Long after the rest of his family went to bed, 15-year-old Alāmea Hoppe-Cruz’s mind was racing.
Only a week into the school year, Hoppe-Cruz was already sleep deprived. On top of worries about falling behind on his schoolwork, climate change, the election and rising COVID-19 cases had him up late at night.
“It’s just been a marathon, a lightning round of madness and death and plague and political upheaval,” he said, staring at the ceiling of his parent’s home in Waianae. “Those are the reasons why I cannot sleep and that’s why I’m recording this at 1:30 in the morning.”
In August, Civil Beat gave audio recorders to nine teenagers across Oahu. Their daily audio diaries documented struggles that every former teenager can relate to, but also revealed surprising insights into why Hawaii’s next generation might be adapting to the pandemic better than adults.
These members of Generation Z have a deep sense of empathy about people suffering in their community. Combined with pre-2020 anxiety about climate change, school shootings and pressure to achieve academic success, the stay-at-home orders have given many of them a chance to relax and reflect on what’s important in their lives.
A School Start Like No Other
The day Civil Beat gave an audio recorder to 18-year-old Alex Nastase, he was supposed to be boarding a plane to Washington to start his freshman year at the University of Portland. Instead, he was preparing to start classes from his parent’s house in Kailua.
Nastase chose Portland because he was “hellbent” on going to the mainland and finding his own way. In contrast, his twin sister chose the University of Hawaii to stay close to home.
“I should be grateful that I’m able to go to college, but right now everything just feels impossible.” — Alex Nastase, 18
But in a frustrating reversal, in-person classes for Nastase were canceled the day after room and board payments were due and it was his sister moving out of the house, into an apartment near the UH Manoa campus.
“She can at least pretend like things are normal and she’s in a dorm with friends and all that stuff,” he said. “I should be grateful that I’m able to go to college, but right now everything just feels impossible.”
It’s just one of the many things he’s sacrificed to stop the spread of COVID-19. He missed out on senior milestones at Kalaheo High School and was rarely able to see his friends over the summer.
So it’s distressing for Nastase to go online and see people complaining about wearing masks or refusing to cancel big events.
“Being selfless doesn’t feel like people’s first nature nowadays,” he said.
Last spring, none of the students predicted that they’d be starting the fall semester from home. They found it ironic that the adults in charge — who often criticize teenagers for spending too much time looking at phones — made decisions that require them to stare at a screen all day.
“I feel like it sounds really dumb to anyone who hasn’t had to do Zoom classes all day, but sitting at a computer for seven hours straight and keeping your attention the entire time, it’s really a lot more challenging than I thought it was going to be,” said 17-year-old Emily Tom. “And then you’re expected to sit down at that same desk and do hours of homework. It’s exhausting.”
The day before online classes started at Iolani High School, Tom rearranged the desk in her bedroom and realized that she didn’t know when she’d be able to see her friends, attend speech and debate competitions or leave her house. She had to stop checking the news every day because it was causing too much anxiety.
“Not to sound dramatic or anything, but I’ve kind of just given up the hope of going back to anything normal at this point,” she said.
And Alāmea Hoppe-Cruz started this school year with the realization that in a non-pandemic year, he’d be getting a better education.
The online curriculum at Waianae High School was designed for students who needed to make up credits so Hoppe-Cruz didn’t get many of the classes he wanted and the courses haven’t been as academically rigorous as he hoped.
“Public schools are not as equipped to deal with this pandemic,” he said. “It’s going to disproportionately affect the poorer people, the ethnic minorities and it’s definitely going to be a challenge.”
On top of struggling with classes and homework over Zoom, Generation Z is trying to navigate typical teenage stressors in isolation.
When Erwin Laroco’s first serious relationship came to an end in July, he had nothing to distract himself from the post-breakup blues.
“I feel like if there wasn’t a pandemic, I’ll be able to handle it better,” the McKinley High School junior said.
His efforts to find meaningful ways to distract himself have been unsuccessful.
In August he wanted to sign up for an online cybersecurity course with the University of Hawaii, but his parents said the $500 price tag was too steep. Even after he crowdsourced the money, his parents told him no because they want him to focus all his efforts on a career in medicine.
“My mom wants me to be a doctor because she couldn’t,” he said, but he feels guilty because medicine doesn’t interest him. “She sacrificed a lot coming here from the Philippines, she couldn’t finish college because she had to move to Hawaii for a new life for us.”
“I feel like if there wasn’t a pandemic, I’ll be able to handle it better.” – Erwin Laroco, 16
Laroco spends all day watching his cousin and young siblings while his parents, aunt and uncle are at work. In the two-bedroom apartment, it’s almost impossible for him to concentrate on virtual classes and homework with all the noise. So he has to complete his classwork after everyone else goes to sleep, meaning he’s often awake until 2 or 3 in the morning.
Only three weeks into the fall semester, the constant stress, sleep deprivation and lack of fun outlets pushed Laroco to his breaking point.
“I was bawling my eyes out for a good, like, hour or so talking to my friend on the phone and just really venting,” he said.
The COVID Economy
Qing Chou, a 16-year-old living in downtown Honolulu, was also struggling to sleep. After months of isolation in her family’s small apartment, she regretted not spending more time with friends before the pandemic.
“I really miss my friends,” she said. “I’m just really sad.”
Last year she decided not to attend her junior prom partly because she wanted to save money and buy her dream dress for senior year. But now she’s worried that senior prom at McKinley High School will be canceled.
“It just feels like our entire point of being a teenager is being taken away from us,” she said.
Chou was feeling alone because she hadn’t seen her friends in-person for over seven months. Her family’s small apartment also feels claustrophobic because everyone is home all day: she’s struggling through virtual school and her father hasn’t worked since COVID-19 arrived in Hawaii.
“My dad was the only one working and he’s really old so that means he is primed to die from the virus,” she said. “As for my mom, I don’t think people would hire her because she doesn’t have a high school education.”
“Since we’re young, we’re more likely to survive the virus so that’s why us kids are basically supposed to take on an adult responsibility for our families.” – Qing Chou, 16
As the oldest child, she felt a responsibility to help her parents and applied to retail, customer service and fast food jobs over the summer. But every company denied her application. It’s the same story for many of her friends who tried to find jobs.
“Since we’re young, we’re more likely to survive the virus so that’s why us kids are basically supposed to take on an adult responsibility for our families,” she said. “But we can’t find any work.”
Takara Tasaki-Ardren, a 17-year-old living in Ala Moana, has also felt the effects of the COVID-19 economic downturn.
At the start of the pandemic, she was living in Florida. But after her father’s business took a hit they moved back to Oahu — where he was born and raised — to be closer to family.
Although it meant completing her high school career at McKinley High School, where she doesn’t know anyone, she was relieved to be in a state that was implementing mask mandates and lockdowns.
“Hawaii is actually taking it pretty seriously in comparison to Florida,” she said.
Keeping A Positive Attitude
Despite the economic consequences, feelings of isolation and missed milestones, every student was overwhelmingly supportive of stay-at-home orders and spent a lot of their audio diaries highlighting the good parts of 2020.
“Overall there’s been so many silver linings during the stay at home order,” said Suhaila Ng, a junior at Punahou School.
2020 has been a year of change for the 16-year-old. On top of all the disruptions from the pandemic, her parents are going through a divorce.
But Ng has surprised herself by her own resilience. At the start of the pandemic her mental health took a hit and she felt anxious and alone, but she’s been able to bounce back by spending time in nature, walking her neighbor’s dogs and even participating in a Shakespeare play over Zoom.
“There’s been more flexibility and more unconventional opportunities that otherwise I might not have been able to take advantage of,” she said.
Connor Arakaki has been able to take a breather after years of relentless academic pressure.
“There is such a new set of continuously higher standards as the years go by and I think that parents, adults and teachers sometimes don’t realize how much pressure those expectations place on teenagers now,” the Iolani High School junior said.
The end of last year was really rough for Arakaki, who lives in Ewa Beach. When her classes went online she developed “toxic” expectations for herself.
“I remember feeling so much stress because I thought that colleges will look at me differently if I wasn’t utilizing all of this free time wisely,” she said.
But since she couldn’t attend her planned internship on the mainland over the summer, she had time to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
“One lesson that I’ve definitely learned during quarantine is that I need to have more of a gentle mindset on myself,” she said.
“I’m understanding myself more and becoming stronger mentally and that’s gonna help me in a time when I only have myself.” – Christian Cristobal, 17
Alāmea Hoppe-Cruz was also disappointed when his summer plan — a much-anticipated theatre camp — was canceled. But that gave him the opportunity to spend more time with his close-knit family during the pandemic: cultivating ulu, learning about native plants and taking care of goats on their property in Waianae.
“We’re proud, honored and privileged to be able to grow things,” he said.
The lockdown has also given aspiring filmmaker Christian Cristobal time to explore her passions and the opportunity to connect with her friends instead of rushing from one activity to the next.
Her friend group collaborated on a Google Doc with dozens of movies they wanted to watch and analyze together.
Although she faced relatable frustrations from sharing wifi bandwidth with her entire family and missing her extracurricular activities, she’s used newfound free time to plan out her future.
“I used to get very anxious when thinking long-term and I’ve talked to my parents constantly about my worries and I think that has helped me through it,” the senior at MidPac Institute said. “I’m understanding myself more and becoming stronger mentally and that’s gonna help me in a time when I only have myself,” she said.
Many of the students compared the COVID-19 pandemic to other major events of the last two decades. Climate change and school shootings were top of mind, as was the 2008 financial crisis, where financial planners visited Generation Z’s elementary schools to explain the difference between a “want” and “need.”
“Generation Z … we breeze through destruction or any kind of disaster,” said Takara Tasaki-Ardren, a senior at McKinley High School.
She regularly mentioned the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in her audio diaries. Although she wasn’t born yet, her parents and other family members always remind her about how different life was before the attacks. Since she’s always lived in a post-9/11 world, other “destabilizing” events don’t seem so scary.
“Generation Z … we breeze through destruction or any kind of disaster.” – Takara Tasaki-Ardren, 17
Seventeen-year-old Emily Tom agrees that constant access to bad news from around the world has made people her age more resilient.
“We’ve been seeing global warming for all of our lives. We’ve been seeing the way that war has affected other people around the world,” she said. “That’s definitely affected the way that we view the world and the way that we view our future.”
In the audio diaries, these teenagers were deeply empathetic. Despite their strong political opinions, almost every criticism of a local official was followed by an acknowledgment of how hard it must be to navigate the pandemic.
“I don’t envy the people who are making decisions,” said Hoppe-Cruz. “Oh, goodness, I would hate to be making decisions right now.”
And it was hard for these teenagers to honestly open up about their own struggles and tragedies without qualifying that they know someone else in the world is in a much worse situation. They’re also hyper-aware of the constant criticism their generation faces online, and didn’t want any venting to come off as being “an angsty teenager.”
“Yeah, being a teenager right now is tough. Being a human right now is tough,” Ng said. “Every generation has their own issues and struggles to deal with.”
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