I have only been to the school for the occasional book-pickups or to get my bus card, but those hardly qualify as “in-person learning.” Neither does taking the PSAT, but sitting at a desk for roughly four hours does come pretty close. Like most students, I have not been inside a classroom since March 12, 2020. Last week, on January 26, 2021, I stepped back into Malden High School for the first time in nearly a year, along with 149 other students and 26 staff members.

As I waited outside for someone to come open the front doors, other students started arriving around the same time. It was exactly like all those early mornings when we were back in school, except without Principal Christopher Mastrangelo or any of the house principals there to greet us. As soon as we were let inside, we had to make sure that no two people were standing too close together. In contrast, I recalled those late entry days when everyone would just crowd around outside the office and in the cafeterias until we were allowed upstairs. 

Walking up the stairs to my testing room, everything felt the same. It was all very familiar. I do not know if I was expecting the hallways to feel foreign, or to be startled by everyone wearing masks in this setting, but it did not take long for me to find comfort in the bright orange walls and tiled floors that I spent all of my freshman year and most of my sophomore year getting to know. 

I was one of the first people in the testing room when I arrived, so I waited for everyone else. It looked like time had stopped in the classroom. I think part of me was used to distanced seating from when we used to take exams in-person. The only aspect of the room that stood out to me was the hand sanitizer that was strategically placed where everyone could access it, and perhaps also so people saw that the school was making an effort. Everyone knows that before the pandemic, those dispensers were not popular. 

Obviously, I cannot talk about the PSAT itself, but during the breaks in-between sections, I could not help but think about how empty the school felt. It felt as if I had gone to school during vacation, or on the weekend. Even in a room with a handful of other juniors, and more down the hallway, it was eerily quiet, save for the bell ringing here and there.

Malden High Principal Chris Mastrangelo reflecting on the PSAT exam testing day. Tweet from Mastrangelo's Twitter.

That is one thing I do not miss, the sound of the bell. Funny how no one realized that the last time they heard the bell ring on March 12, that it not only signaled the end of the day, but the end of any trace of a “normal” high school experience for the year to come.

I am currently writing this on a snow day, which one of my friends commented is “the most normal thing to happen all year,” and I could not agree more. Late entries and early releases do not feel the same when you are just going from your computer to your bed. We do not even have homeroom anymore, and there is only one lunch period and no built-in time to socialize with friends. There is no passing time in between classes to run into people in the halls, no rushing to be one of the first people in the deli line. No smelling the lunch from the second floor and wondering what it was, no trekking from the gym floor all the way up to your class in Brunelli. 

I think I echo the voices of many students when I say that I miss the social aspect of school the most. I miss the anticipation of walking into math class everyday and not knowing who I would be seated with; I miss meeting up with friends before and after school, and in particular, I miss being a part of what I call the “collective struggle.” If you do not know what I am referring to, I am talking about the connection that forms between students that are really Going Through It. I thought forming connections online would be easier, but now I know that is not true. 

Luckily, I knew a few of the other students in my testing room. In fact, two of them were in one of my classes. Just for a moment, we bonded over how much work we had to catch up on. It felt good to know that I was not alone, that my classmates were not just circles or faces on my screen, but other human beings that were also struggling during these times. Again, if we were in-person and I was stressed, I could easily feel better by talking to other students that felt the same way, but complaining about the workload over Snapchat is not the same.  

It can be so easy to feel alone since almost every day feels the same. You wake up, log onto class, have lunch, go back for your last period, maybe take a break, and then turn back on your computer to do work for however long it takes you. I find that even in my club meetings, I do not feel like I am interacting with people, because it is no longer a social gathering, it is just another hour I choose to spend on my screen. 

When we were in-person, clubs and extracurriculars were a way for me to see my friends and meet new people outside of a class setting. I believe that these interactions were an integral part of any high school experience, and now these opportunities have been taken away for so many underclassmen. 

I can only hope that the next school year will be better for everyone. One of my friends in my testing room pointed out that if we are in-person next year, almost half of the students will not know their way around. It is amusing to think about, the fact that my biggest worry freshman year was getting lost, and now the class of 2024 is worried about clicking the wrong Google Meet link. Despite all the concerns that come with possibly returning to school in the fall, I am looking forward to having something to look forward to.

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