Katie Elder got just a few normal months of high school before the fire came.
It was early November of 2018, her freshman year. Her mom woke her up around 7 a.m., and Katie began to get ready for what she thought would be a normal school day. Then they stepped outside and saw an orange sky. She felt the wind gust.
“We’ve lived in California all our lives. We’ve been around fires,” the now-18-year-old told me over the phone. “When you’re seeing sky like that and you’re feeling those winds, you know that you don’t have very much time.”
Katie and her family grabbed what pets and things they could and left their house for what would be the last time. Their home was destroyed, as was most of the town—lost to the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive fire to date.
[Read: A deadly tsunami of fire]
The rest of freshman year was a blurry scramble. Katie’s school, Paradise High, was partially damaged and closed. That December, displaced students began classes—first in a former mall, then in a location nicknamed “The Fortress,” as the building was located on Fortress Street.
At the beginning of Katie’s sophomore year, the Paradise campus reopened, and students were able to return. If these were normal times, the story would end here: The Camp Fire alone could have been the disaster that defined Katie’s formative years. But then, during her sophomore spring, came the coronavirus pandemic.
This past June, Paradise High School held a very normal-looking graduation ceremony, complete with caps, gowns, speeches, flowers, and diplomas. But this wasn’t a normal graduating class. In fact, in recent years, no senior class really has been: Each has dealt with its own particular mix of disaster. The class of 2019 was defined by the fire; the classes of 2020 and 2021 got both that and the pandemic.
What sets Paradise’s class of 2022 apart is that they never got a single normal year of high school. Freshman year, they were handed the fire; sophomore year, COVID lockdowns; junior year, hybrid school; and senior year—the most normal, relatively speaking—they still had to contend with masking and all the other ways that COVID continues to disrupt life. Now they are newly minted adults, heading off to college and their first full-time jobs, having never gotten two consecutive semesters of just boring, unremarkable high school.
[Meira Levinson and Daniel Markovits: The biggest disruption in the history of American education]
Sydney Pruis, another member of the PHS class of 2022, explains it this way: “It’s like our feet are ripped out from under us, and we’re just falling. And it seems like the falling never ends.”
By the time the second major disaster arrived, the students were still living with the consequences of the first. Every person from Paradise whom I talked with for this story lost their home in the fire. Much of the town remained closed for months during cleanup, leaving families to shuffle among various housing situations. The school’s principal said that he was unable to find a place to live and departed.
“I had lived in the same house since I was 2,” Abby Boutelle, another 2022 grad, told me. “And then, all of a sudden, I’ve lived in, like, three houses, and it’s like …” She made an exasperated noise.
A new principal, Michael Ervin, arrived in the fall of 2019. “I was probably as damaged walking into here as the kids were,” he told me. Ervin had lived in the town for more than 20 years before the fire, having married into a longtime Paradise family. He and his wife lost their home, as did much of his wife’s extended family.
“People understand the whole town burned to the ground and how devastating that is. What most people don’t know is these kids—these families—lost their support groups,” he explained. “My friends moved. Everybody scattered.”
When COVID hit during Sydney’s sophomore year, her family was living in two trailers on the property where her home once stood. She did remote school in the smaller, travel-size trailer while her brother joined in from the bigger one. “Oh, great, now I’m stuck in a trailer,” she thought to herself.
Katie and her family were also living in trailers, but hers had no water or electricity. She said that the school offered hot spots for students without Wi-Fi so that they could attend virtual class—but that her only access to electricity was via a single extension cord. She bounced between relatives’ houses to use their power and internet. She told me that she’d always had anxiety, but that the pandemic made it a lot worse.
Ervin, who’d been principal only for about six months at that point, continued to work from the school’s empty campus. He said that they trained staff in social-emotional learning, or SEL: “Our first focus has got to be checking in with kids: ‘How are you doing today? How are things going? Do you have food? Do you have water?’”
Junior year, the teens returned to campus on a hybrid model that divided the school into two rotating groups, where half received in-person instruction each day while the other half stayed home and did homework. (Friday was remote for everyone.) Senior year, the entire class of 2022 could finally be in the same building again—but with rules about masking. Only this spring did the masks come off. Aiden Luna, who also just graduated, told me that he really enjoyed his senior spring and that if all of high school had been like that last semester, “I think it would have been absolutely just super fun.”
The disruptions piled up beyond home and academia. Aiden made the varsity football team as a freshman, but two of his four seasons were cut short. Sydney, likewise, got just two normal years of soccer. Katie sang, but says she shuffled through multiple choir directors. Abby joked that it’s impossible to put together a junior-year yearbook when only half your class is present on any given day. They celebrated senior prom, and Katie says that, although she has nothing else to compare it to, the dance was “just like the movies.” Ervin, the principal, told me that the kids had a blast.
I asked a few experts what kind of psychological effects they would expect these paired disasters to have on the students—as well as how it may affect their development. After all, high school is supposed to be a formative time, a kind of dress rehearsal for adulthood. What might so many stops and starts in their teen years do to a person? Although the Paradise High School graduates’ specific challenges are unique, they aren’t the only students of their generation who will face the mental-health consequences of remote school and a burning world.
“My research shows that most people are resilient to anything,” George A. Bonanno, a psychology professor at Columbia University and the author of the book The End of Trauma, told me. Bonanno said that his team reviewed 25 years’ worth of studies on war, disasters, and more and found that the majority of people end up basically okay: “I would imagine a lot of these kids are going to be just fine.” But a minority will struggle from the get-go and do worse with each new adversity.
[From the December 2020 issue: School wasn’t so great before COVID, either]
Brett McDermott is a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Tasmania in Australia. His research group has surveyed some 9,000 students in the aftermath of disasters, including bushfires. McDermott told me that the rate of emotional disturbance after an acute event is approximately 10 to 15 percent—or higher, depending on how bad the event was. (After one particularly deadly flood he studied, more than 30 percent of kids had PTSD, he said.) Students who directly feared for their lives may develop PTSD, while those who experienced loss may develop depression—the latter being more common, he said. The disaster can also trigger generalized anxiety or specific fire-related phobias. He also noted that secondary disruptions associated with fire, such as the breaking of the social structure and the loss of one’s livelihood, can have emotional consequences. The good news, he said, is that we have treatment options that can help.
And some of the students, McDermott told me, “will actually do amazingly well,” having “mastered their worst nightmare and come through psychologically intact.” They may even carry it as a badge of honor: I survived.
Bonanno told me that getting back on track with whatever they’d planned to do after high school before the stressors hit—whether that’s getting a job or going to college—could be really healthy for the new graduates.
All four PHS grads told me that they were ready for what comes next—which is college, in their cases. Abby, Aiden, and Sydney are all headed to Butte College this fall, which is about 10 minutes down the road from Paradise High. Katie, meanwhile, is on her way to San Francisco, where she plans to study game design at the Academy of Art University to work toward becoming a concept artist.
For the most part, they are feeling optimistic—so much so that Abby admitted that she was hesitant to talk with me. She explained that, although her experience wasn’t ideal, the fire made her closer with her family, and that, reflecting on high school, she’s realized that she values everyday conversations more than dances or rallies. She wasn’t sure if that’s what people would want to hear, but it was her lesson, hard-earned.