The Lorax presumably still speaks “for the trees,” but from now on the Dr. Seuss character won’t have a high school’s asphalt parking lot from which to broadcast his warnings against environmental folly and ruin.
And now, we’ll have no way of telling whether Mikayla Ventura – once again – has overslept, with the result that – for the umpteenth time – she’s going to be late.
If Lilly Bestoso wants her initials – LMB – etched onto a Rhode Island license plate, she’ll have to wait her turn at the registry like everyone else.
And the gorgeous sunflower painted by Zobide Zia, with its luminous yellow petals set against a purple background, has made an early exit.
These and other images and messages – humorous, serious, idealistic, ironic and introspective – were painted onto parking spaces at Rogers High School in Newport more than a year ago, part of an inaugural project by the Class of 2020 to raise money and provide class members a seniors-only perk: exclusive parking spaces.
The 24 paintings were erased earlier this week, as incoming seniors – members of the Class of 2021 covered them over and began applying their own designs, anticipating a mid-September start of school and a chance to leave their unique imprint on the school’s parking lot.
I had come across the original paintings earlier this summer as I was walking my dog near the high school. I was struck not only by the craft and creativity of the paintings, but the poignant reminder of a now-historic group of students, whose lives and educations were suddenly upended by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was March 13 – a fiendish example of Friday-the-Thirteenth mischief – when the sprawling Rogers campus became a ghost town of empty classrooms and corridors as school was closed to in-person learning, part of an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
I wondered what the students who had painted the spaces thought about them now, and how they felt about their final months that should have been a time of celebration and ceremony, but instead became a season of seclusion and loss.
Mikayla G. Ventura
“I’m very like notorious for being very late, so it was kind of perfect for me,” Mikayla told me when she explained the theme for her parking space, spelled out in black letters: “If you’re reading this I’m late.”
It was a rewriting of the title to a mixtape by the rapper and songwriter Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and an effort to poke fun at herself in those long-ago days when the school was operating normally, meaning that when classes began, her car should have obscured the painting.
Her friends, of course, knew the odds were against that happening.
“Every time we would see that parking spot, we’d go: ‘Huh, huh, she’s late again,” said one of her closest classmates, Zobide Zia.
But Zobide and others also knew there was more to Mikayla’s painting than a self-deprecating joke. It also included a handsome lion’s head and the number “33,” neither of which were there by chance.
“The lion and the ‘33’ are to represent one of my really close childhood friends, more like a bother to me, McKenzie Leno, who passed away a couple of years ago,” Mikayla said. “The number was his lacrosse jersey. And the lion – he just loved lions.”
McKenzie, who graduated from Rogers in 2017 and had gone onto college, died of a viral infection in 2018, devastating those left behind, including Mikayla. Their families, who lived in the same Newport neighborhood, often shared dinners and took vacations together.
Mikayla led a Gofundme campaign that successfully raised nearly $1,500 to establish a memorial bench in McKenzie’s honor at Spencer Park, in Newport’s Fifth Ward neighborhood, across West Narragansett Avenue from the welding shop operated by his father, Robert Leno.
I told her that I thought the lion was particularly well drawn. That, too, was no accident, she said.
“I personally have no artistic ability,” she said. But a friend, Mia Stevenson, who had transferred to North Kingstown high school, and was headed to an arts college, “came and helped me.”
Like others I spoke with, Mikayla visited her spot after the school closed, sometimes to make sure that people who use the parking lot for after-hours driving stunts hadn’t left tire marks on her space, but also as a way of keeping in touch with friends who no longer saw each other in class.
“Me and my friends,” she said, “used to all drive and sit in our cars in the Rogers parking lot and put our windows down and just talk to each other – socially distanced.”
The organizer of the parking spot project was Zobide Zia, who had arrived at Rogers in her sophomore year and impressed students and teachers alike for the way she became a vital part of the school community, where close-knit relationships, like those in the larger city itself, sometimes go back generations.
“I couldn’t imagine anyone else who wasn’t from Newport, who had gone to Rogers as a sophomore like she did, doing that,” Mikayla said of the way Zobide got the project going.
Zobide was born in New York City’s Queens borough, the daughter of Masood and Hafiza Zia, who emigrated from Afghanistan and are now U.S. citizens. Her father runs the Crown Fried Chicken and Kabob restaurant on 390 West Main Road in Middletown, with lots of help from family members.
The class of 2020 had been challenged to think about how its members would approach their senior year by William Kimes, a Newport special education teacher who regularly counsels student leaders, to consider their legacy at Rogers, “how will they be remembered.”
Zobide told me that as class vice president in her junior year, “I would see all over social media, students painting their parking spots, and I started asking around if anyone had had the idea.” Someone told her an earlier attempt had failed, but she decided to give it another try.
Other students seemed interested, and she ran the idea past Jared B. Vance, the Rogers principal, who Zobide says “was very open about it.” The project had a fundraising element – participants would pay $15 each – money Zobide hoped would help pay for class T-shirts.
She also came up with a flyer, based on those used by other schools.
“Keep it classy!” the flyer said. “Any design associated with gangs, advertising, drugs, alcohol, violence, obscene slogans, handicap symbols or symbols that may cause confusion or promote illegal activities will not be allowed or approved.” Plus a note of encouragement, “Make it fun.”
Students’ designs had to be approved by Vance, and participants were to supply their own water-based paints, brushes and other equipment.
A “painting party” was scheduled from noon to 8 p.m. on Aug. 29 and 30, 2019, when the parking spaces could be claimed on a first-come, first-served basis. One student took no chances, leaving her car in the lot overnight and arriving an hour ahead of time the next day.
People remembered it as a festive occasion, surprisingly so.
“We severely bonded over it,” Zobide said. “We started talking to people that we never really talked to. Tons of people showed up and helped out. We had a student from last year show up and helped another student painting his parking spot. It was just all fun.”
The finished works spoke of bravado, anxiety, anticipation, favorite causes, whimsy.
“Nobody but me is gonna change my story,” said one. Another: “I am unwell for senior year.” More upbeat: “My future awaits.” Ownership: “Nate’s Parking Only.”
A few were elaborate. One that was signed by Abi Mosher – Zobide says she was the student who parked overnight – recreated the Lorax, the Dr. Seuss creature who proclaimed that “I am for the trees” while warning young readers that plundering natural resources, such as a forest, doomed entire ecosystems.
I was partial to a painting of the front of a classic VW bus, with a pumpkin on the roof. I appreciated its artistic craft, and that it was signed “Phoebe” – senior Phoebe MacDonald. “Phoebe” happens to be the name of my dog, who’d helped me discover the parking lot project.
Zobide chose a giant sunflower for her space, which was next to Mikayla’s and that of another friend, Zeliana Medina.
“I really love sunflowers,” Zobide told me. “I even have a bunch in my backyard. And my favorite color is purple, so I wanted to do something in purple.” The purple part became the background surrounding the generous yellow petals. Zobide signed one corner with her initials “ZZ,” and added “MMXX” to another corner, Roman numerals for the year 2020.
Lilly M. Bestoso
Other members of Lilly Bestoso’s family have vanity license plates featuring their initials, but she doesn’t, so she decided to correct that with her design.
“One day I was driving and I noticed a license plate,” Lilly said, “and I was like: ‘That seems like it would fit perfectly.’”
She also liked the stylized “wave” that’s on Rhode Island license plates, and which she felt caught the spirit of her coastal hometown. The final version had “Newport” spelled out across the top; “LMB” in big letters set against the wave in the middle; and “2020” added to the bottom.
“It came out awesome,” Lilly said. When classes halted, the painting became a surprisingly emotional reminder of the bittersweet way her senior year ended.
“After we were done with school, you know, I would drive by,” she said. “The last time my friends and I went over there to just check it out; and you know, just seeing it like made us super upset.”
Like many of her classmates, Lilly, who was her class secretary, appreciated the many ways in which Principal Vance, administrators, teachers, parents and others had gone out of their way to ease the disappointment of missing a traditional graduation.
Banners, with students’ individual photos, were hung from Broadway utility poles; the school arranged for seniors to come to Rogers, so that individual, safe-distanced pictures could be taken of them with diplomas and then be included in a stylish graduation video first shown on June 4, the original graduation day: and a mural, captioned “CLASS OF 2020 NOT 4 GOTTEN” and displaying the names of the senior class was added to wall inside the school.
Still, she felt disappointed.
“Working so hard throughout these years and not having a proper graduation was really sad,” Lilly said. Particularly troubling was the cancellation of the entire softball season. A three-sport athlete – softball, soccer and basketball – Lilly said softball was her favorite.
She’d been playing softball since she was 6 and many early teammates ended up on the Rogers’ squad, whose members really looked forward to their final season. Late in the summer, Lilly and other players persuaded city officials to allow a last softball “scrimmage” against a Middletown team. They played at Newport’s Toppa Field, where, according to Covid-19 restrictions, onlookers were limited to family members.
“Who won?” I asked. “We did,” Lilly said. But she had to be pressed about the score. “I’m not positive. I think it might have been like 9 to 1, or something around there.”
From the outset, it was clear that the Class of 2020’s parking spaces would be erased. Zobide Zia and her colleagues hoped their first-ever project would be adopted by successive senior classes, whose members would place their unique marks on the asphalt pallet.
On a sunny Aug. 31, members of the Class of 2021 gathered at the Rogers’ parking lot to lay down coats of primer paint to cover the original paintings, so that on following days, they could add their designs.
Beth Letourneau, a computer science teacher who was helping Grainne Phelps, the class advisor, told me that the fund-raising fee had been hiked from $15 to $25, and that 31 “artists” had signed up, compared to 24 in the last class. Covid-19 restrictions were in place, so that no more than 15 people could be there at the same time; and students were to keep their distance from each other and wear masks when working closely.
Lauren Martland, the 2021 student council treasurer, said she was looking forward to the reopening of school scheduled for mid-September.
Lauren said her design would feature a giraffe. That might seem whimsical to a casual passerby, but it would have a personal touch, as had been the case with so many of the earlier paintings. “I’m so tall, so it kind of goes with me,” said Lauren, who is 5 feet, 7 inches, and plays tennis and lacrosse.
With classes just weeks away, Lauren already had a career in mind – development of vaccines and drugs, not only because of the ongoing pandemic, but because in the past year, she lost both her grandfather and dog to cancer, and that career goal would be “a way to help other people.”
As for the Class of 2020 members ….
Mikayla Ventura worked this summer as a food runner and server at Newport’s Port Restaurant, occasionally reminding diners to wear their masks when away from their tables. She enrolled at the University of Rhode Island, but deferred her start at the university until spring – not because of her chronic lateness, but because she often visited her grandparents and wanted to limit their risk of being exposed to Covid-19.
Lilly Bestoso also was headed to URI, starting in the fall. When we spoke in August, she’d had just returned from a visit to the Kingston campus with her parents. She enrolled in the Harrington School of Communications and Media, although she wasn’t sure what field she’d opt for – such as film, writing, journalism, public relations and library and information studies. Lilly had been in touch with her roommate, who was from Connecticut – “We seem similar.” Covid-19, of course, would be a consideration for both freshmen: “We’ll just keep everything super clean and be as safe as possible, you know, wearing masks around campus and things like that.”
Zobide Zia had married by the time I spoke with her. She had moved to Connecticut, where her husband works as a pharmacist. She told me that their backyard includes sunflowers – “a bunch of them.”