By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — The coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has spread rapidly throughout every nook and cranny around the world. It has disrupted life as we knew it and, in Memphis, the rite of passage for high school graduates.
Eighteen-year-old Brienna Cooper finished her senior year at Southwind High School with a 3.8 GPA. But she was
quite upset when the senior class was informed that all senior activities had ceased rather than risk the spread of COVID-19.
“The only thing we got a chance to do was have our senior breakfast, and after that, it was nothing,” said Brienna Cooper, who was scheduled to graduate May 23 at FedEx Forum in Memphis.
Graduation, however, hasn’t been a total bust for the Class of 2020. Telisa Franklin, owner of Flowers and More and other businesses, created a page on Facebook called “Memphis Class of 2020.”
The page is a collection of stories and senior photos celebrating the accomplishments of graduating seniors from Shelby County Schools. Over a thousand members – students, parents and well-wishers – have joined the page.
“There are a lot of underprivileged schools,” Franklin surmised. “There are only stories of the valedictorian and the salutatorian. On this page, the students are all in this together.”
Franklin’s own son, 13-year-old Charles Edward Earl, was the source of inspiration that compelled her to honor graduating seniors. He had finished eighth grade at Elmore Park Middle School, but he, too, would not experience graduation before moving on to ninth grade at Bartlett Academy.
“I woke up one Friday morning when Charles was passing to the ninth grade and realized that the school would not be holding graduation,” Franklin said. “So, if I’m missing out on his graduation to high school, I know others feel the same way.”
Debra and Alan Cooper certainly felt that way. But COVID-19 dashed their hopes of celebrating Brienna’s achievements and her rite of passage from high school to Middle Tennessee State University to study nursing.
“I was upset about it, because she worked hard,” said Debra Cooper, a nursing assistant and mother of two other children as well. That pivotal moment for Brienna Cooper would have to wait for now.
Belinda and Joe Franklin were disappointed. Their only child, Joshua Franklin, will not be walking across the stage just yet to accept his diploma from G.W. Carver College and Career Academy.
A registered nurse, Belinda Franklin had talked to her son about graduation and the pandemic that brought everything to a screeching halt. Then she concluded the school was right for shutting down.
“For the sake of everybody, I understood,” she said.
“At first when this happened, I was sad. I know I did everything I could. I put my best foot forward,” said Joshua Franklin, a biochemistry major with a 4.0 GPA. Then he added: “We never had our senior trip or prom.”
Joshua Franklin will be heading to Tennessee State University in the fall. But he is unsure if the university will return
to normal just in case he has to stay on campus or if he would have to take virtual classes.
Whatever happens, COVID-19 won’t stop Joshua Franklin from pursuing a career in science. “Biochemistry is so broad,” he said. “So I would like to become a pathologist or a toxicologist.”
Shelby County Schools, which is home to over 100,000 students in more than 200 schools, has contingency plans to hold traditional graduation ceremonies in July, which is tentatively set between July 13-26.
Of course, the District will abide by city or state health and safety regulations to ensure the safety of graduates. If this doesn’t work, SCS will have a backup plan to conduct virtual graduating ceremonies.
Until then, Franklin will continue to host the “Memphis Class of 2020.”
“She did more than the schools when they closed,” Debra Cooper said of Franklin. “It is such a good idea.”