Graduation 2021: MUHS class of ’21 closer together despite it all

NEWLY MINTED MIDDLEBURY Union High School graduate Harper Sinclair and her peers in the class of 2021 with have some unique stories to tell their children about how they stared down the COVID-19 pandemic — and won. Photo courtesy of the Sinclair family

(Teachers) all did such a great job to make sure we understood what was expected of us, and adjusted the workload. I have a lot of respect for them and what they had to do this year.
— Harper Sinclair

MIDDLEBURY — It was supposed to be the most memorable stretch of a high school student’s career — that last semester of eleventh grade, through senior year. Rigorous academics. College applications. Sports. Friends. Proms. Graduation.

Harper Sinclair and her colleagues certainly experienced a memorable last 15 months en route to the Memorial Sports Center stage on June 12, where they received their diplomas as part of the Middlebury Union High School class of 2021.

Memorable, but not for the reasons they had originally anticipated.

It was due to the unexpected — a COVID-19 pandemic and all the related restrictions that precluded them from enjoying the traditional high school experience that past classes had taken for granted.

Harper had just returned to Vermont following a semester spent at a school in Maine, when the pandemic hit.

“I was really looking forward to coming back and being with my teachers and friends,” she recounted.

Instead, she returned to a school that would be temporarily shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a then-mysterious virus that was claiming lives on a global scale.

“It was a little challenging to be separated from them again,” Harper confessed. “I have a core group of four friends, and it was very hard to be separated from them, to not be able to see people in the hallway.”

Instead, she had to be content to interact with her school community virtually, through Zoom.

It was definitely not an ideal situation.

“Academically, I like to connect with my teachers and ask questions,” Harper said. “And it’s really hard to do that over Zoom.”

So she did what all students and educators had to do: She made the best of an unsavory situation.

“(Teachers) all did such a great job to make sure we understood what was expected of us, and adjusted the workload,” Harper said.

“I have a lot of respect for them and what they had to do this year.”

She was gratified when the doors to MUHS reopened, at least partially, for her senior year.

“It was quite a relief to go to the hybrid schedule from being totally remote in the spring,” Harper said. “Because even if we couldn’t all be together, it was nice to be able to see people and have that face-to-face connection.”

Ironically, while COVID physically separated students, it strengthened their friendship bonds, according to Harper.

“We’ve gone through this once-in-every-100-years (pandemic) together, and having our junior year ended so soon — and having a different looking senior year — brought us closer together,” she said.

Some of that closeness, Harper theorized, was a result of MUHS’s hybrid schedule, which meant only half the student body was present win the building at the same time.

“You made more connections with the people who were in school,” she said.

Harper was a member of the MUHS track & field team, a runner whose specialty was the 800-meter race. Since hers was an outdoor activity, it faced fewer COVID impacts than other varsity sports conducted during the pandemic.

“By the time the spring (of 2021) came around, the mask restrictions were much looser,” she said. “Just thinking about running the 800 meters in a mask was so challenging; it’s hard enough as it is.”

“The coaches were awesome and the team was really willing to adapt,” she added.

The class of 2021 was forced to make sacrifices, though not as severe as those imposed upon the class of 2020. Still, Harper and her classmates had to do without a junior prom. But thanks to the development and swift proliferation of a COVID vaccine, the class of 2021 was afforded a senior prom, project graduation and commencement ceremony — albeit with the ubiquitous masks, “clustering” and social distancing.

Harper and her classmates learned how to drink from half a glass, instead of a full one.

“I was very pleased we were able to have (graduation) in the form we had it,” she said.

She noted the class of 2020 had to be content (and they were) with a drive-up diploma presentation in front of MUHS. So having to don masks and social distance on that special Saturday was a comparative walk in the park.

“As we progressed through the school year and things started to open up more, I wasn’t as afraid we weren’t going to have to have the ‘car thing,’ though that was really cool,” Harper said. “I was more afraid we wouldn’t be able to have our families there, and they would be live-streaming the whole thing. I feel that takes all the energy out of the place, when you don’t have that extra emotion from your family and teachers.”

Harper Sinclair this fall will attend Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn. She’s yet to choose a major, but you can bet it will be something that uses a lot of brain power — which she has in abundance. Her interests right now are neuroscience and philosophy.

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