Graduation Caps Year of Heartache for Thomas Jefferson Seniors

Thomas Jefferson junior defender Eduardo Flores competes for the ball against a Woodrow Wilson player, in February 2019 in Addison.
Thomas Jefferson junior defender Eduardo Flores competes for the ball against a Woodrow Wilson player, in February 2019 in Addison. Jeffrey McWhorter
Eduardo Flores was looking forward to next week. He was looking forward to getting his cap and gown and sitting in a roomful of his friends, hearing his name called, walking across the stage and getting his diploma. He was looking forward to having proud family members take his picture.

Flores, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School, was looking forward to his high school graduation for all of the normal reasons, and a few of his own. As a young boy living in Monterrey, in the northeastern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, Flores skipped the last year of Mexico's three-year kindergarten program and went straight into elementary school. That meant he never got a kindergarten graduation.

Then, when he finished elementary school, his graduation ceremony was canceled because crews were remodeling and repairing damage to his school left by Hurricane Alex, which had battered Monterrey the previous summer.

This year, when he heard the news that he wouldn't get an in-person graduation ceremony this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Flores was hurt. He understands the dangers associated with large gatherings, but losing graduation didn't seem fair, he said.

"I feel like it's not what we deserve," he said.

TJ is scheduled to hold its graduation next week, online instead of in person. It's one final disappointment for a senior class that's spent its last year of high school moving from one heartache to the next.

In less than a year, students in the Thomas Jefferson High School class of 2020 have seen their school blown apart by a tornado, moved into a new school to finish out the year and then had to finish their high school careers from home when Dallas ISD closed its schools at the start of North Texas' coronavirus outbreak.

click to enlarge
Thomas Jefferson senior captain Eduardo Flores leads the team in stretches before a game against Harlan in the Governor's Elite Cup tournament, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, at Georgetown High School's Birkelbach Stadium in Georgetown, Texas.
Jeffrey McWhorter

'Knockout Hit'

Before the start of his senior year, Flores was looking forward to finishing his high school career strong. He was a captain on Thomas Jefferson's varsity soccer team and president of the school's chapter of National Honors Society. He was focused on making sure he did everything right so he could go on to college after graduation.

"I felt like my senior year was going to be the greatest year," he said.

Then, in October, an EF-3 tornado tore through Dallas, leaving heavy damage in neighborhoods near Dallas Love Field. No one was killed or even seriously injured, but the tornado badly damaged several schools in the area, including TJ, forcing the district to shut those schools down. The district moved students and teachers from TJ  to Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center in West Dallas, where they expected to finish out the year.

When he walked into Thomas Edison on the first day back after the tornado, Flores knew this wasn't going to be the senior year he'd hoped for. The school was about 10 miles away from TJ. The building was old and not quite big enough. And the school's soccer field was in bad shape, he said.

Flores felt like everything was collapsing under him. Still, in the back of his mind, there was hope, he said. Even if the year didn't look like he'd expected, he hoped he could finish his high school career well.

But then, just before spring break, Flores got the news that the entire school district would have to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not long after that, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that every school in the state would remain closed for the remainder of the year.

With the shutdowns came the cancellation of everything else that was supposed to go with the rest of the school year — prom, senior lock-in and, most devastatingly for Flores, in-person graduation ceremonies. That was the end of Flores' hopes for a senior year that looked anything like normal.

"It was a knockout hit to that last hope," he said.

click to enlarge
A cleanup crew sorts through the rubble of Thomas Jefferson High School’s baseball field, which was destroyed by an EF-3 tornado, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Dallas. Two days before, at TJ's homecoming football game, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones pledged $1 million to rebuild TJ's athletic facilities.
Jeffrey McWhorter
Before the tornado, TJ was having a better-than-average year, said Principal Sandi Massey. The school had seen remarkable progress over the previous three years, climbing from one of the district's worst-performing schools to one of its best. During that time, the school's culture had changed almost completely, Massey said. Now, students thought more seriously about what they wanted out of their lives. They talked about their college dreams, hopes of learning trades after graduation or plans to join the military.

"We were all on such a high," she said.

When students came back after the tornado, everything was different, she said. Teachers didn't have basic classroom supplies. There were problems getting students to and from school. And the new school wasn't big enough for the roughly 1,700 students enrolled at TJ.

For the first couple of weeks, teachers and students were running on adrenaline, Massey said. Everyone was so focused on dealing with immediate problems that there wasn't time to grieve what had happened or worry about what came next.

In December, just a few weeks after students returned after the tornado, the school still had to give students mid-year exams. Nearly everyone knew the results wouldn't be good, Massey said. Students had just had their entire lives disrupted, and teachers still didn't have things like calculators for algebra classes, bilingual dictionaries for students who were learning English and instructional technology that teachers relied on every day before the tornado.

click to enlarge
Thomas Jefferson Principal Sandi Massey high fives students as they arrive at Thomas A. Edison Learning Center, where the school was relocated three days after their building on Walnut Hill Lane was severely damaged by a tornado on Oct. 23.
Jeffrey McWhorter
The results were as bad as expected. Massey felt like the tornado had wiped out years of progress. It was humiliating, she said. Months later, she still gets emotional talking about it.

As bad as the results were, Massey thinks they were also a wake-up call for TJ. School leaders talked to teachers and students about what they needed to do going forward. They made sure everyone understood that going through a major challenge wasn't an excuse not to do their best.

The first few weeks of the spring semester were magical, Massey said. Students buckled down and got back to work. Almost immediately, they were doing better in nearly every subject. That progress continued right up until spring break, when the district announced that when students returned from the break, they would be going to class online. It was one more major disruption in a year that was already full of them.

"We just need a do-over," Massey said.

click to enlarge
Thomas Jefferson junior Judith Salazar runs during the district track meet on April 4, 2019, at Standridge Stadium in Carrollton.
Jeffrey McWhorter

'Everything can change'

Judith Salazar, a senior at TJ and a four-sport athlete, said there were a few special moments during the year. The volleyball team's senior night was in late October, just days after the tornado. The team had to play the game at Forester Athletic Complex in southeast Dallas, miles away from both Thomas Edison and the neighborhoods around TJ where most students live.

Because of the distance, the game had a smaller crowd than usual, Salazar said. But it was still meaningful to see parents and friends in the stands. And the team's opponent that night, Highland Park High School, donated sports equipment to replace what the team had lost in the tornado.

But then, months later, just before spring break, Salazar came to school one day and teachers were handing out online class schedules, Google classroom codes and laptops in case they weren't able to come back to school after spring break. That made Salazar anxious. It felt like everything was about to be disrupted again.

click to enlarge
Thomas Jefferson Principal Sandi Massey affixes a sign to her trunk before passing out homemade pastries to teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week in front of the school’s temporary campus on May 8. The school was displaced after their building was catastrophically damaged by an Oct. 20 tornado then suffered another blow with the coronavirus outbreak in March.
Jeffrey McWhorter
Having a tornado and a global pandemic happen during her senior year has been hard to take, Salazar said. She'd been looking forward to her senior year for years, even during elementary school. Many of the things she'd been looking forward to had to be canceled, and many of the ones that still happened looked far different from what she expected.

As much as the tornado and the pandemic did disrupt this year, Salazar isn't letting them derail her academic career. She plans to go to Texas Woman's University in the fall to study kinesiology.

If any good came out of this year, Salazar said she thinks it's that it taught her how to be independent and carry herself when things are hard. When it feels like things are getting out of hand, as they did any number of times this year, she knows she just needs to push through and find a way to adapt.

Another thing she learned is how quickly things can change. Last summer, she was looking forward to volleyball games, college visits, prom and graduation. But she's finishing her year in a world that's drastically different than the one she knew just months ago.

Flores, the other TJ senior, said he's also determined not to let an almost unimaginably bad senior year disrupt his plans for the future. Flores plans to go to Austin College in Sherman in the fall, where he'll study business and play soccer. Eventually, he wants to be a professional soccer player.

After this year, Flores understands how important it is to take advantage of every opportunity and take his moments of joy and happiness where he can find them. Because, he said, it's impossible to know what will happen next.

"Everything can change in a matter of a second," he said.

click to enlarge
Eduardo Flores hugs his girlfriend Hannia Zavala at TJ's Sadie Hawkins dance in 2018.
Jeffrey McWhorter
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Silas Allen has been the Dallas Observer's news editor since March 2019. Before coming to Dallas, he worked as a reporter and editor at the Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. He's a Missouri native and a graduate of the University of Missouri.
Contact: Silas Allen

Latest Stories