The English department at Manchester Essex Regional High School requires students of all grade levels to write biweekly journals and post them for the other students in their English class to read. For our most recent journal, my class reflected on 2020.
As I sat with a mug of coffee and read through the journals of my classmates, I was struck by the depth and introspection I saw in front of me. These weren’t shallow teenagers. They were young adults. And I don’t think that term really meant much to me before, but now I think a “young adult” is a state of mind. Have teenagers become veritable Frankensteins of body and soul, wise spirits in young frames?
They say some people are born old souls, but what I saw in front of me was the byproduct of personal evolution: a dozen character arcs that emerged from the past year as if 2020 was some sort of greenhouse for the soul.
This amplified perspective and reflection has resulted in what can only be described as mental growing pains for many teens.
Manchester Essex freshman Bella Wright said she learned a lot about herself during the pandemic.
“I think it was kind of overwhelming to be learning so much about myself… where there weren't that many people that I could talk to about it… but in a good way,” she said.
Like many others, Wright was able to slow down and examine her mental health.
“I think it was really eye-opening to how I’m actually doing on the inside because before the pandemic… I was focused on things and doing things and getting stuff done, and I wasn’t really focusing on my mental health and how I am,” she said.
As I sat in my bedroom for the 317th day, I thought about the fact that Earth is still rotating, even if we’re all still sitting on our desk chairs or leaning against our headboards. Humans are adaptable: so adaptable that all of us are able to carry out daily functionality, in the broadest sense of the word, and live in this strange new normal for months on end. Of course, that functionality looks different for everyone.
We all have our own individual capacity for change. But we’re all here. Many of us are continuing the same thing we were doing last March, whether it is work or school, as best we can. I think that’s beautiful.
Manchester Essex sophomore Juliana Saunders was candid about a feeling many high schoolers likely share.
“It’s even hard to admit, but I think before the pandemic, I was kind of self-involved. You know, like, high schoolers going through puberty, just like very focused on themselves, popularity, status, what you’re wearing to school,” she said.
Saunders said she began to value other aspects of life over typical adolescent fixations.
“People around you are dying. You hear about things on the news that you weren’t really aware of before,” she said.
That worldview, that sudden consciousness, was vital on the national level and within smaller communities.
“All the political turmoil that’s happened has just made us all realize that sometimes the highest powers are not always right, and we kind of need to take things into our own hands sometimes,” Wright said.
The rise of activism on social media started when the Black Lives Matter movement rose to the forefront of the national news, and activism and education continued to grow on social media over the course of the presidential election. Teenagers are paying attention.
“I’ve started a current events club just to try to keep people connected and try to get everybody educated and involved in the community and what’s going on in the world,” Saunders said.
She said she became more aware of her community and recognized her duty to help others.
“Especially during a pandemic, it’s important to be empathetic and really recognize your privilege and that you have privilege that some other people don’t have,” Saunders said.
She made fleece blankets with a friend for the homeless population in Gloucester: the most recent volunteer work in her quest to prioritize community service during the pandemic.
“It was just nice to be able to do something for someone who doesn’t have as much as you do, especially during a time where everything is so crazy,” Saunders said.
It’s difficult to imagine the after, to fathom normalcy after so much abnormality. So much of life revolved around physical closeness before COVID-19 drove us six feet apart: the dull roar of a concert in the summer, huddles of runners racing down the boulevard at Gloucester’s Fiesta, the clink of glasses as we toasted birthdays in restaurants. We learned how to substitute most of it and survive without some of it.
But after restrictions lift, the young doers that have managed to make change— from their bedrooms, through Zoom calls, over social media— will be released into the world, limitless. Let us not hesitate to imagine what can be after. We are not the same people who self-isolated in March.
“People are going to take advantage of opportunities more often because you never know when you’re not going to have them anymore,” Wright said.
Reentry into the world will be an adjustment, but humanity is a powerful force. 2020 has given rise to a generation of wise changemakers. This is a maturity spawned from the fermentation of self in the tumult and friction of a pandemic, a civil rights movement, and the most controversial presidency in the history of the United States.
There is strength in numbers, but imagine the gravity of our collaboration if each individual is strong on their own. We’ll remember the feeling of isolation. When we emerge, vaccinated, anticipating the presence of our neighbors, we will feel each embrace, each handshake, and each smile, warm and golden like the light at the end of this long, long tunnel.