On an evening in early June, Joviana Duhaney was surprised to find herself inside a gorgeous mansion, crowned her high school’s prom queen.
“People were coming up to me and they were like, ‘Jovi, I voted for you,’ and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? I’m not running for anything.” She didn’t even know where or how to vote — she was too busy having a good time.
For the students of Lawrence High School, prom at the Pen Ryn Estate in Pennsylvania was a light at the end of the tunnel. The pandemic had made them antsy to be social again, but the idea of a dance was inconceivable a year before. It felt like a miracle that they could gather again on a dance floor.
Even those who would typically skip an event like prom were excited to attend, and Joviana was happy to see so many of her classmates there. “I don’t like when people think they’re better than school festivities, like participating in spirit week or things like that,” she said. “I’m just like, ‘You’re so corny.’ For me, that’s more corny than people who participate, because we’re all 18 — it’s fun!” Students at the New Jersey high school missed out on homecoming and the winter dance due to the pandemic. Prom was their last opportunity to celebrate how far they had come in the past year.
Of course, Joviana and her friends aren’t the only students who had their school year radically interrupted. Early on in the pandemic, 93 percent of parents reported that their children were engaging in some form of distance learning, while the New York Times reported that 72 percent of high school age students struggled with their mental health this year. Across the country, schools closed, milestone events were canceled, and students found themselves isolated from one another. It was a particularly difficult time to be a high school senior, with college decisions on the horizon and the real world looming, while so many uncertainties lingered in the air.
Joviana will be leaving Lawrence behind in the fall, heading to Northeastern University. Before shopping for her dorm or even planning her trip to Boston, she did the first thing incoming freshmen need to do in 2021: get vaccinated.
She is concerned, though, about the unknown: variants, mask mandates lifting, and the general obstacles of being a member of the class of 2025, a group that will attend school in the “aftermath” of the pandemic. “The CDC has done too much switching up,” she said. “It gives me heart palpitations, like what is wrong with y’all? They be weird.”
“I know people that have died. I have friends that lost their grandparents to it. One of my aunt’s neighbors said, ‘Covid is a hoax, blah, blah, blah.’ His dad died from Covid,” she said. “You could be a conspiracy theorist all you want about what the virus is. But to deny that it’s here? No babes, it’s here. It’s real.”
As an essential worker, she’s seen the impact of Covid-19 up close. At the beginning of the pandemic, Joviana worked at CVS. Currently, she works at Target. Customers were often rude, impatient, panicky. Everyone was on edge. “Every time we get a text that a team member has caught it, my heart drops to my stomach,” she said. And while New Jersey was one of the first states to require mask usage indoors, she and her coworkers constantly had to deal with customers who refused to wear them. It was stressful to work through such an unstable moment in time.
What she saw on the job informed her politics — she’s in favor of raising the minimum wage, and at one point suggested that medical workers would do well to unionize, noting that employees were unlikely to receive better pay or protections without a work stoppage. When it comes to the question of if the future English major will become a teacher, she’s unsure yet if it’ll be her path, but is passionate about the necessity of Black teachers. “Why would you turn your nose up at that?” she asks of those who discouraged her from going into education. “People are just weird. Everything is always about money.”
For now, Joviana likes her job, but she’s not sure if she can stomach it much longer. After all, this is her last summer before everything changes — why waste it away directing customers to the cereal aisle when she could spend it with friends?
The social politics of high school are not any less confusing or freighted just because the year has been defined by global catastrophe. Take, for example, the microdrama that ensued between Joviana and her prom date, Warren Aime, a few weeks before the event. Joviana is stubborn and unapologetically self-assured. She had no problem making it clear that she required a promposal.
Over the years, many teachers assumed that Joviana and Warren were dating, but their relationship has always been strictly platonic. When Joviana moved from North Carolina to New Jersey in sixth grade, the pair instantly became best friends and have been ever since. “When we argue, we argue. We’re beefing. One of us has to suck it up and call the other when we’re arguing,” she said. “He gets in his little moods where he thinks that he knows everything. That doesn’t go well for people like me,” she laughed.
“I said that if he didn’t prompose to me, I wasn’t going to prom with him,” she said. While some of her friends felt she was being unreasonable, Joviana was undeterred. “I said, ‘No, you’re going to take me to prom properly.’” When he eventually surprised her with a handmade poster and her favorite snacks, she of course said yes. But Warren had always planned on formally asking her to prom — he just wanted to throw her off the scent.
It was a moment of normalcy in a very not-normal year. At first, the pandemic didn’t seem like a big deal to Joviana. Like everyone else, she doubted that the virus would spread widely, and did not think at all that it would be so deadly. She realized how serious it was in early March in Jamaica, where she and her family had traveled for her grandmother’s funeral. She checked her phone and saw terrifying headlines: the stock market was crashing, cases were rapidly rising, and her school was closing down. Her family realized they had to get home, and fast. Upon her return, she was met with busywork from school, but nothing palpable outside an occasional Zoom call or Google meet-up. All she really had going on was work.
On the afternoon of prom, Joviana got ready at her home. Her mother helped her as she applied stick-on jewels along her forehead and curled her hair. Warren came up to her room for the first time maybe ever — they usually hang out at this house, but this was a special day. “I was so nervous that his suit was not going to match me,” she said. It worked out though — the iridescent rhinestones on her dress complemented the sheen of the paisley design on his jacket beautifully.
In her friend group, she’s the planner of the bunch. Joviana organized pre-prom and post-prom for about 20 of her friends, most of whom attended solo. She and Warren were the only pair to come as dates. They took photos outdoors, embraced their friends, joked, squabbled, and headed off to the big night. The pair made a quick stop at Wendy’s before making their way to the venue. Always thinking one step ahead, Joviana knew the pasta portions at prom would be slim. She was correct.
The music was okay as far as proms go, but one of the most memorable parts of the evening was when the DJ played a song by Warren, who makes music under the name YLN WA. “His music is not bad. Sometimes it can be crazy. I have a video of him jumping and getting the crowd hyped,” she said. Between all the dancing and catching up with friends, Joviana didn’t even realize that she was on prom court.
It’s not that she felt she didn’t have the credentials to be prom queen. As a member of her high school’s Model UN club, the Big Brother Big Sister program, the Black student union, and student leadership, she spent her high school years as a visible participant in the student body.
She’d earned her fair share of goodwill, too — teachers and peers alike found her to be charismatic, kind, and beautiful. Yet, she tends to take praise with a grain of salt. She admits that sometimes, the love she has been embraced with at Lawrence High can feel a little fake. “I don’t feel like that all the time, and I don’t want to complain, but sometimes I feel like people just like me by association, because other people like me,” she explained. That doesn’t faze Joviana too much though. “But everyone was just so happy that I won, and it made me feel so loved and appreciated.”
On the last day of school, Joviana found herself surprised again; this time, to be shedding a few tears. “I was always team ‘I’m not going to cry,’” she admitted.
At the start of her freshman year of high school, she felt bored in advance by the fact that she would spend four long years there. Now, she finds that the time flew by. Prom night made her realize how much she’ll miss her old life. But she has to keep moving forward.
“It’s so interesting the way the cookie crumbles. Everybody I know that was so intent on going far and getting out? They all stayed here,” she said. “I didn’t have that mentality. I knew I’d end up where I was supposed to be.” Joviana wasn’t set on going to school out of state, but Northeastern felt like a fit after just one visit. She tried to avoid putting any schools on a pedestal, a habit that often burns would-be freshmen. “I was more thinking, ‘Where am I going to go that’s going to match my energy?’”
The way Joviana made her college decision was a bit unlike the processes of her peers. For one thing, she didn’t care for advice from people who said she should attend certain schools just because they were harder to get into. She also wasn’t interested in going to school down South — she likes her life to be faster-paced. She’s heard of students who purposely didn’t apply to northern schools at all, the thinking being that they could possibly be shut down during the fall of 2021. Nobody wanted to lose another school year. According to a national survey of 2,400 students, 80 percent of high school juniors and seniors say the pandemic affected their after-graduation plans.
She imagines that her life in Boston will hold her closer than her suburban life did. “Everyone’s like, ‘You’re going to see your friends in the summertime,’ and I’m not. I’m not coming home,” she told me. It’s not that she doesn’t love home or that she won’t miss her family — she just has one of those hunches again. “I’m going to find an internship. I’m going to study abroad. There’s nothing tying me here. I don’t have a relationship with anybody. I’m going to spend these next four years, and I’m going to live my life while I don’t have any responsibilities for real. You won’t catch me in Lawrence.”
Of course, anything can happen. Change is constant, and she intends to lean into it. After all, she and her peers are familiar with thinking things will go one way and then being left dumbfounded, a little heartbroken, but most of all, hopeful. The pandemic left a generation of students with a deluge of things to worry about, but maybe soon, they can heal from the isolation and the confusion of the pandemic. The fall will hold a new start — masks will come off, vaccinations will have gone into arms, and students will be able to explore their academic and social lives again, even if everything is different now. With brave faces, this class of students will take on a changed world.
Joviana does have her concerns, though: Where will she get her hair braided in Boston? She’s only visited her new city once before; was it a mistake to be so sure of herself? Will she be able to bear the cold winters? Not to mention the expenses that will come with her new life. After all, cities, and subsequently their institutions, are not cheap to experience. She’s heard that the Black community in Boston is a strong and vocal one, and she’s hoping that’s true. She admits she is actually a little nervous about college, in the way that all kids are the summer before it happens. Plus, the pandemic has amplified some of those worries. “It might sound corny, but the idea that things really actually might go back to normal is not as comforting as I thought it would be a year ago. It’s like, pump the brakes, whoa. We’re going to be in a dorm, on top of each other, all the time,” she said. It will be an adjustment for sure.
“I’ve been nostalgic, but not that nostalgic. It’s high school,” she said, shrugging. “I wouldn’t change anything. Covid sucked, but for me, at least, I feel like without that, maybe I would have been in a different spot. I’m glad it’s over, I’m sad it’s over, but it was time for a change. I’m excited for the next chapter in my life. I’m excited for everyone else around me to do what they’ve been wanting to do.”
Hannah Yoon is an independent Korean-Canadian photographer based in Philadelphia.