“Children of the pandemic” have been put in a high stress situation, losing time to figure out their careers and life paths. Student Jade Robey explains her struggles through COVID-19 with isolation, future career planning, sports, and Zoom fatigue. Learn about the difficulties and challenges Robey and other teens faced in the article below.
I remember heading to my grandparent's house the second week of March 2020 and my mother bringing a bag of what masks she could garnish for them, holding back tears unsuccessfully as she told my grandparents, “Things will get worse. Not much is known. We will need to separate.” I thought, “How do adults not know?” My Spring Tennis season ended abruptly. March, April, and May became one simple, everyday loop. During those last months of the 2019-2020 school year, I would wake up to Zoom classes that became “optional” as students' grades could no longer go down. I realized quickly I was just going from screen to screen for school and every face I saw was flat and cold. Schoolwork became oddly senseless. They mailed my Tennis Varsity letter and certificate. Then the school year was over. There were no closing ceremonies.
Summer 2020 and the world was like an aquarium, except, we were the fish trapped inside the tank and fate was the six-year-old child tapping on our glass to annoy us and rattle our emotions. Arizona surged in June and July and the hospitals bursted over into parking lots.
All my life I loved learning and achieving. I hated failure and gauged failure with grades and goals. I naturally drive to achieve, but that summer a cloud of uncertainty lingered over my planned academic camps and summer felt of impossibilities. Everything planned was cancelled except for a few virtual options that meant just more screens. I had had the momentum of having a plan and every day that plan and my momentum derailed. The why was a corrosive reality that made me feel additionally disoriented and sad. Selfishly, I clung to the grief of having had a plan derailed, not to be petty or unaware of horrific losses around me but to feel something resembling what once was normal. I think I became lazy and unmotivated but that would mean I maintained a respect for the rat race I had been caught in relative to suffering globally. I would not be “building a future” that summer. I would just watch time lapse. Surviving the pandemic was the only plan. Summer was not restful, carefree or filled with creative opportunities to get ahead. It was just a wasteland.
My mood lifted to think school could start in the Fall of 2020. The start was delayed and eventually after a brief and awkward month on campus, I opted for online to stay viable to play basketball. Up to the day before the season started, we thought we would play, then decisions cancelled everything. Betrayed or deceived or just begrudged we were expected to understand, we sunk into ourselves. Of course, no one wanted petty things over others’ safety. We all wanted desperately for things to be ok or ok enough to taste some luxury within safety for play. Was I being selfish or trying to permit self care? I was tired of the constant responsibility of thinking so hard about being careful. “I understand, Mom,”I continued to try as she came home from the burdened hospital. When we were suddenly allowed to play basketball we cohorted, hungry for human contact, hoping for wins to feel like we won anything. Online school became again a pixelated akathisic sedative. A bit of mental grace became, unbelievably, studying for the SATs. Briefly, it was like I was alive again with goals as I held my fist full of highlighters. Is it the success culture that defines me or is it my nature that craves measurable success?
Countless times over the summer and fall of 2020 I would find myself thinking about everything I had not been able to do. I realize it was a luxury to lose a year when others have lost loved ones and abilities from complications of COVID or even lost jobs, homes, and basic needs. Still, in my head I was consumed by the idea that I had lost direction, momentum, and time. I arrived in Spring of 2021 during the sustained second surge in Arizona, still unclear and nearly panicked by the sudden need to be somewhere else already. I only had to move forward, but I was sad my 14, now 15 and soon 16 year old selves would not have that last bit of childhood to enjoy in peace before the timely readiness of maturation that would say I could handle the rigor of being an adult or a physician like I had thus dreamt of. I feel like I left something in another room but the room was now locked.
The New York Times published an article on May 4, 2021 citing the work of Dr. Suniya Luthar concerning the mental health impact of the pandemic on teenagers. She cited resiliency as an important life lesson and, specifically, she and colleagues at Authentic Connections have researched “high achieving” students. According to Dr. Luthar, high achieving teens often become stressed, anxious, and lost when thinking about their futures. Consequently, in a paper published by Luthar et al. in the Journal of American Psychologists, high achieving teens suffer depression and anxiety at rates 3-7 times higher than the general population. The cause of this heightened stress and depression, Luthar says, is the “pressure to succeed.” That crucible is external AND internal and what Luthar and others do not understand is high achieving students also thrive under a lot of that pressure. Furthermore, the “lost year” and the year that comes after adds a misery of having lost valuable time and momentum that actually squeezes even harder on a perceived delicately poised system. The impossible stakes got more impossible and the disorientation of a life or death compromise in the backdrop and as a punchline make traditional achievements seem petty. Enter in the existential crisis a teen did not have time for.
As the daughter of a doctor I am often asked, “Are you going to be a doctor like your mom?” and I have simply always responded with, “That’s the plan!” If one wants to be a physician, one plans to be a physician. It takes planning. The ever impending future is creeping at our doorsteps each day posing as a threatening naysaying demon challenging years of verbal contracts and mental mapping. After COVID strikes down a year in the infrastructure, how does one’s plan take shape again?
To have knowledge of something means you have power in a situation and that power means you have control and to be in control is to have security. I want so much from this coming summer; friends, family, relaxation, camps, athletics, experiences, and moving on. I wonder if I will ever catch up to feeling satisfied and happily on my way. Then more upsetting, I realize, there are hundreds of thousands of orphans derailed globally. Death of ambition is nothing by comparison. A lost year is nothing to stay confused about given health and the safety of loved ones.
I am trying to find an original design for myself. I know being lost means being brave to be found in new ways, maybe even finding new destinies. I know so many more suffered unspeakable losses and the situation is ongoing globally. But the “children of the pandemic” are not as lost as we seem and we will find our ways back.