Isabella Juma turned 13 on February 19, 2020, just weeks before Covid-19 changed the world forever. The first year of teenagerhood would have been a milestone any year, but for Isabella and her peers, a global pandemic, a contentious election and racial conflict forced them out of childhood abruptly.
Gone were the days when she could be just “happy” and “jolly,” she said. She matured, became cautious and started worrying about the years ahead.
“For my friends and me, I feel like it will just change the future. It will just change, really, our perspectives about life. We can’t always really be so carefree,” said Isabella, who attended a public middle school in Brooklyn last spring. “We really have to enjoy every second we have, because one day can be easily taken away by something small, like an illness, or something big, like a gunshot.”
Young people like Isabella, who headed to high school this fall, have had to try to make sense of the events of the last two years while navigating one of the most complex and frustrating times in anyone’s life — middle school.
Middle school is one of the most formative and sometimes chaotic periods of development, when adolescents begin to grapple seriously with who they are and their place in the world, all while dealing with hormonal and physical changes. Multiple crises that have left the nation reflecting on its own identity — as conversations around race, freedom, health, wokeness and death flood the news — have deepened the usual challenges for a generation of 10-to-14-year-olds.
Teenagers like Isabella feel not only more frustrated, depressed and hopeless than teenagers in past years, but also energized and optimistic about the future (according to a new Washington Post poll). No one has a crystal ball about how this generation of young people will be affected by these last two years — and race, class and other factors ensure that all tweens and teens have experienced the last few months differently.
Studies have found that young teens are being challenged with mental health issues, social isolation and slipping grades now more than ever. They’ve also been exposed to more debates about diversity, racism and sexuality, while sickness and death surrounds them. Can history, science, and stories from young adolescents themselves give us insight about how all this might add up to shape this impressionable population?
Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood,” says that big traumatic events like the Great Depression leave “invisible scars” that can shape the character of a generation, even if individuals have different life circumstances. For example, the children that lived through the Great Depression worried about money as adults, he said. And before that, after World War I and the 1918 pandemic, there was a “revolution in morals and manners,” he said, in which many young women in particular defied their elders by bobbing their hair, wearing short skirts, taking up smoking and playing tennis as ways to assert their independence.
“That was really a reaction to this traumatic set of experiences of the ‘war to end all wars’ [and] this terrible pandemic that they went through,” he said.
“I think there’s a real possibility that young people might, I can’t predict, but they might be more hedonistic and more risk-taking and more rebellious in a hundred different ways because they’ve had enough of this lockdown,” said Mintz. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they’re a little like the kids of the 1920s who, you know, they just, they want to be wild and rebellious ’cause they’ve had enough of this and their adults let them down.”
Judith Warner, author of “And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School,” says the huge upheaval that typically marks middle school was exacerbated by the health and racial crises over the last few years, and likely traumatized and toughened kids. “It’s a moment when we are separating ourselves from our families of origin. We are becoming more independent at that point. That’s a very insecure moment of trying to figure out who you are and where you fit,” she said. “There was just a hardening, you know, on every level that we saw that was playing out with kids that age too.”
At the same time, loss and isolation “pulled them out of what has to be most important to people at that age, which is their social lives and their social world,” Warner said. “All of that was stunted.”
Amy Oelsner, who runs Girls Rock Bloomington, a music camp for girls and gender nonconforming preteens in Indiana, says she’s seen negative and positives among kids who attend her camp. “It just felt like they weren’t, you know, as carefree kids as much, which was kind of sad,” she said. “But at the same time, I felt that they were very resilient and very adaptable.”
Of course, the very notion of a “carefree” childhood reflects a more Westernized attitude, which doesn’t acknowledge the fact that young people often “grow up with heavy stuff that does not fit within the notion of childhood as being a ‘carefree’ existence,” said Kate Cairns, a childhood studies expert at Rutgers University-Camden. She cautions against making too many comparisons to past generations or predictions about what might become of this one.
If anything, she said, the experience of the last two years shows how systematic inequality impacts young people differently.
Warner, however, believes that it’s safe to predict that this group of middle schoolers will become more committed to social issues. “I feel like there’s the potential for this generation as a result of everything that they witnessed to become much more compassionate and socially engaged and empathetic,” she said.
The experiences of several young people reflected this sentiment.
“My dad watches a lot of CNN, so I see a lot of what’s happening, and it makes me really sad. Even though my skin is really white, I still felt really scared,” said 12-year-old Myra Thrasher who attended Girls Rock Bloomington. “I considered myself to be kind of like, at least a little empathetic, but also I was scared. I’m not really sure why, but I kind of was. I didn’t really know what to expect because no one has ever been in anything like this. The whole world was basically chaos the entire time.”
Fadzai Gides, 11, lives in Bloomington and attends the same camp. The last year was hard, she said. She struggled to stay motivated in remote school and missed her friends. She began to become more cautious about people hugging her. George Floyd’s death and the flood of news showing people of color brutalized by police shook her, especially, as a person that identifies as biracial. “I was just really nervous. Even to, maybe, like go outside, to go to the pool,” said Gides. “I was like, I could, I could be like a victim of police brutality and that’s really scary.”
Isabella found herself exploring new career paths. Before, she said, “I just didn’t really know what career path I was going to choose. Now I want to go into the medical field, because I know that sometimes during protests there could be a couple of violent shootings. People do get hurt, and I do want to help those people,” she said.
“Last year I probably would have done something with the arts, like something to do with animation or drawing,” she added. “But now that I really kind of know more a bit about myself and about the world, I changed my mindset about that.”
Fadzai said that she too has begun to change her approach to life. “Before this, the world just seemed a lot smaller,” she said.
Fadzai said she confronts things that previously would have made her uncomfortable. “Now, I just like, instead of just like standing back, and not trying, not like taking a stand and trying to help a community … I just want to jump into action and try to help people more.” This year, for example, she started a group with her friends that challenged her school’s curriculum around the teaching of sexual abuse because she did not believe that students were getting adequate information about the topic and how to report it. She believes she made a difference: Other young people got involved, and school administrators listened to their complaints and committed to making a change in the way the issue is taught.
Isabella also decided to become an activist for the first time after being frustrated by the presidential election. She said she became the youngest member of Teens Take Charge, a group that advocates for more educational equity in New York City. It helped give her a way to voice her frustrations. She understands that she can’t “just force the world to change automatically,” but learned that even incremental change is progress.
Both Isabella and Fadzai said that the pandemic taught them that they had to learn how to pay more attention to their mental health, something that remains important to them since the adults in their lives have sometimes checked out. “We really had to learn how to be there for each other when adults aren’t,” Fadzai said.
In April, Warner wrote an article arguing that middle schoolers will essentially be okay, and that the trials they’ve faced should be kept in perspective. In an interview, she argued that students who were home with their parents and were online with their friends and teachers were not suffering like those who are in solitary confinement or jail. She admits that, with learning at home, things were not the same for these kids in the last two years — “it’s not as good, it’s just not — [but] that’s not a comparable level of deprivation that would cause neural pathways not to be built,” she said.
Resilience is likely to be a shared characteristic of kids going through middle school now, said Mitchell Prinstein, chief scientist for the American Medical Association. “Middle school is a time when kids are trying on these new adult brains and learning how to use them,” he said. Middle schoolers don’t need our worry, he suggests, in fact, they might teach us all something about dealing with stress.
“They didn’t lose a year, they just lived a year in a world unlike most kids have to live in,” he said. “That could be good as well.”
Fadzai thinks this last year will have a “mixed impact” on her future. She discovered new passions like baking and playing the ukulele and guitar, but also had to worry about how things were impacting her friends and family — some of whom had never dealt with this kind of trauma.
“A lot of things that make me happy happened because of the pandemic, but also bad things,” she said. “So it’s also kind of made me a stronger person, although it’s brought a lot of bad things.”
In the end, Myra said, she is not worried about what kind of adults she and her friends may become. Instead, she is focused on the present. “I don’t know if anyone understood what was going on,” she said. “Most of us are still alive. I think that’s kind of what matters.”
This story about middle schoolers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.