Senior year in many ways came to an unexpected halt for the Class of 2020 a week before their final Spring Break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There would be no prom or graduation as planned, no final group pictures or parties with friends. In light of this, we asked some members of this group of Mountain Brook High School students to share their reflections addressed to their classmates as they wrapped up their high school careers from at-home quarantine.

Dear Class of 2020,

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” In a movie that tried to ruin the greatest film franchise of all time, Kylo Ren’s ominous line echoes into reality. However, much to my dismay, I’m not here to talk about Star Wars. Instead, I’d like to talk with y’all about the past and why we can never let it die.

When I was 9 years old, I wanted nothing more than to let the past die. The loss of my father rocked me to my core, and I tried my very best to kill the past by forgetting it. I ignored everything that reminded me of Dad and refused to talk about him. I will forever regret that as one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made, one whose scars I bear today.

No one could stop my collapse—not therapists, not my closest friends, not even my family. Don’t get me wrong, they tried and they helped me a lot, and I will forever love you all for everything (and I’m sorry I was a nightmare in fifth grade). But I shut almost everyone out. I tried to place my hope in myself, in my success and achievement—another thing I struggle with today.

Ultimately, it wasn’t my friends that started to get through to me, but one of my dad’s best friends. He stepped in, not to fill the place of my father, but simply be there for me. To support me unconditionally, to guide me and to mentor me. He listened, rarely bothering to give his 2 cents unless it was wanted. He knew I carried an impossible burden, and he gave me the space to vent. Jody Martin, forever thank you, I love you more than you can imagine.

As I opened up more, Bill and Suzanne Andrews, my fifth-grade teachers, took me under their wing. They spent hours hiking, kayaking and rock climbing with me. They went above and beyond to help me by giving me something fun to do. Then in eighth grade as I began to slip again, Mrs. Sara Anne Thomas, one of if not the greatest teachers to ever live, pulled me back again, even if her class cost me a perfect GPA (but at least she ruined it for my brothers too). She reignited my curiosity and helped me reconnect with my father in a way I hadn’t imagined: our shared love of learning. I owe where I am today in large part to her. Thank you.

Only after these mentors, and a few others, helped me to stabilize, did I begin to let my friends and family back into my life in a real and meaningful way. They helped me grow beyond the loss, and find joy in the memory of my father. To all my friends, to JWDC, to TNDC, and especially to Waffle House, thank you all for your support over the years. Even if you didn’t know it, you have helped me in more ways than you will ever know.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I shared this deeply intimate story with you all. Who knows? Maybe I needed to get it off my chest. Maybe it’s the first thing that came to mind when we decided on “community” for our theme for our graduation speeches. Or maybe, just maybe, like Star Wars, there’s a deeper lesson to be learned.

Even if you have yet to experience hardship like this, you will. It is an inevitability. But I have three pieces of advice, based on what I learned from my own mistakes, that are useful for every step in life.

First, never, ever place your hope in yourself. You are all brilliant, strong and amazing people. These past 13 years have demonstrated that much at least. But you are never strong enough to live up to your own hope. I don’t advise placing your hope in your friends, family or mentors either; they’re just as human and fallible as you are.

But you do need community, and especially mentors. Mentors who don’t demand anything of you, who support you, and listen to you. Find people you can trust, who you won’t—or can’t—shut out. Maybe that’s a close friend, a parent, a sibling, a teacher, or someone not that close. Reach out to them. Mentors guide us, support us, love us, and, well, they mentor us. Their role is teacher, friend, and family. Seek them out and humbly listen to them.

Second, instead of trying to kill the past, remember it. By attempting to forget, or kill, your past, you let your worst moments define you. Rather than fighting the ghosts of your past and never moving forward, embrace it and remember the good and the bad. To accept and remember your past is the only way to ever truly grow beyond it and move into the future, full of hope and promise, both at college and beyond. Pain and heartache don’t define you, but remember how you got through them. Remember how your friends, family, and mentors got you through those dark times, and you will learn to appreciate all that they did for you.

I saved the best advice for last. As picture books, fortune cookies, Disney movies, and a humble carpenter tell us, do unto others as you want them to do to you. Give the good that you have received. Be a mentor to other people. As high school graduates, we are not qualified or capable of carrying the weight of the world for someone else. But like a crutch, we can bear with each other in the bad times simply by being there for someone. Listen to them, offer advice and help, but only when it is wanted. Spend time with those that need your help, not just as a therapist listening to their breakdowns, but as their friend spending time and enjoying it together. Help them reignite the passions that they have lost in their grief, not by ignoring the pain, but by walking through it together.

To be there for someone, as so many have been there for me, is a high order, but one that I fully believe all of us capable of. Not because it is easy, but because of the mentors who have walked and who will walk with you in your own struggles, you have been trained to fill their shoes one day.

For graduation speeches we were tasked with describing what the Mountain Brook community means to us. Maybe my story seems completely alien to you; maybe you’ve walked down a similar path. But it is Mountain Brook to me. It is my home, the community that has guided me, nurtured me, and mentored me since as long as I can remember. Now it’s our turn, Class of 2020, to begin to give back.

Ben Harris
Graduation Speaker

Dear Class of 2020,

Obviously, this is not how we envisioned the end of our high school careers going. We’ve spent the past 13 years together, and these last few weeks of senior year were supposed to be the perfect wrap up to that time. Although this is certainly a challenging time, I hope that that does not distract this Class of 2020 from the fact that we are achieving something great: we’re graduating. It hasn’t always been easy, but we made it here through hard work, dedication, and most importantly, because we stuck together.

When I look back over my many years at Mountain Brook and I think about the moments that had the biggest impact on my life, I don’t think about test grades or awards or homework assignments. I think about the friendships that I made over the years. And that is what makes this graduating class so extremely: the camaraderie. All of our students are unique with a wide variety of interests, and we as a class have achieved some pretty incredible things and have made it through some trying times.

But we didn’t achieve these things alone and we didn’t go through these trying times by ourselves. We all had friends and peers giving us encouragement and support throughout our endeavors. When one of us stumbles, the rest of us are right there to pick him back up. When one of us needs a hand, there are plenty waiting for them. That’s how it has been since we were in kindergarten, and that’s how it will be for the rest of our lives.

And yes, I know that we are all going our separate ways next year, but the friendships and the connections that we have made over these past 13 years will remain with us for the rest of our lives. No matter how far away we move or no matter where we end up down the road, we will always have this graduating Class of 2020 to fall back on. I am confident that every single member of this graduating class will go on to do amazing things, but just remember that true success is not measured by the number of trophies on your shelves or the amount of money in your wallet.

True success is measured by the love that you give to those around you. So, Class of 2020, as we all embark on the next chapter of our lives, I want you to know that no matter where you end up on your journey, you will always have this graduating class to fall back on.

John Nathan
Graduation Speaker

Dear Class of 2020,

I never would have expected the school year to end so abruptly. I was, as we all were, looking forward to activities and celebrations that we had seen the seniors years before us enjoy. I know that most of us had held out hope that school would resume after the three initial weeks of quarantine so that we could partake in those, but it didn’t. But just because we did not get to have those final moments and those closing memories doesn’t mean that it’s all just forgotten.

Despite it being cut short, I learned the most senior year, made many new friends, and grew into myself in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated. As co-editor of The Sword & Shield, I learned how to work new things and lead in ways that I never had the opportunity to before, and I’m so proud of everyone on the staff.

Being in charge of something as important as The Sword & Shield is a big responsibility, and my co-editor Isabel Elkus and I spent sophomore and junior year preparing for it. While we never could have foreseen the complications created by the coronavirus in the middle of our fifth issue, we also could have never foreseen the success we felt in finishing the ones we did. The hours spent after school in the newspaper room were worth it, and the whole staff should feel proud of what we did.

I’m so ready and excited to start the next part of my life, but times like these make me wish that I had appreciated it more. We’ll never get these times back, and we are leaving behind a whole part of our lives that is all most of us know. It’s strange, and it’s sad, but we can at least be grateful for the experiences we gained over our years at Mountain Brook. The friends we made, the incredible education we got, and the formative experiences we had over the past years. No matter where we end up, we have these to look back on. Though we didn’t get to properly mourn the end of our year, we still have what we need to get us through the next step, whatever that may be.

Emily Butler
Sword & Shield Co-Editor