A small group of high school students contacted me recently to ask if I’d host a Zoom session for them and a few of their friends. I had spoken at their school last Fall and they were interested in having a deeper conversation about the benefits and strategies I had shared from my in-school presentation. I was thrilled to hear from them and we set it up with the title of the meeting, “Social Media; Strategy, Execution and Benefit.”
The day came, I fired up Zoom and as the Host, welcomed everyone into the session. To make the session interesting, fun and interactive, I created a few Poll questions around how they use their devices; the apps that command most of their screen-time, and what they look at on their phones, first thing in the morning.
When everyone was in I locked the room and we were set to go; private and secure. What I thought was going to be 10-15 students turned out to be thirty, from a few different schools. I encouraged everyone to introduce themselves and indicate what school they attended. I walked through a few basic housekeeping rules such as muting their mic, the chat function, hand-raising and designated a co-host (the lead student that contacted me) who would manage the chat while I was speaking and illustrating ideas.
The session started off well; upbeat, laughter, chatting about what inspired them, and their objectives and hopes after high school. Sharing my phone screen with apps that would help them search for and engage with relevant audiences, I also ran through features and deeper functionality.
I asked everyone what their biggest challenge was in this new world of isolation and living online with everything from class-time to friendships to ordering food and other basic items. The students talked about the rise in popularity of apps that they already used while at school like UberEats and Skip-the-Dishes for lunch, FaceTime, Messenger Groups, WhatsApp and more. These apps, which provided a level of entertainment and time-wasting – their words – were now being used as tools and necessary utilities that supported their current lives.
But then the conversation stopped. One student began, the green Active Speaker border highlighted around her video image; “I hated my school. I didn’t like going and I didn’t like the routine and the noise and all the bullshit, all day long.” And she started to cry. She wasn’t sobbing. She was crying, openly. She could have left the session or turned her video off or muted her mic. But she didn’t. It was a level of vulnerability I had never experienced. She was enthusiastic at the outset of the session, sharing her achievements and goals and hopes and joy about school and her circles. Was this a mask of bravery she was asking us to believe in? That things really were ok? What inspired this sudden shift?
She continued, through tears, “I miss people. I miss the jerks in class and in the halls. Cause I know they’re probably struggling just like me. I miss having to report to the office. I miss having to pay attention and speak in class. I miss my teachers and my sports. I miss my friends. I miss people. Mostly, I miss what I took for granted; that everyday stuff I took on that bothered me was just everyday life. God, I miss that. I want it back. I want it all back.”
I looked around the Zoom squares and at the faces. One-by-one the red mic symbols were being unmuted. And the sobs from others began – girls and guys. Not with everyone. But with many. I didn’t expect this, at all. Similar sentiments were shared. Virtual hugs, reassurances and love were being transported through the technology. The only thing this technology was doing, though, was unmasking the vulnerability of pain and appreciation, gratitude and love – and loss. The intense desire for “normal” to resume, as mundane, confrontational and lame as it might be, was essential. It inspired everything else to happen; the joy and happiness and struggle and hope.
I didn’t have answers or solutions. Nobody asked for my opinion or expertise. I didn’t have any. The students weren’t looking for that. All they wanted was a place to gather and to express how a world of no face-to-face contact thrust suddenly upon them, was affecting them.
What a number of them observed is that good, bad or ugly, their school is a community – a hub. It’s not always great and glorious. Sometimes it can be downright frightening and intimidating. But it’s a place to go and to be with other people; to figure stuff out or to be able to get pissed off – and to learn and grow.
Thirty students from different schools with all grades represented taught me – and each other – a great deal; that there is no substitute for human connection. And that the new normal is a massive adjustment that swings opposite to every instinct we have about the innate need to connect, in-person with one another.
So no, all things considered, this whole thing hasn’t really been awesome. These students said so. And I believe them.