For most, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives we once had. Social distancing and isolation is the new norm as the world is continuously being impacted by the coronavirus. March 13 was the last day I would physically spend in school indefinitely. I am a junior at a high school in Essex County, New Jersey, as much as I hoped and prayed for schools to stay open, I knew the likelihood of that was implausible. I spent the entirety of that day crying.
Unlike some students, school is my safe place, my home. I spent years trying to find a place that I could call my home, somewhere I felt accepted and loved. Desperately trying to find people to fill a void of emptiness and heartache. My teachers instantly became more than teachers but life long mentors and friends. They accepted me, they showed up and remained consistent.
Consistency and unconditional love is essential for any child’s upbringing. My childhood was the exact opposite. My father was always inconsistent as he spent the majority of my childhood in and out of jail. My mother was in my life but never present. The relationship between my parents and I only worsened when my father was released from prison and moved in with my mother, sisters and I. From then on, the next four years I spent with my parents consisted of severe abuse. From a very young age I was forced to grow up and care for my three younger sisters and older brother because my parents weren’t parenting. As a result of the trauma I endured growing up, I was continuously in a battle with myself. Trying to understand: Why me? What is love? What am I doing so wrong?
The feeling of being unwanted and a burden to everyone I come in contact with continues to resurface. Spending three years in foster care was another battle, one filled with confusion and more hurt. During the course of the three years I reached some of my lowest points, but I also had some amazing moments as well. The best thing that came from being in the foster care system was the endless opportunities to re-create my narrative. I began to learn my worth and what unconditional love looked and felt like when I entered the school system. Everything I had been searching for throughout the years was present, but in a place that I least expected it.
Perhaps the relationships I was able to build and maintain over the last five years were able to happen because I was vulnerable. My teachers saw something in me that I never saw myself: my potential, my sense of self and undeniable drive for change and passion for helping out everyone else before myself. I spent my childhood experiencing the world through the eyes of a child but mentally as an adult. I was never able to enjoy the simple things that every child should, the simple things such as having fun and living with absolutely no care in the world.
I became so attached to my teachers and counselors, they were and still are my source of motivation when I struggle. The wounds from my past did not leave and they will never be erased, but my teachers helped me with starting the healing process. Every day is another struggle for many different reasons, the struggle of not being good enough for my “parents” and some days it’s the insecurities I have about my skin, while others are struggling to understand why I endured the things I did. Though in the moment these thoughts and flashbacks may seem very black and white, school showed me that the world consists of a lot of in-betweens and grays.
COVID-19 took away my source of happiness. My guidance counselor always tells me that family is not defined by blood, family is what you make it. I chose to create a family for myself and that was school. Having a place to escape to, a place where I feel seen and most importantly heard is my school.
Aside from not being around the people I love and care about most, online distance learning is difficult for me. Sitting in front of a computer screen all day not only puts a strain on my eyes but it hinders my motivation for staying on task. I am easily distracted by everything around me and tend to get caught up in my thoughts more. It is hard to stay focused on schoolwork when I am forced to face all the problems I try to run away from. Not being able to have time for myself, a moment to just breathe, has been taking a toll on me.
In addition to this, the stress of not being accepted into college because of the coronavirus is also a lot to deal with. I take my education very seriously, a way to break the toxic cycle my parents created. Junior year is the time when college visits, SATs, and ACTs happen, but that was all canceled in a matter of days. The College Board has recently said that AP classes will be shortened to 45 minutes and taken at home. I spent the majority of this year preparing myself for these tests to help advance my future. Education as I once knew it is no longer the same. Adjusting is something that everyone is being forced to face and adjusting will take some time.
Essentially, COVID-19 took something from everyone but one thing I learned is the importance of gratitude. Things I once took for granted, this pandemic allowed me to appreciate so much more, life is not promised to anyone and neither is “normalcy,” so appreciating everything life offers in its entirety is vital because we never know when or how it will be taken away.
Tawanna Brown, 17, lives in New Jersey. Social services was always part of Tawanna’s life, but she and her siblings weren’t removed from their parents’ home until she was 12. She spent three years in foster care until 2018 when her grandmother adopted Tawanna and her siblings – three younger sisters and an older brother. During this time Tawanna found her love and passion for being the creator of her own story. She began giving motivational speeches about her traumas as a form of therapy but most importantly as a way to be a voice for those who don’t have one. She dreams of becoming a lawyer. Currently in high school, she is on the Mock Trial team and involved in Girls Learn International. She is an active advocate for children in the foster care system and people who have experienced domestic violence and sexual assault. Tawanna is a member of New Jersey’s DCF Office of Family Voice Youth Council. She enjoys foods, spending time with friends and getting her hair and nails done.