This article reflects just part of the conversation in the latest episode of “Our Montclair,” a new video and podcast series featuring the art, the activism, the outreach and the connections among people in Montclair. 

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This year’s high school graduates came of age amid one of the most divisive political climates ever seen. They entered their senior years as a global pandemic uprooted life and social uprisings asked us to examine our relationships to race, policing, inclusion and justice.

So how does a group of young adults heading into the next chapter of their lives process the events of the last year and a half? What lessons will they take with them?

I spoke to Zuri Hylton and Zora Troupe, both graduating from Montclair High School this week. The conversation with Troupe is also reflected in “Our Montclair” — Montclair Local’s monthly podcast and video series exploring the culture of our shared community
(see the video above). Hylton will be attending Seton Hall University to major in education, and Troupe will be attending Temple University as an art and anthropology major. 

They were juniors when the pandemic threw most of our lives into a tailspin. Much of the socialization and education critical to their personal development was put on indefinite pause at a point when the dangers of COVID-19 were only beginning to come into focus. 

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“I remember school talking about taking a week off, and from there they were going to decide whether or not they were going to continue,” Hylton said. “My friends were like ‘Oh, this is serious,’ but I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. But it turned out to be pretty big.”

It wasn’t until Hylton’s mom had him stop working at a local supermarket that the gravity of the situation fully set in. 

For Troupe, the seriousness was apparent quickly: “I remember the Friday before schools announced that they were shutting down, everybody was starting to hear the buzz. There was serious concern that we would shut down — and where we would go from there? When the schools announced that we were shutting down we were all kind of in a state of limbo.” 

Montclair public school students spent most of the year on a remote-only schedule, with a staggered return to buildings on a hybrid schedule starting in April. High school juniors and seniors returned June 1, but under state rules, any family could keep a student home this school year, even if the student’s district was holding classes. According to figures released by the district in May, just 44% of high schoolers planned to return before the school year was out. 

Hylton and Troupe were among those who declined the hybrid schedule, and said they didn’t see the point in going back so late in the year.

A byproduct of the pandemic was its creation of captive audiences to events on the national stage — what else was there to do but focus on the extraordinary news of the day? Tens of millions of us had to digest the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. 

And that, in turn, prompted activism — people calling out to be heard, providing financial support to the movements that moved them, asking governments to rethink policing and our assumptions about justice, and demanding accountability. Montclair, like so many places, saw marches in the streets — including one of MHS students shoulder-to-shoulder with peers from other high schools on Juneteenth, the day that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States.

2021 Montclair High School graduates + colleges

“I grew up on ‘High School Musical.’ I would see them worrying about prom and homecoming, and who would be valedictorian. Meanwhile, my peers are wondering how we go about the next couple of years in a manner that is going to positively impact all of the minorities who have been disregarded and dismissed?” said Troupe, who, like Hylton, is Black. “How are we going to go about the next couple of years to bring change to folks who have been marginalized? There is such a maturity gap between what I’ve seen growing up and what I’ve been through growing up.”

For Hylton, the death of George Floyd emphasized the danger of being Black in America.

“It opened up my eyes to what can really happen. It’s like no one is safe. Growing up, I remember going to a Trayvon (Martin) march in New York, and I had this idea that it was young Black teens who are targeted. Then George Floyd happened, and you see that it doesn’t matter what age [you are] — they’ll come for you,” he said.

Many of the events we associate with coming of age weren’t possible. College visits and gatherings were scaled back, sometimes cancelled entirely. 

“One of the things I was bummed out the most about was college trips. I applied to nine colleges but only got to visit four,” Troupe said. “That was a real bummer. When my sister graduated she got to visit the University of Michigan [which she currently attends], and feel it out as a possible location. I didn’t get that for all my college options. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision. Did I consider every possible avenue with the information I had?” 

The students move on from high school as debate continues, nationally, over the value of college — socially and economically — given the staggering costs it can mean for a family. And the events of the past year and a half have students and parents alike wondering what the college experience will look and feel like going forward. 

“I said I would give up a good senior year of high school for a good first year of college,” Hylton said. “Since things have gotten better, they are going to have in-person classes. When we didn’t know, I was kind of worried because I didn’t want to do Zoom for college.”

When asked what part of the school experience he’s looking forward to getting back to normal, Hylton responded:  “Better relationships with the teachers. I had good relationships with my teachers in high school, but I just knew that it would have been better in person.” 

Hylton and Troupe both have advice for those just beginning their own high school experiences in the fall — and both focused on self-discovery. 

“Be grateful for the things they are getting because it can switch up mad quick, as it did,” Hylton  said. “Also, it’s just four years. For the first couple years, I felt that these were my most important years. But, it’s not really like that.”

What led Hylton to that conclusion?

“My senior year. In high school, I learned what not to be, and with college, I know what type of person I want to be,” he said.

I asked Troupe what advice she would give my daughter, who will be starting high school next year. She reflected on her time at Montclair High. 

“It hasn’t always been the greatest for minorities, especially for women of color. I had a difficult time fitting in and not feeling isolated,” Troupe said. But she said ultimately, she found friends and teachers who would become her support system. “I would just beg her to persevere. It might be extremely difficult for her, but there are niches where she can grow and adapt and change at her own unique pace.”