. So, I reached out to some of my former students and their parents to find out how they were doing. They are resilient and determined to make the best of the situation, but it is hard.
“We have every right to be upset,” Madison Majka told me. “everything was taken from us. We have been going to school for thirteen years. This was our moment.”
She spoke of how strange it was to go home one day in March and never come back. Madison misses eating lunch with her friends at the school’s picnic table, snowball fights in the senior parking lot, and basketball games where the students dressed up according to themes.
Not long ago, she and her friends burst out of the door near the “senior cubby” and made snow angels on the grounds during the school day.
“We got yelled at,” she laughs. It was worth it.
Madison is a smart strong person who can overcome anything and have a sense of humor about it. She shared so many laughs last year.
“It will work out in the end,” she believes. “That’s one of the main things I will take away from this experience. We all still know we’re here for one another.”
“Every day we still talk,” Kylie Lenahan says. “But we missed out on all the final goodbyes to our teachers, all the laughs, all the inside jokes.”
Kylie’s mother, Ashley Felski, describes it as “heartbreaking.”
“Those last few memories have been taken,” Ashley says. “This was their year to shine.”
There is a page on Facebook where people can “adopt a senior” by giving them gifts and finding ways to celebrate their accomplishments. On the listing Ashley made for daughter it says, “I’m so proud of her, but so sad this has all happened.”
“Right now, we would have been in the home stretch,” Kylie says. “The prom would have been last weekend. We would have taken pictures. We would be getting ready for the class trip to Boston.”
Kylie, like Madison and Kiley, is excited about college plans. She is planning to get friends together for a bonfire in the summer, or something else they can organize themselves.
“That might be the last chance some of us get to see each other,” she realizes.
“It’s kind of odd-it’s sad,” Camron Scharbach told me. “I’ve been thinking back on memories of high school. I kind of want to go back.”
He talked about how great basketball had been in his Junior year. Their coach was a “little crazy,” they had three-hour practices but made it all the way to the Sectionals. That was further than the team had ever come before.
“What’s something funny that happen this year?” I asked.
Cam has a great story about fart spray that was smuggled into the gym. We laughed as he told me about it. I told him experiences like that he would remember forever. Still, he knows there is a lot they missed.
“I’m not going to be able to walk across the stage to get my diploma,’ he said. “I just feel like we should have had some closure for all the hard work we did.”
Cam has been with some of his classmates since before Kindergarten. Several members of the Class of 2020 attended the same pre-school.
“I remember him playing baseball in the back yard with his friends,” Cam’s mother Amanda Larson said. “They cut through our backyard to get to each other’s houses. There are so many memories of his childhood friends.”
Amanda describes New York Mills as a warm “it takes a village” community with a “little village school.”
“It’s very emotional because these are rites of passage that have been altered,” she reflects. “It’s bittersweet. Cam’s father and I are so proud he is graduating and that they all have the resilience to power through this.”
All of the students and parents I talked to are determined that new memories will still be made. Amanda is no different, and she has a lot of faith in her son.
“Cam is such a resilient kid,” she said. “He’s intelligent. He has such a great, dry sense of humor. Not a follower-he marches to the beat of his own drum. He did phenomenal in baseball. He has such a gift for computers. He is going to run with that.”
In the fall, Cam plans to study Cyber Security, but before that, he will be part of the Class of 2020’s informal get-togethers.
“We’re going to put things in our own hands,” he says confidently. “I’m excited about that. It’s kind of like a year that never happened. Something to tell our grandkids about.”
“This is going to go down in history,” his mother agrees. “And it’s cool to see how people are banding together.”
“The kids in ‘the Mills’ are always accepting of new people,” Andrea Catrombone says. Her son, Cameron Czepiel, has also been part of the New York Mills Class of 2020 since his Pre-Kindergarten days. She says that he has a mix of old and new friends.
On the Adopt a Senior Facebook page, she wrote, “Cameron has stepped up during this and is on top of his classes.”
“I have great memories of them riding bikes in the summer,” she says. “The town’s ‘Bell Fests’ with rides, food, and games for the kids on July weekends. Him having lunch with his friends. It flew by; I wish I could go back in time.”
“I so looked forward to graduation,” Kristin Hubley said. Her son Alex is an only child, and she serves on the school’s Board of Education. “He was so looking forward to prom. His date was his best girlfriend. They would have had an amazing time.”
Last year, Alex’s girlfriend had her school’s prom on the same day as New York Mills. He went to hers.
“I think he still regrets that,” she said. “I guess it’s a lesson in life. You might not always get that second chance.”
Hubley told me that thirteen years ago, when Alex and his classmates started Kindergarten, they took pictures of the kids holding a sign that said, “Class of 2020.” She said that it “seemed like a date out of a futuristic movie,” and pointed out that they were the Class that was “born out of 9/11.” Alex specifically was born in June of 2002.
“It almost seems like they were destined for this,” I interviewed her through Facebook, but I could easily imagine a weary sigh as she wrote that. Everyone I contacted felt that this class had a burden of history laid upon them.
“This would be the group of seniors…” she trailed off.
Alex was adopted and born deaf. He wrote a remarkably powerful poem last year about what utter silence was like and read it in my 1st-period class.
When he was four, the Hubley’s won a battle with their insurance company to get Alex cochlear implants.
“Our ‘shoot for the moon’ goal was that he attend Kindergarten right along with his hearing peers, which he did. With all that he’s accomplished, we have said, ‘we shot for the moon, he went to infinity and beyond,’” she says.
His mom also says that it “hasn’t always been easy for Alex, but he remained true to himself and got himself through.”
Alex has played basketball “since he could hold the ball,” but this year, he dropped the sport and joined the bowling team. Before the closure, “he was really coming out of his shell.”He was enjoying himself.
“I guess I just wanted him to have the normal senior year,” Kristin sums it up.
“This is Anthony Lubey,” Heather Tomaselli wrote on the Adopt a Senior Facebook page. “He loves to hang out with his friends, play computer games, and ride around in his BMW. He loves Dunkin, Taco Bell, and anything to do with cars.”
Everybody calls Anthony, “Lubey.” He was the kid who told me he hated English and felt pretty much the same way about me and that he wasn’t going to do anything I told him to. Somewhere between October and June, we became very close. I guess I wasn’t so bad after all; he certainly wasn’t. The second to last day of school, he gave me a ceramic fish he made in art class. My eyes welled up when I told the principal. I was never so moved by a work of art. The whole class meant the world to me, but he and I came the longest way.
“What’s something funny that happened this year?” I asked.
He told me how thirteen seniors crammed themselves into a bathroom stall and posted a video on social media.
“That’s up there with the fart spray,” I laughed.
“There was the ceiling tile that got knocked down,” he reminded me.
Lubey didn’t do it, but he fixed it and swept up the dust. He had my back.
That was on a blazing hot day last June. I took my 9th-period class out to see the school Olympics. Our little group was the only spectators older than 5th graders. We cheered for the red team and the blue team. Someone took our picture for the yearbook. We had so much fun.
“Look, that’s our Jordyn,” I said, pointing out their classmate Jordyn Stevens who was in my class 4th period. She was helping the gym teachers organize and manage the event.
They thought it was funny that I called her “our” Jordyn.
“She is your Jordyn,” I said. “You’ll get that someday.” They probably do now.
I asked her mom, Rosie Stevens, how her daughter was taking it.
She said that Jordyn was talking about not taking things for granted. Not knowing that March 13th was the last day she would see her friends in person. She said that one of the lessons her daughter drew from it was to “take time out for extra things. If you don’t, you may regret it when you don’t get another chance.”
“A great quote we say is, ‘You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have,’” Rosie said. “They have a lot of obstacles to deal with. It’s hard to put it all in perspective, but we want her to accept things and rise above.”
Anthony Lubey is doing exactly that.
“I wanted to graduate with the rest of my class,” he says. “But me and my friends are going to have a great summer and accept the fact that schools’s over, and we got through it.”
He likes working on the computer. He likes working on cars. His family owns Voss’s, and he’s busy helping them get it ready to open very soon. He might become a chef. Anthony Lubey is one of those bright funny kids who will succeed at whatever interests him.
Last year I called the Class of 2020 #TeamELA11NYM. I was glad they remembered our day-long “Gatsby Day” celebration, and the time I cut up a corpse fruit to give them an idea of how ghastly the house smelled in Faulker’s “A Rose for Emily.”
That was my first high school teaching job, and I was 49 when I started. I celebrated my 50th birthday with them. It was the start of a whole second career for me after being too sick to work for 14 years. I am sad that they are losing out on so much, but I think it’s great to hear them all talk about “resilience.” The school mascot is the “marauder.” This is a lesson that will make them strong and serve them well their entire lives.
“I understand that everybody is upset,” Gabby Cruz, another of my 9th-period students tweeted recently. “But, I think we should realize that this doesn’t define us. Yes, it is our senior year, and we will always be known as THAT Class. But, I believe that this proves just how resilient we can be.”
Ron Klopfanstein teaches English in the Oneida City School District and at Utica College. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein.