NEWTON — They gathered on the sidewalk in front of Emily’s house, four 16- and 17-year-olds on bicycles, appearing one by one and rolling to a stop. The spaces they left between them — sofa-sized gaps, abnormally wide for close friends — were the only sign of a world flipped upside-down.
Normally, at noon on a Friday, they would have been together at Newton South High School, studying the New Deal in history class. But on this Friday a week ago, nothing was normal. A global pandemic had shut down their school. A frightening new virus was spreading fast. Within days, the state would issue a stay-home advisory, but for the moment, riding bikes was still OK. And with nothing else to do but sit at home on screens and worry, there was solace to be found in friends and fresh air, and a plan to ride somewhere together.
So they messaged one another, and proposed a picnic.
It felt as unreal and unlikely as anything could. Their high school was renowned for its rigor and its students’ ambitions; in recent years, the pressure-cooker atmosphere had become a matter of community concern, with efforts made to ease the competitive fervor. Now all of that academic stress and structure had vanished, replaced by an uncomfortable, yawning emptiness.
They knew they were lucky to escape the worst of it. They were young and healthy, with safe, stable homes in which to shelter and technology that let them stay in touch with school and friends. They referred, guiltily, to “first world problems” when they spoke of privileged things they were likely to miss out on: a school-sponsored trip to Ghana in April; their junior semi-formal in mid-May.
Still, the void they faced felt vast to them, and hard to fill. More than momentous events and milestones, they missed their simple, everyday routines: the teachers who listened to them, whom they respected and trusted for guidance; the classrooms where they felt an energizing sense of purpose; the lively swirl of school acquaintances who made their daily lives more colorful and funny. They missed the buzz and busyness, and all the fleeting little contacts they once took for granted.
“I miss the people you don’t necessarily text,” said Katherine Studentsova, one of the four friends. “You don’t have their numbers, or know where they live, but you see them every day and you really miss them.”
There was nothing to do except focus on the moment, and on people they could still connect with. So Emily Ball got up that Friday morning and made two boxes of Annie’s mac-and-cheese for the picnic — one regular, one vegan — packing it into two plastic containers before heading outside to wait for her friends.
Katherine showed up first, a batch of fresh-baked blueberry scones tucked into her backpack. Then Kaila, who lives four houses down from Emily on their pretty, classically suburban street. Finally Dina Kats appeared, a little late but bearing homemade vegan cookies. She had been delayed by her brother’s medical school residency match announcement, which her family watched together on a Zoom video conference.
The four young women have known each other for years — Kaila and Dina since preschool — but they grew closer recently, as classmates in an innovative course in media studies. All are good students, earning As and Bs. Katherine is a high achiever unafraid of challenge, a rock-climber taking two math classes. Kaila, an artist, has a playful sense of humor; she is considering going to college in Europe or Canada. Dina is driven by her love of technical theater; resourceful and practical, she helps her friends solve problems. Emily, the sweet-natured ringleader of the picnic, is the group catalyst, her friends said: bringing people together, starting new things, always with an eye out for the underdog.
Their bike ride would take the friends three miles to the south, past a country club and a college campus. Their destination was a cemetery in West Roxbury, where Katherine had learned to ride a bike in childhood. A cold rain had fallen overnight, but the sky was clearing; the temperature would slowly rise into the 60s.
Before they rode off together down the street, Emily’s mom issued a somber reminder: They must continue to stay six feet apart. Emily thought she sounded unnecessarily stern, but she understood her mother’s concern. All of them had grandparents they were worried about, some with respiratory troubles, others who were restless and refused to stay indoors. The disease, they knew, is hardest on the old.
Their own sense of disorientation had deepened that morning, on a Zoom conference with one of their teachers. They had expected to hear that their schoolwork would continue online, allowing them to make some academic progress. Instead, they had learned that they, like most students in Massachusetts, would not receive assignments specific to their classes, at least for the time being. They could take direction from an online list of “enrichment” activities, but those were optional, ungraded, and, in the view of some students, uninspiring. (“Math is like, ‘Do a Sudoku,’ ” one of them said, unimpressed.)
It was frustrating and disappointing. Katherine wondered how she would tackle calculus next year, after missing months of precalculus.
“I was already nervous about it, and now I’m going to be behind,” she said. “You really need to have a solid foundation.”
They could feel the discipline they had built beginning to weaken. They felt guilty, and worried about how they would get back up to speed. Emily had already deleted three apps from her phone — Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok — after seeing her screen time skyrocket during the “coronacation,” as the students called their unwanted break from school.
Freed from their school’s 7:40 a.m. start time, Kaila found herself staying up until 2 a.m. Her most despondent moments came when she woke at noon, and was hit full force by how wrong it felt.
Arriving, one by one, at the cemetery, they pedaled through the tall, black metal gate and parked their bikes beside a shingled shed. On a muddy patch of lawn, far from any gravestones, they spread out their jackets in a circle on the ground, careful to keep ample space between them. The spot was close to a busy intersection and the sounds of traffic; still, it felt apart from the noise somehow.
Katherine pulled a box of blue latex medical gloves from her backpack and tossed them in pairs to the others. “My mom’s a doctor,” she explained. Her friends, pulling on their gloves, already understood the need: Emily’s mother works as a hospital administrator; Dina’s father is an anesthesiologist.
The world outside looked deceptively ordinary. Joggers and walkers passed by, and the students noticed more dads with strollers than usual. “There goes another one,” one of them said, as a man pushed a baby into the cemetery. Sun peeked through the clouds and geese patrolled the distant grass; it was possible to forget the world was in crisis. “If a time traveler drove by,” Katherine would say later, “they wouldn’t even know that anything was wrong.”
They spread out their picnic and talked, for a while, of other things, the comforting terrain of bygone high school lunch times. They lamented the sameness of high school formal dresses — “Why do you care if someone gets the same dress, if all the dresses look the same, anyway?” — and marveled at a Shakespeare-loving classmate who had read “Macbeth” ahead of their class syllabus.
“Is that what we’re supposed to be reading?” one of them asked. For now, they would have to help each other stay on track; their teachers could not assign them specific books to read, they said.
So many things they loved had disappeared: their after-school jobs, the documentaries they had been making for their media class, the sunlit track practices that would never happen. Kaila, who asked that her last name not be published, craved guidance from her art teacher as she tried to build a portfolio to submit to colleges. Katherine missed the younger students she tutored in math, the little epiphanies that just didn’t happen online. “It’s a sitting-next-to-each-other experience,” she said.
As set designer for the high school musical, Dina had spent months perfecting the look of their latest production, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” when the shows were abruptly canceled. No audience would ever see the hundreds of tiny lights she had painstakingly embedded in the set.
“It looked so cool in rehearsal,” she said. “There was a lot of innovation in it.”
Even skateboarding had lost a little of its spark. When Emily’s neighbor tried to teach her a new trick on the street one day — a spin known as a “shove-it” — she realized that she couldn’t lean on him for balance. “Touch is so important,” she said. “I miss hugging people. I miss high fives.”
Emily had found herself consumed, since school had closed, with the toll of the pandemic on low-income families. She had tried to organize a team of babysitters, to help parents in the city who still had to go to work, but struggled to find a way to get it off the ground. Instead, she and Katherine joined a local effort to support small businesses, collecting data and setting up Go Fund Me campaigns to help them survive through the shutdown.
They were all digging deep for things to do, ways to make themselves feel focused and useful. Kaila was teaching herself Dutch, using an app and YouTube videos, while continuing to study French. Dina would surprise herself, hours after their picnic, by building an easel in her basement, using scrap lumber she found there and devising a makeshift hinge from nails.
After months of letting it sit on her to-do list, Emily would finally devise a name and mission statement for the student club she’d been thinking of starting: Students for Criminal Justice Reform. They would read books and watch movies to learn how race and class influenced incarceration — whenever school started up again, that is.
The following week, Emily would hear from a teacher who thought school might not reopen until the fall. She had not let herself imagine that could happen, and the teacher’s remark hit her with a gut punch of shock and sorrow.
“School is my happiness,” she said, “and I’m really going to miss it.”
She studied the calendar on her iPhone, feeling her heart sink at the string of blank, empty days she still had to get through.
Just outside the cemetery gates, a low-riding sports car pulled up to a stoplight. Music blasted from the open windows as the young male driver glanced their way. The four friends laughed at the familiar sign of spring, and pretended to be sad when the car pulled away.
The normalcy felt bracing, reassuring — and too fleeting.
They stood and gathered up their trash and jackets, preparing for the ride back home. Then, as if by unspoken agreement, they turned their bikes around, away from the exit. Together, they pedaled deeper into the cemetery — not quite ready, yet, to rejoin the world.
E-mail Jenna Russell at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.