High School Students’ Personal Essays Turn Into a Memoir: ‘The Class of Covid-19’

February 7, 2021
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One teenager watched his father sink back into addiction during the coronavirus pandemic.

A classmate fell deeper into depression but was afraid to talk about it.

Another student felt lost when his family of six got Covid-19 together. Wilbert Roca Alvarez, who is 16 years old, called a local hospital because his mother had sharp chest pains and trouble breathing, but was told her symptoms weren’t severe enough to be treated at the swamped facility.

“There was truly no one left to care for us when we needed care the most,” he wrote. Fortunately they all recovered.

These students at Cliffside Park High School in Bergen County, N.J., poured their feelings about their pandemic experiences into deeply personal essays that their English teacher has published in a collection, “The Class of Covid-19.”

The first volume, released in June, drew praise from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy for giving voice to young people. The updated edition, with essays from the fall, arrived for sale on Amazon.com this week to raise money for college scholarships.

The young authors’ teacher, Shawn Adler, is one of many nationwide trying to help students find meaning in calamity. A former cabinet salesman and entertainment reporter for MTV, Mr. Adler started teaching three years ago. He was floored by how much his students found that writing about the virus era was cathartic. When he helped them revise their memoirs during virtual one-on-one meetings, they often ended up crying together.

By publishing their work, Mr. Adler sought to give them a feeling of power while so many feel helpless. “These students feel let down by the adults in the world, and this is a reclamation of their resilience,” he said. “They’re rising up and saying ‘This is who we are’.”

Cliffside Park, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, has about 1,250 students in its public high school. Officials said most are low-income and speak a language other than English at home.

The new book’s 67 essays describe tensions with siblings, missing grandparents who succumbed to the virus, worry about parents losing jobs and stalwart humor. One student wrote about celebrating his father’s birthday with a cake at 3 a.m. because during quarantine, his family had taken to sleeping during the day and waking at night.

Another student was stressed by her long, busy shifts at an Acme supermarket, but took pride in being an essential worker helping families get food. And another questioned whether God had disappeared.

A baseball player, Jesus Pena, wrote that after schools closed and sports games were canceled during last spring’s lockdown, he kept practicing in secret with his teammates. They were stunned when their beloved coach, Ben Luderer, a fit 30-year-old, died at home of Covid-19 on March 30.

After that, the team took safety precautions seriously. “The virus that nobody on the team feared had just taken the most valuable and invincible piece it had: Coach Ben,” wrote Mr. Pena, who graduated. “I keep thinking that one day, perhaps, I’ll round third base again and see him standing there.”

Jana Khalil, a 17-year-old senior, said the lockdown exacerbated anxieties and depression that she had long suffered in silence. “I was stuck in my room with my thoughts all day, which made it worse,” she said in an interview. Writing about her mental health, she said, “I felt a huge weight lifted. It was so suffocating keeping it in.”

Her teacher forwarded her essay to her guidance counselor, who has given her extra support, she said. She hopes her story can help others: “I’m comforted because if someone else is in the same situation, they can read it and know it’s a normal thing, and at some point you’ll find someone to talk to.”


Winnie Zhao, a 16-year-old junior, wrote about feeling feverish, weak and ashamed when she got Covid-19 last summer. She didn’t want to tell her mother, who also had the virus, that she lost her sense of taste because she didn’t want to alarm her further. She also worried about how she and her siblings would manage if her single mom’s virus case got worse. They recovered, but now Winnie can’t stand the smell of instant noodles, which she used to love.

At first Winnie was embarrassed to write about her private life, but forged ahead after seeing other students share their pain. The book gives “something tangible to look back at,” she said. “I can remember I’m a survivor.”

Story Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/high-school-students-personal-essays-turn-into-a-memoir-the-class-of-covid-19-11610024401

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