High School Wasn’t Supposed to Be Like This

Freshman year was going to mean sleepovers, new friends, and independence. The coronavirus changed all that.

A collage of two eyes with a tear
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

COVID-19 has destroyed the sanctuary of my multigenerational household. At 3 a.m., on a Thursday in December, my grandmother died in a New Orleans hospice from the coronavirus, six days after she had tested positive.

I am only 14, and this is my first time experiencing loss. Every day, I struggle with her death. Sometimes I pretend I can see her, with her dyed red hair that was graying at the roots. I want to feel like she’s still with me. Some days, she would hold my hand as we danced to all kinds of music in her kitchen. Other times, she’d greet me with “Hey, girl” when I walked through the door, as if she had the greatest tea of the day to spill. I know my Grandy, also named Clementine Victoria Baptiste Cager, would never have wanted to leave this Earth like a withering sunflower. Just to go to the bank, she would wear a church dress and step into her two-inch square heels that had a touch of bling on the sides.

Last March, when superintendents decided to shut down schools for two weeks because of the global pandemic, I was relieved. For me, the days off were a free holiday break; I was not expecting it to turn into something so chaotic. First, wearing a mask made me feel like I was being suffocated. Then I learned that I probably wasn’t going back to school in 2020.

I spent most of the year straining my eyes until they burned as I looked at a computer screen for more than 12 hours a day. I know my teachers and classmates are doing their best, but virtual school comes with many challenges, such as not being able to see the faces of my peers who like to have their cameras off during class. Sometimes I hear siblings arguing in the background. Wi-Fi can be a struggle too. Mine goes out at least twice a week, and it always seems to happen during school hours. I’m constantly asking, “Is the Wi-Fi on or off, Mom?” Or “Can you please unplug the modem for 10 seconds?”

This was supposed to be my first year of high school. After my classmates and I had to wear school uniforms throughout elementary and middle school, my high school gave us the privilege of wearing whatever we pleased. I was so ready to wear my jeans and flower-print shirts.

As a freshman, meeting new friends is very important, because I will be stuck with them for the next four years. This would have been easier if I had been able to connect with other kids at school, where we could have bonded over celebrity drama like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s divorce. Before COVID-19, my friends and I would have sleepovers at my house or go to City Park, a place where teenagers hang out in New Orleans. During school hours, we’d always sit at the same place in the cafeteria, where we discussed what high school we were going to attend and what we thought it would be like. One friend claimed that it would be like the movie High School Musical. Another made a pact that we would never lose touch after we separated. Freshman year wasn’t supposed to be like this.

In order to cope with everything that has happened this past year, I have turned to TikTok to keep me connected to the outside world, or when I miss the sound of my grandmother’s voice. Yes, it’s true—I could definitely be doing something more productive. As my mom says, “This app is a waste of brain.”

But sometimes I’ll find myself laughing for hours while watching random videos; I’ll experience a rush of happiness while viewing a yawning five-month-old puppy wrapped up in a blanket. Other times, TikTok gives me the urge to write. A lot of times when I try to write something, I get writer’s block, so the videos uploaded on TikTok provide me with a variety of ideas to choose from to make a story, poem, or play. For example, if I see a video of someone who’s baking sweets and promoting their small bakery business, I’ll make up a background story about the person and how they got started.

TikTok keeps me updated about what’s happening around the country, too. Even though I don’t live in Washington, D.C., I was still able to deepen my understanding of the January 6 insurrection by watching videos posted by people who participated. I remember staring in shock at videos of people inside the Capitol during the riot. Besides helping me stay informed about national news, some people’s stories educate me to be cautious to not make the same mistakes they have—for instance, smoking and getting lung cancer. Or using Gorilla Glue to style your hair.

Out of the thousands of videos I’ve watched on TikTok, I don’t have a favorite. Odd, I know, but I do have a topic preference, which is anything related to social-justice issues. And when I was really overwhelmed with my Grandy’s death or frustrated with distance learning, it was TikTok that I turned to for help to make me smile or laugh.

So thank goodness for TikTok, except during school hours.