As Luke Drake read aloud from one of the four journals he’d filled with daily reflections over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, he glanced up, a bit taken aback.
“It’s all sad stuff!” he remarked, laughing.
An entry from Nov. 5 captured the malaise that seemed to characterize much of his year: “My life hasn't been interesting at all. I can't remember what happened on Thursday. Life is boring at the moment. I don't feel like I'm living. Just existing.”
Such is the life of an 18-year-old living his last semesters at Mayo High School through a computer screen, isolated from the friends, clubs and sports teams that epitomize the high school experience.
“It's like the worst time to be a high schooler and have friends. I can't see anyone. And it feels like we’ll all be leaving soon,” he wrote on March 29, 2020.
As Drake approaches his graduation on Saturday, he reflected on the past 15 months and the hundreds of entries he recorded along the way. He thumbed through page after page, stopping at especially meaningful ones he’d marked with violet sticky notes.
“This book, and the previous book, and the previous one, have gotten to hear the highs, lows, wants, doubts, insecurities, joys and disappointments of my past five months,” he wrote on Aug. 10. “I wonder if anyone else will ever read these ... At the very least, a bit of entertainment along with this roller coaster of a year would suffice and I would be content.”
Although Drake had sporadically journaled before, he put pen to paper on March 17, 2020, with the intent of recording one passage for each day of the pandemic. At the time, Drake expected to journal for a few weeks until restrictions were lifted. He thought about how the writings could allow future readers — perhaps his own children, he mused — to vicariously relive the turbulent first days of the pandemic.
But as weeks turned to months, and eventually a full year, the exercise became a process in personal reflection. Each night he sifted through feelings of sadness, loss, and glimpses of unexpected joy.
A draining school year
Remote learning was a drag for Drake. He said his mind was numbed by days spent plopped in front of the computer, attending lectures with a sea of blank zoom squares. The ambitious to-do lists he outlined for himself appeared to slip away during these frustrating weeks. Occasionally, his journal entries would recount these struggles.
“School is so draining,” he wrote on Feb. 25. “Sitting in front of a screen for six hours really kills my motivation. Or at least that's what I tell myself. That's what it is.”
He didn’t look forward to most classes, but not because he found the subjects boring or the teachers disengaged. Drake just couldn't stand logging on to Zoom for what felt like another recorded lecture.
The one exception was his humanities class, in which most students kept their cameras on and participated. It seemed almost normal to him as they sat discussing passages of the literature they’d read for that week. Sometimes quotes from the books would even stick with Drake enough where he’d add them to the bottom of his entry for that day.
“It’s really nice to be able to talk to people. Whenever they have their cameras on, you’re reminded that you were in a class after all," he said recently.
The toll of remote learning was visible across Minnesota school districts. Mental health was a top concern for families and students during the past year, according to a survey of 6th- through 12th-grade students conducted under a July 30 executive order signed by Gov. Tim Walz. The challenge was the third-most cited for students, behind keeping up with their course work and understanding the material.
“Ordinary, but perfectly beautiful”
After spending years anticipating his senior year only to have it end in the most anticlimactic way possible, Drake felt dejected. Like — in his own words — he was always getting “the short end of the stick.”
“I don't know why, but today, I just felt really melancholic and don't want to grow up. Now I seem to be in the good old days. It's kind of scary being here and not wanting to leave. Every day that ticks by is one day closer to me leaving for college. And while there's still a lot of days left, it also seems like they're so few,” Drake said on May 19, 2020.
But, after solemn reflections like these, he’d recognize the bright spots. Reading through memorable passages of books and analyzing them with his English teacher. Finishing up the series “New Girl.” Getting his braces off. Eating Jimmy John’s in the parking lot with his friends. And soon, attending Carleton College in the fall and exploring different subject areas to potentially major in.
As Drake mourned the loss of typical high school moments he would never experience, he found a greater appreciation for the things he already had, like his family and friends. Most of his entries are dedicated to these people — the ones who made his glum days joyful.
On March 17, a year after he started recording his daily entries, Drake reflected on a day spent downhill skiing with his friends.
“It was a super fun day. Best day that I've had in a while for sure,” he wrote, recounting how he drove to Welch Village Ski Area with his friends, raced over the melting snow and ate indoors at Newt’s for one of the first times in months.
“It felt almost normal,” he wrote. “One of those perfectly ordinary, but perfectly beautiful moments, you hope will never end.”