Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, adults have expressed concerns about the mental health and well-being of children and teenagers due to the drastic social and schooling changes in their lives.
To get a better understanding of how students and their communities have been impacted by coronavirus, the leaders of the Seattle-based, student-run educational nonprofit Mission InspirEd offered their peers a creative outlet, the national “Tales of Quarantine” student art and writing contest. It generated more than 180 entries from across the country and seven prize winners from the states of Washington, California and New York.
On Friday, The Seattle Times Education Lab, in partnership with Mission InspirEd, held a virtual reception with some of the winners. The live webinar began with a welcome from Mission InspirEd’s Aaron Xie, Richard Yang and Rachel Hu, all seniors at Newport High School in Bellevue. Following that was a viewing of the overall winning entry, a spoken-word short film featuring Kaitlyn Cook of Mount Vernon.
Cook, a Sedro-Woolley High School sophomore, likened the simultaneous mounting outbreak and the shifts in school work to trying to outrun a tsunami. “It was really intimidating,” she said.
“So many days in the past year I felt lost and that I didn’t really have a schedule, and so having something that I liked and I could work on and see the progress that I was making was really beneficial to me,” Cook said of her project.
In her stop-motion short, Westside School seventh grader Sydney Bottorff of Seattle said she tried to make her clay-animated set feel “like some of us [students] are feeling on the inside.
“I’m just trying to show in that video how all of our days are blending together, and it can feel really sad. It can feel like it’s gloomy all day, even when it’s not,” she said.
Bottorff added, “Socially connecting in person is what makes me, me, in a way. It’s hard to have that taken away for so long.”
Jessica Wang, a junior at Cold Spring Harbor High School in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, wrote an essay about growing up in a “predominantly white neighborhood on the edge of Long Island” where she tried to erase evidence of her Chinese ethnicity by bleaching her hair and skin and wearing colored contact lenses.
After Asian communities were blamed for the spread of the coronavirus, the racism and xenophobia became a breaking point for Wang, who realized the toxicity of her self-loathing thoughts. “COVID-19 forced me to reexamine how I viewed myself and my identity and set me on the path to loving myself,” she wrote.
Wang said she hopes her essay “manages to inspire at least one person to love themselves and accept their culture. During these times it is now more important than ever to share stories about ourselves.”
Ridhi Rao Gundapuneni, a seventh grader at Bellevue’s Tyee Middle School, said the experiences of the fictional protagonist in her essay were based on her own experiences and frustrations with online instruction and her projections of hope.
“It’s hard to focus and I get really restless sometimes,” she said of being confined to her home environment. “But it is important to recognize the positive things, too.”
In her drawing, “New Normal,” Quimby Oak Middle School seventh grader Athmika Anbarasan of San Jose, Calif., said she wanted to show different takes on social distancing by using side-by-side panels of two figures, one in light and one in dark colors. The panels are bridged by technological devices like a mobile phone and headset. “Even though we can only connect through technology, we can still connect,” she said.
Mission InspirEd events co-director Richard Yang said Isabella Puccini’s black-and-white photograph titled “Alone,” of a crouched figure in a barren landscape of crumbling earth, captured how some students are struggling with isolation. (Puccini could not attend the event.)
“A lot of students right now are scared. They’re not sure what’s going to happen,” Yang said. “Having someone to support you is a lot to a student, and can help us get out of this pandemic and become a better person in the long run.”
Keaton Hare, a Leland High School junior from San Jose, California, shared his triptych photo illustration, “Away,” to convey a sense of longing to escape into nature as a way of coping with pandemic-induced stresses.
“Photography was a fantastic outlet for me,” he said. As he spent more time closer to home, he said, he was “able to find some really beautiful places and things about myself that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
As vaccinations and safety protocols lead to the reopening of public and private spaces, students said they’re looking forward to reuniting with friends, getting to know better teachers they’ve mostly met on computer screens, and returning to routines that once felt mundane.
“I’m excited to feel the presence of my friends and feel the presence of real people,” said Bottorff, the Seattle seventh grader.