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On Aug. 11, Sarah, a cheerleader at Hickman High School in Columbia, Mo., turned 16 and passed her driving test. Triumphant, she arrived home to a Happy Birthday sign in the front yard, a treat of beignets from a Creole restaurant and the news that her 17-year-old brother did not have pinkeye, as their mother initially suspected, but Covid-19. They all did, it turned out: Sarah, who asked to be identified by her middle name to protect her privacy; her brother; their 85-year-old grandfather; and their mother, a nurse practitioner who started having trouble breathing two days after her son tested positive. Sarah had thought she would first take advantage of her license to drive herself to cheerleading practice; instead, she used it to take her mother to get a coronavirus test, when her mother realized she was already too weak to drive herself. Then, a week later, Sarah’s mother — who had not been leaving the couch and was having trouble finishing her sentences — told her she needed to be driven to the hospital. Her pastor and other members of her church would be checking in, but Sarah would have to look after everyone. That meant taking care of her grandfather, who had Parkinson’s disease and some dementia, and her brother, who had autism. Could she do that? Sarah, whose eyes had grown wide, quickly recovered. Yes, she told her mother. Of course she could.
As Sarah drove to the hospital, she could feel her mother stealing looks at her face, so she focused on the music coming out of the car radio. They hugged goodbye at the entrance of the hospital, and then Sarah drove home. A few days after that, while her mother was still at the hospital, Sarah realized her grandfather was acting strange and confused — after she gave him a glass of water he asked for, he yelled at her that he had wanted something else. Some relatives spoke to him on the phone and made an assessment, and then Sarah was making another hospital run, this time to drop off her grandfather.
Now it was just Sarah and her brother, who played Xbox for hours in the living room while Sarah hid out in her bedroom, leaving only to pick up the endless amounts of food that neighbors and church friends were leaving at their doorstep. Sarah couldn’t exactly say why, but it got on her nerves a little, all that food. Lasagna after lasagna, spaghetti in tomato sauce, more red food than she could shove into their small refrigerator. Didn’t they know this virus could kill their whole family? Was it worth risking all that to leave their home, to come right to Sarah’s door just to drop off another plate of cookies? “We’re good,” she said whenever anybody called to check in. How was her mom doing, they wanted to know. “She’s getting better,” Sarah said, even though she had no idea if that was the case. If somewhere deep inside she felt true terror, she put layers of protection between it and her conscious self; the fear was like nuclear waste that was buried far beneath the earth’s surface for everyone’s safety.
The stews, the casseroles, the cookies — they all kept coming even once her mother returned home after four days in the hospital. She was back on the couch but not back to normal. Her mother, usually a mellifluous speaker and storyteller, was still talking so slowly, leaving sentences hanging as she searched for words that never actually surfaced. Small things made her teary (all those generous friends from church), but she was also newly irritable, snapping at Sarah’s grandfather once he returned home and threatening to ground Sarah for leaving a sock in the bathroom.
Sarah kept going to cheerleading — Cheer, it was called — flipping, smiling, clapping, even though she also had lingering symptoms that were bringing her down. The most skilled tumbler on her team, she now had trouble catching her breath even when she was walking. She felt kind of the way she had freshman year when she got a concussion after someone she lifted in Cheer fell on her head — kind of foggy, kind of numb. Was this lingering Covid brain? Or something else? No one at Cheer asked about her mother, because nobody knew she was still sick, because Sarah never mentioned it.
Sarah’s sophomore year at Hickman High, the oldest of the town’s four public high schools, was supposed to begin at the end of August, but the start of school was delayed as the district tried to figure out how and when to open. Eventually, the announcement came down: It would open, but remotely, on Sept. 8. Sarah’s schedule included a class she was nervous about, a history-and-literature course known as A.P. World; it was a class that marked a student as academically ambitious, that maybe even put her on a track for a scholarship that a community college in Columbia granted. But as the first day of school approached, Sarah did not have her usual new binders and pencils or the lined paper still in the plastic. There was no back-to-school shopping at Target, because who cared? She would be home anyway. Her mother was far from recovered, her brother had all kinds of needs and her grandfather’s dementia had advanced. Instead of jumping into the school year the way she normally would, as if off a springboard, she felt that she was slowly sliding her way in. She knew one thing — she was not in the right frame of mind to start learning. School hadn’t even started, and she already felt totally, utterly lost.
At 8:14 on the first day of school, MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy, an A.P. World teacher, uploaded a welcome video for the class. In the video, Everett-Kennedy, dressed in a purple Hickman High T-shirt, launched into a modified version of the school’s 76-year-old fight song. “Are we it? Well, I guess yes!” she chanted with a big thumbs-up. “ ’Cause we’re the A.P. scholars” — raise-the-roof hands — “of H.H.S.!”
Here, telegraphed loud and clear in the first 30 seconds of class, was Everett-Kennedy’s teaching brand: endearingly dorky enthusiast. Everett-Kennedy — her students called her Ms. E.K., or among themselves, just E.K. — was a vocal figure in town and had publicly advocated remote learning that year. She had rallied her fellow teachers on social media to call the governor’s office to demand that schools stay closed, especially given the high virus case rates in the community.
But an organized cohort of parents in town had raised concerns about the widespread suffering among their children when school closed so abruptly in March 2020: Their children had been sad, even seemed depressed. They weren’t learning. They were isolated. Months later, research would confirm what parents already knew: Many kids were struggling. During March and April 2020, the number of reimbursement claims for adolescent mental-health treatment had roughly doubled, nationally, compared with the same months in 2019.
Everett-Kennedy understood that the beginning of the pandemic had been brutal for some of her students. She had faced unusual hurdles to try to re-engage them, while also managing the needs of her own daughter, Stella, who was 7 at the time. She and her husband had a side business, Papa’s Cat Cafe, which added to the stress of the pandemic as business plummeted. To juggle her two jobs and child care, she wasted hours making schedule after schedule on Excel, all of which ultimately represented her failed efforts to impose order on an unmanageable new set of challenges.
But she felt, at the start of the new school year, that surely things would be better, not just for her but also for the students. “Now we all knew what to expect,” she said. Maybe her students would even feel the same way she did — eager to find some purpose, to throw themselves back into the closest thing to a routine they could find. She was sure she could effectively teach her students, could find a way to connect with them for the help they needed, even in A.P. World, a whirlwind academic tour across millenniums. Many considered the class, which was taught by two teachers, a rite-of-passage experience, maybe even the most challenging course the school offered. “But it only seems like the hardest class,” Everett-Kennedy always said, “because it’s your first A.P. class.”
Everett-Kennedy, who is 36, graduated in 2003 from Hickman High, a school in the middle of a town in the middle of a state in the middle of the country. Its student body, a third of which qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, drew from public housing, rural parts of town and the more affluent neighborhoods where many professors from the nearby University of Missouri lived. She saw, in a lot of her students, reflections of the teenager she had once been: a kid who relied on the school to help catapult her out of poverty, to send her on her way to her own dream job, which happened to be teaching. Every year, in the first week of A.P. World, she tried to bring that point home in a presentation she gave to her students, some of whose parents were academics and some of whose parents were out of a job or employed as factory workers at the 3M plant in town.
The presentation was on a concept called periodization: the chunking of history into different periods. This year, she created an online version of the personal presentation she always gave, breaking her own life into chapters. Her voice accompanied snapshots at different phases: the Rebel Years of middle and early high school, and then the Secret Scholar years, so-called because she kicked into high gear academically without making much of it to her friends. Everett-Kennedy’s parents did not have college degrees, she told the students; her mother managed a gas station. “My family was poor,” she said in the voice-over that accompanied an image of her and three girlfriends beaming in purple mortarboards. “We did not have a lot of money.” She knew, she said, that she needed to do well to get scholarships to attend college.
Everett-Kennedy followed up the presentation every year by assigning an essay in which students were asked to divide their own lives into periods, an exercise that always jump-started her understanding of who they were: Students often seized the opportunity to whisper their concerns into the reeds of the assignment, to someone who was still, at that point, mostly an abstraction. Sometimes the essays revealed enough distress that Everett-Kennedy felt obligated to involve a counselor, if she was worried for their safety. In less stressful years, there was at least one student who triggered that protocol, and so she was not surprised that 2020 was no exception. A student named Suzanne, who also asked that her middle name be used, had divided her life into periods when she had dreams and more recent periods when she was overwhelmed with self-doubt — when she told herself she “could never be good enough for the world’s harsh standards.”
Another student, Charles, wrote that he cut ties with his father after a series of painful, disappointing interactions in the years following his parents’ divorce. “Met with this adversity, I was forced to become mentally tough and stand up for myself,” he wrote. As a result, he was now in the Era of Strength. “My life has taught me that there will always be challenges,” he wrote, “and it’s not only about how you manage your initial reaction, but also how you learn from it.”
Charles, she knew, was bright, very bright, and funny enough that she felt nothing but gratitude when he played the class clown in the first two weeks of online class: He and a close friend entertained the class early on, with his friend soliciting opinions on what he should order for lunch that day and Charles riffing about Chipotle portion sizes for a solid five minutes. Ordinarily, Everett-Kennedy would not indulge that kind of distraction, but she was desperate for the communal bonding that happened when 20 or so teenagers all laughed at the same thing, even if they were doing it from their respective bedrooms all across town.
She knew better than to mistake his in-class performance for a reflection of how he felt when the camera was turned off. It was clear, despite his explicit claims about strength, that he had been through a lot already and was probably still finding his way. She saw on his transcript that Charles, previously an A student, had all but given up last spring when school went remote. She was relieved in late September when he agreed to meet with her one on one on Zoom. She felt sure that if she could forge a connection with him, she could help him stay on track. She wanted to make sure he didn’t collapse into free fall, for his sake — and a little bit for hers.
Charles had to give some credit to Ms. E.K., this little woman with the long brown hair and the side part, with the Stop Genocide in Sudan T-shirt and the peppy pep talks; she had a no-nonsense way of making it clear how much she cared. He had agreed to a one on one with her because he was inclined, from the outset, to like her. It meant a lot to him when she talked openly, on that first day of class, about her family’s financial hardships. His father, especially when Charles was younger, had struggled to get by. “It’s not nice to see that she suffered,” he said. “But it’s nice to see that someone else has.”
When Everett-Kennedy spoke to Charles during that meeting, she tried to assure him that they could work closely together. She even opened up about how out of control she, too, sometimes felt these days. But in the end, Charles left the Zoom meeting uninspired. It felt forced trying to connect with someone he had never met in person — someone he had never even texted with. “It’s hard to believe someone that you’ve only met through a screen,” he told me. “Like what they’re even saying.” If he had to pick one word to describe the meeting, it would be: awkward.
Charles was pretty sure his teacher did not pick up on how he felt during their meeting, because he was a skilled performer. At school, in person, he was used to entertaining his classmates but also impressing his teachers, showing off his smarts, his mastery of the material. During the pandemic, he moved his personal stage to his bedroom, where he’d hung LED lights and a tapestry with a design that evoked some graphic novel’s envisioning of another planet. From that room, he projected the image of a young man wildly amused and amusing. Yet sometimes, as soon as a friend hung up on FaceTime, his face would seem to collapse — to close down, as if some emotional gate had abruptly slammed shut.
Before the pandemic, he would have said he was a kid who was on track for a scholarship down the road, maybe even at a college like Northwestern, where his father studied briefly before transferring out. When he became obsessed with the musical “Hamilton” in seventh grade, he went ahead and read the Federalist Papers just to see what they had to say. He starred as Macbeth in a production at school and liked it so much that he read other Shakespeare plays for fun. He never wanted to sound conceited, but in the past, he would have said that school came easily. At the same time, he sometimes found all of it overwhelming. As a Black teenager now approaching six feet, he was acutely conscious of how the expectations of his mother — a school administrator with a Ph.D. — ran up against the expectations of the rest of the world. “To keep proving these stereotypes wrong,” he said, “it takes a lot out of me.”
And then last spring, when the school closed its doors, he found himself alone with thoughts that had been waiting, it turned out, for just that kind of opportunity — for vast amounts of time and space. These new thoughts flooded in, leaving little room for concerns about Othello’s motivation or the subjunctive in French. More and more, when he was alone in his room, there was only one voice, and that voice was telling Charles that he was doomed to fail no matter how promising his start, that he would surely follow what he perceived as his father’s downward slide. His destiny was failure.
In the very first days of the school year, Charles’s laptop kept crashing during Zooms, which started to feel like a metaphor for what the whole year would bring: a big mess, a disconnect, a technological headache that he was left on his own to solve. In the weeks that followed, the days loomed empty and long; the more time that voice had, the louder it grew and the harder it was to get out from under it. Because he did all his work in his bedroom, it was easy to go back to sleep after his first class, if he made it to his first class. “Then when I woke up, I could either a) get up and do what I had to do,” he said, trying to capture his typical schedule, “or b) look at the time, be disappointed in myself and go back to bed.” During remote learning, attendance did not factor into a student’s final grade. Charles wasn’t just skipping class, though — he was barely turning in any assignments. And suddenly, there he was, no longer a kid who got A’s but already a kid who had blown it this early in the semester.
The voice in his head exhausted him, so Charles started sleeping more, even during the day. Sometimes the voice scared him. His heart would start pounding, and he would feel overwhelmed with a sense of impending crisis: It was all over, and there was nothing he could do about it. It was too late.
How was E.K. possibly going to get him out of the hole he was in? She had no sense of how vast it already was. Even still, in early October, he decided to linger after class, on Zoom, when she offered to help any students who were falling behind. At a minimum, he could tell his mother that he’d made an effort. He stayed, and so did Sarah, a classmate everyone liked. She did Cheer and he played J.V. football, but they didn’t move in the same circles. She was really smiley — he thought of her as one of those happy-all-the-time people.
When Sarah stayed after class to attend that extra-help session with Ms. E.K. in early October, she was surprised to see that Charles was there too. Charles, she had already gleaned, was smart. He often had an answer for whatever Ms. E.K. asked; in fact, the students had quickly come to rely on him to save them all from the silences that often hung in the air in their online classes. As they talked with each other and Ms. E.K. that day, Charles and Sarah quickly found common ground and diagnosed their shared problems: lack of motivation, loneliness, a feeling of hopelessness. Charles suggested that maybe Sarah needed some help, to which Sarah said: What about you?
During that conversation, Sarah told the first of many lies that she would tell her teachers, her mother and herself over the coming months. OK, she would say, I am ready to turn over a new leaf. Now I’m really going to apply myself. But she still rarely made it to class. If her laptop died in the middle of a Zoom, she decided that was God’s way of telling her she had done enough for the day. About six weeks into school, her mother, her health still shaky, her mind still foggy, looked at an interim academic assessment that landed in her email inbox and said, “What do all these N.H.I.s mean?” Sarah said, “Huh, I don’t know,” as if trying to decode one of the great bureaucratic mysteries of her time, when in fact she knew exactly what they stood for: not handed in. She grew accustomed to emails from teachers piling up. “Just making sure you saw. … ” “A reminder that your essay. … ” Everybody wanted something from her. Whoa, whoa, whoa. She was going to get back to them — eventually.
She had a soft spot for Ms. E.K., who showed up at class looking a little wild some days, Sarah thought, hair in that messy ponytail, tired eyes, Diet Coke always beside her. Sarah liked it — that she was letting herself be relatable. At least she always showed up; some teachers just popped into class, said, “Tough day today — no Zoom,” and checked out.
To encourage Sarah to come to class, Ms. E.K. tried sending her corny encouraging Bitmojis. One featured an image of Ms. E.K. — long brown hair, side part — with a rising sun behind her. “Wake up my little bonbon!” Ms. E.K. wrote in the text. “Time to get crack-a-lackin!” Class started at 11:10; by the time Sarah woke up and saw the text, it was already noon.
Sleep always seemed to be there for her; the heaviness of home was like a blanket she could crawl under at any time. Her mother’s Covid had turned into a pneumonia that dragged on for weeks. Her mother was working on breathing exercises well into October and also getting help from a speech therapist — it was as if there was cotton blocking the connection between her brain and her vocal cords. And she kept forgetting things, like where she put her keys. It drove Sarah crazy.
Her brother hadn’t said much of anything about his fears when their mom was most sick, but now, out of nowhere, sometimes he said things like “I’m glad Mom did not die in the hospital, because that would have been very upsetting.” Sarah had not been able to say aloud the part of all of it that was haunting her the most — which is that she felt guilty, even ashamed. That day she went to take her driver’s test in August, she was exhausted and her eyes ached, which she realized only later were probably symptoms of the virus. She had even gone to Cheer practice. What if she gave someone the virus who gave someone else the virus? What if someone died because she had not even realized she was sick?
In mid-October, her mother wrote to Sarah’s Cheer coach to ask how her daughter was doing. “That is a loaded question,” the coach wrote. “She seems to be getting a spicy attitude. Eye-rolling, exasperated, complaining — just out of the norm for her.” Sarah had probably taken her hospitalization harder than either of them realized, her mother wrote back, adding that she had never seen Sarah’s grades so low before. She was failing two classes.
Sarah felt betrayed that the coach criticized her to her mother — but she also knew she had not been herself at practice. Even she was surprised to hear the things that were coming out of her mouth. That fall, when a girl on the team was crying with frustration over how hard they all were being pushed, Sarah said to a friend, loudly enough that the girl could hear, “We don’t need any babies on this team.” At a different point, she would have beaten herself up about speaking so harshly, or more likely, she never would have said that in the first place; now she saw it happen as if from a distance, her own feelings at a remove.
As her mother recovered, Sarah tried to keep an eye on her brother: Was he supposed to be in class instead of watching videos on YouTube? She gave her grandfather and her brother lunch, cleaned up the kitchen when her mother was obviously too tired. She could summon the energy for that, but not much else many days. Instead of logging onto class, she either dozed or watched hours of Netflix in her room. “The Vampire Diaries” was her favorite. She related to the vampires, because they could turn off their emotions — turning off their humanity, they called it.
When Sarah pictured depression, she imagined some girl in a movie, sobbing in the shower and pulling at her hair. That wasn’t who she was — but slowly it started dawning on her that maybe she was depressed all the same. She kept going to Cheer, but back at home, when she was alone, she felt as if she were sinking lower and lower. When she went to a pediatrician that fall, she told him she was doing well. But that wasn’t true. “If I was being honest, I need a lot of help,” she told me. “Because I feel like I’m just drowning in a pool.” She could see that people were trying to help. “But their hands are slipping, and I’m pulling myself down,” she said, her voice breaking. “And you cannot swim. You cannot swim up.”
On Nov. 9, the Columbia school board convened to debate the possibility of opening schools for in-person learning, a meeting Everett-Kennedy attended so she could personally stand at the lectern to defend teaching remotely. Yes, there were challenges, she acknowledged, but she insisted that teachers were working it out. “Students are learning!” she said, raising her arm and pointing her finger with the kind of energy she ordinarily relied on to keep students alert. “They are!”
A good number of her students seemed to be coping with the change in routine, and some were clearly thriving, including a student named Dejanai, who was turning in A paper after A paper, even though she had a lot of responsibility for a 9-year-old sister with A.D.H.D. while her mother worked at Target. Everett-Kennedy was so pleased with Dejanai’s work that she sent her mother an email just to say, “She brings sunshine to my day, as cliché as that sounds.” Dejanai, who spent a lot of time with her girlfriend, didn’t miss in-person school at all; being in class with all those professors’ kids could sometimes intimidate her into silence. Instead of meeting with Ms. E.K. in front of her desk as other students trickled in and out of the classroom, she could talk to her privately from the safety of her home. Sometimes, Dejanai’s tiny dog, a Maltese that she dressed up, made an appearance, or Everett-Kennedy’s daughter popped in with the family’s new longhaired kitten.
But Everett-Kennedy could not deny that many more students seemed to be struggling. And she was starting to wonder if there was anything she could do about it. She had never better appreciated that school was more than just a building; it was like a community-ordained safe space, a place where her students could experiment messily in the exercises of adulthood, with stakes that felt high even as they were safely low. It was as if the students en masse created a collective force field that held them all up, kept them on track; there was power in conformity, in streaming into the building at the same hour, reaching into their backpacks at the same time for their homework. So much of the life that goes into learning had gone out of their days: the moment when she could see, from her doorway, a girl fiercely hugging her friend goodbye right before class, or a teenager giggling with adrenaline, bolting into the room and falling into his seat seconds before he would be marked tardy. She felt the loss of all the tiny moments of intensity, of limits-testing, all the emotion that a regiment of bells and schedules kept contained, if barely.
In recent years, whenever she faced disengaged students, she had been able to meet with them in person — to forge relationships that allowed her to help them succeed. But now there were so many she just couldn’t reach — she barely knew who they were. She understood how self-conscious teenagers were and had given up on having them turn their cameras on every day. But that meant that since the start of the school year, she had come to know students mostly through whatever they had to say in class — for some, precious little — and the frozen, smiling images they had chosen to project, if they even posted a photo. Some days, only about half the students in the class popped in. Of the 101 students enrolled in the two A.P. sections taught by her and a co-teacher, Joe Henke, at least 10 had never turned up even once.
‘They all tell me the same thing: They’re struggling. They’re sad. They’re overwhelmed. They’re hurting. They’re not learning.’
Every time they started a new unit, she tried to tell the students: Now we’re having a fresh start. What’s done is done. Let’s just move forward. She sensed that her students felt some relief when she put it that way, but as the weeks wore on, it was becoming harder to convince even herself that they were going to be able to make things right. She was shocked on Nov. 10, when a major essay was due: At least a third of her students, including many with whom she thought she had developed a solid rapport, did not turn it in. Ten days later, that was still true.
For Everett-Kennedy, school was usually what she considered “a locus of control,” a near-sacred zone where she excelled; now it was taking more and more energy to fight off her own sense of failure, which was frustrating because she had never worked harder. For the first time in her career, she offered a few students her cellphone number. She had previously guarded that boundary carefully; now she was willing to give her students another way to connect.
Among the shifts wrought by the pandemic were millions of tiny personal upheavals in the lives of teenagers, including altered circles of friendships, some of which were reconfigured simply by the hours they kept. That was true for Charles and his friend Catherine, a 15-year-old he first met in seventh grade at a camp run by a megachurch in town. Charles and Catherine, who also asked to be identified by her middle name, drifted apart in ninth grade, but during the pandemic their friendship deepened. Charles has two older sisters, but with all three of them hunkered down in their bedrooms for most of the day, he often felt lonely. Unsure of when a panic attack was going to kick in, he would reach out to Catherine at 2 or 3 in the morning to keep himself from his own thoughts; she was one of the kids who, like him, was almost always up at all hours of the night, sleeping for chunks of the day. She’d grown accustomed to the role of talking him down when he needed to tell someone how bad things had gotten; some days, he confided to her, he was not sure how much more he could take.
Catherine played baritone saxophone in the wind ensemble, had been playing goalie on soccer teams since she was 7 and was, like Charles, taking a challenging roster of honors and A.P. courses. But by December, soccer was over, wind ensemble felt dumb on Zoom and her grades were slipping because she kept putting off assignments. It ate at her, especially because sophomore year was when her older brother’s grades also started to drop — and then he dropped out of school his junior year. Her father, who did not graduate from college, did not put a lot of pressure on her, but she wanted to be more like her sister, who was studying education at the University of Missouri. Whenever she was behind on an assignment, she grew anxious, which she coped with by sleeping, which was easy to do because she was alone all day while her father, who was in charge of upkeep of an office park, went to work. Her parents divorced when she was in sixth grade, and since then, for reasons she generally kept to herself, her family had distanced itself from her mother.
Catherine and Charles often kept each other company late at night on FaceTime, saying little, each quietly pecking away at some assignment while taking breaks to watch TikTok videos of kids ranking their favorite anime characters or talking about their own pandemic blues. Catherine gave Charles a hard time about the onesie pajamas he rotated among, one of which gave him the look of a polar bear, all four of which had hoods; Charles made fun of her five-foot-tall stuffed bear, a gift from a rejected suitor, which she often leaned against when they spoke, as if in its embrace.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, they broke into a “Hamilton” rap battle; sometimes they talked about Ms. E.K., who had not exactly won Catherine over: She thought of Ms. E.K. as some kind of steamroller decorated with hearts and flowers, piling on work, all the while talking about how much she cared. And sometimes they talked about what Charles was going through with his father. Even when they didn’t talk about their parents, they had what Charles called “a tacit understanding.”
When Catherine was on FaceTime with Charles, she angled her camera to be sure he couldn’t see the contents of her room: a pile of laundry as high as her bed, a collection of empty cans of Monster Energy still sticky with residue, the floor so thick with who-knew-what that if she heard a sudden crunch beneath her feet, she just kept going. She was embarrassed about all of it but could not even imagine doing something about it. Days were going by when she never even managed to get out of bed. Many nights, her father brought her dinner, opening the door and quietly leaving her food on the desk. “He knows I’m not very good at accepting help,” she said. She did wonder whether he thought she was depressed or just lazy. She wasn’t sure which would make her feel worse. She usually tried not to worry her father about anything, because he had enough to worry about — her older brother, helping out her older sister with tuition and rent and car payments. Catherine felt bad about adding to his burden with the things she needed — $20 a week for music lessons, money for gear like cleats and shin guards for soccer.
It was easier for Catherine to be the voice of reason with Charles than it was for her to talk openly to him about how she was feeling. “Charles sees me as tough,” she said. “And therefore I don’t like to be anything else besides that.” But that didn’t mean she did not feel just as low or as afraid. “This is just how it is,” she said one day, her sentences coming out in halting phrases as she cried. “Usually I don’t show emotion until something triggers me, and then I’m a complete mess. It’s like — conceal, conceal, conceal, then mental breakdown, then back to being fine again.”
Sometimes, that trigger was a photo that her mom might text her on a day when Catherine happened to be feeling lonely. Once, her mom texted her a picture of the two cats Catherine grew up with, a tabby and a calico that lived with her mom. She missed those cats — she loved them. “Because cats, when they see you crying, they come over to you,” she said. When her mother sent her pictures of them, it was overwhelming — she felt a rush of emotions, all of them confusing. Sometimes the photos had no accompanying words, so Catherine could read anything she wanted into them: a taunt, a lure, a longing.
The last thing she wanted to do was explain to Ms. E.K. why her assignments were so late. Ms. E.K. would probably make her talk to some counselor, and nothing that counselor would say or do, she thought, would make any difference at all.
At some point midway through the first semester, Charles’s mother opened the door to his room, took a good look at the detritus of weeks’ worth of takeout food — a record-breaking collection of burger wrappers, the ketchup ground deep into the perfectly good rug in his room — and felt an overwhelming sense that things had clearly gone too far.
In November, when she started to realize that Charles wasn’t keeping up with his schoolwork, she tried to tell herself that he wasn’t failing at school; he was surviving a pandemic. She took heart in seeing him manage to get out of bed to play video games, and she felt relieved that he was at least connecting that way with some friends. Although the schools were closed, sports, for the most part, continued on. When J.V. football ended, he socialized with fellow members of the wrestling team. Even after a knee injury sidelined his season, he kept going to practice, which was perfect, as far as she was concerned: Charles could feel more like himself with his friends, but he wouldn’t be smushing his face right up against another wrestler.
She tried not to think about his grades. In fact, she made a point of not looking at them. But as the months wore on, her frustrations started building. She had come out publicly in favor of remote learning — and was out there, as a school administrator, trying to push back against the movement of state legislators and parents telling her that children couldn’t learn outside school. The school where she worked served many Black and Latino students, whose families, she knew, were especially vulnerable. In early March 2020, she herself had what she is now sure must have been Covid. At the time, she was having so much trouble breathing that she isolated in her bedroom and “just prayed: Lord, I can’t leave my babies all alone,” she said.
She wanted to protect her teachers and students at all costs. But here was Charles, her own child, who seemed miserable and unable to thrive with remote learning. He explained that he needed the threat of looking a disappointed teacher in the eye, in person. He needed to be around other kids sitting in desks and handing in their homework so that he, too, would hand in that homework — would not, in fact, be caught dead not handing in that paper. It irked her — angered her, on her worst days — that her son might have looked to the outside world like some case study in how remote learning let students down. Like so many parents she was hearing from, she was annoyed that when he was home, her child was not even leaving his room. “If you had a port-a-potty in there, I wouldn’t see you for weeks,” she told him.
She knew it was important for her son’s mental health that he try to re-establish healthy sleep patterns, but he was apparently uninterested in her advice. “You know those newborn babies who have no idea what time of night it is?” she said. “He’s like one of those newborn babies. His schedule is totally busted.”
She knew so much of it was out of his control, and she tried sympathizing. “This is a moment in life,” she told him. “It’s not who you are.” She tried not to cause her son to feel more pain than she knew he already did, but sometimes she spoke, she would admit, loudly. She bribed, she cajoled, she reminded Charles that she had agreed to skimp and save to send him on a junior-year school trip to Europe — but that agreement was made when he was getting good grades.
She made sure he was talking to a therapist — he had a lot to manage, given the pandemic, his complicated relationship with his father and the pressures of almost being an adult Black man who was, as she often reminded him, no longer “just this cute, precocious little kid.” Here was her beautiful boy’s path forward taking a swerve she never saw coming, and even as an educator with a Ph.D., she, too, felt that maybe this problem was bigger than one she knew how to solve.
The first week of December represented a new turning point for Everett-Kennedy, who was seeing in her students a level of darkness that left her feeling flat-out terrified for them. “I’m really scared,” she told me. Parents were reaching out. Students were asking how they could access counseling — that week alone, she estimated, she was aware of 10 students in her two A.P. classes who were in crisis. “It was too much,” she said later, looking back. “Too, too, too, too much.” The sheer volume of their needs was troubling to take in — and to take on. It was demanding work, with a heavier emotional load than her $50,000-a-year job normally required. Every one of those crises required multiple email conversations with the parents, with the student, with the counselor, and not one of those emails could be written with anything other than the utmost care and sensitivity.
Only looking back was she able to talk about the toll that the previous months had taken on her. The pandemic was straining her marriage, which was sapping some of her usual high energy. And not long after the start of the school year, her own rhythms shifted toward the students’ late hours. She started waking up just minutes before class, feeling that it was a slog simply to get to the laptop. Her daughter’s lunch break for school started in the middle of one of her own classes, requiring her to step away from her students for a few stressful minutes. “You need to eat your damn lunch,” she yelled at Stella more than once. She stopped wearing makeup and some days didn’t even brush her teeth.
Engaging with the students who were in crisis drained her in some ways but focused her in others — even helped her channel the intensity of her emotions. “I could throw myself into supporting my students to distract me from the ways I was struggling,” she said. “So in some ways, and this might sound trite, helping them helped me.” She spoke openly to students and parents about the benefits of therapy, of how positive it had always been for her. But she did not tell them that she had started having a relapse of panic attacks, which left her doubled over, heaving with sobs, drained. “I did not feel I could tell them,” she said, “because they needed, this year, for me to put on that brave face and just plow through.”
On Dec. 3, Everett-Kennedy wrote an email to Charles after a series of exchanges in which he made it clear he was suffering. “When can we chat sometime? I am NOT OK with you sliding into this pit of despair. You are not so far behind that this can’t be fixed (and quickly with some narrowed efforts!).” She offered some solutions for how they could work together and then reminded him she was there for him. “Giving up is not OK,” she wrote. “I won’t let you give up on your school potential and dreams. And I’m not giving up on you.” Charles wrote back: “Dear Mrs. E.K., I can meet with you whenever to talk about it, and I’m sorry for not being a better student. This year has been rough, to say the least.”
A few days later, she noticed that he disappeared abruptly from a Zoom class. Concerned, she turned instruction over to her co-teacher and took a break so she could text Charles. He texted back and admitted that he was having a panic attack; he was alone in the bathroom, crying. Eventually, she learned that right before class, he received a text from his father, the first in many months. Charles apologized to her for being so distressed. “I’m sorry I get in my head a lot,” he wrote. She replied: “Yep. I get it.” She took a deep breath and explained that she was going to have to call his mother and a school counselor to let them know she was worried about his mental state. If she didn’t hear from him or his mother in the next 15 minutes, she thought, she would get in the car and drive to his house. She texted Charles to ask if he was OK. She anxiously waited for his response. “I am right now while I listen to music,” he finally wrote back. “I’m so disappointed in myself that I let myself get to this point.”
Around the same time she had that exchange with Charles, Everett-Kennedy checked in on another A.P. student she’d been worried about. She had heard from a teacher that the girl seemed depressed, and she knew that she had dropped an after-school club to which she had previously been fairly committed. Everett-Kennedy heard back from the student around 11:30 at night. “I’m gonna be honest — I’m not doing great, haha,” the student emailed. “Thank you for your grace — I really am trying. I’m not lazy, just depressed and unmotivated, ha.” She had lost her taste and smell back in November, following a bout with the virus, and it still had not come back. She hoped she wasn’t oversharing, she told Everett-Kennedy, but the pandemic had been hard on her family in a few ways. Her mother, with whom she was close, had just come home from a month in rehab.
Even though it was late, Everett-Kennedy emailed her back. She had already crossed many personal lines this year. Whatever she had to give, she was, in those raw, dark weeks, ready to give, and in this particular moment, that was a piece of her own history. “Whenever you have a family member who is in the hospital and sick or has a long-term illness, everyone shows up with a casserole,” she wrote, calling on helpful comments someone offered her years earlier. “But you know what? If you have a family member in rehab, ain’t no one gonna show up with a casserole.” She knew what that felt like from firsthand experience, she told the girl, because her own father was an alcoholic for the duration of her childhood, unable to keep a job or pay child support. She was sharing this with the student, she said, because she wanted her to know that she should feel zero shame about any of it. And that none of it defined her. “So my sharing all this is me bringing you a casserole,” she told her. “You are not alone.”
On Jan. 9, Suzanne, the student who wrote about her loss of self-confidence in her periodization essay at the start of the school year, realized she was going to miss another deadline, one more failure alongside all the others that had been weighing heavily on her mind for months.
She had been feeling that something was wrong — really wrong — since the summer, but when the therapist her pediatrician recommended was not available, somehow her mother lost steam in finding her another.
Suzanne knew that her mother thought she was just moody, even prickly. But she wished her parents understood that it was hard to be someone other people liked when you didn’t really even like yourself. She couldn’t exactly explain that to them — or even share just how low she felt. It was somehow … embarrassing. She found it easier to express herself in that essay back in September, when she wrote that she was in the Era of Chaos. “I let my own flaws and mistakes take over my mind and my emotion,” she wrote, referring to her “declining mental health.” Her composition triggered a meeting that Suzanne, her mother, Everett-Kennedy and Joe Henke attended on Zoom.
Suzanne did start seeing a therapist after that, although a lot of what she was asked to do really annoyed her — like drawing charts and circles with lines showing how one thought got her to another one. How was she supposed to know where the thoughts came from? They were just there: She was not good enough. Her life was a waste. All she did was bring people down. Sometimes she couldn’t sleep all night, nights that rattled her. She stared up at the ceiling in the dark, with the same ideas batting her consciousness over and over. She had always grappled with intrusive thoughts about worthlessness, but it used to be that eight hours a day, her head was filled with something else — teachers talking about their weekends, going over homework assignments and showing her how to calculate the length of a hypotenuse; friends in the cafeteria complaining about their parents or listening to her complain about hers over a bad piece of lunchroom pizza. Now there were just her thoughts — they had the advantage, and she sometimes felt she could not go on coexisting with them for much longer.
On the evening of Jan. 9, Suzanne’s father, a former police officer who now maintained the department’s fleet of cars, took her to his office so she could finish an assignment and use the printer. Her dad was working in the garage next to the office, and she could hear his country music playing as she picked up her notebook and a black pen. If she was to keep going, she needed to justify the reasons. She made a T-chart and labeled one side pros and the other side cons. If she gave up, she wrote on the side marked pros, then her father could take the money the family was saving for her college education and buy himself the Toyota Avalon she knew he always wanted. The two went to car shows a lot, and he often talked about his fantasy of taking a road trip in a car like that. That was how she showed the people she loved how she felt — she gave them things. Another argument in favor of giving up: She would no longer have to live with the feeling that she did nothing but disappoint herself. She had to think for a moment about what to put on the other side of the chart. She wrote that she was looking forward to going to school out of state. Also — she could laugh about this much later — she had a new set of golf clubs that she had wanted for a long time.
Then she put the paper aside and wrote an email. “Hi Mrs. E.K., I feel really embarrassed emailing you about this, but I have been trying to get work done from before break, to turn in tonight,” she wrote. “I’m really fighting with myself internally today. To put it simply, I’m trying to justify living today. These feelings pass eventually, but it’s very difficult to get things done. I don’t know how to explain these feelings and deal with them. Can I please turn in things after midnight?”
“Yes, of course you can have an extension,” Ms. E.K. wrote back. “As we’ve said all year — you matter to us as a healthy human before academics. Also, I do need to call your folks about this tonight. It’s a professional obligation that I must contact them to ensure your safety.” She was letting her know, she told her, because she did not want her to feel that she was violating her trust.
Everett-Kennedy was not quite numb, but she did, at that point, take comfort in protocol. Suzanne’s parents and the school counselors would take over from there.
Two days later, the school board met to vote on whether to open schools, as planned, for hybrid learning later that month. This time Everett-Kennedy did not speak; having started out so opposed to the opening of schools, she was now reconsidering.
The experience of the past months had cracked something open in her. There were some students she would not recognize if she passed them on the street, but there were also many whose stories she knew intimately — the student worrying about his parents’ potential deportation, the student whose mother was murdered in a previous year, the student whose parents were navigating a painful divorce, the students who had mental-health problems that were manageable before the pandemic but had now overrun their lives. “And I’ve seen more tears with students than I’ve seen, and I’ve shed more tears at home than I’ve ever shed before,” she said in a video she made for her students in December after a deluge of concerns they expressed about their workload.
It was clear at that moment on the video that she was getting emotional. “I’m getting verklempt now,” she said, looking away. “I feel like I know you guys personally more than in previous years, and you’re certainly being more vulnerable with us. … You’re advocating for yourself better than any other year of students.” She talked about how she was trying to prepare them for that big A.P. test that was coming, regardless of how much they all hated remote learning. And she reminded them that they were all in it together. “You are not alone,” she said. “Your teachers, too — we are just as stressed as you are.”
Some evenings, she put her daughter in front of the TV and sat on a seat in her shower for 45 minutes, drinking a Diet Coke, without managing to muster the energy to wash her hair. By the end of the semester, she sometimes showed up for class without changing out of her pajamas, hoping the kids thought she had on a regular top.
At the school-board meeting, the high school’s orchestra director, Dustin Frieda, addressed the community. He made it clear that he was no Covid denier; he understood the threat. His own grandfather, who survived Dunkirk and liberated Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp, received a Covid diagnosis just that week at age 99. “But I want to talk to you about our students,” he said. “I talk to them. And they all tell me the same thing: They’re struggling. They’re sad. They’re overwhelmed. They’re hurting. They’re not learning. And they’ve almost given up or they’ve already given up. Since Labor Day, I’ve had four different students reach out to me with thoughts of suicide and two reach out to me for help with sexual assaults that happened during the pandemic.”
The number of young people who showed up at the main University of Missouri hospital emergency room with suicidal ideation was up by 25 percent in February 2021 compared with the same month the year before. Nationwide, those numbers also seem to be elevated, according to research published in Pediatrics in March. But actual suicides in the United States declined over all, and in some states, the number of adolescent suicides declined as well (most likely because of greater parental oversight).
Frieda was hearing from a crisis counselor who was worried because he was receiving fewer referrals — clearly, the counselor was not able to lay eyes on the students who needed the most help. “Our kids are the ones that are paying the biggest price,” Frieda pointed out, adding that they were the lowest-risk group for complications from Covid. He strongly recommended that the schools at least partly reopen.
Eight days later, just after A.P. World wrapped up the section on the Dark Ages, they did.
When schools opened on Jan. 19, Charles and his mother found that their positions had now flipped: She felt he needed to be back at the building with his classmates. But now he was reluctant to return. He had asthma; he considered himself high-risk. And he did not feel ready to see all the people whose lives had moved forward while his seemed to have ground to a halt. At the same time, he was curious — maybe it would feel right, as his mother said. Maybe he’d actually have … fun.
Catherine was scheduled to go to school on Mondays and Tuesdays, which meant that she and Charles, who was assigned to Thursdays and Fridays, would not overlap. But she gave him the report Monday evening: how one of her best friends gave her a ride to school that day, blasting Nirvana out the window; how strange it felt to meet the teachers for the first time.
“It was funny seeing Ms. E.K.,” Catherine told him. “She’s way shorter than me.” In A.P. World, she said, the students had to stand up and introduce themselves, but Catherine was lazy (self-conscious, really) and stayed seated. “I want to call on you, but I don’t know your name,” Everett-Kennedy told her. When she said her name, Everett-Kennedy’s face lit up. “Oh, my gosh!” she said. Affectionately, she called her “infamous.” Then Catherine stood and took a bow. Something about meeting Everett-Kennedy in person was already softening her impression of the teacher. “I think I might have given her a bit of a hard time,” Catherine told Charles. “She seems like she’s not trying that hard to make our lives miserable.” Everett-Kennedy had also given another one of her pep talks about how this was a new start, but for the first time, Catherine felt that maybe she was right.
Three days after that, Charles walked into the school for the first time since March 2020. It hit him hard that none of his best friends were there because of how the classes were divided. Instead of feeling like a shot of his old life, school felt eerie and silent. No one was jostling or posturing in the cafeteria; kids didn’t seem to want to have conversations with one another in class, because to do so you practically had to yell across a distance of six feet. He felt none of the contagious, boundless energy he used to feel in a building packed with high schoolers; students seemed as if they were still on mute. He came home that afternoon drained and exhausted, desperate to get back under the covers. The next day, he wanted to stay home, and his mother told him there was no point in fighting about whether he should go or not: Someone in his class had tested positive for the virus, and now he was in quarantine anyway.
Charles retreated back into his bedroom. He sent Ms. E.K. two texts on Feb. 9. “I’m back to in-person Thursday and excited for ‘Othello,’” he wrote. “It’s one of my faves.” She responded with a Bitmoji of herself with her hands in the air, the word “yayayaya” repeating in the background.
That Thursday, Charles didn’t make it to class. To help with his panic attacks, he was on new medication that was tiring him out, making it hard for him to start bouncing back to a routine. “I’ll try to be there tomorrow, and I’m very upset that I don’t get to act out the final acts of one of my favorite plays,” he wrote to Ms. E.K. that afternoon when she checked in. “It’s third behind Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth.’” Even back in seventh grade, he had thrilled to the harsh, bleak truths of “Macbeth,” which he now saw as missives from the future to his innocent young self. His favorite line, about life: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
That month, snow forced school closings on three separate days. By then, it was as if Charles had forgotten how to be a kid who went to school. He was starting to miss Catherine, who never answered on FaceTime anymore in the middle of the night, even though they still sometimes texted and talked during the day. “I’m feeling like a McDonald’s ice cream machine,” he texted in late February. They each knew what that meant in their part of the world: broken.
On her first day back at school, Sarah noticed almost immediately that so many people looked different. It was not just that their faces had thinned or filled out, or that they had grown taller; it was how they dressed. Last spring, before schools closed, almost all the girls she knew had dressed daily in leggings and bright-colored, sporty tops, even Sarah. (She called it her “white phase.”) But now pretty much everyone looked full-on emo or skater: girls in big, baggy pants with graphic T-shirts, a lot of flannel shirts tied around their waists. Other girls were wearing tights with holes and big chunky boots, not quite goth but not exactly neutral. It was as if over the course of the pandemic, some mysterious algorithm had fed an entire generation of teenagers a never-ending series of dark, moody TikTok videos that reflected their collective state of mind and influenced their aesthetic in the process.
Sarah had a much better sense of herself since the pandemic, she thought; she’d watched a lot of body-positivity posts on TikTok, and sometimes she felt she learned more from them than she would in a year of school. Self-acceptance — that was crucial. Normally, she hated her hair. After all that time at home, she decided to embrace it, to dress any way she wanted, to wear thrift-store clothes that were a little more quirky. Life was too short to care what other people thought.
Every conversation she had that day felt fresh — and the teachers seemed happy, like, goofy happy. But the social nature of school was also overwhelming, especially as she was trying to figure out where some of her friendships stood. A lot of people she thought were friends, she came to realize during the pandemic, were more like fake friends who stopped texting her back. And a lot of people she thought were fake friends turned out to be real friends who were going through some of the same things she was. Some of her friends would text her, when they didn’t hear back after several attempts, “Are you dead?” It had taken her a long time to start opening up about how sad she was. “Girl, me too,” her friends sometimes told her. She was amazed that she had been too far gone at the time to notice, and too isolated to have shared any of her own experiences sooner.
In class, Sarah was sure she could detect Ms. E.K.’s smile beneath her mask. Ms. E.K. announced that she would be holding before-school tutoring sessions, which Sarah, who finished the fall semester with a D-, never would have attended during remote learning. But in the coming weeks, she started going with some regularity; by mid-February, she knew she was going to do much better in the class the second semester than she did the first.
Her mother had recovered by then, but it still wasn’t easy to put everything Sarah had been through behind her. “When I’m happy, I’m happy,” she said in early March. “But when I’m sad, it’s like — terribly sad. I had it last week. I’ll just get like that and not do anything for two days and then — I don’t know. I’m working on myself, trying to stop that.”
On the days when she was home from school and supposed to be working on her own, she sometimes fell back into old habits and thought patterns. She was still angrier than she used to be and then ashamed of herself for yelling at her mother, even her brother. School was often overwhelming as she adjusted to life without solitude: so many questions, so many people talking to her, so many people shoving their opinions in her face. Her recovery would take time. “I feel like my emotions are coming back one by one,” she said.
Everett-Kennedy headed into the first day of hybrid school worrying about whether it would feel safe and worrying about the worrying she knew her already-anxious students were doing in anticipation. Many of them told her they felt nervous about catching the coronavirus.
Instead, the first day was “bizarre but wonderful,” she said, calling from her drive home. For the first half of class, she didn’t notice all the frantic messages from remote students telling her that she had forgotten to turn on Zoom. Rather than putting phones in a lockbox, as she normally did, she let students use them to call up a presentation — everyone’s relationship to technology had changed.
Part of the thrill of the day was seeing in person all these students she’d known only virtually — it was as if the characters of a novel she’d been reading for months had suddenly come to life, walked into her classroom and greeted her by name. “It all felt like some kind of big reveal,” she said.
She had been so concerned about safety that she had not expected her mood to change so quickly — but within two weeks or so, she was starting to feel her usual energy again. All the pieces of her were there in the classroom now: the part that was good at her job, that was intellectually challenged, that knew how to get a laugh out of the kids with a morbid joke, that could manage to get students to early-morning tutoring, that could recognize, by name, every sophomore she taught.
She sensed that the students felt the same way: She was already seeing vastly improved academic performance from many of them when, on March 8, the school board reconvened once more and voted to open school five days a week, starting April 5. Everett-Kennedy was supposed to have about 50 students in each of her two A.P. World sections, which turned out to be fewer — at least two had moved and 14 had dropped out, far more than the usual one or two who walked away. At that point, Everett-Kennedy and most of her fellow teachers had been at least partly vaccinated; many of her students had jobs in food service or at grocery stores, and the state was going to give anyone 16 and over in those jobs the vaccine. She felt ready for school to open in full swing, especially since Covid cases had dropped precipitously. “The kids need a reset,” she said. “And so do I.”
Sarah was coming to tutoring, and her mother was still looking around for a therapist. Everett-Kennedy was still getting to know Catherine, who seemed to run hot and cold, both in her attitude and her work output. She felt confident that she would win her over eventually. Suzanne hung out with a pack of boys on the opposite side of the room from Catherine — they attended on the same day — and seemed to be laughing with them a lot. Ms. E.K. tried not to make too much of that; she knew that some kids managed to put on good face at school, and she didn’t expect any tidy bows on the story of the past year. But school had never given up on her, which made it possible for her to not give up on herself. Maybe it would do the same for Suzanne.
Charles — Ms. E.K. wasn’t giving up on him either. In mid-March, his attendance had been erratic. She got a tip one morning from someone who was concerned that Charles was feeling dangerously out of control and hopeless. She texted him at 7:49 a.m. “Get up! Get out of bed!” she wrote. “Get out of bed get up get up get up.” Her flurry of encouragement continued: “You are coming to school whether I have to pick you up or you get there on your own.” He wrote back a few minutes later. “Ma’am, I’m going off of 2 hours of sleep and I’ve cried this morning. I don’t know if I can do this today.” He wrote to her about his feelings about his father; he wrote that he wanted to let her know how hopeless he was feeling, but that he knew that if he did, she would have to tell someone. She told him not to think about that — that she was coming to get him and that he had 15 minutes to get dressed. “I’m here!” she wrote when she pulled up. “Hop in the car, friend!” She waited for him to come outside, and then he did, as if she had willed him out the door. They rode together in the car, Charles almost silent. She thought he was in too much pain to speak. In fact, he was stunned: Ms. E.K. had actually shown up at his door! At school, she walked him to the office of the counselor (whom she had texted on her way to picking Charles up); she knew the counselor was better equipped to manage the situation from there.
She picked him up the following day too, and in the coming weeks, Charles’s attendance became more consistent, along with his contributions to class; just as he had in those first weeks of Zoom class, he was making the other students laugh, jolting them with his openness, helping them catch up on all the bonding they had to do in the remaining months of the year. One morning in class, she overheard him talking with Noelle (her middle name). They had been paired off to analyze a primary text about urban life during the Industrial Revolution, and Charles apologized for being so low-energy — he said he just had not been getting much sleep. “Me, too,” Noelle said. He told her he was on new antidepressants that seemed to be messing with his sleep cycle. “Me, too!” Noelle said. “I’m on some new antidepressants!” Charles asked her what she was on — oh, he’d tried that one already, he told her. Maybe she should ask her doctor about this other one, he suggested. At that moment, Everett-Kennedy’s teaching partner, Joe Henke, called the students back to order and asked Charles, who was still midconversation, to refocus and quiet down. “I’m sorry, Mr. Henke,” Charles said, full voice, for the benefit of the entire class. “We’re just having a really good conversation about the antidepressants we’re on.” Everyone, including Noelle, laughed.
Some young people who struggled, Everett-Kennedy knew, would bounce back almost as if the trials of the last year had never transpired; others, she suspected, would have more lingering aftershocks. The experience of adolescents who are living through the pandemic is unique. Mental-health experts who have studied the long-term effects on young people of other mass traumas — displacements, natural disasters, war — are unsure of even how much they can extrapolate from past research. Psychologists do know that one episode of major depression puts young people at higher risk for another. But they can’t predict what lasting difference the pandemic will make for the adolescents who suffered mental-health struggles during this time, many of whom were already vulnerable at the outset.
Even as the world opened up, even as students’ grades picked up, Everett-Kennedy hoped that the adults around them would continue to remember that these young people had been through something wrenching. “We have to listen to what they’re thinking and feeling and not just say, ‘Well, that was in the past,’” Everett-Kennedy said. “I think people are going to be so energized to just plow forward.” She wondered if she, too, was riding the good feelings for now, if some of what she had been through would catch up with her once the race to the end of the year was behind her. “I’m still in shock, I think,” she said this month. “It felt never-ending and like a blink at the same time — it was a vortex that sucked a year of our lives.”
She knew she would never see her students the same way — she had a better appreciation for the richness of their inner lives, the domestic dramas, the anguished choices, the responsibilities, the fears that so many of them were bearing, even in typical years, often without her knowledge. Her boundaries had grown porous this past year, at a time when desperation demanded it. “I saw their struggles,” she said, “and they saw mine.” But she felt that in the future, she wanted to fix some of those ruptures — to keep her own walls intact while remaining open to the complexity of the burdens her students were carrying. “I want school to be the place of normalcy and control for students,” she said. “That involves me being that face for them.”
She did not want to forget what they’d all been through — but, she said, she also longed for closure: “This year just has to end.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Kholood Eid is a documentary photographer, filmmaker and educator based in New York who is known for her intimate portraiture. In 2020, Eid was a recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Domestic Print, alongside colleagues, for the Times series “Exploited.”