It has been a year.
Actually more than a year, as I was reminded on March 12, when I scrapped my lesson for 108 AP (Advanced Placement) English students. I had overheard them chatting as we approached the one-year anniversary of our school shutdown. How excited they were last year when we closed for what we thought would be an early spring break, extended from one week to two, so things could settle down and our school could get a deep cleaning.
“I slept for two days straight!”
“I watched Netflix until 4:30 in the morning!”
“I tossed my backpack in the closet … I couldn’t believe I had no homework for two weeks!”
I had felt that way myself. As I sat outside in the Monday morning sun and watched my husband power-wash our house by hand (i.e., with a sponge, a ladder, and a bucket of bleachy water), I was giddy with freedom. High school is intense not only for the students, but for the teachers, too. It’s a lot: the pressure of never being finished with work, never not having papers to grade, combined with the relentless pressure of kids who want to know what they can possibly do to regain some points on their essay—that got a 96. It was a welcome and wonderful vacation.
March 2021 looked and felt very different. Early on, our administration wisely encouraged us to tread gently with due dates and late work. We required our students, remote, to keep their cameras on to be counted present in class. An increasing number of them came to class from their bed, in their pajamas, some lying against their pillows with their laptops balanced on their chests.
I have a Google folder where I stash emails from kids that read like this:
Dear Mrs. Holbrook,
I’m sorry I didn’t do my rhetorical analysis. You can give me a zero because I do not think I am going to be able to get it done. I am just really stressed out. I’ve been crying all day, so I just went to bed.
Dear Mrs. Holbrook,
My dad has Covid and he’s not feeling too good. He has to quarantine in our basement. It’s pretty scary and I have not been able to concentrate on anything. Would I be able to get an extension on the essay? I think I could get it in by Wednesday. Thank you and I promise you it won’t happen again.
It makes me sad how many of them say it won’t happen again. They are so nervous about everything. I keep these emails because I worry about them. My radar is out for danger and I often contact our school psychologist when I fear that a student may self-harm. I feel a sense of relief handing off a student to a mental health professional who will assess and make recommendations for necessary intervention. In a typical year, I may have a single referral. This year I stopped counting after I hit double digits. Twenty, maybe? Maybe more.
So on March 12, 2021, scrapping my plan, I asked my students to spend the class period writing. I gave them a few choices:
- What are the good and the bad things you remember from this past year?
- If you could write a letter from older you to your present self, what would you say?
- How has this year changed you?
Writing is so therapeutic. As I read what they wrote, I had deep affection and empathy for these 17-year-olds trying to make sense of this awful year:
I don’t want to tell you it gets better, or to keep hanging on, because it didn’t. It didn’t get better. That makes it sound like things worked themselves out.
I realized there was nobody I was friendly enough with to hang out with. Everybody was just a conversation over Snapchat or messages where you could stop talking whenever you ran out of things to say. I realized that true friends never really ran out of things to say; so, I realized I just had acquaintances, not friends. This turned me to the darkest phase of the pandemic. I reevaluated all of my friendships again and found I was the only one pursuing them.
I was experiencing severe anxiety, panic attacks and pulling out my hair (trichotillomania). I was at an all time low at this point in my life.
Throughout the past year, the pandemic has made me a completely different person. The isolation in March (you know, when everyone decided to buy all of the toilet paper and stock up like the world was ending), gave me time to reflect on everything I was, and made me realize I hated who I had become.
This was very hard for me to write today.
I felt all their feelings.
One of the hardest things about this year has been trying to manage my own feelings. At times I’ve been anxious, worried, sick, grieving, depressed, exhausted, and apathetic. I’ve felt like a terrible teacher because at times I’ve had nothing to give.
I haven’t cared about how to analyze Kennedy’s speech to the U.N. or what evidence they could use to argue that perfection is overrated. I have looked at the clock and realized that I had exactly 26 minutes left of class, and then I could quit being kind, patient, and encouraging. I could take a nap.
But today we finished our current events assignment. Each week the students find three articles to read. They write a summary paragraph and then a response about how this news affects them as a citizen of the world. Without fail, I see deeply thoughtful, engaged, caring young adults who are eager to vote soon, who have opinions about climate change and justice and love and science and equity.
The difference this year is that they are scarred and they are scared. More than half my students this year—in other words, more than 50 of them—have expressed to me some feeling of anxiety, deep sadness, apathy, or depression. Many of them are in therapy for the first time because their parents are worried about them. Returning to even some of the things they’ve missed, like hugging their friends and dancing at prom, fills them with anxiety. While they cautiously await re-entry to the world they left in 2020, they now know that it will not be going back to the way things were.
While those days are gone, I can only hope that our gradual re-opening will bring back some of their joy.
Cathy Holbrook is a high school English teacher in Hopewell Junction, New York.