For the past six years, I have been drawn to teaching. Before college, elementary to high school students could find me in the learning center of the Boys and Girls Club to help with their homework.
During my senior year of high school, I commuted an hour, five days a week, to privately tutor a freshman for two hours. So, when deciding on a work-study job in September 2021, a tutoring position at a Bethlehem middle school seemed familiar and manageable. But, I was rudely mistaken and quickly realized my ignorance toward the pandemic’s effects on middle school students.
If someone my age was asked about how their lives were affected by COVID-19, they would likely ramble about the things that were stolen from them since the pandemic began. I am guilty of this too.
Over the last couple years, I have often felt devastated and disappointed, lonely and isolated. My senior year consisted of a cancer diagnosis in my family and my detachment from a cohort of friends.
At the time, I didn’t know how lucky I was.
In my predominantly white, wealthy and privileged hometown, I was blind to the long-term traumatic effects that the pandemic would have, specifically on middle schoolers.
Middle school is an essential developmental phase in many students’ lives, for better or worse. Finding out your crush likes you back or learning what it means to work hard for an A and the satisfaction of it. Those years are separated from elementary and high school for a reason.
Most people forget how difficult middle school was, even without a global pandemic. Kids are meaner, high school is looming in the distance and “being yourself” is more easily said than done.
Now, add TikTok into the equation. This may seem a bit ridiculous, but the app has a tight chokehold on many of its users, particularly young ones.
Celebrities were once very obscure and only seen on TV. Fame was unrealistic for most people. Living in Hollywood was flashy and dreamy, but it was a path rarely traveled.
Now, do a couple dances in front of millions of people while maintaining a picture-perfect image of clear skin, blown-out hair and trending clothes and that could be you. A 14-year-old living in a mansion in Los Angeles could suddenly be a reality.
Since when? Middle school is meant to be full of acne, clothes that don’t fit quite right and countless awkward interactions that keep you up at night for years to come.
With so much pressure on kids outside the classroom with home responsibilities and social expectations, online school jumps to the bottom of the priority list.
When classes assumed a hybrid format spring 2021 at the middle school, there were only five or six students in a room at a time, dutifully wearing their masks. The lessons were taught quickly and efficiently, which meant there was little room for interrupting the teacher.
Everything changed when hybrid learning returned to in-person instruction and vaccine eligibility expanded to younger ages, but school remained at the bottom of students’ priorities. When it came time to sit through a six-hour-long school day, many students felt they could no longer do it. So they didn’t.
Instead, middle schoolers transformed school into what was taken from them during the pandemic. A place to see and talk to their friends, be as loud as they can and remember what life was once like.
Last semester, there were many days that I did not want to go to work. I noticed my passion for teaching was fading with every rude comment and criticism. As I spent more time with the students and got to know each of them individually, I was reminded that every single age group has been negatively affected the past two years, in ways only each respective age group can fully understand.
It’s not the fault of the eighth graders for acting out. The last time these students were in a real classroom was fourth, fifth or sixth grade. I know that my sixth-grade self could not handle being thrown into the shark tank of high school. This is what is being demanded of current eighth-grade students.
At this point in the pandemic, it’s essential to think about the future of the younger generations that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. It is easy to get caught up in what the pandemic has taken from each of us.
While Lehigh students get back to social events and adjust to rigorous classes again, our own community is struggling everyday. Catching up on two years of lost learning is a challenge for the children of Bethlehem. The pandemic is not over for them yet.