From fire and ash to caps, gowns: Graduation in Paradise
PARADISE — Sean Newsom's senior year of high school started with typical teenage pranks, like sticking a cup to the roof of his car with magnets just to mess with people as he drove around his small town in the Northern California mountains.
It ended with him living in an apartment with his older brother and two roommates, working at a tanning salon and learning how to be an adult without his parents.
In between, a monstrous wildfire consumed his home and destroyed the town of Paradise, leaving most residents homeless and scattering its close-knit people throughout the region with little time to say goodbye. Newsom's parents moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with his two younger siblings to start a new life.
Newsom stayed because of Paradise High School.
The school was one of the few buildings in town to survive the blaze that tore through the town on Nov. 8, killing 85 people, although it couldn't be used for classes. Of its 980 students, about 900 lost their homes. Some assumed the school would cease to exist, with its diaspora of students settling into new communities. But when a makeshift school opened for the spring semester in a former Facebook building near the Chico airport, more than 700 students returned, including 220 seniors.
They had work to do, work that finishes Thursday when they finally return to their beloved school's football field to graduate.
The first day in the temporary building, the school ran out of food. There was no loudspeaker, no drinking fountains, no bells. No gym or wood shop. The classrooms were cubicles divided by walls so thin that students in a government class struggled to concentrate while an EMS instructor next door loudly explained how to deliver a baby.
But for students from a multigenerational town with deep roots, the school was an anchor. The students needed to see each other.
"Going back to school has really helped my mental health since the fire," said Newsom, who said his parents reluctantly agreed to let him stay behind to finish his senior year.
Ben Dees was on the football team. After a disappointing season last year, the team went 8-2 his senior year and was preparing for the playoffs when the fire erupted. The team had to forfeit its first-round playoff game.
Dees has had bigger problems to deal with since then.
He has moved four times since the fire, staying with family members and, for a time, the mother of a friend of his mother's friend. He now lives in Corning, a 41-mile drive (66-kilometer) from Paradise. But Dees says he is rarely home. Most days he is with his friends, returning to Corning only to sleep. In July, he will move with his family to St. George, Utah, and attend Dixie State College in the fall.
"I know what I'm going to lose when I leave," he said.
He and his classmates were adamant that they graduate on the football field at Paradise High School like most other classes have done dating back to the 1960s.
"I feel like everybody just wants to get back to the high school. It reminds us of what Paradise was," Dees said.
The fire destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, burning nearly 240 square miles (620 square kilometers). It forced most of the town's 26,000 people to leave, settling throughout the region. To help keep a sense of community, the school organized events for students to go bowling, visit a trampoline park or just get together and play cards.