The Learning Gaps Are Real: A High School Junior Returns to Class

by Obse Abebe
Also Featured on All Things Considered

The Learning Gaps Are Real: A High School Junior Returns to Class

by Obse Abebe
Also Featured on All Things Considered
10.13.21
10.13.21

All those stories about kids being excited to return to school? That’s not me. At least not yet. Being thrown back into the anxiety-inducing world of high school has definitely curbed any excitement I once felt about returning in-person.

As for academics? Lately, I’ve been cramming for my online SAT prep class. Let’s just say the pressure is on as a rising junior. It’s been a real struggle to focus in my prep class, just like my virtual classes last year.

Logging into class from my bedroom, I often found myself surrounded by distractions. Most of which were things I’d forgotten to take care of. From clothes that were piling up to discarded drinks, it got pretty frustrating.

Even though I’ve always received good grades and taken advanced classes, the past year and a half has brought to light some of my learning issues. My frequent forgetfulness, not to mention mental health struggles and feeling constantly overwhelmed, all finally pushed me to try and figure out if I needed to get a medical diagnosis for my concentration issues on top of the anxiety that I’ve been going through. Nationally, teens are dealing with more stress and anxiety. Healthcare providers like Athena Health saw a rise in ADHD diagnoses right after the pandemic started.

I’m lucky to have at least one person I can turn to about these learning challenges and the overall stress from school, and that’s my sister Eyerus. 

There’s just so many resources students don’t have pertaining to mental health and just being taught how to juggle everything,” she said.

I’ve been able to talk to Eyerus about all the things I’m facing — from retention issues to asking for extra time for assignments and exams — including the pushback I’ve received trying to get an ADHD diagnosis. It’s not easy because I need teacher evaluations first, so for now, I have to wait. As a college freshman, she understands what I’ve been through with virtual school, and what I’m going through now going back in-person. In our Ethiopian family, it’s not easy to talk about mental health.

“There have been many times where I’ve had some really bad and unhappy days and I would always play those off,” she said. “Because I’m a very optimistic person and I don’t tend to share my mental health with other people … But over the years it has gotten worse and I have buried a lot of my emotions and I’ve been in like a state of denial regarding mental health.”

Eyerus already knows my experience with that and how I’ve struggled just because of the stigma in our culture. But I just can’t imagine what other students are going through. I’ve been tutoring a third grader, but to be quite frank, I can’t imagine learning online at that age. So I get it when they start to zone out, talk back, lose patience. I feel like they are struggling a lot more than I am as we head back into classes. 

When I talk to my friends, though, their worries are different.

My friend Tali, who asked me to leave out her last name, is another rising junior who took pre-calculus this past year, and we spent many late nights together trying to teach ourselves these difficult concepts.

Well, I kind of forgot, like the statistics unit from the end of honors algebra two in ninth grade,” Tali said. “So when we did a similar unit in honors pre-calculus, it was a little bit hard to remember, but it did not take too long to get back into it. I happen to have some statistics talent, if I do say so myself.”

I mean, lucky for her. 

Now that we’re back in school, we’ll likely have more of those late nights, especially with starting our college application process this year. And as for how we’re coping with starting that?

“Well, I’d say it’s bold of you to assume that I am coping,” Tali said. “Because it’s just been such a mentally and emotionally draining year that it’s really hard to find ways to cope and. Honestly, things have gone a little bit better for me than they were at certain points of the year since I’ve been vaccinated. I got the opportunity to go to sleepaway camp in person, and that helped my mental health.” She added, “I would like teachers to be respectful of students’ mental health and know that we’ve been struggling a lot and figure out some ways to adjust to that … But I can just picture myself being very anxious about everything all the time.”

I couldn’t put it into better words myself. And for my teachers this year, I hope it’s okay that not every concept stuck during COVID — and that we students are often teaching ourselves — but please see beyond that and get to know me behind my mask. I’ll need that for college recommendations regardless.