The assignment to the American literature classes of Room 111 at Hanford High in Richland last fall was pretty basic.
Write a paragraph or two about their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Offer some advice to other teenagers on coping and moving forward, said their teacher Phil Cioppa.
The short essays he got back from juniors and seniors impressed the veteran educator with their thoughtfulness and the willingness of the students to be vulnerable.
Many students wrote freely about the worries they had, the isolation they felt and how they coped, a few of them even finding blessings in the long, strange months of the pandemic.
“I was surprised, but I wasn’t,” Cioppa said, about what he read.
“We’re trying to teach kids how to manage their emotions, yet they have a lot to teach, too,” he said. “They really gave of themselves.”
What he had was the makings of a book, he thought.
This week he passed out hard-bound and paperback copies of “Sincerely, Room 111: Voices of a New Era” to the book’s 11th and 12th grade authors.
The collection of essays was published by Outskirts Press with the help of a grant from the Richland Education Foundation.
On March 16, 2020, students had left their Washington state school expecting a short closure, but they would not return for nearly a year.
“It would be the last time they would eat school lunch with their friends, study frantically in the library before a major quiz, skip class, play a pickup game of basketball at lunch, take part in a seminar, hold the hand of their girlfriend, or walk into a classroom tardy,” Tiffany Spencer, vice principal of Hanford High, wrote in the book’s foreword.
The more than 100 essays are sometimes emotionally wrenching, often uplifting and ultimately, Cioppa hopes, helpful to other teens.
“Even though these past few years have been so full of garbage, I would like it if you tried to set a goal for yourself,” wrote Abigail. The book’s authors are identified only by their first names.
Each day after online classes she was faced with two to five hours’ of homework.
“Every time I logged off I wanted to throw my computer into the garbage can and crawl back into my warm bed, but life doesn’t work that way,” she wrote.
Keeping in mind her career goals helped her to grind away at homework assignments.
“So I did it; I did all of them,” she wrote.
The pandemic took its toll on everyone in different ways, Mariah wrote.
“Straight A students started to fail. Some lost jobs, people they loved and even hope,” she wrote. “High school is hard for everyone and the pandemic didn’t make it any easier.”
Students found different ways to cope with the months of social isolation.
Mia said she might “sound like a grandmother,” but she took up sewing and learned more about her grandmother as they knitted stuffed animals.
Damian, an actor at heart, found a new hobby making videos.
When friends found his first video hilarious, he was happy for the first time during the pandemic, he said.
Another student wrote a poem in praise of dumbbells: “There is no better therapist than the dumbbells on the rack./When you pick them up, they feel everything you feel./When you lift them, they will listen to everything you say.”
Build strong and reliable connections with friends and family, Ava P. advised.
Don’t stress out about what other people think about you — the only person you need to impress is yourself, Travis wrote.
Take care of yourself, because you matter, Ayden wrote.
Pandemic changes life
One student found that having time to reflect and spend more time with his family during the pandemic changed his life.
He realized his friends were not true friends. They laughed at him and pushed him to do “stupid stuff,” he wrote.
As he returned to classes it was with a new confidence to avoid situations that made him uncomfortable.
“So my advice would be to find good people that are fun to be around, and to push away anyone that is causing more harm than good,” he wrote.
Every essay was a standout, Cioppa said.
This is his first year at the Richland School District but he has been teaching for about three decades.
The kids haven’t changed.
“It’s just that they are wrapped in a different world,” he said.
The book can be purchased on Amazon for $29.95 in hardcover and $14.95 in paperback.
Any proceeds to the district not needed to pay for costs of publishing the book are planned to be used to establish a scholarship for Richland School District students.