Graphic by staff graphic designer Sumen Imtiaz.

On January 20th, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States.

And now, a little over a year later, the world is unrecognizable from what it once was. 

The stay at home orders and quarantine has transformed everyone’s lives. The elderly are hesitant to step outside — due to the high risk of infection — and unemployment is hitting record numbers.  

I know my life has changed dramatically from a year ago; waking up at 6 in the morning and going to school is gone, hangouts with friends are gone and spending time with family outdoors is gone. 

My days used to feel lively at times, but now they have become very sluggish. It’s an endless cycle of video games, Youtube videos and an overall unproductive lifestyle.

Not many things have given me the sense of excitement I used to feel often.

Trust me, it’s not like I haven’t tried to set goals for myself either. I’ve made good progress in staying active and I’ve tried to practice the things I enjoy, but more often than not, I lose motivation. One thing that I have realized is that a lot of my inspiration comes from the outside world, which I haven’t got a lot of. 

One incredibly bad habit that I’ve developed is spending way too much time on social media. It was already a problem before quarantine and it worsened severely over the past year. At the end of each week, Apple gives me a report on my screen time for the past seven days, and that number never fails to make me disappointed in myself. 

It’s hard to break this habit, especially since social media can be a quick source of some laughs and happiness. A few minutes scrolling on Twitter can turn into a whole hour relatively quickly. 

My experience is just one of millions though.

There are teens my age who have struggled much more than I have and then there are others who have actually enjoyed this period of isolation. 

There are an infinite amount of stories to be told about quarantine, so I interviewed two teenagers from Hudson County about how they’ve held up in the past year. 

Dream Chasing While in Isolation

Mathew Daniels, also known by his stage name, MTD, is a high school senior in Hudson County. He told Slice of Culture that his experience in quarantine has been a “spiritual journey.” 

“In a positive way, quarantine has allowed my mind to grow, to realize a lot of the negative things in my life. When you’re stuck in isolation, that allows you to think, I became unsatisfied in a lot of ways. It made me want to work harder in music and in general be a better person.”

As a student, worker and aspiring rapper in Hudson County, Mathew’s story throughout quarantine has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

As he mentioned before, quarantine has given him a chance to give certain aspects of his life a second thought.

He emphasized the growth he experienced both as an artist and a person. It was in this past year when he came to the realization that he has been struggling with depression. 

“I broke down a lot because I realized I was depressed. I realized all the terrible things I was going through. My mind for so long was trying to tell me that I was fine, but that’s just how life is.” 

Quarantine gave him more time to himself than he ever had before, and that resulted in these realizations.  

Daniels also mentioned that he came to an understanding about his own overuse of social media. When looking back, he regretted just how much he cared about social media — there was a time where he cared a lot about how many likes and comments he got on his posts. 

But recently he came to a conclusion that these weren’t healthy things to worry about, nor did they offer any benefits. As a result, social media breaks were taken and it became one less thing to think about.

Instead, he opted to focus on his music more. 

“It’s allowed my music to grow,” Daniels said. “It showed me the type of artist that I wanted to be. I used to want to be the biggest rapper, but now I just want to make the best music I can.”

He said that the artist he is now is completely different from the one he was a year ago.

Throughout quarantine, his main goal has been to put together his debut mixtape, “Everything’s Fine,” which is set to release on all platforms next month. 

When not at work or at school, he said a lot of his time is spent freestyling, recording and overall thinking about the direction he wants to take his music. Whether it’s 4 p.m. or 3 p.m., making music has always stayed on his mind. 

The fantasization of fame and money has been pushed aside, Daniels said, quarantine amplified his motivations to making music that is true to himself and will hopefully inspire others. 

But since September, Daniels been doing virtual learning, which he said has been a struggle. 

“It’s horrible, I prefer my mom waking me up for physical school, at least then I’ll be up and paying attention. Now I cannot pay attention anywhere. You have so many distractions, phones, games, it’s ridiculously easy to lose focus during class. I don’t even know what’s going on in most of my classes.” 

Too often you’ll hear adults talk about how their kids have an easy way out right now with school and that there’s no way they can struggle. 

But as you can see with Daniels’ experience, that assumption is just plain wrong.

The reality is that he is not the only one struggling; there are a lot of teenagers who are excited to go back to school. Not just to see their friends again, but to go back to the traditional in-person learning. 

Being a senior also gave Mathew more things to think about –college. 

Despite not being able to get in-person advice from school counselors and staff, he found the applying experience easy and he actually enjoyed it. 

Of course there was pressure about choosing what to major in and his future, but he settled on communications to help his career in music. 

“I expected the experience to be difficult but it turned out to be easy. FAFSA was the hardest, it had so many questions that I didn’t know the answer to. However, I enjoyed the experience of applying, I always felt proud when I hit the “submit application” button.”

Now that he’s halfway through his senior year with acceptance letters coming in, Daniels decided to find a job to earn some money before his freshman year of college. 

He’s been working for about a month now, which has had its ups and downs, he said. 

“At first, there was a shortage of people, so I was working frequently which often got in the way of schoolwork and personal time. Sometimes customers come in without masks and it freaks me out. Security usually takes care of those situations, but when the customers get aggressive about it, it’s honestly just sad.” 

This is a reality that a lot of teenagers share today; the mix of work and school often puts an immense amount of pressure onto their shoulders.

When you add in the possibility of catching COVID-19 and running into people who refuse to wear masks, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. 

Daniels eventually made it through the initial shortage though, and he said now he feels much more comfortable and is getting by everyday. 

Nowadays, he spends his time working, going to school, playing video games, and making music. 

I asked him if there was anything he wished to change about how he handled quarantine, and he said:

“I don’t wish to do anything differently. This has been a journey, I have regrets, but I wouldn’t change my decisions. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I did.” 

The Search for Balance Between School, Work, and Personal Needs

Althea Valencia, a junior high school student in Hudson County, has had a somewhat positive, but more negative experience with quarantine over the past year.

In our conversation, she opened up about what she learned about herself. 

“It has been very lonely because prior to COVID-19, I was able to see my friends often, but since then I have only been able to see two people. I’ve also gotten very unfit overall. I learned that living without social interaction really takes a toll on me.” 

The sudden stoppage in social interaction can be hard for anyone, especially as we’ve all grown so accustomed to it.

Teenagers, like Valencia, Daniels and myself, were used to seeing their friends everyday at school and when COVID-19 stopped that, it became clear just how much social interaction helped us everyday. 

The abrupt change in lifestyle was hard to adjust and Valencia explained to me that she had to find ways to cope with it.

One way was through social media, like TikTok. 

“I used TikTok and social media to cope with isolation. Anything that made me laugh would keep me sane and happy, that was all I really needed.” 

It was important for her to find something that could give her some escape from all the craziness in the world this year. Apps like TikTok became just that for Valencia. 

She later on explained how she isn’t the type of person to reach out to people when she feels lonely and how she thinks a lot of people feel the same way. So, in addition to social media, she dealt with that loneliness by taking walks outside and appreciating nature. 

“A tip I’d give to anyone struggling with isolation, is to appreciate nature and take the time to go outside and breathe some fresh air. Doing that kept me sane as well.” 

Over the past year, it’s safe to say that being home 24/7 everyday can become draining very quickly.

Being inside, Valencia said she often missed the simple things in life, like how beautiful nature could be or how stunning the clouds could look. It was important for her to take some time out of her day and appreciate those things like she did before. 

But Valencia did have some positive takes from the past year.

She said she was able to spend more time with family than she did before and had chances to focus on herself, thinking about her own growth. 

Valencia had a lot of hopes for her junior year, but those were derailed when the virus broke out. There were a lot of things to look forward to, like school events and varsity sports, she said. 

Her junior year is now much different than she imagined.

“We are now 2 marking periods in and I basically sleep through my first 5 periods,” she said.

She explained that online school has made her very unmotivated and lazy whereas being in school physically was very fun at times. Additionally, because periods are only 25 minutes, she doesn’t learn nearly as much. 

Being a junior also means that Althea will be applying for college soon, and COVID-19 has made that process much harder for her. 

“The impact of the virus has made me feel completely unprepared for college. I don’t know how the process or how anything of that nature works. I don’t know how to sign up for SATs, overall I don’t know what I’m doing at all.” 

With the transition to virtual learning, oftentimes it has made it harder for counselors and staff to give students valuable information about topics like applying to college.

In school, you could easily set up an appointment with a counselor to talk about these things, but virtual learning sets new barriers. 

Valencia expressed her worries about being unprepared; the idea of applying and leaving high school can be stressful enough, and this added even more stress. 

Throughout this time, while dealing with school and isolation, Valencia has been working. She mentioned that COVID-19 also caused a shortage of employees at her work, which made her job a bit harder. 

Nowadays, as some restrictions have been lifted and overall people go outside more, there are still a lot of customers everyday. She said not much has changed and they still do the same things everyday. The only differences are the safety precautions like the checking of temperatures and mask enforcement. 

At the end of our conversation, I asked her as well if she had any regrets about how she handled quarantine so far. 

“I don’t think so. No regrets, nothing too serious. Although, I do wish I slept earlier on the days that I slept at 5 in the morning.” 

A Year In Review

Quarantine has affected teenagers in different ways, as you can see in both Daniels and Valencia’s stories. 

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that other teenagers may have had overall positive experiences in the past year. Their stories may not represent everyone, but it can be relatable to a good chunk.

One detail that I found interesting was that both them resented virtual learning, which I related to as well. Genuinely, the experience can become draining very quickly. Mathew mentioned how easy it is to get distracted during class, something I continue to fall victim to. 

Still, I find that my teachers and staff in general do all they can to give students the best education possible. I’m deeply grateful for the effort my teachers put in, they’ve made the best of this terrible situation. 

Our struggles with virtual learning are simply a product of quarantine that cannot be controlled. 

Then, while Daniels and myself explained our frustrations with social media, Valencia explained how it actually helped her tremendously. It’s fascinating to see how social media affects people differently, especially teenagers.

If there was one thing to take away their experiences, it’s that you can never truly know what someone is going through. Oftentimes, the smile you see everyday doesn’t tell their full story. 

Check up on the people you care about, let them know that they’re loved and appreciated. Embrace empathy everywhere you go. 

You never know how much it can make a difference in someone’s day, especially in the climate we are in today. 

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