End of school is the beginning of freedom. It’s the moment to seize the day and make young lives extraordinary, at least according to the most magical and hence fictional high-school teacher ever, John Keating, in Dead Poets Society (1989). At a superficial level, it’s the time for uniforms to be laid to rest, hair to be grown long, skirts to be worn short, nails to be painted and arms to be tattooed. It’s when timetables are no longer sacred and canteens are no longer regimented. Long bus rides to college can initiate intimacies and dorm rooms can engender independence. It’s the time of life when every experience is to be savoured and every liberty enjoyed. It’s the time to defeat the sameness of death by embracing individuality.
For the Class of 2020, though, this very public rite of passage has been stolen from them by a global pandemic. As Jyotsna Mohan, the author of Stoned Shamed Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India’s Teens, says: “Once, graduating from school was not just about going to college but also symbolically a coming of age. For the batch of 2020, though, the prom night was replaced by a virtual graduation ceremony, the black gowns were worn in the isolation of their homes.”
She adds: “In recent times, social media exposure has made even graduation a show and tell, which is perhaps why the disappointment is acute. Earlier, a few congratulatory calls from family and life carried on. For these restless people, coming out into the real world was the first big test, not just for them but equally for their families. Instead, the uncertainty is exacerbating mind games—some are rightly worried about losing a year, others have had to change their study plans mid-way with several admission exams deferred.”
There is sadness, unpredictability and uncertainty about the future. There is a finger on the pause button that refuses to be removed and an unfinished air of rituals. Grounded since December last year in preparation for their board exams, they had planned their freedom days after board exams down to the minutest details: which getaways to retreat to with their friends, which movies to watch and even which restaurants to hang out in. Then it was going to be back to the grind preparing for their entrance exams.
Instead, says Misba Firdose, an 18-year-old from Mysore who was planning to take the Common Engineering Entrance Test (CEET), it has been an interminable house arrest, with no one ready or willing to even acknowledge the psychological stress these young adults are going through. A lot of them are finding it hard to plan for their future, whether it’s a job or further education. Most of them are struggling with the feeling that so much is out of their control, and as a result, they are grappling with disillusionment and hopelessness. “They are also grieving over the fact that they didn’t get to say goodbye to their friends, teachers and were almost instantly thrown into a state of limbo,” says Mumbai-based psychologist Sonali Gupta.
“Once, graduating from school was not just about going to college but also symbolically a coming of age. For the batch of 2020, though, the prom night was replaced by a virtual graduation ceremony, the black gowns were worn in the isolation of their homes.”
Share this on
Abandoned by schools which even in normal times cut the cord as soon as children graduate, confronting conventional coaching classes which are in turn coming to terms with teaching through new technology, and forgotten by a state more concerned about a new national education policy than announcing schedules for existing public universities, they have had to endure a lot: exams postponed, then cancelled, campus experience put on hold, and the idea of independence interrupted.
In America, their peers at least got a virtual send-off from a glittering array of stars in ‘Graduate Together: America Honours the Class of 2020’. A gorgeous Alicia Keys played the piano for them, Malala Yousafazai counselled them, and the Jonas Brothers sang for them. No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world, said Barack Obama, while Tom Hanks called them the “chosen ones” and Oprah Winfrey assured them the entire world was graduating with them.
In India, the Class of 2020 had to make do with Netflix nights and PUBG days. Gurugram mother Kamal Malik says children have been at a loose end. Not being able to go out, meet friends and the fear of Covid-19 looming large, they have to be content chatting with school friends, some of whom they might not meet in person anytime soon, and getting acquainted with future friends in college. As former teacher-turned-homemaker Shikha Rathore says: “They are balancing the past and the future. All of this is virtual through WhatsApp groups and Zoom calls. Their time’s spent reminiscing about the past good times, and creating plans for their future. It’s like being in a weird time warp.”
It is as much a crisis as it is an opportunity. As Malala Yousafzai said to the Class of 2020: “The world is yours now and I can’t wait to see what you make of it.” Some have chosen to approach it in good spirit, using this time to hone their skills and catch up on their reading, contemplating how best their undergraduate degree fits into their ultimate career path. Neeha Gupta of Mumbai, who has already published two books, is preparing to go to University College in London in January, postponed from September, to study information management for business, but not before finessing her skills at public speaking and her interest in reading how the mind works.
But it is a crisis for those unused to online learning. Says Kanak Gupta, wholetime director of Seth MR Jaipuria Schools, which has 34 schools across 24 cities across India: “This is a period where learning through an unconventional way of teaching has to be accepted as a reality—for educators, parents and students. In April, my daughter Sara who is ten years old, asked me a question: ‘Once schools re-open, whenever it is, will I be able to share lunch with my friends?’ And, I said, I don’t know. As an educator, responsible for 30,000-plus students, I feel this is a normal feeling.”’
What would have been a phase of new beginnings has become a state of suspension. Will it make this generation stronger or will it break them? Some are even struggling with the terminology. In the West, a gap year is a common occurrence. Here students are wondering whether to call it drop year, or lost year, or simply, a gap year. Attulya Kumar Singh of Bengaluru, who plans to take his engineering exams, is in no hurry. He has decided to work for the common entrance exams for next year and with his smartphone as his lifeline, takes coding classes online. “It’s no big deal,” he says.
Educator Vishnu Karthik believes this is a moment that will transform this generation that had taken prosperity for granted. They will understand that they can stop the treadmill and get off, contemplate what they really want to do and then step back again if they wish. For so long used to distant turmoil, whether it was global terror, climate change or economic recession, this is the first time they have felt real life punching them in the gut.
Maybe, they will feel more impelled to prove themselves at university. Maybe, they will understand that exam grades are less important than perhaps they thought. Maybe, it has made them slightly more mature and resilient. For so many individuals, the straight path—exams, graduation, career—has become more curved. Perhaps at some deeper level this will shift the mindset of these students. Says Gupta: “In smaller cities, there is possibly a seminal change in attitude in Indian students and their families. For most Indian families, the Western concept of a gap year has been an anathema, almost as if it were shameful. This despite the fact that surveys of major industries, such as software, consistently show the sort of experiences in terms of internships that a student can have in this gap year, often weigh more in job interviews than which degree they obtained or from where it was obtained.” But in smaller cities, lack of bandwidth and access to smartphones are problems. Many families have only one device and the father is working and takes the phone with them. The children have to wait for him to return so that they can access videos and worksheets.
Some students have used the lockdown well, upgrading themselves to learning beyond content and classroom; new skills have been acquired, as in the case of Kartik Kajaria from Delhi, who while waiting for his online classes to begin at UCLA on October 4th, has decided to try his hand at investing in the stock market. There is an awareness about real issues beyond the classroom, as in the case of Jeevesh Saxena from Lucknow, who calls the lockdown a lottery. “Usually, the college process after school is very rushed, leaving little or no chance to introspect what we really want to do. There’s absolutely no exposure to other things. The lockdown was a wonderful opportunity to explore, experiment and discover different things. I realised that life exists outside of academics, and life is not unilateral, it is necessary to have different interests.” From cooking to bonsai courses on Coursera, there was a lot to try. And because of the lockdown, almost all paid EdTech resources were made free in goodwill, so aware students benefited immensely from it. The strongest support, says Jeevesh, was on social media platforms. Students are appreciating application-based learning too but the uncertainty about college admissions in India, especially with public universities and universities abroad, is creating a turmoil for them. They are coming up with solutions. Vidhi Jain of Varanasi, for instance, has decided to prepare for her chartered accountancy foundation course while pursuing her undergraduate course by correspondence. “I have always believed that it is best to utilise the time that we have in our hands regardless of the prevailing situations,” she says crisply.
Equally, there is an increased interest in Indian universities. With the National Education Policy proposing at least 100 foreign universities in India, it may also mean a reversal of what is popularly known as the brain drain and a loss for the exchequer as well. With over 300,000 Indian students studying overseas, India is the second largest source of international students after China. If Indian universities can match the requirements of the new world post-Covid, then we could be looking at the beginning of something big.
And what of the future? The class of 2021 has also been hit hard, having become the guinea pigs for a new system of online learning. Some have really struggled to motivate themselves to learn in isolation. Those who have overcome this are naturally stronger, more resilient students, able to consider more possibilities in life. Their skills in critical thinking and analysis are stronger so they trust their judgement while finding solutions. They will have a wider perspective to problems and have a higher adaptability to the current pandemic than the adults around them who are not associated with education. They have the capability to take risks if the older generation loosens the leash. Co-founder of College Solutions, Renu Dhawan, believes this generation has its own challenges: of lack of job opportunities, absence of job security and an ever-changing work environment. “Add to that the peer pressure, and a lot more access to drugs, alcohol and pornography.”
For parents, it’s been a time of never-ending stress as they see their children’s dreams for 2020 quashed, and theirs too. But as Arundhati Nath, content head, Teamwork Arts, and mother of a bright 18-year-old who is expecting to go to a top UK college to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics, says: “Our child’s safety and health are paramount and I don’t see any harm in keeping plans on hold for a year [hopefully, we will have a vaccine by then!]. In my opinion, academic years have been disrupted in the past when the Naxal movement raged in Kolkata in the ’70s or when the Mandal Commission agitation happened in the ’90s.” A year, as she points out, is nothing in the larger scheme of things as long as the family stays safe and well.
For the Class of 2020, a delayed ascent into adulthood may well come with a greater appreciation for the adults in their lives.