When Students Shared Their Struggles, They Helped Me With My Own

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At some point in the past nine months, I heard a teacher on Zoom say the name of one of my teenage twin boys during class attendance, but I did not hear my son respond. As I walked past him, I suggested that he should let the teacher know he was there.

“Mom!” my son said, perhaps a little more loudly than a mother would like. “I know how to do attendance!” I can’t exactly recall — the mind has a way of forgetting — but he might have also suggested that I exit the room. Immediately. I do know there was a moment of silence, and then the sound of his teacher’s voice. “Hello, Mrs. Burdick,” he said (using my son’s last name). “How are you? Thanks for joining us today.”

I had just become the subject of an small, pandemic-specific anecdote, I thought to myself, precisely the kind I was seeking out as I reported on young people’s experience of this painful year for The New York Times Magazine. Just a few days earlier, I had even laughed with a student as she described another mother’s bumbling mishap in a Zoom class, and the infuriated reaction of her embarrassed child.

Starting last fall, as a staff writer for the magazine, I followed a group of A.P. students in Columbia, Mo., as they managed the trials of remote learning. One of the pleasures of my job is how often it exposes me to new environments or subject matter, some of it utterly foreign to my own experience. Reporting on these young people may well have been the first time that I felt that my own life paralleled, over and over again, what I was covering.

As I was getting to know the young people I was focusing on in Missouri, I was watching my own sons, high school freshmen in a suburb of New York City, adjust to — or struggle with — the quirks, but also the disappointments, frustrations, cruelties, tedium and loneliness of months that involved many hours of remote learning and some time in quarantine.

The inner lives of adolescents are always terra incognita, especially in this unique moment. When I started my reporting, I simply wanted to track whatever emotional dramas unfolded as students and teachers managed the pain and fear that Covid introduced. Only over time did I start to understand that emotional anguish was the hallmark of the year for so many young people, a year in which the isolation of remote learning robbed them of the very things they are developmentally programmed to crave and find especially rewarding — novelty, independence, bonding with friends.

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I also knew that some of the young people I was interviewing had a hard time telling their parents just how much they were suffering. It was embarrassing, one of them told me — awkward. Young people know their parents want them to be happy, to thrive; disappointing their parents was one more source of pain they were not sure they could take on.

I was talking to these students from 1,000 miles away, almost always by phone; many of them probably don’t even know what I look like. And yet I felt, at times, that I had a better understanding of their interior lives than I did those of my own teenagers. As the children of a deeply curious — let’s say caring — reporter, my boys have grown expert in offering the adolescent version of “no comment,” responding to almost any question about their lives, no matter how elaborate, with precisely one word: “Fine.”

It is natural for adolescents to guard their private lives carefully, and so I felt fortunate that I was learning so much from the young people who could open up to me, a stranger safely located in a state far, far away. As I grieved for them, I grieved for my own children. As the young people in Columbia shared their pain and frustrations, they provided me with more than just an intimate reporting experience, an important record of a harsh and historic year — they also gave me the gift, often, of compassion for my own children, enhancing my sense of just how much they missed and mourned this year without their having to express it to me in words.

And so I tried to ask my own sons the right questions, and not too many of them. I tried to bring them tea when they were moody, and not to lecture them about attitude or trying harder. I’d be the first to admit that I failed on many fronts. It is probably safe to say we all did, confronting the unknown and the unnatural. But because of the work I was doing on the phone with those young sophomores in Columbia, I think I failed my freshmen a little bit less than I otherwise would have — and of all the gifts my work has given me, that might be the one for which I am the most grateful.

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