Custom Class: post-landing-hero

By Johanna Varner ’02

Doug Wortham’s reputation preceded him – how could it not?

Even 25 years ago, he was legendary for being the hardest teacher in the Upper School. Before we started, everyone in freshman French had heard the stories from friends or siblings. Even our Middle School French teacher warned us that our lives would become much more...difficile. To say that we were terrified would be an understatement.

Mr. Wortham is that rare teacher who has the highest expectations but is somehow still everyone’s favorite.—Allyson Goldstein Hicks ’02

And most of those stories were true. I worked harder for Doug's classes than for any other teacher or professor since. Indeed, his French program is widely regarded as “one of the most challenging and scholarly" programs available at Rowland Hall, an institution generally renowned for being challenging and scholarly. But what those stories left out was the profound impact that his classes would have on us. In addition to actually learning French, an amazing accomplishment itself, we also learned to think deeply, to engage with difficult topics, to recover from failure, and to live authentically in a challenging and unpredictable world.

For the past 43 years, I imagine that all of Doug’s students (and probably also our parents and caregivers) have wondered how he motivated us to work so hard...and actually like it. My classmate Allyson Goldstein Hicks ’02 commented, “Mr. Wortham is that rare teacher who has the highest expectations but is somehow still everyone’s favorite.” 

As an educator now myself, I have also often considered how he managed that feat, and writing this story provided me an opportunity to reflect on my experiences. I also polled my fellow class of 2002 alumni, and together, we pieced together some answers.

Members of the class of 2002 with French teacher Doug Wortham.

Members of the class of 2002 with Doug at graduation. Back row (left to right): Sarah Stevens Canfield, Johanna Varner, Nicole Pershing; middle row: Bryan Lence, Maribeth LeHoux, Doug Wortham; front row: Vanessa Clayton, Michael Reynolds, Allyson Goldstein Hicks. Photo courtesy Johanna Varner.

First, Doug always treated us with adult-like respect and expected the same in return. “Wortham always treated us not only like students, but also mini-adults, which we hardly were,” wrote Maribeth LeHoux ’02. He took the time to get to know each of us, respected our confidences, and earned our trust and respect in return. “Mr. Wortham had a unique way of seeing the teenage version of yourself, meeting you at that place, and subtly supporting each student to become the best version of themselves,” commented Nicole Pershing ’02. He trusted us with personal stories about his life experiences in the gay community, or that we would not get into trouble when given adult privileges travelling abroad. This was a rare experience for many of us, and it made a lasting impression.

In addition, Doug taught us to be prepared for anything—indeed, it was a requisite survival skill for his classes. Whatever we did, the instructions were clear, and we were evaluated fairly. But the day's activity could range from writing a philosophical essay or conjugating verbs until you could no longer hold a pencil, to translating song lyrics, reading a story aloud, or discussing death and religion. Perhaps the most unpredictable activity of all was compétition. In this activity, we had to literally run our answers to the front of the room. Because the first correct answer received the most points, nobody hesitated to throw elbows or even swan-dive across Doug’s desk with their submissions. (Nobody was seriously injured, but I am sure minor bruises were common). “I was always slightly terrified to go to class,” said Maribeth. “It was challenging in a way nothing else was. Even if you studied, how could you ever be prepared?” 

Doug also set the bar high and had faith that we would rise to the challenge. I continued French in college, and none of the classes that I took at MIT or Harvard rivaled Doug’s in terms of challenge, rigor, or reward. Allyson, who majored in French, agreed. “Mr. Wortham’s classes were some of the most challenging, fun, and impactful classes I have ever taken,” she wrote. At age 16, we tackled the great classics of French existentialist literature. We unpacked all the layered metaphors of La Peste by Camus and Huis Clos by Sartre. We even had to memorize and perform an entire act of Ionesco’s play Rhinocéros. We weren’t always successful at first, but Doug always offered patient, graceful, compassionate, respectful, clear, and constructive feedback so that we could understand the assignment and his expectations. “Because of my experiences in his class, I knew after a stumble (literal or metaphorical) I could get back up and keep going,” wrote Nicole. “Those challenges brought us together with shared triumphs that forged friendships.”

Doug Wortham with students at a cooking class in Montreal.

Doug, far left, with Rowland Hall students at a cooking class in Montreal during a 2002 Interim trip. Photo courtesy Johanna Varner.

Perhaps the most important thing about Doug’s classes was that we didn’t just learn French. We learned about politics and governments, religion and philosophy, ethics and morality. We learned how to live authentically. We learned how to respect the worldviews of others, and we developed the courage to speak up in the face of la mauvaise foi.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Doug's courses were deeply relevant to our lives, then and now. We did not just learn how to conjugate verbs, use the subjunctive tense, or memorize vocabulary. We also were tested on colorful slang expressions, pop lyrics, and current events. We traveled to use our language skills in Canada, France, and Belgium. And perhaps the most important thing about Doug’s classes was that we didn’t just learn French. We learned about politics and governments, religion and philosophy, ethics and morality. We learned how to live authentically. We learned how to respect the worldviews of others, and we developed the courage to speak up in the face of la mauvaise foi

“Doug Wortham is the sort of teacher they depict in movies,” said Bryan Lence ’02. “He expected so much of his students. He taught about different world views, governmental structures, culture, and philosophy. He just happened to teach it all in French.” Vanessa Clayton ’02 added, “I’ve always thought that that class taught us more about life than anything.” 

Of course, we also actually got really good at French. “By the time I graduated, I could travel abroad and speak the language, read the language, and feel comfortable,” wrote Bryan. “Twenty years later, I can still read and understand.” Most of us can still recite lyrics to the songs we memorized too. And the other lessons will last a lifetime. Nicole agreed: “My French may have gotten rusty in the last 20 years, but I use the life skills, compassion, and determination that I learned in Doug’s classes every day.”

We also relished passing on those scare stories to our siblings and their friends. Like Mike “Blanquette” Reynolds’ ’02 memories of “writing conjugations until our hands went numb, shaking it out, and then repeating the process for 45 more minutes.” Or Sarah Lappé’s ’02 recollection of “that stylo rouge [red pen] destroying my sentences after I handed my paper in last.” These stories may not be used anymore to heckle future generations of incoming freshmen about the challenges that lie ahead, but I am confident that Doug Wortham will remain a legend at Rowland Hall. My classmates and I all wish Doug the best for his well-earned retirement.


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been unable to celebrate our departing colleagues as we customarily would. We are planning an on-campus gathering on Saturday, August 28, to honor those who worked at Rowland Hall for 20 or more years and left the school in 2020 or 2021.

People

More Than Just French Class: For 43 Years, Doug Wortham Challenged Rowland Hall Students to Live Authentically

By Johanna Varner ’02

Doug Wortham’s reputation preceded him – how could it not?

Even 25 years ago, he was legendary for being the hardest teacher in the Upper School. Before we started, everyone in freshman French had heard the stories from friends or siblings. Even our Middle School French teacher warned us that our lives would become much more...difficile. To say that we were terrified would be an understatement.

Mr. Wortham is that rare teacher who has the highest expectations but is somehow still everyone’s favorite.—Allyson Goldstein Hicks ’02

And most of those stories were true. I worked harder for Doug's classes than for any other teacher or professor since. Indeed, his French program is widely regarded as “one of the most challenging and scholarly" programs available at Rowland Hall, an institution generally renowned for being challenging and scholarly. But what those stories left out was the profound impact that his classes would have on us. In addition to actually learning French, an amazing accomplishment itself, we also learned to think deeply, to engage with difficult topics, to recover from failure, and to live authentically in a challenging and unpredictable world.

For the past 43 years, I imagine that all of Doug’s students (and probably also our parents and caregivers) have wondered how he motivated us to work so hard...and actually like it. My classmate Allyson Goldstein Hicks ’02 commented, “Mr. Wortham is that rare teacher who has the highest expectations but is somehow still everyone’s favorite.” 

As an educator now myself, I have also often considered how he managed that feat, and writing this story provided me an opportunity to reflect on my experiences. I also polled my fellow class of 2002 alumni, and together, we pieced together some answers.

Members of the class of 2002 with French teacher Doug Wortham.

Members of the class of 2002 with Doug at graduation. Back row (left to right): Sarah Stevens Canfield, Johanna Varner, Nicole Pershing; middle row: Bryan Lence, Maribeth LeHoux, Doug Wortham; front row: Vanessa Clayton, Michael Reynolds, Allyson Goldstein Hicks. Photo courtesy Johanna Varner.

First, Doug always treated us with adult-like respect and expected the same in return. “Wortham always treated us not only like students, but also mini-adults, which we hardly were,” wrote Maribeth LeHoux ’02. He took the time to get to know each of us, respected our confidences, and earned our trust and respect in return. “Mr. Wortham had a unique way of seeing the teenage version of yourself, meeting you at that place, and subtly supporting each student to become the best version of themselves,” commented Nicole Pershing ’02. He trusted us with personal stories about his life experiences in the gay community, or that we would not get into trouble when given adult privileges travelling abroad. This was a rare experience for many of us, and it made a lasting impression.

In addition, Doug taught us to be prepared for anything—indeed, it was a requisite survival skill for his classes. Whatever we did, the instructions were clear, and we were evaluated fairly. But the day's activity could range from writing a philosophical essay or conjugating verbs until you could no longer hold a pencil, to translating song lyrics, reading a story aloud, or discussing death and religion. Perhaps the most unpredictable activity of all was compétition. In this activity, we had to literally run our answers to the front of the room. Because the first correct answer received the most points, nobody hesitated to throw elbows or even swan-dive across Doug’s desk with their submissions. (Nobody was seriously injured, but I am sure minor bruises were common). “I was always slightly terrified to go to class,” said Maribeth. “It was challenging in a way nothing else was. Even if you studied, how could you ever be prepared?” 

Doug also set the bar high and had faith that we would rise to the challenge. I continued French in college, and none of the classes that I took at MIT or Harvard rivaled Doug’s in terms of challenge, rigor, or reward. Allyson, who majored in French, agreed. “Mr. Wortham’s classes were some of the most challenging, fun, and impactful classes I have ever taken,” she wrote. At age 16, we tackled the great classics of French existentialist literature. We unpacked all the layered metaphors of La Peste by Camus and Huis Clos by Sartre. We even had to memorize and perform an entire act of Ionesco’s play Rhinocéros. We weren’t always successful at first, but Doug always offered patient, graceful, compassionate, respectful, clear, and constructive feedback so that we could understand the assignment and his expectations. “Because of my experiences in his class, I knew after a stumble (literal or metaphorical) I could get back up and keep going,” wrote Nicole. “Those challenges brought us together with shared triumphs that forged friendships.”

Doug Wortham with students at a cooking class in Montreal.

Doug, far left, with Rowland Hall students at a cooking class in Montreal during a 2002 Interim trip. Photo courtesy Johanna Varner.

Perhaps the most important thing about Doug’s classes was that we didn’t just learn French. We learned about politics and governments, religion and philosophy, ethics and morality. We learned how to live authentically. We learned how to respect the worldviews of others, and we developed the courage to speak up in the face of la mauvaise foi.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Doug's courses were deeply relevant to our lives, then and now. We did not just learn how to conjugate verbs, use the subjunctive tense, or memorize vocabulary. We also were tested on colorful slang expressions, pop lyrics, and current events. We traveled to use our language skills in Canada, France, and Belgium. And perhaps the most important thing about Doug’s classes was that we didn’t just learn French. We learned about politics and governments, religion and philosophy, ethics and morality. We learned how to live authentically. We learned how to respect the worldviews of others, and we developed the courage to speak up in the face of la mauvaise foi

“Doug Wortham is the sort of teacher they depict in movies,” said Bryan Lence ’02. “He expected so much of his students. He taught about different world views, governmental structures, culture, and philosophy. He just happened to teach it all in French.” Vanessa Clayton ’02 added, “I’ve always thought that that class taught us more about life than anything.” 

Of course, we also actually got really good at French. “By the time I graduated, I could travel abroad and speak the language, read the language, and feel comfortable,” wrote Bryan. “Twenty years later, I can still read and understand.” Most of us can still recite lyrics to the songs we memorized too. And the other lessons will last a lifetime. Nicole agreed: “My French may have gotten rusty in the last 20 years, but I use the life skills, compassion, and determination that I learned in Doug’s classes every day.”

We also relished passing on those scare stories to our siblings and their friends. Like Mike “Blanquette” Reynolds’ ’02 memories of “writing conjugations until our hands went numb, shaking it out, and then repeating the process for 45 more minutes.” Or Sarah Lappé’s ’02 recollection of “that stylo rouge [red pen] destroying my sentences after I handed my paper in last.” These stories may not be used anymore to heckle future generations of incoming freshmen about the challenges that lie ahead, but I am confident that Doug Wortham will remain a legend at Rowland Hall. My classmates and I all wish Doug the best for his well-earned retirement.


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been unable to celebrate our departing colleagues as we customarily would. We are planning an on-campus gathering on Saturday, August 28, to honor those who worked at Rowland Hall for 20 or more years and left the school in 2020 or 2021.

People

Explore More People Stories

Rowland Hall health and wellness teacher Lauren Carpenter teaching on the Salt Lake City, Utah, Lincoln Street Campus.

When it comes to communication with kids, Rowland Hall Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund’s top piece of advice for parents and caregivers is simple.

“Always assure them that they can come talk to you with any questions, concerns, or experiences,” he said. “And when they do, ensure that your reaction is one of partnership and not judgment.”

At times, this advice can be easy to follow: many adults feel equipped to answer, and even welcome, questions about their children’s friendship woes, school worries, or nighttime fears. But when it comes to tougher conversations, like those around sex and sexuality, many caregivers get nervous—especially if they didn’t grow up having honest conversations about sex, or if they were raised to view sex as shameful or negative.

When [health educator Shafia Zaloom] visited our school, she mentioned how impressed she was with our approach to talking to students about healthy relationships in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental, and caring manner.—Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education

A fear of talking to kids about sex is common, and for a recent article for USA TODAY, reporter Alia Dastagir set out to answer why. As part of her reporting, she spoke to Ryan, as well as to Rowland Hall Upper School health and wellness teacher Lauren Carpenter, on the recommendation of health educator Shafia Zaloom, who was also interviewed for the article. Shafia got to know the Rowland Hall community last September when she held virtual workshops on healthy relationships for middle and upper school students and for parents and caregivers—an experience that influenced her decision to recommend our educators as sources to the national publication.

“When Shafia visited our school, she mentioned how impressed she was with our approach to talking to students about healthy relationships in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental, and caring manner,” said Ryan. “As someone who travels the country talking at schools and colleges, she expressed that she does not always see such a comprehensive wellness model.”

And this kind of model is important, the USA TODAY article stresses, because kids need accurate, honest information about sex more than ever before. In the piece, published September 8 and titled “Why Adults Are So Afraid to Talk to Kids about Sex,” Ryan, Lauren, and Shafia debunk the belief that comprehensive sex education encourages teens to have sex, or even promotes promiscuity. In fact, Lauren pointed out, the opposite is true: accurate, comprehensive information about sex actually protects teens’ health and lives—and this is especially important, added Ryan, because today’s kids live in a sex-saturated media environment that exposes them to sexual messages earlier than ever.

“Talking to your kids about sex and sharing your family’s values with them in an open and curious forum does not mean that you condone them engaging in sexual activity—when we talk to kids about drugs, we don't expect that they'll want to use them because we had that conversation,” said Lauren. “If anything, I think it helps your kids see you as an advocate and strengthens their support system.”

To help get adults comfortable with conversations around sex and sexuality, the educators recommend that they work through personal worries, fears, or hesitations, as well as examine their own sex educations for sources of discomfort. It’s necessary to get comfortable with the subject, they said, because talking to kids about healthy sexuality can’t be accomplished in one big talk: it needs to happen often, and it needs to begin when children are young, as part of an overall approach to helping them feel safe coming to their guardians with any questions. As Ryan shared with USA TODAY, "If you're not having that conversation, the conversation's happening somewhere else—peers, the Internet, or in your first relationship where you're negotiating a power dynamic of one person who knows and the other one who doesn't.”

“Developing all kinds of relationships is part of the natural progression of human life. But navigating those relationships in a positive and responsible way is not innate,” Lauren added. “For adolescents to learn how to navigate the many facets of sexuality and how to make positive, self-affirming choices, it's important to have a parent or guardian's voice leading in an understanding and supportive way.”

It’s okay to not have all the answers, or to return to a conversation later, or to ask your kids for feedback on how they want to approach a subject. It’s also okay to plan what you want to say ahead of time and to lean on resources, including other adults your kids trust.

The educators also offered USA TODAY readers a variety of tips, from teaching kids about consent, empathy, and privacy early, to reminding parents that they don’t have to be perfect when it comes to talking about sex and sexuality: it’s okay to not have all the answers, or to return to a conversation later, or to ask your kids for feedback on how they want to approach a subject. It’s also okay, they said, to plan what you want to say ahead of time and to lean on available resources, including other adults your kids know and trust (see below for a list of Ryan and Lauren’s top resource recommendations). The educators are hopeful that these tips will inspire more honest, trust-building conversations in homes across America.

“I was so happy to see the topic discussed in a national forum, and I appreciated the opportunity to add to the conversation,” said Lauren. “Normalizing the conversation regarding teen sexuality might begin to help diminish cultural stigmas related to it and allow more open conversation—ultimately leading to healthier relationships for teens.”

Resources

There are many resources available to help families navigate conversations about sex and sexuality. Below are some of Ryan and Lauren’s top recommendations.

  • Your child's pediatrician. Not only is your pediatrician a wonderful resource for you, said Ryan, but they’re also a great resource for your child. “Make sure they have a trusting relationship, and that your child has their own set of questions they can ask at annual well-child visits,” he said.

  • Books. Lauren recommends Shafia Zaloom’s Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between, Michael Kimmel’s Guyland, and Al Vernacchio’s For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens about Sexuality, Values, and Health.

  • School counselors and health teachers. Reach out to your child’s school to learn who can support you. For Rowland Hall families, Ryan said, “Leslie Czerwinski and Lauren Carpenter are amazing educators who are so respected in wellness circles for their years of service and expertise. Any opportunity to join them in an important conversation I am going to take, because I know I am going to learn something as a parent and colleague.”

  • Local nonprofits. “My top resources are Planned Parenthood, YWCA Utah, the Rape Recovery Center, UCASA [the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault], and the Utah Pride Center,” said Lauren.

  • Utah Department of Health. The state’s website includes information on a wide variety of topics.


Check out the full USA TODAY article here. (Subscription required.)

People

Rowland Hall Student Body President Samantha Lehman speaking at Convocation.

At the start of each new school year, Rowland Hall holds a Convocation ceremony. The 2021 event, held on Friday, August 27, centered around the theme (and school value) Relationships Matter.

Every year, Rowland Hall’s student body president is invited to address the group of students, faculty and staff, trustees, alumni, and families gathered for Convocation. (Check out the 2020 speech here.) This year’s president, Samantha Lehman—who recently wrote a reflection for Fine Print about appearing on the Utah House of Representatives podcast to discuss the toll the pandemic is taking on students' mental well-being—used the event to inspire students to find ways to tap into their own superpowers, even amidst personal and global challenges, to achieve their goals. Her speech—lightly edited here for style and context—appears below.


By Samantha Lehman, student body president

Most people would describe me as a nerd.

You may think the term nerd has a negative connotation, but I take it as a compliment. And part of what makes me a nerd is that I am a very avid reader. If someone gave me a book for my birthday, I would actually read it. If I tell my parents I’m going for a hike, I’m probably just going to Barnes and Noble in my workout clothes. However, when I got to high school, work and extracurriculars just sort of piled up. I didn’t have time to read anymore, so I preferred watching a show to reading because it was easier.

But my New Year’s resolution last year was to read 20 minutes of a non-school book a day, and I’ve ended up getting back into reading as a result. Now, I don’t mean reading Shakespeare, War and Peace, or Grapes of Wrath. I mean traditional, fun, not-really-brain-intensive young adult fantasy. Think Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Shadow and Bone, etc. I read these types of books because they allowed me to escape from my daily life into an epic fantasy world filled with dragons, and knights, and magic, and demigods.

Rowland Hall Student Body President Samantha Lehman speaking at Convocation 2021.


And as I read more and more of these types of books, I realized that most of them follow a general formula for how they’re constructed. It goes as follows:



  1. Main character is facing some struggle at home.

  2. Main character finds out they have magical powers.

  3. Main character goes to a special place for people with magical powers.

  4. Main character is involved in a conflict, but ends up defeating the villain, usually with the help of teammates.


There I was, struggling to deal with real life, thinking about this formula and wishing that some big dude with an umbrella would bust down my door and tell me that I was actually a wizard and offer me an escape from reality ... and I would feel sad and disappointed that that probably wasn’t going to happen. So I decided to change my mindset. I started to compare this formula to my everyday life, and—while I know this might sound a little crazy—I realized that they’re not so different.

I thought back to first grade, when I didn't really like school and was struggling to find my place. It wasn’t until my teacher, Susanna, told us about a story-writing project that I discovered my love for writing and storytelling. Writing was my magical power, and it was just my luck that I was in a special place that fostered that power: school. Writing helped me slay the first-grade dragon, and has helped me ever since, by serving as a stress reliever, a way to express my voice, and a way to connect with others.

I thought back to Middle School, when I was unsure whether or not I could be a scientist. It wasn’t until I earned my first exceeding on a science test that I realized, “Hey, I could actually do this stuff.” Realizing that I could do anything I set my mind to, including science, was a magical power.

Find your superpower, support your friends and teammates, beat the odds together, achieve your goals, and do it again. Use school as a place where you can strengthen your powers, and find ways outside of school to continue to grow.—Samantha Lehman, class of 2022

I thought back to all the instances when I found new abilities through trying new things—and the times when I’d failed and fallen. And I’m still here. I defeated all of those challenges, I’ve grown, and I did it with the help of new friends, teammates, and abilities I didn’t even know I possessed.

These past two years have been tough. We’ve lost friends, family, and time. We’ve been alone, limited, and angry at the world. But you are all still here. You’ve made it through years of hardship and school. You’ve climbed barriers, faced the odds, suffered through ERBs—and yet you’re still standing.

So this year, I challenge each of you to live your life like you are in a young adult fantasy book. Find your superpower, support your friends and teammates, beat the odds together, achieve your goals, and do it again. Use school as a place where you can strengthen your powers, and find ways outside of school to continue to grow. You are warriors, and knights, and scientists, and writers, and historians, and mathematicians, and debaters, and artists, and athletes, and computer geniuses. You are strong, smart, and unique. So use those powers to live your own fantasy, because even though the real world is no magical school, summer camp, or palace, you are brave enough to face it.

Thank you.


Banner photo: Members of the class of 2022 wave to this year's first graders in a COVID-adjusted version of the high-fives usually given at Convocation.

Student Voices

High school students wave to the camera on the first day of school

Welcome, Winged Lions!

Rowland Hall was excited to welcome students to our two campuses this week as we kicked off the 2021–2022 school year on Wednesday, August 25. As they arrived, students and families were greeted by a golden sunrise, old and new friends, a peppy group of faculty and staff, and an overall air of excitement. (Some even met Roary, our trusty school mascot, as they made their way to classrooms.) Below, please enjoy some of the images captured on the first day of school.

We look forward to a wonderful year together filled with deep learning, joy, and new memories.

First Day Photo Gallery: McCarthey Campus (PreK through Fifth Grades)

First Day Photo Gallery: Lincoln Street Campus (Sixth through Twelfth Grades)

Community

Student Samantha Lehman at the Utah state capitol.


At the beginning of June, rising Rowland Hall senior Samantha Lehman began an internship for the Utah House of Representatives majority staff. She spent two weeks sitting in on appropriations and caucus meetings, communicating important information through social media, and researching everything from local procedures for foreign diplomats visiting Utah to water and transportation policy (did you know that 32,933,228,764 miles were driven on Utah roads in 2019? Neither did Samantha!).

While working at the capitol, Samantha was approached by Harry Hansen, communications manager and podcast host, who asked to interview her for the Utah House of Representatives podcast about her experience attending high school during a pandemic. She said yes, and when Harry asked if there was anything specific she wanted to talk about, Samantha immediately answered, “Mental health.” Below, Samantha, a Rowland Hall mental health educator and this year’s student body president, reflects on why she chose to focus that discussion on the toll the pandemic is taking on students' mental well-being.

Mental Health and the Pandemic: A High Schooler’s Perspective

By Samantha Lehman, Class of 2022

The movies don’t lie when they say that high school is tough.

I, and many other students, found it hard to stay motivated and to care about things we were previously interested in. I felt alone, helpless, burned out, and like I was a failure for not being more engaged. It was as if Earth’s gravity had suddenly increased: everything looked the same, but it was harder to lift myself up.

Homework, studying, and the epic highs and lows of extracurriculars are enormously stressful, so a balance between friends and work can help make school manageable. However, the pandemic meant students were isolated in their rooms, unable to be around their friends, making school feel more strenuous and boring. Additionally, in-person class is hard to replicate on Zoom. There’s just not the same energy, and focusing is near impossible when a) you have been staring at a screen for hours at a time, and b) the world of the internet is at your fingertips (I’ll be fully transparent here: I definitely watched The Office instead of paying attention in class more than a couple of times). As the year went on, many students found it harder and harder to keep up with work and make themselves pay attention to what they were supposed to be learning, even if they were able to be in person at school some of the time. I, and many other students, found it hard to stay motivated and to care about things we were previously interested in. I felt alone, helpless, burned out, and like I was a failure for not being more engaged. It was as if Earth’s gravity had suddenly increased: everything looked the same, but it was harder to lift myself up.

Another problem with school during a pandemic is repetitive thoughts. When you’re stuck at home all day in front of a computer with nothing but your brain to keep you company, repetitive thoughts become a real problem. My brain kept telling me, “You should be doing better at school,” or, “You’re a horrible student and don’t deserve to be here,” and, “You’re a failure.” After hearing those things again and again, I started to believe them. Unfortunately, many of my classmates had this experience as well, and they struggled with school and their mental health as a result.

For some students, having their routine dramatically switched up by the pandemic was a huge challenge. For others, they enjoyed being online for school, perhaps because they are uncomfortable in many social situations, so going back in person towards the end of the year was a hard adjustment. Maybe a student lost a relative or a friend during or to the pandemic and didn’t get the community support they needed. Regardless of the reason, the pandemic impacted every student’s mental health in some way, and that may have long-lasting effects, even if this school year looks a little more normal.

I think it’s important to realize that mental health is not a reason a person isn’t strong. You can be strong and still struggle with your mental health.

I think it’s important to realize that struggling with mental health is not a reason a person isn’t strong. You can be strong and still struggle with your mental health. Take Simone Biles, for example. She has 31 Olympic and World Championship medals and pulled out of the Olympic team competition to prioritize her mental health. That’s strength if I’ve ever seen it. A person also doesn’t have to be diagnosed with something like anxiety, OCD, or depression to need to take time to prioritize their mental health. Brains are weird and life is hard.

As we continue to navigate the pandemic, the advice I’d give to parents and guardians is to remember it’s important to realize that kids need time to recharge and get their heads on straight to succeed. It’s OK for kids to feel tired and want to take breaks from work, and caregivers should encourage them to prioritize their mental health as well as support their kids in times of struggle. My parents support me by reminding me that they are there for me and by never judging or criticizing me for struggling with mental health.

Additionally, as students, we need to remember to support each other. There is never a bad time to tell a friend that they are doing great and that you are there for them. As a community, we need to continue to uplift each other and give each other the space to put mental health first.

Student Voices

You Belong at Rowland Hall