Before the pandemic, he would have said he was a kid who was on track for a scholarship down the road, maybe even at a college like Northwestern, where his father studied briefly before transferring out. When he became obsessed with the musical “Hamilton” in seventh grade, he went ahead and read the Federalist Papers just to see what they had to say. He starred as Macbeth in a production at school and liked it so much that he read other Shakespeare plays for fun. He never wanted to sound conceited, but in the past, he would have said that school came easily. At the same time, he sometimes found all of it overwhelming. As a Black teenager now approaching six feet, he was acutely conscious of how the expectations of his mother — a school administrator with a Ph.D. — ran up against the expectations of the rest of the world. “To keep proving these stereotypes wrong,” he said, “it takes a lot out of me.”
And then last spring, when the school closed its doors, he found himself alone with thoughts that had been waiting, it turned out, for just that kind of opportunity — for vast amounts of time and space. These new thoughts flooded in, leaving little room for concerns about Othello’s motivation or the subjunctive in French. More and more, when he was alone in his room, there was only one voice, and that voice was telling Charles that he was doomed to fail no matter how promising his start, that he would surely follow what he perceived as his father’s downward slide. His destiny was failure.
In the very first days of the school year, Charles’s laptop kept crashing during Zooms, which started to feel like a metaphor for what the whole year would bring: a big mess, a disconnect, a technological headache that he was left on his own to solve. In the weeks that followed, the days loomed empty and long; the more time that voice had, the louder it grew and the harder it was to get out from under it. Because he did all his work in his bedroom, it was easy to go back to sleep after his first class, if he made it to his first class. “Then when I woke up, I could either a) get up and do what I had to do,” he said, trying to capture his typical schedule, “or b) look at the time, be disappointed in myself and go back to bed.” During remote learning, attendance did not factor into a student’s final grade. Charles wasn’t just skipping class, though — he was barely turning in any assignments. And suddenly, there he was, no longer a kid who got A’s but already a kid who had blown it this early in the semester.
The voice in his head exhausted him, so Charles started sleeping more, even during the day. Sometimes the voice scared him. His heart would start pounding, and he would feel overwhelmed with a sense of impending crisis: It was all over, and there was nothing he could do about it. It was too late.
How was E.K. possibly going to get him out of the hole he was in? She had no sense of how vast it already was. Even still, in early October, he decided to linger after class, on Zoom, when she offered to help any students who were falling behind. At a minimum, he could tell his mother that he’d made an effort. He stayed, and so did Sarah, a classmate everyone liked. She did Cheer and he played J.V. football, but they didn’t move in the same circles. She was really smiley — he thought of her as one of those happy-all-the-time people.
When Sarah stayed after class to attend that extra-help session with Ms. E.K. in early October, she was surprised to see that Charles was there too. Charles, she had already gleaned, was smart. He often had an answer for whatever Ms. E.K. asked; in fact, the students had quickly come to rely on him to save them all from the silences that often hung in the air in their online classes. As they talked with each other and Ms. E.K. that day, Charles and Sarah quickly found common ground and diagnosed their shared problems: lack of motivation, loneliness, a feeling of hopelessness. Charles suggested that maybe Sarah needed some help, to which Sarah said: What about you?
During that conversation, Sarah told the first of many lies that she would tell her teachers, her mother and herself over the coming months. OK, she would say, I am ready to turn over a new leaf. Now I’m really going to apply myself. But she still rarely made it to class. If her laptop died in the middle of a Zoom, she decided that was God’s way of telling her she had done enough for the day. About six weeks into school, her mother, her health still shaky, her mind still foggy, looked at an interim academic assessment that landed in her email inbox and said, “What do all these N.H.I.s mean?” Sarah said, “Huh, I don’t know,” as if trying to decode one of the great bureaucratic mysteries of her time, when in fact she knew exactly what they stood for: not handed in. She grew accustomed to emails from teachers piling up. “Just making sure you saw. … ” “A reminder that your essay. … ” Everybody wanted something from her. Whoa, whoa, whoa. She was going to get back to them — eventually.