At the end of my eighth grade year I decided to attend North Springs High School for its illustrious performing arts program. I wanted to surround myself with people that had the same passion for performing as I did and upon arrival, I was not disappointed. I found a family at North Springs — people I could not only perform with but confide in, trust and be my whole self around. Every year we got stronger as a class, singing songs together and supporting each other’s dreams. Going through four years of seeing people that feel like family every day created a bond that made me feel like I could see these same people at Thanksgiving dinner and not bat an eye. Although we were all close, there were a few that I was immediately drawn to and never let go. One of them being my dear friend, Joshua Baker.
My theater program was full of talented people who could easily be famous, but Josh was born for it. He lit up a stage like stadium lights and always gave a performance you couldn’t forget. I felt like a better actress when I was standing next to him, shoulder-to-shoulder, hoping his talent would rub off on me like copper from an old penny. Josh was an exceptional actor, he took characters from a script and brought them to life for his audiences. His voice turned heads and dropped jaws because he was just that talented. The love he had for performing was evident to anyone who saw him. He was dedicated to giving a good show. No matter the role, he threw himself into it even if he didn’t like it.
By our senior year the theater group was closer than ever with all of our parties, sleepovers and procrastinating in class. I had never been closer to a group of people. The last memory I have of all of us together is our 2019 graduation when we sang “Seasons of Love” for all of our friends and family. We were chosen to perform at graduation and able to choose which song we sang. The group had watched the musical “Rent” in class and picked this song because it captured our bond as friends.
Above: VOX ATL contributor Aliyah Veira, Josh Baker [center, back] and classmates from North Springs High School performing arts program (video provided by the author)
It was the last thing we performed together as a group and the last time I saw Josh until he visited my dorm room in late November. I remember his last visit clearly because I think about it so much. He was touring Georgia State University (GSU) with his girlfriend, who was interested in attending and during his visit he told me how he hated his college and he was thinking of transferring to GSU the following year so some of the gang could be back together. I was ecstatic about the prospect of going to school with Josh again because I knew we would be able to check out the school’s theater department and binge on junk food like old times.
Around noon on Dec. 2, I got a Facetime call from Josh’s best friend, Ben. Ben and I checked up on each other every now and then to see how school was going and to give updates on parties we went to or friends we’ve made. I answered the phone unsuspecting and eager to see how he was doing because it had been a while since our last debrief. When I answered, I was caught off guard by the tears in his eyes. I felt a weight on my chest as I waited for Ben to calm down enough to explain what was going on. I stared at him in disbelief when he said the last thing I would’ve expected.
“Josh is dead.”
The emotions that clouded my eyes were brand new to me, having only lost distant family members. I was most surprised by the anger. I was so angry when I heard Josh, one of my friends, had been gunned down in his sister’s house by her own husband, someone who was supposed to be family. I was sick to my stomach thinking about how Josh’s nephew MJ would grow up an orphan and learn his mother had to kill his father in self-defense after being stabbed multiple times in the stomach and later passing away. My friend would never get to grace another stage, enjoy his time in the Marine Corps Reserves or make another awkward joke ever again. In the days following his death all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and cry for my friend who was taken far too soon.
But I found myself haunted by the deadlines on my calendar.
All these things that required my focus were rounding the corner! The last week of classes was approaching and finals were starting soon. I thought of the half-finished study guides laying abandoned in my drawer and knew studying was the last thing I wanted to do.
At first, I thought it was unfair that I got the chance to take my finals and finish my semester when all that was taken from Josh. It was almost as if I felt guilty for worrying about something as trivial as passing a history test when his family was making funeral arrangements. It wasn’t until I spoke with several other members of our theater group that I started to push past the sadness that had been eating at me. The support of the people around me, whether they were going through what I was going through or not, lifted my spirits. Internalizing their positive energy made me look at everything in a different way. I was drowning in negativity so I had to adjust my mindset to pull myself out. I did this in a couple of different ways that might work for you, too.
First and foremost, I leaned on those that understood how I was feeling, and because Josh and I came from the same circles, that wasn’t hard. I also took advantage of the support from my mother, who didn’t know Josh but knew how to comfort me. Use the support people around you offer even if you feel like they don’t understand; it really does help.
I allowed myself to be sad. You may feel as though you don’t have time to grieve when things are chaotic at school, but it’s important that you reflect and acknowledge that you may not be OK, and that’s OK. I set timers for myself when I was studying and said, “If I can get through one hour of American Government without thinking about it, then that’s enough for now.” Set your goals according to how you’re feeling. If an hour is too long then break it up into 30-minute sessions, just don’t overwhelm yourself.
Affirmations also played a really big part because I knew if I kept telling myself I had something to feel guilty about then I would keep believing it. I took every opportunity to remind myself that I deserve to be where I am. I told myself over and over again that everything happens for a reason and all I can do is accept it. Most importantly, I told myself I had a newfound responsibility to suck, and I mean really drain, every ounce of opportunity I have every day because I might not have it tomorrow.
Using these tools really helped me focus and change my attitude. Instead of feeling guilty for utilizing my opportunities to succeed, I felt motivated to take advantage of them. I had to do what Josh couldn’t and I had to do it for him. My new mindset didn’t take the grief away, but it allowed me to do what I needed to do to pass all my finals and end my semester with a 3.7 GPA. I have nothing but gratitude that I got the chance to see it through.