“They were breaking in, and that is a very scary thing. I kind of just sat down and watched what happened. ”
Having to move back home from my college dorm due to the pandemic has allowed the silver lining of getting to spend quality time with my three younger sisters, though I wish that our time together was less spent processing national and global anxieties. Last Wednesday, Jan. 6, was no exception. After receiving a text that read, “are you watching coverage of the Capitol right now?” the four of us found our place in front of the television as we watched the escalation from protest, to riot, to a violent insurrectionist attack. As the situation at the Capitol seemed to only intensify, my sisters had to log into their classes.
When I watched my sisters do class work in between asking questions about why people would attempt a coup, the bizarre reality that our pre-teens and teenagers are living in hit me. While college students may have a difficult time finding their academic footing amongst the weight of our cultural moment, middle school and even high school students are in an interesting position of absorbing the weight of the pandemic, threats to our democracy, and the awareness of racial tensions, often without the space to process these events.
I decided to ask my sisters about their perspective on the attack at the Capitol.“I was in-between classes. I took my laptop into [my mom’s room] and did the work I was supposed to do while I watched the rest of it,” said my youngest sister, seventh-grader Trinity. “I wanted to know what was going on because seeing what is happening in our world is very important, and noticing what is going on is a big part of knowing where you are and how to handle it.”
Between them asking questions about why the protest had escalated so quickly, and my mom explaining how the Electoral College votes were formalizing Joe Biden’s victory, they were typing away at their in-class assignments. “It looked like something I would read in my history book, or see in a musical like Hamilton, but it is actually what is happening,” Trinity continued. “It makes me feel overwhelmed, and makes me feel — not unsafe, but unsure about the people around me in the world.”
This week, the Los Angeles Times published a story about teachers and mentors in L.A. County that work with middle schoolers during this time of distance-learning, which demands extra attention to keep students on track. This article cited that “the proportion of mental health-related emergency room visits has increased 31 percent for children 12 to 17 years old,” according to Center for Disease Control and Prevention data.
While Trinity seemed to be processing how this type of thing happens, Tylaire, a high school senior, was more concerned with bearing the weight of the future while trying to get through classes. “[Schoolwork] seems almost inconsequential,” she said. “It seems small, but, if I don’t do it, I am going to get bad grades, and I don’t want that.”
Tylaire also opened up about the stress she feels from her friends, citing multiple panic attacks she has witnessed in response to specific classes. These are not unique cases, either; a survey conducted by America’s Promise Alliance in July found that high school students are experiencing a “collective trauma.” Teenage years are meant for emotional development and learning coping methods, which makes the strain of our current cultural stresses more taxing as they navigate their own emotions. While there is no solution to avoiding these stresses, one university counseling center guide details that holding discussions in academic spaces is effective for classrooms to become a space for healing after cultural disasters.
Between all of my sisters’ teachers, only one of Trinity’s teachers mentioned Wednesday’s events. “My social studies class did a Powerpoint about our opinions on it, [asking] if any of us watched the news or saw what was happening. Most of my class didn’t see what happened,” said Trinity. “[My teacher] tried to give pieces of her opinion, but she also wanted us to have our own opinions instead of just bouncing off of hers. [My classmates] asked what happened, why they did it, when did this happen, questions like that.”
While talking to my sisters, they agreed that their teachers’ limiting of political discussion over the Presidential election was justified due to “allowing students to form their own opinions.” Though, they also felt that discussion over major events, such as the attack on the Capitol, would help in educating the class. I have to wonder: if we were not in the midst of a pandemic, and if in-person instruction had resumed, would there be more pressure for teachers to have these discussions with their students?
In an extreme example, I think back to when our parents watched the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster live from their classrooms, as students were forced to see their teacher’s live reactions as the Challenger exploded. In the face of national trauma in a classroom setting, both students and teachers have to process what they have just seen in real time with one another.
Interacting with students through the confines of a Zoom box allows teachers to have a bit of control over how much students see of their own humanity, and that allows for avoiding difficult conversation that might otherwise be addressed. The APA survey also found that more than a quarter of students do not feel at all connected to their school’s adult staff members, as “a large number of students are isolated from caring adults other than family members and from their peers during this time.” I am inclined to question whether we can truly blame teachers, as they, too, are processing the realities that feel harsher than usual.
However, it would be remiss to undermine the increased importance of teacher-to-student interactions in our limited social access. “I feel like [my teachers] need to alleviate the stress by understanding that we are teenagers,” Tylaire said. “We aren’t getting as much social interaction as we need to be. We are not getting a normal high school experience.”
As speculation increases over possible protests during the Inauguration, I remember watching Obama’s Inaugurations from my middle school classrooms. I think about how my sisters, and everyone their age, will have to form those memories from home, without the educational discussion or space to process the world around them. With studies and surveys reflecting the negative effects of their generation’s collective trauma, students have been torn between balancing their education and their emotional processing of these difficult times. If academic spaces are able to become places of healing and discussion, not only will students be more intellectually educated, but they will be more able to cope with the realities that are currently feeling too large to bear.
Featured Image: Sage Amdahl / Quaker Campus