Saturday, May 25, 2024

These students survived a wildfire — and graduated into a pandemic


Paradise High School valedictorian Katie-Lynn Chandler delivered her graduation speech to empty bleachers and a row of cars parked along the school’s running track. A crown of white flowers was wrapped around her white graduation cap. She was flanked by a row of school staff standing at least six feet apart on the football field. She’d taken off her surgical mask to speak at the podium — she was the only person on the field not wearing one.

“Many people say that today’s the day that we start our journey. I disagree,” Chandler said. “Our journey began a long time ago. Today just happens to be the day that the path we’ve been traveling on splits.”

For the second year in a row, graduation at Paradise High School became a tribute to triumph over disaster. The tight-knit small town — where many seniors have taken classes together since kindergarten — was almost entirely razed by the Camp Fire in 2018. It was the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California’s history. Then, COVID-19 upended the school year, and seniors once again graduated into a world that looked very different than it did when the year began.

For the class of 2020, even the near future is a question mark. The pandemic has already taken over 100,000 lives in the US and no one can predict when it — or the economic collapse in its wake — will end. Temperatures are soaring to record highs, an ominous sign for the coming fire season. Persevering through compounded crises is the new rite of passage for graduates across the US. The town of Paradise, California just happened to have an early baptism by fire.

Paradise graduates are already wary of what might come next. “First it was the Camp Fire and then now with this pandemic I’m wondering what next year’s disaster will be,” Chandler tells The Verge. “We’re like the most resilient group of people I know.” In some ways, Paradise is a glimpse into what might be a new normal for many of us: a cycle of upheaval, followed by adrenaline-fueled hope, exhaustion, and, ultimately, adaptation.

Chandler and her mom had moved to Paradise less than five months before the November 2018 Camp Fire broke out. Like the town, she’d been through her share of difficult transitions, moving from Hawaii to the Philippines and Virginia throughout her school career. Chandler’s dad fell ill and died in 2016, sparking some of the family’s moves.

Paradise was another fresh start. Her mom took a job nearby caring for people with developmental disabilities in an adult care home. Chandler enrolled at Paradise High School. She worried about fitting in and making friends, but that turned out not to be a problem for the upbeat teen.

Much of Chandler’s hopeful message on graduation day could have been part of any other senior’s speech. She remembered cheering her loudest at football games, dressing up for spirit days, and made a shout-out to her friends, family, and teachers. Other memories could only be shared by Paradise’s class of 2020. They made it through the Camp Fire, she said. And then there was the pandemic. But it’s clear that’s not what defines them. And how could it, when there were so many challenges still ahead? “After all of the accomplishments we’ve made in the face of adversity, I believe there is nothing that can stop us,” she said.

The Camp Fire burns in the hills on November 10, 2018 near Ororville, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Eighty-five people died in the Camp Fire, sparked by deteriorating PG&E power lines; 18,804 homes and buildings burned. Roughly nine of every ten Paradise High students lost their homes; Chandler was among those whose homes burned. The care facility where her mother worked was also destroyed. She and her mother rent a room in a house from the person who owned the place where Chandler’s mother had worked.

The high school is one of the few structures in town that wasn’t reduced to ash. “When you’re at school walking through halls, you’re not reminded of the fire all the time,” says its principal, Michael Ervin, who also lost his family’s home to the blaze. “It’s when you leave school and you drive through town you are.”

Senior Eric Helton, who became one of Chandler’s closest friends, lost more than his home after the fire tore through Paradise. Helton moved in with his grandparents after the fire damaged his home beyond repair, but more tragedy followed. His grandfather was living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which attacks nerves in the brain and spinal cord, progressively weakening muscles over time. His grandfather’s health deteriorated as he struggled with the soot in the air from the fires, Helton says, and he died soon after.

By the time the 2019-2020 school year rolled around, the students of Paradise High School thought the worst was behind them. “We all had this kind of shared loss, so we were all able to come together in ways that we hadn’t quite been able to before,” Helton says. August 15th was the students’ first day back on campus since the fire, which had pushed their classes online the previous December. In the months after, they moved into an empty office space in a mall, and then into a warehouse.

“It was kind of like a relief, trying to get back to a sense of normalcy after everything that we’ve been through,” Chandler tells The Verge. In a photo taken on August 15th, Chandler poses in front of posters reading, “Welcome home cats,” “better together,” and “Make your mark, 2020 has the spark!” She’s decked out in her school colors: a thick bundle of green and yellow Mardi Gras beads is wrapped around her neck and handprints in green and yellow paint cover her legs below her green skirt. She’s smiling, kicking her right foot behind her as she reaches out with both arms — a pose of excitement. The nerves she felt as a new kid the year before were gone. “It just really felt nice to be back home on campus,” she says.

But even though the school was intact, things weren’t exactly normal. A gaggle of reporters pressed students for interviews and photos. The district had lost about half its students, and Helton noticed that some teachers had gone with them. “No one was in the classrooms that they used to be in. So that was pretty weird,” he says.

Fire season was back, too. To prevent their power lines from sparking another hellfire, PG&E preemptively shut off power for many of its customers in September — including Paradise High School, which was shuttered for several days. But as intermittent blackouts dragged on for weeks, students came back to learn by lantern light.

“The fire seasons are always a worry up here, but especially now,” says Helton. That’s because the blackouts left health care facilities and people reliant on powered medical equipment in the lurch. “It’s just a challenging kind of lesser of two evils situation,” he says.

By March, fire season and the blackouts were over, and a new crisis was looming. The novel coronavirus was already making its way through cities like Seattle and San Francisco. But that still felt far away, and the virus was, at first, little more than fodder for casual jokes on campus.

“We didn’t think it would hit us here,” Chandler says. On Friday, March 13th, she and her friends picked up burritos off campus to bring back for lunch that day. “We sat in the school parking lot, kind of tailgating and kicking it back and just having some fun,” she says.

That day, Chandler made posters reminding students to wear bright colors for the upcoming “Kindness Week” her leadership class had planned. “Kindness comes in all colors,” was the slogan. The first day was scheduled for the following Monday, when students would be encouraged to wear blue to “cure the Monday blues.”

While the students decorated posters and had picnics in the parking lots, the teachers fretted. Stacie Martin, the teacher for the leadership class and high school yearbook class, figured the school year wouldn’t finish as planned. She sped up deadlines, worried that each opportunity to gather could be their last. “We had just the day before finished our last sports pictures and I pushed it because I was afraid that this was coming,” Martin, who has taught at Paradise for 27 years, says.

The yearbook theme for 2020 is “Coming Home.” Students found out over the weekend that they wouldn’t be coming back on Monday, the 16th. “That last Friday, I didn’t even realize that would have been my last normal Friday of school,” Chandler says.

A press release from Butte County Office of Education stating their decision to extend the closure of schools.
Butte County Office of Education

Paradise, in some ways, was better prepared for the pandemic than most schools, since this wasn’t the first catastrophe to shut it down. Even though the campus was spared by the Camp Fire, the surrounding damage posed too many hazards to bring students back right away. Scorched trees could have fallen at any moment, and officials weren’t sure if running water at the school was safe to drink. Teachers took their classes online and other school districts donated Chromebooks to Paradise students that they continued to use through the following school year.

Even with the practice of running online classes, the switch was still difficult. Large parts of the county are rural, and not all of the students had reliable internet access. Though the Paradise Unified School District handed out internet hotspots, there are few cellular towers — so the signal on the hotspots was spotty. Helton says he lives in an internet “dead zone,” so the Wi-Fi cuts out frequently. “All the service companies call us a black hole or something like that,” Helton says.

What really weighed on the minds of Martin and other parents and faculty The Verge spoke to, though, was how the kids were holding up emotionally. “You’re so busy balancing [the] emotions of the kids,” says Amy Sperske, the mother of a senior at Paradise. “Even as an adult, it [takes] everything in our power to be motivated every day to keep going, when just another thing is thrown at you.”

Martin kept a group text going with her leadership class, which plans school events. They held virtual spirit weeks in an attempt to stay connected and have some fun. Instead of wearing pajamas to school, students posted selfies to social media.

Still, isolation during the pandemic split up the community in ways the Camp Fire didn’t. After the blaze pushed students from their homes and classrooms last school year, they still went to game nights, a bowling night, and a skating night Martin coordinated. Under the governor’s order to shelter in place during the pandemic, they couldn’t even hang out with each other. “I really found a way to be of service last time, because I found a way to bring kids together. And this has been a lot more challenging for me and my class,” Martin says.

Chandler is anxiously waiting to take her driver’s license test, which was supposed to be in April but was postponed. A local church group started a fundraiser to help her get a car. Meanwhile, Chandler calls Helton, “My ride, my Uber … one of my biggest supporters and best friends.”

“I really didn’t ever see myself really abandoning Paradise High School for another high school,” Helton says. That’s why Helton and other seniors held out hope for an in-person graduation. The school initially planned for commencement ceremonies by appointment, with ten students graduating at a time while they and their families distanced themselves from each other to limit the spread of COVID-19. A smaller class size of roughly 120 students, almost half of what it was last year, would make that easier to do.

That was the plan, until a church nearby broke the shelter-in-place mandate to hold Mother’s Day service on May 10th. One of the people who attended tested positive for COVID-19 soon after, scaring health officials across the county. After an excruciating waiting period, the state health department informed the school that all commencement ceremonies across the state needed to be held virtually or in cars. The plans were finalized on May 22nd — a little more than a week before graduation.

“I just feel for the kids, because it’s not what it’s supposed to be for them. And they’ve put in 13 years’ worth of school to get to this senior moment,” says Ervin, whose son graduated this year, too.

The next school year will begin during fire season, which is getting longer and more severe because of climate change. When it comes to living with disaster day to day, Chandler says she’s had to learn to “go with the flow.” She even seems to have a mantra. Over the course of a phone call, she says something along the lines of, “There’s only so much that is in our control” three times.

The Camp Fire meant the pandemic’s anxiety wasn’t new to Paradise residents. “That’s kind of how we’ve been living the whole time: on edge, stressed, trying to figure out life. And now everybody else is getting a piece,” says Sperske. “You get tired, honestly. It’s really hard to keep building everybody up all the time, just because we’ve already been doing it.”

Graduation day was a moment for the class of 2020 to pause and celebrate. On June 1st and 2nd, Principal Michael Ervin presided over 12 back-to-back drive-thru graduation ceremonies. Each ceremony lasted an hour and celebrated 10 students. Cars parked on the school’s running track, labeled “Bobcat territory” for the school’s mascot, and surrounded a small stage set up on the center field.

Ervin was already sunburned and exhausted. He’d attended promotion ceremonies for Paradise’s eighth graders — managed in much the same way: limited groups, cars, multiple celebrations — on May 21st and 22nd. He elicited cheers anyway with his unyielding enthusiasm (“Way to go, Bobcats!”) well into his fourth full day presiding over ceremonies in the sunshine.

Helton and Chandler walked across the football field to receive their green diploma covers on June 1st. Horns blared; one family of onlookers stood to cheer them on from the flatbed of a parked pickup truck. The track was spotted with confetti that graduates and their families fired from small cannons.

Katie-Lynn Chandler and Eric Helton graduated from Paradise High School on June 1st, 2020. Chandler will attend California State University, Chico in the fall. Helton will attend the University of California, Davis.

“I’m proud of all my graduating classes, but this one holds a special place in my heart,” Principal Ervin, who has been a principal in Paradise schools for over two decades, said to the seniors. “It’s been two years of awkwardness and disaster and ugh … You have been through more than any other class that I’ve ever been with, and you have impressed me more with each day.”

In the fall, Chandler will be a freshman at nearby California State University, Chico. Helton will be off to the University of California, Davis, and he hopes to go on to medical school after that. Sperske’s daughter will attend the University of California, Irvine in the fall. They don’t know yet if they’ll be on their college campuses or still attending classes from their bedrooms.

Despite the uncertainty about the future, Chandler struck a defiant note in her speech. “We are unstoppable,” she said. “We’ve accomplished incredible things, and we’ll continue to do so. As we all continue in our lives, let us take each problem on with confidence.” Then she stepped away from the podium smiling and threw both hands up in the air as the crowd cheered. Back home, she snapped another photo in her signature pose: arms up and out with one leg kicking back. But this time she raised her hands overhead and stretched out her fingertips to reach even higher.

Ebenezer Robbins
Ebenezer Robbins
Introvert. Beer guru. Communicator. Travel fanatic. Web advocate. Certified alcohol geek. Tv buff. Subtly charming internet aficionado.

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