Next week Anne Laurie Pierre will address her 500 classmates at Everett High School — most of whom haven’t been back inside a classroom since March 2020. As senior class president during a year when COVID-19 relegated school to the virtual space, her duties were drastically limited. But graduation will happen in-person at Everett High’s football stadium, and Pierre will take the stage.

She’s nervous.

“I'm not good at public speaking,” said Pierre. “When I'm in front of large crowds of people, I get really nervous and shaky and, uh, I'm just so nervous I might really mess up.”

For Pierre — who has chronicled her senior year since the first day of school via video diaries, texts and interviews as part of GBH News’ COVID and the Classroomseries — overcoming stage fright and crafting a message for a class that has survived a pandemic is just one more challenge.

“I draw inspiration actually, from my church, like they refer to people who pray all the time as ‘prayer warriors.’ And so, I feel like that's us, like defeating this pandemic and like pushing through,” she said. “I don't think I would have been here without prayer and faith and knowing that, like, God has something bigger for me. All I have to do is keep fighting, you know, and it's going to be rewarding at the end.”

Pierre battled the stagnation of sitting in front of a computer screen for endless hours, logging onto classes from a laptop in her bedroom and sometimes by phone as she picked up extra shifts at work to help her family make ends meet. Like so many in the city of Everett, where COVID-19 rates remained stubbornly in the red for most of the past year, she suffered deep losses. Last spring both her parents contracted COVID-19. Her father, a cancer survivor with a weakened immune system, passed away. Her mother recovered but since January has been undergoing treatment for leukemia. In April, Pierre donated bone marrow for her mother’s stem cell treatment.

If there is anyone suited to lead the battle cry to the class of 2021, it’s Pierre. And she knows she’s not the only one who made sacrifices and missed out on opportunities. Many of her classmates had to take on jobs to support their families during the pandemic, asking teachers to record their virtual classes so they could catch up later. These seniors have lost a lot but she wants them to know that they are stronger than they may realize.

“We couldn’t enjoy our last year of youth, our last year of, like, being careless and doing whatever we want. We had to grow up,” Pierre said. “I definitely want them to walk away with strength and knowing that they are warriors and, like, they fought a really hard battle.”

The graduating class of 2021 has experienced a staggering sense of loss, but with that perhaps a deeper understanding that best laid plans don’t always pan out.

“One thing that this pandemic taught us is that everything is temporary and to be ready for the unexpected. And so because of this whole pandemic, we are ready for the unexpected. And that's exactly what the real world is like after high school. You're entering the real world and, like, unexpected things will come your way. So I guess this prepared us,” Pierre said.

Pep rallies and proms aside, the simple pleasure of sharing their final months together were never in the cards for Everett High seniors. By the time the school opened for full in-person learning on May 11, many opted to finish their last few weeks at home. Pierre has returned to what she describes a “very empty” school but she understands why so many didn’t return.

The effortless routine of walking down the hall from one class to the next was replaced with tedium, uncertainty and constant adjustment. Burnout reared its head last fall. So many kids were failing, the school offered a week-long intensive program over April vacation to help students bring D’s and F’s up to a C.

A high-achieving student with a strong work ethic, Pierre also found the grind exhausting. And she missed being in the classroom.

“I am one of those students who was very interactive with the teachers and my peers and like asking questions, but virtual and just remote — it wasn't working for me and I found myself in class on some Zoom call, falling asleep and on my bed. And I know, like, once I stay on my bed, I can't really focus,” Pierre said. “And I need a chair, table. I need to be able to see that teacher and students around me. That wasn't the case and that affected me a lot.”

Despite the seemingly never ending slog, she achieved her goal to become the first in her family to go to college. And she was accepted to Howard University — a dream since the 6th grade. In the days leading up to Everett High’s June 9 graduation, Pierre looks back on the last 15 months with sobering gratitude, describing it as “a blessing and a curse.”

“We are a part of history. And this is something we're going to tell our grandkids and they're not going to believe us. But we lived through it. You know, we're going to have pictures. And it's been really tough for each and every person,” Pierre said. “And I know a lot of people have lost families and lost opportunities. And everybody, every single person believed that 2020 was going to be their year, was going to be full of opportunities. But we lost a lot. And that's hard.”