If you work in youth mental health, you are aware of many articles being written about how much COVID-19 has affected children’s and youth’s mental health. The evidence is that the pandemic has left children and youth feeling depressed and anxious and exhausted – even before the school year has started. The education and health sectors are preparing to confront those mental health crises as youth return to school. I am sure they are wondering: What should we do?
My simple answer to this question is to remember that the best way for adults to address uncertainty and anxiety in children is with constancy. Find ways to restore routines they loved, especially small pleasures that were built into each day. If you used to read a story at the end of the day, resume this with fervour this year. If you started the morning looking at the weather or the news, pick up where you left off, reminding everyone that some things do not change.
This is the perfect year to go back to the custom of having children and youth write an essay at the beginning of the school year: What I Did This Summer.
Pack rat that I am, I have saved material from all my English classes from Grade 6 through 11, from the Joliette English School for Grades 6 through 9 and for Dunton High School for Grades 10 and 11. Before you begin to wonder when the episode of Hoarders will be that features my office, let me say that I never saved any math work. I saved English because I had stories that I wanted to keep and that my teachers or classmates had enjoyed – it’s still neurotic, but at least it’s not Hoarders.
Every year, at the beginning of September, students were asked to write the essay. Despite my compulsive tendencies, I do not remember ever consciously preparing for this exercise, even though it was inevitable. The worst mark I ever received on the What I Did This Summer essay was a “B” in Grade 10. This was the first year I had travelled with classmates from the little town where I lived east of Montreal into high school on the east end of the city.
My English teacher at the time did not realize that there were about fifteen of us who took this two-hour trip each day. She read my essay and wrote the following:
“A lovely essay about a time that’s past, but this is meant to be an account, not a story; a factual report, not fiction.”
As it was my first week in a new school, and since I was determined not to get into trouble that soon into the year, I did not bother to argue that I had written an actual account of life in a small town. Over the next ten months, it was evident that she never believed that I lived outside of Montreal. Since this was the case, I switched from a journalistic style to pure, unadulterated fiction when necessary. It was not as satisfying, but I consistently earned “A’s”.
I reread that essay – and the other What I Did Last Summer essays – on Sunday evening. I could picture this teacher’s unmistakable 1970’s style: tailored bell-bottom trousers with a graphic, brightly coloured print blouse, collar-length hair, a scarf gathered round it, and platform shoes. She was never my favourite teacher, but I met my best friends in that English class and it has always made me smile to remember them.
That teacher did what thousands of teachers are doing this fall. As they assign essays and poetry and artwork projects about youth’s pandemic experiences, they are ensuring that important memories are being captured. This is the exactly the kind of routine youth need to heal from their isolation and to remind them that there are constants.
(This illustration is from the 1970 Sears Fall catalogue – where you bought many of your outfits if you lived in a small town.)