By Sam Donnellon
They graduate as no class at La Salle College High School ever has, amid a return to normalcy after a high school experience pockmarked by stops and starts, frustrations and joys that will be forever unique to them.
Forced by COVID-19 into alternative methods of education, socialization and fraternization, the members of the Class of 2022 not only survived the challenges induced by global pandemic, they thrived in ways that built upon their collective character and prepared them -- in ways they’re still trying to fully understand -- for what happens next.
"A lot of good came out of it,’’ says Alex Sorgini. "We throw the word 'brotherhood' around a lot. And there’s a lot of truth in it. But it took something like the pandemic to really realize it. You know how much you relied on other people. And you’re suddenly in your room and you start to feel that.’’
"I feel like it also kind of strengthened our relationships,’’ Sam Perry says. "When we all got back here for senior year, we were like, ‘We have one more year together, let’s make it the best year we can possibly make it because we’ve had so much taken away from us. We’ve got nothing left to lose’.’’
Alex Sorgini, from Collegeville, is headed to Princeton University in the fall. Sam Perry, from Perkasie, is off to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Both members of La Salle’s celebrated Speech and Debate team, they were among seven seniors who recently sat down to discuss how their experience at La Salle has shaped them and prepared them for the next step.
Gavin Brooke, a swimmer/water polo player from Fort Washington, will attend Johns Hopkins University. Joe Cole, a soccer player from Chalfont, has been chosen into the Honors College at the University of Georgia.
Anthony Rivers, a football and basketball player from Philadelphia, will attend the University of Louisville. Eric Fryer, a member of the golf and robotics teams from Ambler, will attend the University of Virginia. Michael Dukissis, his classmate dating back to Keith Valley Middle School and whose school involvement ranged from soccer to music, is off to Texas A&M University.
Virtual classrooms, virtual friendships and the sudden deaths of two schoolmates during their four years -- and their shared triumphs in overcoming adversity -- have moved each of them profoundly, and lastingly.
Here is what they said when they got together recently.
So, if your child asks you someday, "What was it like during the pandemic,” what will you say?
Anthony Rivers: I just remember being so excited about spring break (in March 2020). Play basketball. Travel. Go on vacation. I think I was supposed to go to Miami for spring break.
And then spring break starts and COVID seemed to come out of nowhere. I’m still optimistic we’re going back to school. And then virtual classes begin. It was just a bummer. We’re getting emails daily about how everything has to change and we’re going to have virtual classrooms, all that stuff. That was my sophomore year. We were two practices in and track season was over.
Everything at that point was surprising, shocking.
I wanted to be around school and play sports and such, but COVID stopped all of that from happening.
Sam Perry: Before COVID we would travel together (with the Speech and Debate team), and everything was in person, we’d be in one room together. When it started out, it canceled all of the end-of-the-year tournaments. We had one virtual tournament at end of sophomore year. And then (Speech and Debate coach) Mr. (Mike) McCabe said, "I’m sure we’ll be back in person at least by second semester of junior year." And it went from that to, "Oh shoot, this is all going to be virtual."
And then it shifted to all of us coming to La Salle, going to our own room, locking ourselves in the room for the entire day and then just talking to a computer screen for eight to 10 hours a day. I would not say it felt as energetic as doing it in person. I always loved doing it in front of people. But I would still say it was a still fun activity to do, just to be able to perform for people.
Joe Cole: I’ve always been someone who enjoys going to school. Even after winter breaks, spring breaks, I’m like, `I’ve got to get back.’ It’s not that I love being in a classroom and learning so much, I just love connecting with students. Like I always found it fun just walking through the hallways, even before or after big tests, communicating with people, just sharing in that kind of like, struggle. So, when we were told we were going two weeks virtual, that was so undesirable for me. A lot of people were like, two weeks! That’s awesome! Not me.
Anthony Rivers: You get the two weeks and you’re like, `I’m going to play Fortnite all day.’ Willingly. And after the spring break part when you actually have the leverage to do that and then when you have no other choice to do that – that’s when it changed.
What did La Salle do to foster the brotherhood community in those first three months?
Eric Fryer: One of the memories I have is when (Guidance Counselor) Mr. (Tony) Resch was going around making phone calls that day and I was part of the ultimate frisbee team. He reached out and said someone should try to do a trick shot and then everybody else should try to recreate it. Whoever gets it first, make another one.
So, I am on the phone call with Mr. Resch and I’m having people throw frisbees up to my window. I set up a trash can way too far away in my yard and I’m just tossing them out the window, trying to get one in. There was that kind of community on the sports or clubs I was involved in, as well as La Salle making the effort to reach out to you. That was really helpful to me.
Michael Dukissis: I think La Salle really made an effort to try and get us in the school as much as possible with hybrid. I think we were one of the first schools to go hybrid and first schools to come back in person. That really helped to keep that community together. I think our system for online learning, Blackboard, really helped that collaboration a lot. When you’re speaking on the screen it’s only four people. So when you’re speaking and up there everybody’s looking at you -- it’s a lot more of a normal experience, I think.
Eric Fryer: I think outside of La Salle setting up things to help us feel more connected it also fostered a great environment for making the students to do that within ourselves. I remember during the pandemic I had students reaching out to me saying, `Hey join this Zoom call. We’ll do a soccer drill. We’ll do something like that.' A lot of stuff came from within the student body, which is really admirable. I found a lot of joy in that.
Did it force you guys to be more mature or grow up quicker than you may have otherwise?
Gavin Brooke: It was lonely those first couple of months after spring break. You’re excited to have some time off, then you’re ready to go back. And then you don’t see anyone for four or five months at a time. It demands a certain level of maturity and diligence and a little bit of individualism. You have to force yourself to reach out and stay on top of your schoolwork, especially when you’re doing it from your bed. So, it definitely demanded our grade to kind of step up.
Is there any bitterness that you were robbed of a normal high school experience?
Gavin Brooke: I think there might be some bitterness. But it also fell at a time from sophomore to junior year where we were in the middle of our high school years. It’s not like freshman year where you’re trying to get acclimated, or senior year, when you have graduation to look forward to. We’ll have a normal graduation this year which we’re really lucky to have. Two years ago, a lot schools didn't have a graduation.
Anthony Rivers: Of course, there’s some bitterness in that I wish I could have my sophomore year back. But honestly there’s nothing we can do about it. I feel like, yeah, I would like to have that time back. But we actually got lucky. The Class of 2020 had a lot taken from them. They couldn’t have a regular graduation and I don’t even know if they had a Senior Week. We’re closer to normalcy.
Joe Cole: I would hesitate calling it time wasted. Even the time spent with family, or even by yourself. To think we lost sophomore year and some of junior year would be flawed saying that. It was rather spent differently than abnormally. And I think that was important to our growth, to the maturity that we’ve mentioned. I think that was a big part of our growth. So, I wouldn’t look at it as wasted time.
Alex Sorgini: And a lot of good came out of it. People started to recognize -- you know, we throw the word `"brotherhood’’ around a lot. And there’s a lot of truth in it. But it took something like the pandemic to really realize it. You know, how much you relied on other people. And you’re suddenly in your room and you start to feel that.
But also things like the schedule. Our classes had different schedules every year because there was always a little tinkering with it. But then with the pandemic we realized that a block schedule might work better than having nine classes. And that started off because they wanted to minimize how much interaction we were going to have in the hallway. But now we have a full block schedule. And we’re all really enjoying it. So little and big good things came out of it.
Sam Perry: I wouldn’t call it wasted time. I mean there was time that got taken from us, which has made this time that we have now in our senior year that much better. Because even though we got two years taken away from us as far as relationships, I feel like it also kind of strengthened our relationships.
Michael Dukissis: I feel in some ways it almost strengthened relationships in that there were people in class who, because I couldn’t just talk to them in the hallway, I had to reach out to them on social media or text them. I think that helped in building relationships. Maybe it helped me expand more.
Several of you have spoken of it being bonding experience. Do you think that’s different than what occurred at other schools? What about La Salle fosters that?
Michael Dukissis: Personally, I had a lot of pride in how La Salle handled the situation. Talking to some of my other friends, their schools completely shut down. They didn’t have anything for a week, for two weeks. As soon as we shut down – we were off for one day – and then we started right back up again. And that really helped to keep that sense of community.
I think it helped too that we were one of the first schools back in. That was great in the sense of community. Because you always want to be off school, until you’re off school forever.
Do you think it was a more normal high school education because of that?
Sam Perry: I have a friend who goes to another school. And with his classes they would have them log in, take attendance on Zoom and then have everyone leave with Cyber assignments. That’s like an online school that you just sign up and do assignments. That’s not really a high school experience. I would say we got a more normal experience.
Gavin Brooke: We have a faculty and staff who really care about us, really care about our well-being. Whereas a lot of public schools didn’t even have school for a month. And then they started in person just this year. It speaks to the type of people we have here at La Salle.
Michael Dukissis: I remember the initial shutdown. Someone in Ms. Mariani’s English class in January came up to me and said, "Hear about this Coronavirus thing in China?’’ Whatever. We were afraid of Ebola and ecoviruses; this was another pandemic far away. It was never going to come to us.
Little did I know, two months later, it came. And still I was like, OK it might be a little thing, we’ll be off for a couple of weeks. I remember I had a math test the day after school got canceled. So initially I was like, "Yes!’’
And then it kept getting longer and longer.
Alex Sorgini: Not for nothing, we had the "Little La Salle Program’’ junior year. The teachers’ children could come onto campus and take their virtual classes from Dunleavy House.
We had people who would monitor them and high school kids who could come and sit with them through their classes. It was a win-win because you could help them with their classes and make up what they weren’t getting through the virtual instruction. And the teachers didn’t have to figure out finding somebody to babysit their kids. So, they could be in school and even though their kids were fully online, they could make everything work. I think that could only work somewhere like here.
Do you think the views in this room are shared collectively by La Salle students?
Sam Perry: Sure, you’ve got people mad about things being taken away from them. But that’s a general population thing. The general collective is we did the best we could in the situation. I’m proud of what La Salle did.
Did you build skills through this that maybe you didn’t realize you were building at the time?
Anthony Rivers: Personally, I have learned to be more vulnerable. To people in my family, my friends. If you remember what was going on in America when the pandemic hit, it wasn’t good either. Everything was hitting us at once. I remember getting multiple texts from multiple classmates, having hour-long conversations with classmates, just talking about where your state of mind is at. You’re at home, we’re all going through the same thing now.
If you just hold up your emotions, not wanting to cry or give someone you know, someone in your family a hug, you’ll be selling yourself short. So I tried to connect as best I could.
That comes to back to brotherhood.
Joe Cole: I fell into a really bad routine during quarantine. We had to be in (virtual) homeroom at 8:00 am. I’d set my alarm for 7:58. I’d log in and fall back to sleep. And then play Xbox for hours.
After a few weeks I was like, "What am I doing?” I was able to fall into that routine because I could. There was no one there to stop me. I didn’t have to be physically here at 8:00 in the morning. I didn’t have a soccer practice I had to attend. So, self-discipline is something I was able to develop due to the pandemic. I was able to set a schedule for myself. Work better hours in. Find ways to work out. Do school work even when no one was telling me to.
Gavin Brooke: I think our ability to check and evaluate our relationships is a lot stronger. You don’t have the normal passing by in the hallway, saying, "Hey, how’s your day?’’ If you cared about somebody, you really had to reach out and make an effort to see what they’re up to.
Anthony Rivers: I would say we embrace each other more. Even something oblique. Like Sam does so much already. Sam doesn’t want to go to a lacrosse game, Sam doesn’t want to go to a soccer game. He’s busy with his own clubs. But everybody comes out to a soccer game. Everybody fills up those sidelines. We’re kind of battle tested.
Beyond COVID, do you find the standards here in all respects – academically, socially, sports, arts -- are higher than your peers in other schools?
Sam Perry: It’s kind of the student body that brings the bar up, not the school itself. It’s all the guys who come in. That’s what I saw when I came here. I saw the people, the brotherhood. They made that decision. It wasn’t La Salle coming in and saying, 'Make friends. Do this now.’ It was the kids coming in and saying, 'I want to get involved here. I want to do everything I possibly can to make the best out of my four years here.’ It’s something you don’t see at too many other schools, I think. It’s why the bar is so much higher than all the other ones.
Eric Fryer: For me the decision was between public school and La Salle. We hadn’t explored too many other options. And back then it was a pretty big decision. Now knowing all that I know about La Salle, especially being in the community and what I got out of it, it would not be a question.
For me I knew I was going to be pushed academically and whatever. I ended up getting into golf. I walk into freshman golf tryouts and barely squeezed by. I realized that I had to work a lot harder to even get playing time on this team. And that really pushed me through my four years. To day in and day out work out and be on the golf course and make my way to the top.
Michael Dukissis: I went to the same middle school as Eric. For me it was my VIP/Shadow Day. That’s the moment I decided it would be La Salle. Because just seeing the boy taking me around walking through the hallways and everybody saying ‘hi’ and just to see how friendly he was with everybody. That was something I just didn’t know could exist in a high school.
I think about this all the time: It’s not really important what you do at La Salle. Whereas at other schools it is. You’re a varsity football player. That makes you cool. What makes you cool at La Salle is that you give it your all. You go all in on the music program, or a sport, or speech and debate. That’s what were really looking for at La Salle. That you’re passionate about something and other people are going to appreciate that and support you through it. That was something that was just incredible for me. It helped me try out a lot of new things. I don’t know if I would have tried to do Model UN at a different school. Because it would probably be a nerdy kind of thing to do. But at La Salle everybody supports it.
And academic standards. During the pandemic our grades were our grades. I know a lot of other schools froze the grades. They said your grades can’t drop from what they were the first semester. At La Salle they said, no, your grades the second semester are exactly the same as the first. We’re still going to hold you up to that standard.
Was the faith component a part of this experience?
Michael Dukissis: I would say it was absolutely part of my experience. And again, coming from a non-religious school it was just an entirely different world that opened something up to me. I had taken CCD classes, got my confirmation, but it was more this was just something that happened when you’re Catholic. I really didn’t understand it. Freshman year I was lucky to have a great religion teacher, Mr. Collins. I learned a lot about the more complex intricacies of Catholicism and Christianity.
All the teachers I had really fostered a discussion that really helped me grow my faith. I don’t think I would be where I am spiritually today -- I don’t even know if I would be a practicing Catholic -- without the introduction to the faith life at La Salle.
Sam Perry: If you were someone who didn’t want to get involved in faith, it wasn’t forced on you. Which I think was a special thing. Whereas with other Catholic schools if you’re here you’re going to be Catholic, you’re going to be doing what we tell you to do.
Kind of like a college you make what you want to make out of it.
Joe Cole: Sam and I went to the same Catholic grade school. That choice aspect was different to me. I never experienced that in my whole life. This was the first time I had to consider whether to go to church. I could do this or I couldn’t. I fully can decide whether I wanted to be there on Sunday; whether I want to practice my faith. That’s when it started to become really important to me. That was facilitated through the lessons taught at La Salle. That’s what really brought me into my faith. I go every Sunday and I love it.
What will you carry in your heart about La Salle?
Joe Cole: The way I’m looking at it is, in two weeks I will stop coming to this building every day to sit in a classroom and learn. But at the same time, I feel like I’m never leaving La Salle. I feel like the connections and the alumni network are all so important to La Salle and will be a part of my identity forever. So that’s something I hope to carry with me the rest of my life. I hope to never lose that. I want to send my kids here.
Anthony Rivers: I know this sounds cliché, but this actually was a second home for me. I’m a black kid from Philadelphia. There’s not a lot of opportunity in the city. So, for me, I was the only kid from my grade school to come here. And everyone was like, praising me, "Oh my God, you’re the first kid from our school to go to La Salle.’ So, I knew I had great expectations…
To come here and change the narrative from my old school, and become a different version of what I was, a better version of what I was -- this gave me a glimpse of independency early, as a 14-year-old kid. And now I will have to do it all over again in another state. It builds you up to get ready for it.
Sam Perry: I have one memory that defines what I’m going to be taking out of it. It’s the day after Blake (Barklage) passed away. We were going to have a senior skip day that Monday. And without much communication, just someone posting on their story, all of us were in the building that morning, in blazers, had a prayer service that morning, and then they played a song and the entire class got up and hugged each other. They probably played that song 10 times. And just that source of brotherhood. Just seeing that then in the hardest time tells me this, the same thing Joe was just saying: It’s never going to leave you.
Alex Sorgini: The relationships are not going to go anywhere. But it’s just not going to be the same not seeing the same people every day, interacting with them every day. Sam and I are pretty good friends. We’re still going to talk absolutely. But it’s not the same when we don’t have practice every Wednesday and a tournament every Saturday.
They throw around the term, 'choose your path' a lot for admissions. And that’s true, there are all these separate paths, but they’re all these same through lines. We all have those same big bench marks. We’re all going to gather for graduation and reconnect for that moment. After that though, it’s really scattered to the wind basically.
Eric Fryer: I’m taking the community with me. The whole grade has everyone else’s support.
La Salle for me was really about personal growth. It really got me out of a shell. So being able to have that experience in high school and that change for me is going to be instrumental in future success.
Gavin Brooke: The number one thing that I will be taking with me is what we’re all talking about, that community. La Salle is truly a college preparatory school. The faculty and staff we have that set up interviews for internships, teach you how to write a proper email. Write a cover letter, write a resume – that’s stuff you’re going to need in college and its stuff they’re not going to sit down and walk you through the next four years.
Michael Dukissis: I’m probably just going to remember it as a place that helped make me who I am today. I mean in terms of the academic and achievement perspective, it allowed me to try so many different things, figure out who I was, what I liked. And from a social aspect I just want to be in a community like La Salle wherever I am in the future. I just want to have that community that’s always there to support me and where everybody has each other’s back and then religiously made me the person I am today.
Anthony Rivers: To add to what Sam said about Blake. When I was a junior, I lost my dear friend Isaiah Turner. That could have been any of us. I feel like from this point on we have no other choice but to kind of live for them. Honestly, we’d let them down if we didn’t try to do the best we can in life. We have to really take our opportunities and make them worthwhile.