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Contemplating Achievement: Life Before (and After) COVID-19

Proof Schubert Reed

June 15th, 2020


In early March, about a week before DeBlasio announced the official shutdown of all NYC public schools, conversations began to filter through my school halls about what a shutdown really meant in the middle of third quarter junior year. People talked quietly — almost secretively — as if focusing on anything not academic, not college-driven, was a betrayal to the grind that they had been pouring into school all year. Teachers attempted to contain the conversation, give us space to examine the consequences on our lives and on school, prevent classroom chats from exploding into full-blown rumor and fear. The prospect of school closing, while borne of disaster, was like an unopened surprise package, lumpy and exciting and terrifying all at the same time. We could see its silhouette, prod it, massage it around the edges, hypothesize surreptitiously, but no one could really say what it meant. Then, the announcement came, the package torn open, the insides clearer and all the more messy at the same time.

I remember Snapchatting my friends in a panic, saying clandestine goodbyes, piling textbooks into my backpack, downing my last halal from the cart right by school. A blur later, I was trapped in my room, my mattress a brand new school desk, preparing for remote life for who-knows-how-long.

In the weeks following, as the implications of a school shutdown and a global pandemic became more clear, the academic consequences came into focus, as well. Most schools went pass-fail, many colleges test-optional, and, rightfully so, my teachers pledged that they cared far more about protecting students’ emotional and physical wellbeing than seeing them succeed on academic assessments, which felt meaningless in comparison.

This isn’t what any of us expected — “this” being the entirely unnameable, completely impalpable experience of having your life effectively put on hold. And I am profoundly grateful and blessed that I have a safe home to live in, a loving family to be with, and access to healthcare if things go bad.

But I also can’t help but feel cheated out of all of the typicals of junior year: the 4 a.m. essay grinds, the standard college applications, the cornerstones of what it means to be 16 and 17. With less emphasis on the superficial, I have begun to question what it is about being a teenager that I hold so dear.

Since before high school, I have felt the pressure to define myself in sweeping, cold academic terms: getting a 95 on a test puts me one step closer to getting into the college of my dreams, my math teacher says; signing up for x club at the activities fair rounds out my resumé for a desired elite institution; hanging out with my friends and showing that I can have fun proves to colleges that I’m cool and down-to-earth, as well as academically driven. All of high school consists of a series of maneuvers and wrong or right turns, heading toward some final, glorified institution (or so we’re told). Ironically, what you learn along the way ends up feeling meaningless in the process. I was aware of this broken-ness before COVID-19, but couldn’t help but play into it; it was the system I had grown up in, and the system that would deliver me into the real world — why would I challenge it, at risk of losing valuable opportunities that would shape my life as an adult? Now, in quarantine, with no choice but to forgo grades I received in the weeks leading up to school’s shut-down, I’ve been forced to confront what about school is really valuable, and what about the system is contrived or harmful to the very goals it avows to fulfill.

I genuinely love to learn, and love the things I do outside of school during the year. But with more free time, I’ve been able to pursue — or at least think about pursuing — projects I never touched while in school. I can be creative and write a screenplay, or read some niche deep-dive journal article for fun, or listen to music for hours on end. I can sit more with the books and essays I’m asked to read for school, not only researching them for class, but exploring them for the sake of deepening my understanding of the world. I know I’m doing it because I care, not because it will bring me external validation from an adult or a system that in the long run, is entirely contrived. School matters, and college matters, but the superficial accomplishments that so often supplant the real value of learning can make us forget why we apply to college at all.

Beyond the personal, quarantine has weirdly provided space to interrogate what’s truly awful about our country (and what’s always been awful). From the murders of unarmed Black people to the very disproportionate impacts the virus has had on communities of color, it is becoming clearer and clearer that we live in a broken racist system. Now, more vigorously than ever, people are calling that system out. As we move toward reopening, I hope we remember that the cracks that we saw so clearly under quarantine don’t vanish when we have less time and energy to put toward their repair.

From the personal to the systemic, the quarantine has made one thing clear: when it comes down to it, grades and numbers and checked boxes mean nothing in the face of genuine growth and humanity, just as they mean nothing in the face of COVID-19. It’s sad that it takes a global pandemic for that to really be clear.

The world we’re living in is awful and painful and horribly messed up, and I’m so lucky to be healthy and safe right now, but if there’s any silver lining, I guess it’s this: locked away in our various spaces, looking toward the world after COVID-19, maybe we will begin to see the faults of the world we lived in before. Maybe we will question the institutions — the schools, the healthcare systems, the law enforcement groups — that we’ve only nominally challenged before. Maybe we will miss what and whom we love. And when we come out o n the other side, maybe we will hug our friends tighter, just for the sake of hugging them. Maybe we will do the things that we love, just for the sake of doing them. Maybe we will look at the world in a different way.

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