When 18-year-old Emma Hamel walked into Andrews Academy on March 12, she did not know it would be her last time walking through the halls and waving to her friends as she passed them at their lockers.
To her, it was any typical Thursday. She was wearing her least favorite shirt because she woke up late and grabbed the first thing she saw as she rushed to get dressed. When she left that morning, she still had big plans for her senior year — prom, graduation and making lasting memories with her friends.
However, that Thursday changed her plans, as her school, like all schools in the state of Michigan, announced it would be ceasing in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the closure was initially only slated to last three weeks, it ended up being extended through the end of the school year.
“It was really hard,” Emma recalls as she sits inside her Berrien Springs home the day after her 18th birthday. “It just didn’t end the way anyone expected it to.”
Suddenly, all of Emma’s plans for her senior year of high school were made impossible. She decided to deal with the blows the best way she knew how — she wrote a song about it.
“Music has always been kind of like therapy to me,” Emma says. “When this all happened, the song was just a way for me to get down my emotions. It was an outlet for me.”
The song Emma wrote, “Standing by my Side,” has since gone viral, with a music video filmed inside an empty hallway in her high school racking up nearly 200,000 views. The song details Emma’s feelings about having her senior year cut short and being unable to celebrate it with her friends and family by her side.
Emma has been writing songs for as long as she can remember.
“She has always loved music,” says her mother, Michelle. “She would always be swirling down lyrics during school.”
Michelle and Emma’s father, Matt, own and operate Visionary Multimedia in Berrien Springs. Michelle said she and Matt have helped Emma produce her videos and have been supportive of her musical pursuits.
Emma began performing live at age 15, and eventually, she created a YouTube channel to share her music. “Standing by my Side” became the fourth original song she uploaded.
Initially, Emma did not intend for anyone other than herself to hear the song. Calling herself shy, she says her music tends to be private and personal.
However, when her school reached out to her asking for an original song to use during its senior night, she knew she had to finish “Standing by my Side” in time for the event.
“I worked really hard to complete it,” she says. “I’m really glad I did.”
As the song gained traction, Emma and her family received an incoming of supportive messages, media inquiries and requests from schools in both the U.S. and Canada to use her song in their senior year montages.
The best part of everything that has come from the song for Emma is the number of graduating seniors like her who commented or messaged her to thank her for putting their complicated feelings about schools closing to music.
“The response has been overwhelming, not just in how many people have watched it, but the comments section has turned into a kind of therapy session,” she says with a laugh. “It’s crazy how it has resonated with people. So many people might not have liked high school all that much, but they turned out to really miss it and miss the memories that they were making.”
Since she wrote her song, Emma says she and her classmates have found many unique ways to celebrate their senior year, including their drive-thru high school graduation. Though it was not what she planned, she knows she will still be left with memories to last a lifetime.
“I so grateful there were still things that I will always remember,” she says. “It’s such a unique time and such a unique experience that I know, or at least I hope, no other class will experience. It’s been hard, but I’m also really thankful for that.”
Though Emma cannot say what the future will hold for her, she plans to take a gap year before going to college. In that year, she plans to focus on her music, produce as much as she can and grow her audience.
“I just want to explore my music and see what I can do,” she says. “I’m not exactly sure what will happen. … I’ve learned from this that you don’t know when things can change.”
“Standing by my Side” is now available to stream on all major streaming platforms. Interested readers can find more of Emma’s work on her YouTube channel, Emma Hamel.
Photography by Emily Sobecki