In boldly personal, sometimes heartbreaking essays, the students of Cliffside Park High School in Bergen County are documenting the feelings that so many have experienced during their long struggle to cope with COVID-19.
One teenager watched his father sink into addiction again. Another questioned his own religion and faith. Another wrote about how she felt about getting sick with COVID and watching as her mother contracted the disease, too.
The high school students of English and psychology teacher Shawn Adler poured their feelings into a book, The Class of COVID-19, about living through the pandemic both in May of 2020 and the fall of 2020. It is available on Amazon.com. The deluxe edition contains both volumes of the stories produced by the students, who receive the proceeds from the sale of the book.
Christian Cruz wrote about his father.
“Let’s pray,” Christian wrote. “My mom looked at me with surprise in her eyes. It was the first time I had ever suggested that we pray.” His addicted father had just stormed out of the house after an hour of arguing, and after too much time passed, Christian knew what had happened.
“We lost,” he wrote. “After spending a week worrying about where he was going every night, my mother and I had come to the conclusion that my father relapsed. We could tell by the look of desperation and detachment in his face that the father we knew wasn’t present anymore. His dilated pupils told us the whole story. There was nothing my mom and I could do.”
During the school’s graduation ceremony, Adler said, Christian’s father approached him and hugged him, saying that reading his son’s essay had given him the courage to get sober again.
There are more than 230 pages of sensitive, sometimes painful stories of how COVID-19 affected Cliffside Park students and their families. In an Education Matters video interview with the NJSBA’s Ray Pinney, Winnie Zhao said that it was easier for her to write about her feelings than to tell her mother how she felt.
In the book, she wrote about how she felt when she contracted the disease.
“I was weak,” she said. “I didn’t know how, but I got COVID-19. I felt sick, but more than that, I felt guilty, and ashamed, and alone.” At first, she thought that she had infected her sister, but that’s not the person in her family who got sick. It was her mother.
Winnie wrote, “…my mom started to cough and develop a high fever, too. At this point, neither of us were able to do much.
“But my mom still worried about me. She would come into my room, while she herself was in as much pain as I was, and pour me ginger tea. Even breathing was hard. Every night, I thought about how she did it.”
Nareg Kassardjian told Pinney that he had begun to question his faith.
In the Class of Covid-19 book, he wrote, “Where do you go to find God in a world where God seems to have disappeared?
“It is seven months into plague quarantine,” Nareg wrote, “and the doors of Saints Vartanantz Armenian Apostolistic Church are closed.”
He wrote about how his faith for most of his young life had been the center of his existence, and he closes the essay by saying, “Maybe God hasn’t left us. Perhaps he is just waiting to see what we will do.
“The world outside makes it seem like God is closed,” Nareg wrote. “But we are still here. Still ready. Still open.”
In the interview with Pinney, Adler said how proud he is of his students. In the introduction to the new deluxe edition of the book, Adler, a former writer for MTV News, wrote, “I am so lucky to have gotten a chance to know these kids – to hear them, to work with them, to laugh with them and cry with them. I’m certain each and every one of them is going to change the world. That is my dream.”
Cliffside Park Principal Lawrence C. Pinto told Pinney that, as a community, “we were really hit very hard… Two weeks into the pandemic, we lost Ben Luderer,” who, at the age of 30, was one of the first educators in the country to die from COVID.
“To see these students respond in the way that they did,” Pinto told Pinney, “I couldn’t be more grateful. I couldn’t be happier for them. … I’m so proud of them, so proud of them for their newfound success, so proud of them for their ability to share their vulnerability.”
In closing the video interview with Pinney, Pinto said, “I’m just very proud and really can’t say anything more than thank you, guys, for doing something so great for our community.”
The class has published three volumes of memoirs so far. The first volume, from the spring of 2020, was called “Insights from the Inside.” The second was titled, “Second Wave.” The third volume, which compiled all of the essays from the first two, is The Class of COVID-19, Deluxe Edition, with an introduction by local Congressman Bill Pascrell. It is available on Amazon.