As a full-fledged grownup, education reporter, and new mom, I was, of course, deeply concerned when schools across the country shut down last spring to avoid spreading the coronavirus. I knew it would exacerbate achievement gaps, strain families, and make educators’ tough jobs even harder.
But the socially awkward middle schooler that still lurks somewhere inside me is just a tiny bit jealous of today’s COVID kids.
If there had been a global pandemic back in the early nineties, when I was in 7th grade, I would have been secretly grateful to the virus that got me out of my scary place: the middle school cafeteria.
I had made a nice group of friends in 6th grade, but they were redistricted to another middle school. So I ate lunch, usually silently, at the edge of a table with other somewhat nerdy girls who were too nice to tell me to get lost. I only got up the nerve to sit with them after spending the first couple weeks of school eating my turkey sandwich on rye, alone, in a bathroom stall.
I wasn’t much more comfortable during the half an hour or so before school, when all the other kids gathered outside in cliques, waiting for the building to open, and I stood by myself. Or in gym class when I was always picked last for teams. (A cliché, I know, but it happened, and it felt crappy.)
I don’t remember much overt bullying, but I know I tried to avoid it by being as invisible as possible. I wore plain, solid-colored shirts and jeans, in what can be best described as an attempt to blend in with the wall. I tried not to draw attention to myself by speaking a lot in class, even when I was really interested in the content.
By 8th grade, I had made one actual friend, who was a lot like me. We spent most lunch periods helping our guidance counselor decorate his office bulletin boards.
I know now that there had to have been students at my school dealing with much tougher things, including some of the popular kids who I thought had it all figured out. In fact, my experience was so typical, so relatable, that it’s practically a rite of passage. Kids like me are characters in countless young adult novels and tween movies. Most of the friends I have made as an adult have their own stories of bullies, mean girls, feeling lost socially. It probably built resilience. Empathy.
But it still sucked. And it impacted my self-confidence in ways that reverberate decades later.
With COVID-19, I could have avoided the whole scene. I could have had lunch at my kitchen table with my little sister and not had to think about what that meant on some social ladder. I could have worn pajamas instead of struggling to French-cuff the bottom of my jeans so they looked like everyone else’s. I could have spent Saturday afternoons re-reading Anne of the Avonlea on the couch in peace without getting concerned questions from my mom about why I wasn’t out roaming the mall with kids in my grade.
I could have focused entirely on the part of school I actually liked: the learning part. I was a kid who enjoyed reading The Odyssey, researching famous quotations from the Revolutionary War, and investigating social problems in South America.
In today’s world, however, the same technology that would have allowed me to learn at home would have also made it tougher to avoid the school social scene. I probably still would have felt like a loser when no one liked my Instagram stories or included me in a group text. But maybe that would have been easier to block out than the physical reality of feeling so self-consciously alone in a sea of kids my own age.
And learning virtually—with the advantage of supportive and savvy parents who could have helped navigate online learning—might have worked for me not just as an academically motivated nerd, but also as a kid with what we now call “learning differences.” In my case, that was Attention Deficit Disorder, which went unrecognized until my twenties.
It was easy for my teachers and parents to miss because my behavior was great, and my grades were generally good. I was genuinely interested in English, and especially social studies, so I could hyper-focus and excel in those classes. (I actually read ahead in my American history textbook because I wanted to see what happened next.)
But math didn’t come naturally to me. I found it, frankly, boring. My mind would wander, and hours later, I would have no idea how to do my homework.
I concentrated much better one-on-one. I got a respectable string of Bs and Cs in pre-algebra, in large part because my math whiz dad patiently explained assignments to me, and my dedicated teacher stayed after school to give me individual instruction when I needed it. (Thank you, Mrs. Girardi, if you’re reading this.)
Virtual learning may have helped me there, too. I could have done my “asynchronous” math lessons at home, probably with some coaching from my dad, and gotten one-on-one attention during “Zoom office hours” with my teacher. I could have re-watched videos of lessons so that I better understood what I had missed when my mind wandered off. That might have given me the space I needed to tackle an intimidating subject at my own pace.
Of course, there is no way to bring middle school me into 2020 to test the theory that I would have thrived academically and been happier during a pandemic. But in what has been a very tough time for the world, it cheers me to picture a socially awkward 12-year-old girl out there somewhere, curled up with a novel, reveling in her reprieve from tween social angst.
I hope she–and her parents and teachers–can figure out how to sustain that feeling after this crisis is over.
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.