Climbing Mountains: A School Year of Ups and Downs

Editor's note: The pandemic has forced school leaders to make tough calls about staffing, safety protocols, and how and when to open campus. Teachers have had to quickly adapt to these changes, rethinking how they interact with students and deliver lessons. We don't always hear from students about how these critical decisions affect them. In this week's blog, one student shares her experience with learning during the pandemic.
The fall of my junior year at Mount Madonna School (CA)  was supposed to be a fresh start, but we were right back where we were six months ago—logged on for remote learning and looking at each other through computer cameras—and this time with the workload of junior year.
I couldn't ignore the sinking feeling I felt upon learning that the administration had canceled the annual river rafting trip because of the pandemic. I remembered upperclassmen telling me to cherish every moment because they would be gone before I knew it. They were right. It has all passed so quickly, and now it feels ripped away before I get to hold on. None of us expected to be online for another year until we were virtually climbing mountains instead of driving up the one we loved so much to our campus.
During the first two weeks of virtual school, our teachers encouraged us, and I felt that they missed us almost more than we missed each other. Still, endless assignments flooded my inbox, and I felt hopeless. I struggled to find motivation without a physical environment to encourage me, especially as a student with ADHD. Waking up just five minutes before class, chugging an energy drink, and frantically hoping I won't have to turn on my camera is not exactly a prime learning environment. Without routine and structure, it was easy to get lost in the void of Google Docs. However, the personal connections and relationships with our teachers have gotten me through to the second semester. They took class time to ask us questions about how we were doing, gave us extensions on assignments when needed, and understood when we didn't feel up to turning on our cameras.
Two weeks into the school year, we were able to return to campus. On the first day of in-person class, I felt the happiest I had been in a long time. We could see each other's smiles through our masks. So much had changed, but I was just happy that we were all back together. As I write this, we take more precautions to keep our cohorts safe, including holding classes outside. Moving from outdoor classroom to outdoor classroom is something I enjoy. It feels relaxing in a way, getting that break from all the hurried walking between classes.
No matter how grateful we were to return to in-person learning, there is always something unpredictable—including the weather. In the fall, some days were impossibly hot. Without air conditioning and insulation, we sat in the sun for hours, sweating through our masks, waiting until we could drive down the mountain with the AC blasting. With so many terrible wildfires during the fall and many days with poor air quality, we never knew if the conditions would force the campus to close. Now, in the cooler months, some days are freezing. Some of us wrap in blankets and hold hand warmers, but it still feels impossible not to complain when we feel cold. We've been so focused on the weather that, at times, we've forgotten to think about the virus—until we received a harsh reminder.
In mid-November, we arrived at campus one day and were asked to return home promptly. Our county had moved back into the purple zone, and we thought we would be safe from the restrictions until an asymptomatic, positive case happened just before Thanksgiving break. We didn't know who had tested positive, who was exposed, and we didn't know when—or whether—we would return. A return to remote learning felt like a push off a cliff as I lost my routine, learning environment, and motivation. I didn't feel like participating in class or doing assignments. Minutes before class started, I'd wake up without nearly enough energy to be my perky self. I have always stayed motivated and pushed for my goals, but I lost that part of myself for a while. I didn't have the drive to do my work or even care if I did it right. I was too busy listening to sad music and would take drives in my car, alone and headed nowhere.
I talked to my peers about my feelings, and many felt the same. On late-night FaceTime conversations, we talked about how much we missed normalcy. If you had told me freshman year that this was the world I lived in now, I would never have believed you. There are some things in life you can never imagine being taken away until they are pulled from underneath your feet. Images of what my junior year would have been like crept into my mind. I was unable to do the things that I looked forward to most. I missed screaming so loud at a volleyball game that I lost my voice right before auditions for the school play. I missed seeing friendly faces down the halls. I missed dancing pressed up against my friends. Normalcy felt a hundred years—a lifetime—away.
Priorities have changed. That's something I learned in my Values in World Thought class this year. Yes, I miss the way the world once was, and I pine for the classic high school experience. What I now want most, however, is the health of those in my community. We returned to in-person learning in mid-December. I can't take anything for granted; I have learned that life changes too quickly and to hold on and be grateful.

Grace Timan and classmates listen to a lecture in their outdoor classroom.
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Grace Timan

Grace Timan is a junior at Mount Madonna School in Watsonville, California.