SCHENECTADY — Mya Burns, this year’s Schenectady High School valedictorian, has long taken school seriously. In one of her elementary school classes, students were given cards based on their behavior: from green is good to red is bad.
She once got a yellow card and took it hard, she recalled in a recent interview. “I was speaking when the teacher was speaking, and I cried all day.”
A dedicated student, Burns was interested in a wide range of subjects from the sciences to the humanities, and when she and her classmates got their transcripts their sophomore year of high school, the first ones with class rankings on them, she was number one in the class.
As she and her fellow graduates officially finish their high school careers Friday, she remains the class’ top student.
“That wasn’t even my goal,” she said of the ranking. “I just wanted to do my best in everything – that was my goal. It wasn’t to beat other people – that wasn’t my goal.”
Burns, who plans to attend Hamilton College in the fall but isn’t quite sure what she plans to study, said she has always tried to do her best in school – even if she sometimes fell short of her own standards.
“I’m a perfectionist. I’m never happy with the way my work comes out,” she said. “Even if it’s really good and logically I know it’s really good, I can be disappointed.”
She has learned a lot in school but has also learned a lot at home, where she lives with her sister, a Russell Sage student, and her grandparents. Her grandmother has dementia and her grandfather is blind, Burns said, and she and her sister care for them. During the pandemic, the family has had to be extra careful.
“If either of them got it they would be really sick and possibly die,” she said of her grandparents.
Working with her sister and other family members, she has had to balance school work from home with caring for her grandparents and making sure everyone is safe and healthy.
“I think I’ve learned a lot of patience,” Burns said. “Sometimes I need to take a deep breath and know it’s not as bad as it seems, issues aren’t as big as they seem.”
Burns credited her experience at Schenectady High School as especially valuable thanks to the school’s diversity and wide opportunities to participate in different activities.
“I would be very uneducated and very sheltered if I hadn’t gone to Schenectady,” Burns said. “I feel like I understand people’s different diverse experiences more than if I went to a school that was predominantly white – maybe not understanding but respecting.”
During her first three years of high school, Burns watched the annual commencement ceremony as a student musician in the orchestra pit in front of the Proctors stage, the traditional home of the high school’s annual commencement celebration.
“I am definitely upset, I always expected to be sitting in the auditorium, seeing all my friends cross the stage,” Burns said.
She did have a chance to return to Proctors in recent weeks as part of a handful of students who participated in the filming of the school’s virtual graduation ceremony, which airs Friday morning, but it wasn’t the same as she delivered her valedictorian speech to a camera and in front of row after row of empty seats behind her.
“I want to give a speech that honors our class and that honors the pandemic and that honors the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. “I want to give a speech that honors all of that.”
Burns started her academic career at Howe Elementary School and spent her middle years at Central Park before moving on to the high school. She said when schools were first closed she was happy for a break but soon realized that it was going to be much more than a short break.
“This year has just been, it’s kind of been a dumpster fire in some aspects,” Burns said. “I never expected we were walking out of school to never walk in again.”
Eventually, she was able to get back into the flow of school.
“We need to learn this, we need to keep marching forward,” Burns said. “We are still supposed to be full-time students at home.”
Graduates will have a chance Friday to receive their diploma at the high school auditorium, walking across the stage in times staggered throughout the day. Burns said she hopes all of her classmates have a chance to appreciate, and be appreciated for, all that they have accomplished.
“I hope everyone can be celebrated in some way or another,” she said of her fellow graduates. “I hope they are able to get some kind of celebration at home, there is someone to say congratulations, you did it.”