With the change from online learning to in-person learning, the “freshman” experience that the Class of 2024 originally expected has changed dramatically. Entering a new division can be challenging for many reasons: students need to make new friends, adjust to a new workload, meet new teachers, and acclimate to a new environment. This year, however, many of the events that once eased the transition from middle to high school have been reimagined, rescheduled, or cancelled, making the jump more difficult than I envisioned.
Before joining the Upper Division (UD), I pictured my high school experience as if it was a movie, perhaps similar to High School Musical. I imagined the lunchroom filled with commotion as the next hot topic was discussed, football games every Friday, intense school spirit, and stylish outfits. However, the UD is completely different. The vibe is much more laid back than the Middle Division (MD), which is surprising; I thought it would be more intense than the MD because of the increased workload. However, because of our current situation, much of what makes high school at Horace Mann is no longer present, changing my impression of the UD so far.
What makes the school so special to me are the amazing teachers that come here every day ready to teach, assist, and support every student. However, relationships between the students and teachers have changed. Before COVID-19, it was easy to drop by the department offices and say hi or ask a question. Now, it requires more planning to meet with a teacher. It has been harder to get to know my teachers because our masks take away from the person-to-person connection we would usually experience. During the first few days of school, my teachers expressed the difficulty of remembering our names and getting to know all of us, due to the obstruction of half of our faces. I also felt like it was quite a challenge to get to know all the new ninth-graders in my classes without yelling due to the plexiglass barricades and masks.
These difficulties have posed some challenges, but they have also prompted more icebreakers and team building activities in class, which I feel has helped everyone become acclimated to each other in this new environment. Although this new norm has presented a few challenges, I still feel as connected to my teachers as I did in the MD.
The new coronavirus policies have also drastically affected the way my grade has socialized and interacted with each other in the classroom. Throughout my time at the school, I have made most of my friends from my classes, rather than from lunch or free periods. Additionally, with the new structure of the classrooms, I have not really been able to meet anyone new. The desk configurations and limits on collaboration in the classroom have all hindered my ability to meet new people and to get to know others.
Because I was a mentor, I was able to attend virtual UD Orientation (UDO) and meet the incoming freshmen a few days before school began. Even though I felt like UDO allowed me to meet new students, I didn’t feel I was able to truly get to know my peers. When school began, this became even harder because of social distancing measures and different schedules — I had few opportunities to meet many of the classmates I had previously met virtually on a deeper level.
Finally, the absence of a sports team dynamic and a genuine club experience has also affected the way I have integrated into the UD. Prior to the pandemic, I looked forward to fun bus rides, close relationships with teammates, and the chance to meet students from different grades. During eighth grade, I looked forward to joining the soccer team in the fall; however, because of COVID-19, I knew the experience I was looking for wouldn’t be there this year. The way clubs will meet this year has also altered the way I have acclimated to the UD. It’s amazing how many different clubs the UD has, but it has been quite overwhelming trying to figure out what clubs will be best for me based only on a recommendation from a peer or a video from the club leaders. I am so excited to try new things and expand my horizons; nonetheless, this unconventional year has made it a little bit more tricky to know where to start.
Regardless of the changes to the UD experience, I am hopeful that this year will still be as amazing as I once envisioned. Over the past few weeks, I have witnessed small acts of kindness from many of my peers. From waving to a new ninth-grader in the hallways, to including one another in conversations, the Class of 2024 has truly shown the importance of inclusion. I am so amazed at how well the ninth grade class has come together, despite these unprecedented circumstances. I am confident that the Class of 2024 will make the best of this year and support each other to make everyone feel included.