Maxwell Surprenant engaged in distance learning. (Photo courtesy of Maxwell Surprenant)
Saint Sebastian's School

Column: COVID-19 Windows — My experience with distance learning and the pandemic

COVID-19 has boxed me in. The walls of my house enclose me most hours, and I am grateful for windows. During quarantine, I have the opportunity to see, hear, and feel — to think outside of myself. And during this challenging time, I can make a difference.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, I’m navigating between in-person school and remote learning, day by day. I worry about the disruption with everything — academics, sports, clubs, and social events. As a high school junior, I yearn to attend full-time school, play baseball, and just hang out with my friends. I stress about my grades, standardized tests, and next year’s college applications. COVID-19 is cheating and stealing my opportunity to ask that girl to the junior-senior prom. It’s understandable that I feel grief as I will never get this time and special experiences back.

But as I continue school hybrid classes, I’m focused on more than academic lessons. The irony of “distance learning” doesn’t escape me, but challenges me. How can we learn from each other and grow closer while staying apart?

Outside my window, COVID-19 surges. We wear masks, wash our hands, and follow strict physical distancing guidelines for our own health, but more for the common good. It’s clear we are responsible for each other; my actions impact those around me, just as others’ behavior affect me. To beat the pandemic, it’s not enough to keep ourselves safe, we have to find ways to help everyone stay healthy. We’re all in this together, and it’s time to think outside of the box.

In my normal everyday life, I often get caught up in my own small circle of family and friends, school and extracurricular activities. But with everything canceled during the shutdown, I have more time to reflect about what’s happening in the world and how I can take part in it more fully. As I read the newspaper and watch TV broadcasts, I learn what’s happening outside of my bubble. I have discovered, the more I know the more I care, and the more I feel connected to my community and the world at large.

After all, our humanity binds us together. It is necessary to use social distancing for our own safety, but mostly we do it for the “greater good” and those especially vulnerable — our elderly, those immunocompromised, undocumented, uninsured, and homeless. Imagine their fear: if they should contact coronavirus, chances are they won’t survive. We practice personal responsibility to save lives.

Coronavirus has taught me a thing or two about equalization. It does not differentiate between race, ethnicity, culture, religion, socioeconomic status or political views. People from different backgrounds and all walks of life — factory workers, nurses, doctors, actors, politicians, and even the royal family — have been infected.

But the disease does not affect everyone evenly mainly because of one issue: inequity. Research increasingly shows that Black Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans are disproportionately getting sick and dying, and more racial minorities experience more economic hardship, according to the L.A. Times.

Some of us have more protective equipment and the privilege of being able to practice social distancing. It’s a privilege because the poor and marginalized are not in the same situation. They are hit harder because they may live in overcrowded housing, can’t afford to not work, have insufficient technology resources for online learning, and do not have access to good health care.

For too many human beings, the storm has been raging even before the pandemic. There’s an urgent call for help, and we have to respond with compassion and courage.

Life can be unfair, but we can help balance it. Youth especially have the power to make positive change. We have so much to give: energy, enthusiasm, time, talent, creativity, imagination, and idealism. In order to solve the world’s most stubborn problems, we have to get informed, get involved, raise our voices, and take action. And what we must fight for is not our own self interest, but the betterment of all.

Empathy is the ability to think outside of ourselves and see the world from others’ frameworks. When we think about people less fortunate, our problems do not vanish, but we gain perspective. Empathy leads to an increased gratitude for the blessings we have- food, clothes, shelter, health, education, financial security, and a network of support. I can’t take these things for granted when so many are struggling as they lack these basic necessities.

Even as I limit my physical contact with people, I can still find ways to assist others. I can deliver groceries to my elderly neighbors, make cards for patients in hospitals, and assemble “blessing bags” filled with toiletries, snack bars, and bottled water for our homeless brothers and sisters. These basic necessities help keep people healthy and give them dignity. We are all connected, and we are each other’s keepers.

All of us can spread good vibes. Musicians sing and play their instruments to entertain. Artists keep creating and displaying their work. Even little children enjoy making cards for others, drawing pictures, and writing positive messages with sidewalk chalk. We can offer friendly greetings when we pass each other on our daily walks. Even wearing our masks, we can share our smiles.

COVID-19 is highly contagious, but so is laughter, love, and hope. We have the capacity to spread joy. And in the process of lifting people in need, we all stay buoyant. Not only can we get through this crisis, we can come out stronger.

Our ultimate purpose in life is to use our gifts and talents to serve others. Now, each and every one of us are put to the test: What do we owe each other? What are we willing to do for others? If we practice empathy, gratitude, and kindness, then we’ll pass with flying colors.