Student Voice: Barking Dogs, Breathing Exercises and Eckhart Tolle — Diary of My First Day of ‘Social-Distance’ Learning at Sunny Hills High

Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/Getty Images

It felt like the first day of school all over again.

The night before, I couldn’t get to sleep. I even woke up earlier than usual: 7 a.m. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, remote learning for Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, California, started just over a week ago.

California is under a shelter-in-place order. But in the place where I live, I can still go out to the park and run (staying a safe distance from my neighbors, of course) or go with my parents to buy groceries. Those are special occasions. On a normal day, I’m at home, living under a rock, asking my cat why she doesn’t like me and occasionally trying to practice piano without annoying my neighbors.

On that first day of distance learning, after making myself a bagel, I anxiously tested my Chromebook’s video camera as I opened Zoom and waited for it to load … until it didn’t. I correctly inferred that my Fullerton Joint Union High School District-managed Chromebook blocked Zoom. At least Google Classroom worked.

A restart later, Classroom was blocked, and Zoom was operating.

Hope Li

Once the glitches got worked out, I opened an email from a school counselor containing one of those meant-to-be-inspirational quotes that typically finds a place in our second-period morning announcements:

“You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” —Eckhart Tolle

As I worked my way through that glitchy first day, it occurred to me that in small ways I was suddenly being asked to rearrange the circumstances of my life. Here’s a snapshot:

First Period: Honors Algebra 2

I responsibly copied my notes for half an hour, then tuned in to Zoom.

My math teacher typically leads us in stress-relieving breathing exercises, so when one of my classmates suggested that we have a mindful moment, Mrs. Bueno went with it and led us online. I don’t know if any of my peers followed her instructions to close our eyes and breathe to her counts, but it helped lower my stress.

Second Period: Chinese 3 

I tried to finish my math homework since I accidentally did the Chinese assignment the night before.

When I finished, I went to the optional Google Meet and talked to my teacher and some classmates face-to-face, which led to a few impromptu house tours and pet shows.

Third Period: AP Language and Composition

After my chill Chinese class, I left my camera on so my classmates could see my face and surroundings.

As our teacher explained the assignment, an essay we would write using the College Board’s AP Classroom app, her dog kept barking in the background; in the chat, someone suggested a face reveal for her dog, which she gave (her chocolate Lab mix, Trooper, is very large and majestic).

At first, the College Board secure site on my Chromebook wasn’t working, so I called a friend to make sure I wasn’t the only one — I was the only one — then retried (success!). I took out a sheet of paper and a pen (is that cheating?) to organize my thesis on a topic once remote and now more relevant than I ever thought possible: living off-the-grid.

Although I was quite comfortable at my desk at home, wrapped in my childhood Hello Kitty blanket, I found myself missing my not-as-comfortable bright yellow chair and gray desk in Room 32, where I would be slightly peer pressured to work faster on my essay and finish before break (at home, I didn’t finish). Instead, I was surrounded by three of my younger siblings, ages 9 to 15, all on separate laptops and computers, who worked on their own distance learning assignments.

Fourth Period: AP U.S. History

I entered the Meet with my homework Google Doc open (never mind that I forgot about doing the assignment) and my classwork packet ready (I did that one), but then my Wi-Fi connection decided to die right when my teacher started talking about why Al Capone is the gangster you have to remember for the AP test.

While I developed a new kind of FOMO (fear of missing out), I asked my classmates on the Google Meet chat if anyone else heard my teacher’s voice breaking up, to make sure I wasn’t the only one.

I was the only one.

Fifth Period: Advanced Journalism (and lunch)

After I finished a reflection piece on the latest issue of our school newspaper, my mom invited me to eat lunch, so I ate during fifth period like I normally do — one of the perks of being on staff of The Accolade — and made my own Google Meet to say hi to friends during the next period, lunch.

All of us bonded over the weirdness of the day and had a few technological difficulties of our own while chatting. Although happy to see their faces, I missed their physical presence. I missed lunchtime activities like Christian Club and Book Club (I’m a nerd). I even missed the days I skipped lunch and ran around trying to get interviews for a story.

Just when I started to feel sad, irony stopped me in my tracks. I realized that I was plugged in the entire day, just like the screen-addicted generation my peers and I are already accused of being. Now, we have no choice. I mean, it’s not my fault that the only way I can talk to other humans is through a video camera.

At least I had some non-virtual social interaction — well, with my siblings.

Sixth Period: Honors Chemistry

For Honors Chemistry, I invited my two younger brothers to watch two teachers and a student teacher light snacks on fire. The lab was so lit (excuse me, I had to) that we watched it on repeat. By myself, I stared at my screen for a hot minute before I understood the actual assignment.

While some of the kinks have been worked out since that first day, it’s only the beginning of a long experiment in this brave new world of remote learning. I haven’t exactly achieved Eckhart Tolle’s goal of realizing who I am at the deepest level. But I did get to see a Funyun glow white-hot four times.

“Pandemic Notebook” is an ongoing collection of first-person, student-written articles about what it is like to live through the coronavirus pandemic. Have an idea? Please contact Executive Editor Andrew Brownstein at Andrew@The74million.org.

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