March break seems so long ago now, but that was the week everything changed. My friends and I had gone to Mexico. We were really excited; it was our last big trip together before we graduated. But when we returned to Halifax, it felt like we had travelled to an alternative universe. We went straight into lockdown: our school was closed, the streets were empty, and we weren’t even supposed to leave our houses. Everything was so quiet.
You’d think it would be good not to have to go to school anymore. I definitely did, at least at first. I go to Halifax Grammar School — or, I should say, I used to go there. It’s small: there are only about 500 of us, although our ages range from junior primary through to grade 12. I started at the school in grade 7, so the place has been a big part of my life. I didn’t expect my final year to be cut short like this. It was sad not to be able to say a proper goodbye.
I remember back in January, my geography teacher had talked about how the coronavirus had gotten so bad in China that schools had been forced to close, and that there was a possibility of a student transferring to our class to complete their diploma. We thought shutting down schools was beyond imaginable here. On the last day before the break, my math teacher had told us to bring home our binders, just in case. My friends and I had laughed at the time, because this teacher was known for being super-cautious. She even stopped a lesson once when a classmate sneezed, to make us all use hand sanitizer. That doesn’t seem so crazy now.
Lockdown turned my world upside down. My school switched to online classes, and my parents began working from home. Suddenly, we were spending a lot more time together. We did all the usual things, the things that we’ll remember as the typical quarantine activities: watching everything on Netflix and going for short, scary walks around the neighbourhood where you mainly tried to avoid other people. But I enjoyed having the extra family time, especially as I still hoped to move out in the fall.
I found that I had a love-hate relationship with studying from home. On the one hand, it was much less stressful; on the other, I was often distracted. With virtual learning, it was like being given a choice of whether to pay attention. The teacher couldn’t always tell if we were listening. And there were too many unanswered questions back then, of what would be happening with our exams, with graduation, with prom, and with university. It was difficult to focus on the present when the future was so uncertain.
I took art, English, French, math, physics, and geography as part of the International Baccalaureate program. Art proved to be the biggest challenge in my new bedroom-classroom-studio set-up. And I mean literally: One of my canvases was two metres wide! The experience of the pandemic really influenced my final projects. (How could it not? It was all we were thinking about.) I’d done a painting based on a photo I had taken on a family vacation to Italy, which turned into a homage to the country we’d been hearing about frequently on the news. It also became a reference to the time when we could travel without having to think too much about it. Another series of pieces incorporated salutations from around the world: hi, bonjour, ciao. I was considering how people were no longer able to hug or touch when they greeted each other. Projects like this made me feel part of something bigger than just being alone in my room.
In the end, our IB exams were cancelled, but we still had to write school exams to complete the year. We did these over Zoom — not in the school gymnasium, as we would usually do, surrounded by nervous peers. The teachers were concerned about cheating, so they just made the tests open book. I think they were also worried that the whole experience of online learning had been tough on us. They didn’t want the situation to hold us back or hurt our marks. We were grateful for that.
Next came graduation, the event that we had all been dreading, as there would be no walking across the stage, no pinnacle of our school career, which we’d been working toward for thirteen years. Instead, my parents and I huddled around the computer to tune in to the live ceremony. Afterwards, we were able to go to the school at a specified time to take photos. It was strange being there again, but at least I could have my gown and diploma moment, even if it wasn’t with my classmates. There was some good news, though: our prom, or a socially distanced version of it, was rescheduled for August. So we did manage to have one final celebration.
After the weirdness of the last six months, I’m looking forward to what comes next. Soon I’ll be heading to Acadia University to study kinesiology. Wolfville is only an hour from where my parents live, but it still represents the start of my independence. I know that I’m lucky to be able to move away at all. Some of my friends will have to continue with online classes for a while longer, maybe much longer. The dorms will all be singles this year, and Acadia has pushed back the start of classes to late September — the aim is to have in-person teaching, with larger labs and lectures delivered online. Nobody knows what “normal” is anymore, but it looks as if my first year might be close to the experience I’ve been picturing for so long. It’s the beginning of a new adventure, anyway.