The Class of 2021

Grade 12 was not what they imagined: no prom, no varsity teams, no senior trip. But these teens survived the quadmester system and made their way through online school. Here’s how they coped—the good and the bad—and what they’re doing next

Toni Agbaje-Ojo, 18

School: Upper Canada College
Neighbourhood: North York
What’s next: Medical sciences at Dalhousie University

I have been a student at Upper Canada College since I was in Grade 6, which was the first year I could get financial assistance. Grade 12 was my first time living in residence because I received extra scholarship funding. I’m an only child and grew up living with my mom and my grandma, so I was excited to live in the dorms with my friends.

The Class of 2021

UCC is like a mini university, smack dab in the heart of Toronto. Even though we were not allowed to leave campus because of the pandemic, we were luckier than most Toronto kids because we were all bubbling together. Us seniors planned a lot of weekend activities, like movie nights where we’d order pizza, do karaoke or cook meals together. We played football and tennis, and went cross-country skiing on one of the soccer fields. We had hockey tournaments, and the UCC hockey players gave skating lessons to some of the guys who had never skated before. It was a great bonding experience. In a usual school year, students go to Raptors games or shopping at the Eaton Centre on weekends. I’ve learned that it’s less about what you’re doing and more about who you’re with.

Living in residence, I learned the importance of a support system, like teachers who make sure you’re staying alert during class or friends who come to your room and invite you to play basketball. We played a lot of basketball. I can’t really dribble, but I guess I’d call myself a point guard. There was this one Grade 9 student who could shoot like Steph Curry. We’d play a full game with like 15 guys, everyone just shouting and cheering. It made you forget about Covid for a bit and pretend that everything was normal. Some people couldn’t do that this year, so I was lucky to have that experience.

This year I was president of Horizons, a mentoring and tutoring partnership with Toronto elementary public schools. In the dorms, the mentoring came organically. I spent a lot of time with the younger guys, giving them study tips, helping them choose classes, or just encouraging them to spend less time on TikTok. At breakfast, I liked to sit with different people every day so I could chat with the younger guys and see how they were doing. My mom is a teacher, and I grew up volunteering in her classroom. The younger guys were my little brothers! I became more aware of others during the pandemic. While I was living at school, I was the happiest I’ve been.

I was also the president of the Black Student Union this year. I focused my efforts on the school curriculum: what are we teaching kids about Black history? What kinds of stories are they reading in English class? I was able to sit in on the discussions the English department had regarding next year’s Grade 8 to 12 curriculum, and I drew from my lived experiences when discussing the need for stories, that go beyond the struggle-to-success stereotype. When UCC ran some forums looking at their own practices and ways to become more inclusive, I advocated on behalf of the Black community. I talked from the heart about what I went through as a Black student and what it was like to not have Black teachers I could look up to. One day, a vice-principal pulled me aside. “You have a voice; make sure everyone hears it,” she told me. “Don’t be afraid to speak if you have something to say, because if you’re thinking it, other people are thinking it too.” I’m never gonna forget that.

In September, I found out UCC was nominating me for the Loran Award, a merit-based scholarship of $100,000 over four years. More than 6,000 students applied for the award this year, and in mid-January, I learned I was one of the 72 finalists. We had a group chat for all finalists across the country. By mid-March, people in the chat were saying, “I got the call, I got the call,” so I knew it was coming up. I’m not really an anxious person, but my hands started to shake when my phone rang. When the woman on the other end said I got the scholarship, I was like, “Thank you, thank you!” It was a life-changing moment. Super-cheesy, I know. My mom worked so hard to provide me with everything and more, so just knowing I wouldn’t have that financial strain on me for the next few years was a huge burden lifted.

Next year, I’m studying at Dalhousie University and taking medical sciences. My long-term goal is pediatrics. I’m driving out to Halifax with my mom in early September. Obviously, she’s not happy that her baby boy is going to be 18 hours away, but she knows that I’m (somewhat) responsible and that living at university will help me grow. Years ago she told me, “No one can take your education away from you. You will always have that.” She’s always encouraged me to better myself and to do things that better others, too.

—As told to Samantha Edwards