From logging on to walking in: My experience adjusting to in-person school

Panicker reviews for his Algebra II exam that he has in one hour. He hopes to cover the new concepts he was taught as fast and efficiently as he can before the test.

The cold breeze of the bedroom fan wakes me up as I prepare myself for a new day, promising myself that ‘today will be different’.

I constantly remind myself of this promise as I carry out my morning chores out of habit: brushing my teeth, making my bed, doing the dishes–the usual. And throughout the one-hour time frame of the morning routine, the promise in my head fizzles out like a spark past its prime.

By the time I reach the car, there’s very little left. It’s not that I don’t have the energy, I just don’t have the drive. The drive that was ever-so-necessary to do something different just isn’t there.

Just like any other day.

By the time I reach campus, the only thought echoing through my mind is to get the day over with. Seven classes, eight hours and no time to think in between. Moving around the crowded hallways, greeting my teacher and sitting down in my chair to work are all separate actions.  It feels like one continuous motion. A motion that repeats itself seven times throughout the day until the sound of the final bell echoes throughout the campus at 4:10 p.m.

The drive back from school is the same as the one prior in the day; a jumbled mess of incoherent thoughts plaguing my mind as I arrive back home. After a much needed shower and 30 minutes of free-time, my mind spirals into a tensed frenzy formed by a single thought: homework.

As I open up the HUB, my eyes are unenthusiastically greeted by a barrage of assignments displayed at the top-right corner of the screen; the magical number of 11:59 p.m. appearing below each one of them. I storm through the assignments, disregarding any need for double checking my work or if I have answered every question. As soon as the ‘submitted’ icon pops over the final assignment, I slam the laptop screen shut and rush out of my study to eat dinner.

And to be honest, that’s all I can remember.

Everything from that point forward just includes a half-awake boy trying to find his way to a bed and a blanket. Turning the lights off and turning the fan on. And as a cold breeze envelops the room, a slight regret tugs at the burrows of my brain, hoping to remember a promise that had not surfaced since the beginning of the day.

This ‘routine’ was my entire September. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of it back then, at least not to the level that I am aware of now.

When school opened back up on Aug. 27, I was excited. I met new people. I made new friends. I saw actual people other than my parents for the first time in one and a half years. It was exhilarating. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing, but I was enjoying it.

So when school continued on Aug. 28, so did this weird sense of wonder. Except here’s the thing about school: the first day is the tutorial level. And the second day is the final boss.

The day played out the same way. I still had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Except this time, it wasn’t a happy feeling. Class after class. Lecture after lecture. The assignments that piled up throughout the day kept me busy until 8 p.m. You know how the rest plays out.

And on the morning of Aug. 29, I was ready for school but not excited. The ever-so-present wonder that had swallowed me during the first day of school had lasted for a whopping 48 hours.

Fast forward a month, and I know what I did wrong.

I did too much.

Or at least from an academic perspective. While there were good grades, I had no personal satisfaction. And that’s what it really boils down to: personal satisfaction and happiness. These two things are essential for a good morning, and even more so, for a good school day. Although good grades can offer satisfaction and pride, they lack purpose.

A recent document from the U.S. Department of Education highlights, with incredible detail, the problems that have risen due to the barriers and changes in education because of COVID-19. The article is 61 pages long, with 49 of those pages being detailed reports of the problems. The issues range from abuse to language barriers to drops in academic achievement, but what I want to talk about is mental health.

The document states that “nearly three in 10 parents surveyed in a Gallup poll said their child was ‘experiencing harm to [their] emotional or mental health,’ with 45 percent citing the separation from teachers and classmates as a “major challenge.” This separation from the classroom has caused a decrease in American students’ learning, as not everyone could connect to a computer last year. And even when it was possible to connect, there wasn’t enough time or engagement to learn.

The impact of this is blindingly obvious. The amount of ideas and concepts that I’m trying to wrap my head around throughout the day makes me feel like I’m trying to make a technological breakthrough. But I’m not. I’m just trying to do my daily homework.

The disparity of study environments and methods between this year and last year were so incredibly vast at the beginning. I did not feel like going to school and wished I had continued being stuck in the four walls that had enveloped the entirety of my 2020.

This did change, but it took a complete rework of the way I approached in-person learning. And for that to happen, I had to change the way I approach ‘school’ as a whole. While school is a place to learn, it is also a place to enjoy yourself.

Not just about learning

This is probably the most obvious fact to which I was blind to, all the way up until the end of last month. School doesn’t innately mean books and grades. That’s a part of it, but not the whole.

School is more than just a location on a map.  it’s a gathering. A gathering that occurs every day, at the same time, and the same place. It’s somewhat of a pocket dimension where for eight hours, all problems and worries of personal lives just don’t seem to register. A place where I can interact, share ideas, gain ideas and just be myself without being judged.  A place where I can be socially awkward for eight hours straight and still make people laugh.

That’s the key.

The fact that I can wake up every morning and have a minor impact on someone else’s day by just being myself. This is my drive. To be able to meet my friends, share in their smiles and look forward to tomorrow is what keeps me coming back to the same crowded hallways and makes me climb the same set of stairs every morning. It’s not that the grades have reduced in their importance.  It’s just that other values have increased in theirs.