I recently used my Instagram (@heydudeniceshoes) to ask students, “What do you wish parents and educators realized about this past year?” Here’s what some students had to say:

“In person school is hard when you aren’t allowed to be close to your friends.”

“All the things I looked forward to are gone and now it’s just work.”

“I have questions, but my mic doesn’t work, and they don’t read the chat.”

“We are scared too.”

“I prefer virtual math but not virtual choir.”

“I have to help my brothers with their work during the day.”

“My computer is slow.”

“I wish I could go to school face to face, but my mom is at risk so I can’t.”

“I am not lazy.”

“How is this my senior year?”

“I actually MISS normal class.”

“I have a hard time paying attention, but I am trying.”

One response really stuck with me. It was from a high school junior named Connor. He wrote, “I wish they realized that we didn’t imagine growing up like this. I’m seventeen on paper, but I still feel fifteen.”

I reached out to Connor and asked him to elaborate. He shared that he had not been inside his school since midway through sophomore year, right before we all hit pause. As we approach the 400-day mark of the pandemic, some of us are coming out of pause while others are waiting longer to press play. But for Connor, he will not be able to return to his school building until he’s a senior this fall.

Back in the spring of 2020, no longer a new guy on campus, Connor was still basking in the “seniority” one more grade afforded him. He was happy to put freshman year behind him, but he also couldn’t help marvel at all the stuff the upperclassmen could do – and that he was anticipating – like awards, dances, and games. Connor saw juniors receive their letter jackets and then parade around campus wearing them even on warm days. He assumed that his own letter jacket and any hoopla at school would come down the road.

But when his letter jacket arrived in the mail not too long ago, Connor realized just how much all that ceremony mattered. There was no one at home who wanted to see it, or read the patches, or watch him try it on. He had nowhere to wear it but his bedroom. The only hoopla he was able to share was on social media. “Pics or it didn’t happen,” he said on the post. Connor showed his parents later that day, who took a bunch of pictures as parents tend to do, but right into the closet it went after.

Connor is hopeful he will wear his letter jacket to school this fall for senior year. I am hopeful too.

When I think back to my sophomore year: Titanic was on the big screen. I had just bought Oasis’s third album on CD. My hair was a dark maroon. Revlon’s toast of New York was my go-to lipstick. And my favorite store was tied between Gadzooks and Contempo Casuals. I was very involved in both theater and speech and had a tight circle of friends.

I remember how much older the seniors seemed. They could drive cars, date, and get in big trouble. All those things seemed so far away to me. I hadn’t even taken drivers ed yet or had a boyfriend, and what on earth would I get in trouble for? Over the next two years, I learned the answer to that question.

With license in hand, I made good and bad decisions, got into trouble, and learned a few lessons along the way. I dated, had my heartbroken, and then moved on to love again. At 18, I was growing into another person. I no longer had maroon hair or shopped at Gadzooks. And I didn’t even audition for the school musical.

“We don’t know how these kids will pick up from where they left off — socially and developmentally.”

Yes, my life had changed, and I had too. But how different would things have looked if I was plucked out of sophomore year and then plunged back in as a senior? Would I have learned those lessons, grown from heartbreak, and gotten to know myself better? Would I have kept the maroon hair? We don’t have anything to compare this 400-day pause to. We don’t know how these kids will pick up from where they left off — socially and developmentally.

As we slowly follow the light at the end of the tunnel and prepare for next school year, we need to realize that kids right now lost over a year of their adolescence. The seventh grader we see this fall hasn’t really experienced middle school yet. And just like Connor, high school seniors may feel younger in some ways.

This long pause has caught me off guard as well. I was 38 when the pandemic began. And two weeks ago, I turned the big 4-0. This is usually a huge milestone for my family and friends. We’re talking trips, parties, and pictures – pics or it didn’t happen. But instead, I started a new decade under the radar – although very contently with my three favorite people and X Files reruns and take out.

I feel 40 as much as Connor feels like he’s 17.

Earlier during the pandemic, I heard one reporter say, “Same storm, different boat.” This rings very true. As we prepare for what’s next, I hope we realize that we are all coming from different places. Some of us have weathered the storm and some of us are still in it. Some of us are ready and some of us are not. For some people, 400 days is just the midway point.

I hope that we show each other grace, patience, and kindness. I hope that if someone is excited to talk, we listen. I hope that if someone sets a boundary, we honor it. I hope we see each other in the brightest and most hopeful light after this long 400-day pause – whenever you decide the time is right for you to hit play.

Be gentle my friends, as the storm ebbs and flows our boats may re-surface in varying degrees of disrepair. Whether you hit play after a 400-day pause or more like 600 days, I hope that day is everything you’ve waited for.

Carolyn Brown

Carolyn Brown

Carolyn Jennings Brown has been serving public schools in the state of Texas for nearly two decades. She has a unique perspective that spans from being the daughter of an educator to a student, teacher, and parent. Today, Carolyn travels the state sharing her anti-bullying/pro-kindness workshop. She is an honorary lifetime member of Texas PTA and a recipient of the National PTA Lifetime Achievement Award. Carolyn lives in Austin with her husband and their two daughters.