What #Black Lives Matter and COVID have taught me about being a teenager in 2020

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A few days ago I watched my friends graduate from high school, on my computer screen. The speeches were pre-recorded, the montage of the diploma ceremony was videoclips of parents handing the certificates to their children in living rooms or front yards and, all things considered, it was beautiful in every way.

That same day across the country, across much of the world actually, millions of people were standing up against racial injustice, inequality, and inequity. In some places, cities were burning. In others, protesters and police stood in unison against racism.

Welcome to the world you are inheriting, graduates.

My high school shut down in-person classes in mid-March. My friends and I, like 55 million other high schoolers across the country, lost physical contact with each other overnight and became thumbnail-size faces on Zoom chat virtual classrooms.

In the weeks that followed, I began adjusting to life under quarantine and social distancing. The academic framework I had grown accustomed to for the last 11 years of family, friends, and school, which had a straightforward measurement system of grades, acknowledgments, and incentives became wildly skewed as everyone was now making it up as we went along. The new normal has not yet found its footing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about my situation in any way. I have come to appreciate all the blessings and safety in my life even more than I did before. I knew I was fortunate in countless ways with a loving family, caring friends and teachers, and a roof over my head. Knowing these things would still be there when I wake up every day is incredibly comforting.

My teenage life was still going on under COVID-19 so I studied for my AP exams as expected. We also performed the spring play online, acting into our laptops as dramatically as we could over Zoom. For the first few weeks I tried hard to stay optimistic, probably thinking a positive attitude would somehow keep viruses away from those I care about.

I still worry about losing someone close to me. The circle of people I know who are healthy and safe is gradually shrinking. Friends of friends have gotten COVID-19, and one or two people I knew distantly have died, including my kindly elderly neighbor with the two cocker spaniels.

By the end of the term, off the record, I didn’t really care about classes. It was hard to motivate despite the best intentions of my teachers, who did try their best. The gloom that had been building over 12 weeks, simply put, was whispering in my ear, “none of this matters.”

A lot of things in my previous life aren’t as important as they used to be. Superficial and material things like my outward image, owning stuff, even haircuts.

Working remotely has made me appreciate the nuances that make up the world. I miss the smiles in the school hallways, the sea of voices in the cafeteria, the meaningless conversations with friends that mean everything now. But I’ve noticed new details in my now smaller world too: the angle of sunlight in the late morning, my teachers’ dedication, my family’s affection, my friends’ support.

My core friendships have evolved as well. Before COVID-19 much of our relationships were based on shared experiences – being in the same classes, hanging out together, physically being side by side. Since then, we’ve grown closer through conversations, video chats, messaging. We’ve crossed into the (surprisingly comfortable) realm of articulating how we truly are feeling and thinking, saying out loud what we have been holding inside. I’ve become more comfortable talking to my friends about what scares me about what my future may or may not hold, and my friends are sharing more as well. I appreciate hearing my friends Matt’s and Shivant’s voices over the phone or through a video game. I miss other people’s laughter, singing and words.

I do have a much greater appreciation for having food in the refrigerator, and being able to sit down at the dinner table with my mother and father, and my siblings Quincy, Christian and Celeste.

Instead of thinking about the computer science club, water polo or asking someone to prom, my worries during COVID-19 were hoping my family and friends stayed healthy and safe, that doctors and nurses got their needed PPE, and that hospitals obtain enough ventilators so they didn’t have to choose who would be granted a fighting chance to live and who will be slotted to die.

Being 16 years old during this time is a peculiar feeling. I am no longer a child and legally not yet an adult. My generation is rapidly inheriting the complex world we live in, which is both beautiful and horrifying.

For a short window of time, I thought the biggest problem our country would be facing was public gatherings during COVID-19 and more infections. Sadly, things are much worse.

During the last few months I’ve watched and read about incredible acts of kindness as well as horrific acts of cruelty. I learned that people deemed essential, including healthcare workers, grocery store workers and bus drivers, are literally giving their lives in service of others. Elsewhere, innocent lives are continually being disregarded and minorities are being wantonly murdered, a minuscule number are known only thanks to camera phones.

As a teenage, Asian-French American male, I fit into certain boxes and have lived a generally peaceful life. I have not personally felt persecuted based on who I am or how I look, sound or act. I do know the difference between right and wrong, however, and I know there are many things wrong today.

The rage I feel watching the endless cycle of oppression and violence against Black people and other marginalized communities is pushing me to learn more about race relations in the U.S., well beyond what we learned in the classroom in AP U.S. History and other classes.

I am listening to a wide range of voices to calibrate my own moral compass. I am paying more attention to my friends and how they’re feeling about all of this. As a teenager witnessing and living the rousing efforts for social reform, there is so much I have had to contemplate over the past few weeks and so much more I have yet to consider. I must now ask myself what my role is now in all of this and how I want my life and my actions to impact others.

It is becoming more of a requirement to take an active role in politics, someway somehow, because it seems so many adults currently steering our country forget they are supposed to serve the people, not the other way around. It is intimidating to realize that the responsibility to fight for equality is on the shoulders and in the hands of my generation.

My friends and I do not know what the world will look like after this is over, but the one thing we do know today is that nothing will really be the same again.

Class is dismissed.

Alexander Huang-Menders is a rising high school senior attending the Pennington School in Pennington.