Why going back to school is like giving up a shelter
As a high school student, I had years to get used to the nervousness of back to school. But this year, they have combined with unexpected anxieties. During the Year of Virtual Learning, I had to learn a whole new method of teaching. Finding classrooms, putting together outfits, preparing lunches, all of that was gone, leaving the school reduced to the essentials: connecting to the competition, getting passing marks.
But with the return of the ordinary world (sort of), the original social anxieties and pressures are waiting behind the scenes to become relevant again, as are several news stories. I have to make a good impression on the teachers with the masks that separate us; reunite with classmates after losing contact with most of them; and plan for college, my dream since I was in single digits. I have to deal with all of this amid the political divide that has become impossible to avoid during the pandemic, and which has not spared my small town, which is divided over masks and vaccines. Going back to school is going to the shelter during a zombie apocalypse.
My town, Mount Tremper, is technically a hamlet. My friends and I used to jokingly compare her to the city on the CW teen drama series. Riverdale (first season only). This is the kind of small where grocery stops last 10 minutes longer than expected because you meet someone familiar. Everyone knows each other’s politics, and the great stretches of life are an uphill battle between the parties. As a child, it was idyllic. I was too young to notice the strain and enjoyed my small school and the adorable shops lining the main streets of the nearest towns. But I saw him come down from the beautiful place where the leaves change in the fall to a place torn by bitter quarrels, the neighbors turning against the neighbors.
The division (liberal hippies with tie-dye skirts and $ 8 vegan slats living alongside conservatives armed with Confederate flags on their vans) is nothing new. But the pandemic has accentuated our differences. My peers and I started getting involved in politics in the 2016 election, but it was still kind of like a game. We enjoyed debating and feeling smart. When the pandemic struck and we saw how politics can tear people apart – can amount to life or death – it stopped being a game.
Now, for the most part, the two sides do not interact. As the start of the school year approached, community members did not even discuss what safety measures the school could implement. They retired to their separate corners, certain that their beliefs would prevail.
In the end, no one got what they wanted. Or maybe both sides did. Onteora High School is at 100% capacity with no remote option, and the school has also not mandated vaccines, although it has demanded masks. It reassures me a bit, but it is another stark reminder from the division: Almost half of the students eligible for the vaccine received it, while the other half said they would refuse to wear masks. They kept that promise from day one of school, wearing American flag masks or neck warmers under their noses, and sniffing the administration’s attempts to correct them.
In the past, my political stories on Instagram have led to some fascinating conversations. Now when I post my subscriber count goes down. Political statements came in the form of T-shirts or stickers; during the pandemic, people began to assert their beliefs by gleefully violating safety standards. Conservative classmates who had previously expressed their emotions by tearing GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance, the club that fights for LGBTQ + rights at school) school posters from the walls and stuffing them in the toilets s ‘now express by strutting, masks on the chin. At virtual GSA meetings, I saw our numbers drop, as members revealed that the political tension had become too aggressive. My social life changed when groups of friends broke up on the basis of politics, and I wasn’t even sad – I was angry that I hadn’t seen the real implications of the political division sooner.
I had hoped this city was an anomaly, but the pandemic proved me wrong. The whole country experienced a similar calculation, seeing dysfunctional dynamics building up. I came away with a more conscious vision, and the changes I made are for the better. For example, I’ve given myself permission to value academics over my social life, spend more time with teachers than with peers, and dream about college in front of the class. At the same time, the community seems to be imploding around me. And while it seems like such a severe tear in the fabric of our country could extinguish the hopes of young people, judging by how many of us rushed back to school, nervous and excited. in both new and old ways, optimism for our future seems to be alive and well.
After a summer of anticipation, the first day of school had everything I wanted. I chatted with the teachers and fell back into an easy pace with some friends. But the traces of the pandemic and the divide were fully visible. Some unmasked students sneered when others gave them plenty of room. Extracurricular activities have been canceled until further notice, considered a COVID risk. (They only restarted, cautiously, this week.) Teachers have raised the possibilities of further closures as winter rolls in and cases increase.
In many ways, the pandemic has allowed me to step back and study my surroundings, much like an amateur anthropologist. It was both exhausting and one of the best educational experiences I have ever had. Surviving high school was once the stuff of teen movie clichés. Then a pandemic literally put survival on the line. I’m happy to say I’m surviving.