Learning the Hard Way

The abrupt shift to remote instruction was painful, and it played out differently in every household. What did the spring of 2020 teach us?

John Barnes, a rising senior at H-B Woodlaw. Photo by Skip Brown

John Barnes, 17, is a rising senior at H-B Woodlawn. He earned a fellowship with the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs before the quarantine moved both school and the fellowship online. He works part time at Bakeshop in Clarendon and Falls Church, and lives in Arlington’s Yorktown neighborhood with his mom.

“When school was canceled, I already had the grades I wanted, so I chose the optional fourth-quarter work for every class. But by late March, I started to give up on school. I was still working [at Bakeshop] and all of my anxiety about coronavirus started giving way to physical symptoms—increased heart rate, insomnia. Distance learning wasn’t working for me, even when I was trying super hard, because there was no extrinsic motivation. I had all A’s and it didn’t matter—all this bad stuff was still going on in the world.

“I started thinking, Do I really want to keep doing this busywork? I worried that I wouldn’t experience any of the things I wanted from life or even have the high school experiences I’d been looking forward to. I was so worried about getting coronavirus that I stopped asking to be scheduled at my job.

“On March 13, I had made a list of things I really wanted to do but didn’t have the time—like record an album or finish a screenplay—but even with all this time, I had no motivation to do any of them. Before quarantine, I was doing too much; now I’m not doing anything, and that’s making me anxious. I need to find some kind of middle ground. I think this has been my lowest state of mental health ever. I talked to my mom about it and decided to start going to therapy.

“Sometimes Zoom calls [organized by H-B teachers] have been helpful. The teachers are doing a good job of keeping up traditions remotely, but seeing friends isn’t consistent and it’s hard to keep a social connection going. When I do get to see friends [at a social distance] in a parking lot or wherever, it feels even more important. I’ve been able to practice guitar and get better. I continued to do a lot of work for my fellowship because it actually had meaning, staying up late to edit videos.

“The pandemic has also helped me realize what I really care about—like the friends I want to keep in contact with. I was always hesitant about [the practicality of] a career in show business, but those are the things I’m daydreaming about now. I’m not daydreaming about calculus.”

See Barnes’ work from the PBS NewsHour fellowship.

Categories: Education