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Out of a Crisis: The Voices of Our Students

‘Without human connection, school is a shadow’

Erin Roth

“Out of a Crisis: The Voices of Our Students” is a new series, launched by the Globe’s Great Divide team, that publishes student essays, poems, artwork, and videos featuring teenage perspectives on learning and living amid a pandemic. The stories are published in the Great Divide newsletter.

About the author: Michelle Bojar, 15, is a sophomore at Newton South High School.

School through the Screen

Ever since I was little, I’ve been excited to go to school to see my classmates and teachers. As I grew older, my friends and I would chat over group projects, walk the hallways to our next class together, share food from our lunches, get to hear stories from our teachers’ personal lives, and complain about teachers and homework as we changed for afterschool sports in the locker room.

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I didn’t realize how these connections supported me, raising my spirits and allowing me to have a positive outlook on school. I didn’t realize, of course, until March 12, 2020, when school was shut down due to COVID-19.

Now, instead of being surrounded by the buzz of conversation, I’m surrounded by silence. The periodic hum of a car driving past my house is the only sound I hear. I don’t see old friends, don’t smile at new students, don’t check in with people I haven’t seen in a while, don’t see last year’s teachers in the halls. I simply don’t feel connected.

I watch my classes as if they were a series on Netflix, each class an episode played just to fill the time. And when classes are over, what is different? Nothing. Nothing changes.

It’s a challenge not being able to meet and bond with teachers. When I can see my teachers in person, I can connect to them more easily. In the classroom, the conversation is not only about school, but about our personal lives and interests. It helps us feel part of a community.

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With online school, communication is not a dialogue. A question gets asked, answered, and then everyone is expected to move on. The teacher and student know each other from a strictly academic standpoint. Teachers don’t share details from their lives. I don’t talk about myself from my box on the screen. The only thing teachers know about me is how I do on certain assignments.

The real trouble is that my teachers don’t really know my strengths, my weaknesses, or how I learn best, because they don’t see how I work. I’m given time to work during class, but the teachers suggest that everyone turn off their cameras during this time. We mute ourselves except during certain discussions or to answer a question. In a classroom, even if the teachers are not looking at everyone, they can hear.

Asking for help is a struggle for me in the classroom. Having to ask a question over Zoom, knowing my voice is going to come across clearly on everyone’s speaker, is even more frightening. While I can send teachers a message in the chat, written words may not convey what I really need. Knowing each other from a solely academic standpoint makes us bland, 2-D characters. It makes true connection difficult.

Forming relationships with other students is hard as well. Normally, we bond by talking to the people at the desks or tables next to us. On screen, we talk only about assignments. No matter how interesting our conversations about symbolism and formulas are, the screen always acts as a barrier to real connection. It is a barrier not only in the physical sense, but emotionally as well.

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In school, the awkward silence that came with finishing one’s work early would be broken with chit-chat about our personal lives. Filling the silence could even lead to conversations that never ended. Now, when work is finished, mics and cameras are turned off, preventing any chance of kindling a friendship.

School has always been a large part of most kids’ lives, with a whole host of activities that revolve around school but aren’t necessarily academic, like clubs, sports, music, theater and school dances — activities that help us find out what we like, help us create our identities, and help us find a place in society. Online academics is now all we have. Some activities have Zoom equivalents, but I can’t bear to be on the screen more than I am now. At the beginning of the year, my mom encouraged me to join a club. I didn’t even have to think before telling her no. “Why?” I had asked. “So I can spend more time on the computer?”

Without human connection, school is a shadow, a bare bones skeleton. Without human connection, there is little warmth and inspiration to help us learn. I show up every day to my classes. I do all my assignments. I get more sleep and have time to read more books. But I’m really looking forward to the day I can feel the cold early morning air on my cheeks, smell the exhaust of the school bus, hear footsteps, laughter and distant conversations, and see faces crinkling into smiles as I once again walk with fellow students through the halls of our high school.

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