CHESTERFIELD — When Gov. Ralph Northam announced on March 23 that schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year due to the pandemic, Trey Powers and his friends were doing what teenagers do: hanging out online.
Powers, at 17 the group’s elder and only senior, could only listen as the governor announced the move and the memories he thought he’d get to make vanish, one by one.
The friends joked about organizing a virtual graduation ceremony in Minecraft, a game the Chesterfield teens bonded over in middle school and had revisited, stuck at home and restless.
Then, the invites went out.
“It kind of meant a lot to me, so I wondered if it would mean something to anyone else,” said Powers, a student at Midlothian High School.
He said his friends, a group of juniors from Midlothian and Cosby High School who all attended Tomahawk Creek Middle School together, told him to leave the server so they could surprise him.
As of Thursday morning, about 18 other kids from his class had accepted the open invitation to participate.
“It’s nice to be acknowledged in such a way when it feels like everything else is falling apart” Powers said.
Students across the country are engineering creative ways to connect as schools have shuttered.
A Minneapolis TV news report last week showed students sitting in the trunk or tailgate of their cars — six feet apart — hanging out in their high school’s parking lot. Students athletes at a San Antonio Catholic school made a video of themselves throwing, kicking or passing rolls of toilet paper to each other.
Minecraft is what’s known as a “sandbox” game, where players can find and use raw materials in a blocky 3-D universe to build tools and structures.
There are various ways to play, but it originally was designed as an open-ended game that allows players to create whatever they can imagine. Players construct castles, towers, villages and iconic wonders of the world: Chichen Itza, the Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — or a high school graduation in a field.
The students erected a stage in the middle of a verdant field studded with white seats. A large backdrop with a blue and yellow Midlothian “M” anchors the scene. Blue and yellow lights sit behind the stage. A fireworks display triggered by a “pressure plate” awaits ignition.
Ian Karst, a junior at Midlothian, said about nine people were involved in creating it. He said they expect around 30 people — including the senior honorees — will be involved in the final production.
“I didn’t think this would be a thing,” Karst said. “I just thought it’d be a joke.”
Jak Roehrick, a junior at Cosby, said Minecraft has helped him, Karst and their group of friends stay close despite being split up in their move to high school.
“We’re all older now and can drive, so we all hang out in person now too, usually to grab food or hang out at each other’s houses,” he said. “We have a big friend group and play a lot of different video games, but Minecraft is something we all have in common.”
Powers said he became part of their squad around the start of the school year after befriending Zach Westhaver. They both play tuba in the Midlothian concert band.
Powers said he soon was invited into a text chat group and started hanging out with them not longer after. That kinship helped him overcome the challenges of a typical senior year that is now upside down.
“It’s very surreal in a surreal time. This whole coronavirus thing is crazy and scary. But it’s great that I can trust my friends,” he said.