A Dystopian School Year

20 Oct 2020 | 01:39

I’m not quite certain when I shifted into a dystopian YA novel, but really, that is the only reasonable explanation for 2020. Let’s check the boxes, shall we? I’m sixteen years old: check (perfect age for saving the world according to authors, but not according to my mother). Eerie dystopian setting: check — a global pandemic in which everyone must remain masked and apart at all times is great world building, honestly. Authoritarian government with a villainous head of state? Also check. Extra points for the citizens dying due to governmental corruption. A growing grass-roots revolution led by the people rising against said authoritarian government? Once again, check. A beautiful and mysterious love interest? I might have to get back to you on that one. Apparently I get all the 1984 aspects of dystopia and none of the Divergent meeting-your-soulmate-at-the-ripe-old-age-of-sixteen bits.

“Unprecedented times” has become a favorite line in emails from schools and institutions over the past few months, but it still fails to capture the abnormality of being a high schooler in 2020. Stumbling through adolescence was overwhelming to begin with, but watching the world crumble around me at the same time definitely does not help. For starters, being sixteen and trapped in a house with my parents was a form of torture worthy of Sartre. Though my school opened up in person this fall, it has remained an area in which normalcy has become elusive. My junior year began in my preferred armchair at home, computer in lap, for a week of virtual orientation and virtual classes as grades were phased into the school building one by one. We were taught protocols for cleaning and rules for maintaining distance, which were reiterated during our first day in person.

I take my temperature while making breakfast, and my dad uses it to fill out a virtual form that confirms I am healthy and have not been in contact with any sick people. When I arrive at school, I show the nurse at the door the confirmation screen from this form, and she checks my temperature again. Desks are placed six feet apart, with stickers on the floor beneath them to mark the distance. Upon entering a classroom, students take a paper towel from the dispenser by the door. At the end of class, the teacher brings a spray bottle of disinfectant to spritz each desk, and the students wipe them down. The hallway functions as a conveyor belt, moving in one direction only, and the two staircases go only up and down, respectively.

Lunch is different for each grade, but the juniors order ahead of time and eat outside. Unlike many schools, mine is open in person for all grades five days a week, though students and teachers can elect to be virtual. Virtual students join the class via Zoom and are projected on the board. When teachers are remote, their in-person students all go to a designated classroom and individually join the meeting from their computers. We stay masked and six feet apart from our classmates and teachers at all times.

Attending classes in-person feels almost more alien than the virtual classes of last spring. Learning over Zoom was vastly different from any of my previous education, but returning to school under such circumstances is a constant reminder of just how atypical this really is. It is bizarre to be in the same room as my classmates and not be able to go near them. It is impossible to forget about the pandemic when every friend I look at is masked.

Despite all the rules and constraints, I’m incredibly grateful to be able to go to school in person. I’m able to see my classmates and friends, even from a distance, but more importantly I get to learn in a physical classroom rather than in a virtual one. I can confidently say I learned little to nothing in my Zoom classes this spring. Already boring classes became unbearable, and my spotty attention span and focus disappeared entirely.

Thankfully, my school was understanding of the difficulties with maintaining levels of academic achievement. In lieu of that, the school followed a pass/fail grading system for the spring. Unfortunately, as the new school year began, the normal grading system resumed. Despite the improvement of being able to attend school in person, there remain obstacles to learning and working. Being a politically aware teenager in the midst of a global pandemic, a civil rights movement, and an election which will profoundly affect our futures, is exhausting. The school’s expectation that students should perform at the same level, which was rigorous enough to begin with, amidst several global crises is entirely unreasonable. What is a due date when 1.07 million people have died worldwide? Perhaps there is a reason that characters in teen dramas and YA novels are never shown doing schoolwork. When democracy is crumbling, people are dying, and the world as we know it is fundamentally changing, must pre-calculus homework be my priority?