“What is the difference between a hero and a saint?” my ethics teacher asked. He paused, waiting for a response.
I switched my Zoom screen to gallery view. One student was doing his laundry. Another texted me to joke that she had turned off her camera to cook an omelet. A third, eyes downcast, was checking his phone. One brave student unmuted her microphone to answer, but as she began to speak, another student interjected, unintentionally forcing the first student to mute herself once more.
I was supposed to begin college in September but am taking a gap year instead. I’m worried that if my mother, who works on the health care front line, falls ill with COVID-19, I will need to shoulder her family responsibilities. But I’m also worried about trying to do college on Zoom. This spring, instead of feeling energized at the end of the school day, as I had before distance learning, I felt frustrated, restless, and completely isolated from my teachers and peers. As excited as I was to go to college, I knew my freshman year, filled with Zoom lectures and strict social distancing rules, would be nothing like what I had hoped for.
But an important question remains: What am I going to do for the next 15 months?
Before the coronavirus pandemic, I toyed with the idea of a gap year. I dreamed of spending a year in Taiwan to connect with my Asian roots, but Taiwan closed off its borders in March. I fantasized about traveling across the country to interview multiracial Asian-Americans for a book project I had started last fall, but domestic travel is no longer safe. I thought about tutoring, campaigning for a politician, and getting a full-time job, but now I cannot even walk my dog without a face mask, let alone leave home for an entire day.
As well-intentioned as those dreams were, I feel guilty looking back at my plans, centered almost entirely on myself. My frustration with Zoom and its lack of personal connection was what finally pushed me to take a gap year, but ironically it’s social distancing that has exposed me to issues my upbringing sheltered me from — rampant unemployment rates, tattered social safety nets, and racial inequity in health care, to name a few.
While some of my classmates have worried about parents losing their jobs or infected family members being unable to get treatment, others, whose Zoom cameras captured gleaming swimming pools and Grecian columns, lamented that hosting big parties has become a safety hazard. I wonder how I could have been so unaware, so focused on my studies, when pressing social problems were simmering beneath the placid surface of my life.
I’ve also realized that in the wake of COVID-19, adults whom my peers and I had looked up to in times of need — teachers, coaches, and even our parents — are vulnerable, sick, or dying. Many national leaders have proved themselves incapable of handling a crisis. When I first thought of taking a gap year, I hoped the time away from school would help me grow up. As tentatively as I might have wanted to enter adulthood before the pandemic, I now accept that my peers and I will have to grow up much faster than past generations.
I believe it is my generation’s responsibility to tackle the problems the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light. Though I won’t be able to travel, and I will probably spend the next year at home, I’m coming to believe that maybe this gap year will allow me to mature as much — if not more than — a conventional one would have. The question I have to answer is no longer how I can better myself but rather how I can improve the world.
If I were given another opportunity to answer my ethics teacher’s question, I would say this: If my generation can embrace the challenges brought forward by the pandemic, and if we can carry the lessons we learn from it into our college and professional careers, then we will be able to create real change. Perhaps, then, there is not much of a difference between a hero and a saint, or even a teenager, after all.
Isabelle Halsey is a 2020 graduate of the Loomis Chaffee School.