As we worked on our "Pandemic Generation" series about how the coronavirus has deeply affected the mental health of a generation of kids and teens, we wanted to include a project that would center on their voices and perspectives.
The frustrations and fears of adults were shared widely in columns and commentaries across many news sites, including our own. It was time to hear more from the kids.
We launched a writing contest, dubbed the "Pandemic Writing Project," asking kids and teens to write or draw anything under 600 words that expressed their feelings and experiences during the pandemic. We offered a few prompts, but left it open-ended.
And the kids truly delivered; we received dozens of entries over the few short weeks we requested the letters. The power of the work we received prompted us to launch a second call for submissions.
We hope this post will inspire other kids and teens to participate and help us capture as broad of a collection of writing and artwork as possible. Here are the details on how to submit your own work before the next deadline: Oct. 1, 2021. WBUR thanks its partners 826 Boston and GrubStreet for encouraging children in their writing programs to apply.
The letters, poems and art published here represent some of the most outstanding examples of the entries we've received so far. The submissions below were lightly edited for style and clarity. We tried to preserve formatting choices in poems as much as possible.
The submissions were stunning in both creativity and craft. As we anticipated, many of the kids' words left our hearts aching as they reflected on this collective trauma and their own personal experience of it. And often, we were delighted by the humor, wisdom, hope and exuberance that shined in so many pieces.
Reflecting On Loss
"Was the pain I felt exacerbated because of the pandemic and the loneliness, or was it just the same, raw emotion that courses through you when you experience loss?"Emma Sheils, 16, of Holliston
In several submissions, a theme of losses — big and small — emerged that ultimately, as tragic events often do, told the writers something more meaningful about themselves.
Emma Sheils's essay tackled the pain of both types of losses, starting with a much-anticipated school dance. Her enthusiasm as a storyteller leapt from the page, and had us reflecting on our own memories of high school dances and dramas. Her rich descriptions of how she and her friends felt as it became clearer that COVID was going to disrupt their plans, and indeed their lives, for far longer than a couple of weeks brought us right back to the wild uncertainty of March of 2020.
And then, Emma's wisdom crystalizes into something even more universal: about growing up through the real tough stuff.
Her beautiful, moving reflections on the loss of her grandfather and how it transformed what she thought she knew about loneliness and loss just broke our hearts.
Here is an excerpt of Emma's essay:
By this point, it was late April and I was depressed, with no hope for the future, no human contact to keep me going, nothing.
I had my family, and they were probably the only ones that kept me anchored to this world. Spending days trapped inside my room, searching the internet to find why this was happening today. Languishing. Life was stuck at a standstill. This was one of the darkest times in my entire life.
I eventually pulled myself out of that deep, all-consuming hole with the help of my family, but it changed me. Lots of people go through depression, it’s not an uncommon thing, but the darkness was so huge I lost myself.
Fast forward a month. I was doing a lot better. The hope of a semi-formal was long gone. School had been cancelled for the year, except for the occasional online class. But, something new and painful came into my life.
My grandfather’s health was declining, declining too fast, at a rate they hadn’t expected. He was put into home hospice and given a month to live.
I wrote a response for my English class about the end of innocence, about a time, a moment, when you knew life wasn’t all rainbows and fairytales. The moment when you faced the cold reality of life.
To find Emma's full essay, read here or watch this video:
Why COVID, Why?!
"You know you're a virus, // Spreading infectious disease // But we have you beat // You're the one that's making desperate pleas."Kai Yu, 10, of Somerville
Kai's "Dear COVID" poem rocked. It was melodic, rhythmic and intense. His powerful stanzas reminded us of great anthems or rap lyrics.
Here is how Kai's poem opens:
Why are you tryna' kill?
You know we have the vaccine, right?
You know we have the upper hand, right?
Why are you pressin' on,
When you know your chances of winning are long gone?
Addressing his words to the virus itself also stood out as a uniquely awesome and creative way to approach this writing project. Well done, Kai!
To experience Kai's full poem, read here or watch this video:
"In December, my friend was having a birthday 'party.' I was the only one there. My friend was so excited."Caroline Bresler, 10, of Charlestown
Caroline's "How the Pandemic Affected Me" achieved two very distinct things. For one, it was full of the kind of hilarious and innocent angst young children pull off best.
It also revealed — in very few words — a quieter reflection about just how difficult "this thing called the Coronavirus," was for young children to navigate with their families and friends.
And while meditating on the difficult changes she faced in her own life, Caroline's writing made us think about just how unimaginably painful it was to realize that, for many people, the circumstances might be so much worse.
Here is an excerpt of Caroline's work:
People kept talking about this thing called the Coronavirus. That night, I had no idea what it was. I sat down to start doing my homework. I was about to start my spelling sheet, when my mom walked in and gave me some news. "There's no school tomorrow."
At first I was happy. I couldn't wait to play with my friends. That Friday was supposed to be the last day of school before spring break.
My birthday was supposed to be the first day back from break. I thought we would be in school by then. We weren't.
As Caroline outlines above, the sheer surprise that the virus could prevent students from going to school for more than a couple weeks was something a lot of young people wrote they experienced, too.
To see Caroline's full essay, read here or watch this video:
"I have been told to wear a mask // It's annoying that I have to do it in class // But all of a sudden the rules change // We can be unmasked outside, isn't that strange?"Elliot Glasser, 11, of Needham
Elliot's poem titled "14 Months" was truly something else. His dedication to both a clear rhyme scheme and sharp, incisive storytelling was impressive for anyone — let alone, an 11-year-old.
With every couplet, Elliot found something new and important to say about himself, and our collective challenges dealing with pandemic precautions as they shift, and the difficulty of not knowing what to do or who to trust when the worst happens.
Here is an excerpt from Elliot's poem:
The rules keep shifting and it isn't fun
Couldn't we just stick with rule number one?
My friend has covid what should I do
It's so confusing I have no clue
Who should I believe who should I trust
Who is right and who is unjust
To see Elliot's full poem, read here or watch this video:
Finding Hope Through The Pain
"My insides are a rainstorm knocking the shingles off the roof."Hannah Myriam Baptiste, 17, of Brockton
Titled "It’s (Not) Showtime," Hannah's poem was selected because of its rich extended metaphor about being pulled away from the stage — away from the connections and routine a beloved physical setting offers — and having it replaced with a "horror show" when the virus hit.
The 12th grader also spoke about an omnipresent force in the pandemic: uncertainty. She wrote that "my knowledge of life becomes clouded" — a feeling widely shared by people, young and old, amid the ceaseless lack of predictability. We also applaud her creative formatting near the top of the poem.
Below are excerpts of Hannah's poem:
My security becomes a piece of paper dissolving into water,
erasing what was known.
My hope is nailed into a box and buried somewhere,
And no one can find the map to the lost treasure.
I worry about my future,
As my knowledge of life becomes clouded.
Hannah's poem takes readers along a devastating journey of anxiety and boredom before it touches down in a place of rebuilding for the future — both her own and that of society.
We march with our masks on into an unprecedented future,
With signs pleading for life and happiness,
An end to more systems than one.
We create a new normal for ourselves,
So when this disease no longer plagues the streets,,
We can have a world worth returning to.
To explore Hannah's full poem, you can read here or watch this video:
"We were balloons // Floating in the sky // Now we lie deflated // Stuck on the ground // But why?"Daphne Matsakis, 9, of Somerville
Daphne's metaphor for how the pandemic left many people feeling "deflated" and "stuck on the ground" struck a real chord with us.
We appreciated how her poem shifted to talking about the pandemic winding down, and how together, people could once again find "our balloons are filled with air."
Here is an excerpt of Daphne's poem:
Now we are growing
We are feeling
The crunch of our bones
As we broke them down
The noise, The Sound
Has gone from
A pouring rain
To a drizzle
To a drippity drop drop
To read Daphne's full poem, you can read here or watch this video:
Dear Face Mask...
Thank you for protecting me from COVID-19 and allowing me to attend school, parties, stores, parks and a million other places.Seren Mehta, 8, of Burlingame, Calif.
Seren's lovely letter to his face mask was so full of gratitude and charm. We also loved how he broke down the functionality of each part of the mask.
WBUR wishes Seren a happy reunion with your grandparents in Boston this summer!
"Stuck in a mask and can't get out, and the vaccinated grown ups just hop about."Abigail Glasser, 8, of Needham
Abigail's comic strip about the injustice of children not being able to shed their masks while "adults just hop about" had us howling. This 8-year-old has a true knack for drawing effective comics.
Writings On Missed Milestones And Moments
"Now if I do have a birthday, which I do NOT want to have, I will have what, like four friends standing six feet from each other? Who wants that? Masks down. And you know what I bet it would rain."Katherine Azano, 10, of Melrose
This collection of diary entries, written in a direct, authentic style, brought us on a unique emotional ride. It also reminded us how the trajectory of the pandemic changed our preoccupations as time wore on.
In Kate's case, her writing — full of drama, humor and later a sprinkle of hope — revealed how COVID left her thinking about how she couldn't see her parents as often because they were working so hard, and had to keep a distance from her friends. Her entry about accepting that her birthday party couldn't be like birthdays of the past was hilarious.
Later, the fear she shares about starting school again and worrying about the virus felt so important to include in this collection.
Here's the first of her "Dear Diary: Entries During COVID" piece:
Dear Diary, March 2020
I hate this. I’m trapped inside my house with no one to talk to. Mom’s working like crazy. I haven’t seen her for more than an hour in almost three days. I can’t see dad since he’s working at the hospital. I can’t contact my friends any more and the worst part is my friends are allowed to see each other. I see them out on their bikes all the time nowadays. Well I’m gonna go eat dinner, see you later.
Her second entry:
Dear Diary, July 2020
It’s July now…...My birthday. It would just be me and my parents and a birthday cake.
Since my birthday is at the time it is in summer. I normally spend it with all my friends, a quiver with excitement playing lawn games under the brilliant bright blue sky. (I sigh thinking about it.)
Now if I do have a birthday which I do NOT want to have I will have what, like four friends standing six feet from each other who wants that? masks down. And you know what I bet it would rain. See you later I guess.
Almost 10 year old, Kate
Her third entry:
Dear Diary, Sept. 2020
Hey, it's me again. This month I start school. I found out my class and I start tomorrow. I’m scared. I mean I’m always scared but today I’m especially scared because I’m starting 4th grade. I have my three best friends in my class which is exciting but I have to wear masks this year and I’m REALLY scared I’ll get Covid. Well wish me good luck!!!
Future 4th grader,
Her final entry:
Dear Diary, March 2021
Well it's been a year officially and I think, scratch that, know, we will get out of it together.
We agree, Kate. It's definitely "been a year, officially."
"I missed so many birthday parties. I wish I could go to one of them."Anirudh Shetty, 7, of Westborough
Anirudh's handwritten entry was so beautifully and diligently crafted. We loved how he wrote about wishing he could go to school "because I love riding in the bus."
His listing of all the missed playdates and fun at restaurants and movie theaters truly captured how much all of our social lives transformed in the name of safety.
Anirudh, we too hope the pandemic goes away.
Writings On Gratitude
"Future self, I want you to remember, the days may go by slow, but the years go by fast, don't ever take anything for granted because you, first hand, experienced how quickly you can lose life as you know it."Makayla McDonough, 16, of Hull
In a letter to her future self, Makayla McDonough has created a beautiful record of a devastating year.
As she calls for herself to never forget what has happened, her moving words contain wisdom and lessons we all would be well-served to remember.
Here is an excerpt of Makayla's letter:
You began to see the faces you saw everyday through a small square on your computer screen, voices you had once heard came through the speaker. You watched as your lacrosse season got cancelled.
As stores, restaurants, and places you once loved shut down. Family trips to the movies turned into family walks, going out to dinner turned to trying a new recipe at home, hanging out with friends turned to facetime calls, the morning news turned to a death count, going to the arcade turned into family game night.
Do you remember the isolation?
To see Makayla's full letter, read here or watch this video:
This project is funded in part by a grant from the NIHCM Foundation. Videos for this project were produced and edited by Emily Felder and WBUR's Lisa Creamer. Illustrations and animations in this series were created by Sophie Morse.