Transcript

764: School's Out Forever

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Prologue: Prologue

Chana Joffe-Walt

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt, sitting in for Ira Glass. So a couple of weeks ago, I was calling principals and teachers to find out what it was like to be in schools.

I called Principal Brian Cox in Wyoming. Did he have a minute to talk?

Brian Cow

Um, I can, yeah. I've got to be out on bus duty in, like, 15 minutes.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Principal Cox normally does not do bus duty. He also does not normally teach French class, because he's a principal, and he doesn't know French. He did both the week we spoke, because 20% of his staff were absent. Omicron.

Brian Cow

You know, I told somebody today when we walked in-- we had three paraprofessionals down in very key special education classrooms-- and I told them our goal today is to be a hockey goalie and just keep it out of the net.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Two things I learned from calling around to lots of educators over the last few weeks-- school is still a mess. That's the first thing. And number two, the situation in schools right now can only be described using metaphor.

Brian Cow

We're just going to play for eight hours today and try to keep as few of them from getting by us today. And then we'll recoup tonight and figure out how we can recover for tomorrow.

Amy Gallaway

Oh, man. This year-- [CHUCKLES] I'll try not to cry. This year has been hard. [CHUCKLES]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Amy Gallaway, a teacher in Alaska, says, I thought this year was finally going to be normal. This year is not.

Amy Gallaway

Like a creaky, creaky bridge that we're trying to get across.

Math Teacher

The kind of step where you're not going to die, you're going to roll your ankle.

Chana Joffe-Walt

A math teacher in New York City.

Math Teacher

And land with your face in a mud puddle and be like, OK, I could have probably navigated that obstacle a little bit differently.

Chana Joffe-Walt

There are not enough teachers. There are not enough school bus drivers. You never know which students will come in person, if at all. Some kids have just disappeared. Enrollment and attendance-- way down.

Takeru Nagayoshi

The metaphor that I would always use is like, it's as though you are creating a vehicle--

Chana Joffe-Walt

You can tell this guy is about to go in really deep, right? English teacher.

Takeru Nagayoshi

--while driving it at the same time on a road whose conditions are unclear in terrible weather. That vehicle, by the way, is a school bus. And not only are there 120 kids there, you're also driving from the back of the bus.

Chana Joffe-Walt

[LAUGHS] That's a metaphor that never ends.

English Teacher

Yeah. It just compounds.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Takeru Nagayoshi, a high school teacher in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Mr. Nagayoshi was Massachusetts teacher of the year for 2020. In 2021, he quit his job-- quit his job, right after being publicly recognized as the very best.

He was at the top of his game, and he walked away, which is a pretty huge reversal. He didn't plan to leave public school teaching. When schools closed and everything went online, Mr. Nagayoshi missed the classroom deeply. He missed all the things you can only do when everyone is in a room together.

Takeru Nagayoshi

The group activities, the collaborative mood board work that my kids do, writing on anchor charts, breaking up into small groups, doing practice rounds of public speaking, and Socratic seminars, and peer writing, and taking out your pens so that you can highlight things on your papers, and give that feedback, and offer commentary to each other's research questions. And there are so many opportunities and magic that I think happens in person. And when I think about learning, it's such a social thing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He was used to feeling inspired every day, energized. But even when they were back in person, Mr. Nagayoshi never got that feeling back. His students didn't get to school on time or regularly at all. And they just weren't focused.

They were grieving for people they loved. They were stressed or depressed, juggling lots of responsibilities, or staying up until 4:00 AM playing video games. And they were just out of the habit of doing school. School had been such a regular routine before, for kids, for everyone.

Mr. Nagayoshi told me he started to question if what they were doing was really serving kids. He questioned the most basic things about the way school functions. Like, why did the school day have to be so long? All the rigid routines-- why do they have to learn in class periods? Why every day?

Takeru Nagayoshi

Sometimes, I just felt more like a gatekeeper to, like, archaic ways of learning and convening. I don't know, Chana, I just feel like the seal has been broken, and I don't-- and it's hard for me to imagine a world to go back to that magic.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Whoa. What seal has been broken? What does that mean?

Takeru Nagayoshi

The-- [SIGHS] what is the seal that has been broken? I think, our relationship to what school is.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It's been two years since school buildings first closed. It's kind of hard to remember how impossible that seemed before it happened-- closing entire school buildings. School seemed like a fact, inevitable. If you're a kid, you go to school five days a week. It's inescapable.

But then, it wasn't anymore. Buildings closed for months, more than a year. This happened in lots of different ways across the country. It was worse for some, better for others. But talking with teachers and parents and kids, it's clear that school as they left it March 2020 does not look the same as the school they have now.

Classrooms still close. School buses don't come. Or teachers are out sick, or there aren't enough teachers. Some districts have just decided kids don't need to come in on Fridays. Now, in the state of Missouri, 1/4 of the school districts have now decided to switch to four days of school a week, instead of five.

Some kids stopped coming altogether. School had always been this solid object that now seems much less solid. So many of the people I've been speaking with are questioning the very premise of school, whether it's worth it, whether they need to show up every day, whether they need to be in a classroom.

It's like everyone involved-- kids, parents, drivers, teachers, superintendents-- all realized at the same time, hey, this treadmill has an off switch. This place is not fact. School is not inevitable. Just listen to the way Mr. Nagayoshi talks about when school was inevitable, back before the pandemic, just a few years ago.

Takeru Nagayoshi

And sure, it was hard, and things were never perfect, but it was a different time. And I don't know if we can ever get back to that. I think it's a bygone era.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Like, the way we've done public school for more than a century?

Takeru Nagayoshi

Mm-hmm.

Chana Joffe-Walt

[CHUCKLES] It's gone?

Takeru Nagayoshi

I don't-- I think it is.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Is it? Is school as we've known it over? Today, I want to bring you the stories of two kids who have drifted away from school. And we see what happens when they try to make their way back. Stay with us.

The last couple of months, I've been talking with principals, teachers, parents, and kids about school and what's changed for them two years into a pandemic. And I keep returning to that question-- have schools fundamentally changed? One of the people I've been checking in with, on and off for a while now, is a woman named MJ and her daughter, Neeah.

They're a family of three. MJ is a single parent. Neeah is her youngest, and she has an older daughter, who's grown. They're mixed-race, live in Michigan with a French bulldog. During the pandemic, MJ and Neeah constructed a brand-new and very unusual life with one another. And seeing how much has changed for them, where they ended up after two years of pandemic school, that, maybe more than anyone else I've spoken with, made me feel like, whoa, maybe school as we once knew it truly is over.

Act One: Big Mother Is Watching

Chana Joffe-Walt

So here's Act One, Big Mother is Watching. It begins, of course, when the schools closed two years ago.

MJ

Oh, my god. You want to talk about stress? Man.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What happened?

MJ

Oh, yeah. It just-- like, what do you do?

Chana Joffe-Walt

MJ is a building engineer. She had to go to work. She supervises all the maintenance for buildings she works in around Detroit-- make sure the boilers, lighting, carpentry are all attended to. So at first, she just brought Neeah to work.

MJ

It was fun, you know what I mean? She didn't get in my way, running around while I'm cleaning up, you know, that area that I have to. So you know, I rode the wave as long as I could.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When her boss made it clear that this was not a long-term arrangement, MJ dropped Neeah with an aunt, then a friend, a babysitter. A neighbor took her for a week.

MJ

You know, even if it's just a day, OK, exactly how long can they help? You know, throw them money. How much can you afford? Absolutely nothing, but we'll make it work anyway. It's a never-- it's a whole thing. It's exhausting, mentally. Exhausting, OK?

Chana Joffe-Walt

And it was months. MJ had a new thought. Neeah was nine years old. She could prepare food herself, get herself dressed. A lot of parents leave kids her age at home alone. But MJ hadn't before, certainly not all day. And she did not want to now, but she had to go to work. She'd be 10 minutes away. She could come home at lunch to check in. Neeah would be on Zoom all day, with a teacher from school.

A while back, a friend had recommended security cameras when MJ moved into a new house. MJ ordered a couple. Neeah stayed home alone. MJ left, telling herself, I've got the cameras.

MJ

I could see her in different areas of the house. And I have an alarm system that, if any window or doors opened, it alerts the police and makes a really loud noise. And you know, depending on the area of the house that Neeah's in, she knows what the escape route is and what the emergency plan is.

You know, it's not something that I wanted to do. I wasn't happy to do it, but I can see my kid. You know, like I said, I got a friend behind me, my neighbor across-- the old lady across the street. Gotta love them, you know?

Chana Joffe-Walt

When did you first start watching?

MJ

Right away.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh, really?

MJ

No, no, right away. Oh, god, yeah. No. My kid's got to be home by herself? I got to keep my eyes on the camera.

Chana Joffe-Walt

MJ went to work and propped the phone up next to her, all day. If she had to walk, she'd hold the phone in front of her, and she'd watch as Neeah ate breakfast, signed on to school. When MJ couldn't have eyes on the phone, she'd put it in her pocket and put headphones in to listen.

MJ

It's never not been a distraction. I'm always busy, but I have to keep my daughter in my ear, because she's home by herself. You know? So it did interfere with work, you know. It's what I do. Like, I'm on a ladder, trying to change lights, and you know, I've got my phone.

Like, I'll set it up somewhere. I'll put, like, the phone in my pocket, put my earphones in, so I can at least hear. And if, you know, something sounds awry, like if I hear a bang, I'd pull my phone out, look at the camera real quick. But I'm always listening.

Chana Joffe-Walt

On a ladder?

MJ

Always listening.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I hate this picture, MJ.

MJ

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You're standing on a ladder, looking at your phone.

MJ

Changing a fluorescent light in a hallway. And yeah, and you'll hear-- now, if you subtract, da-da-da-dah, and like you hear the kids. They're so loud. Yeah, it's bad. It was bad. [CHUCKLES]

Chana Joffe-Walt

MJ watched as much as she could, listened when she couldn't. She was monitoring to keep Neeah safe. But as she watched, MJ started to notice some other things.

MJ

Oh. [CHUCKLES] Like, I'm very big on eating in my living room. Like, I don't like to-- I don't like when you eat or drink in my living room. And I've caught her so many times eating and drinking in the living room and setting it next to the laptop. And I don't like my dog on the couch all the time, because he licks his paw, and then licks the couch. And it's just gross. And she'll let him on the couch.

Chana Joffe-Walt

MJ told me, on the app, you can see everything. And there's a big button right there-- Microphone. If you press it, your voice will blast into the room, sounding sort of like a loud walkie-talkie. I asked--

Chana Joffe-Walt

So did you use it?

MJ

Oh, oh, hell yeah. [LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Tell me.

MJ

I would just hit my Microphone button, and I would catch her watching TV all the time. I'd be like, turn the TV off. What did I say? Getting up, playing with the dog, playing with the cat, back and forth. Like, no, sit your self down, and do your work.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Neeah would get herself a drink, bring it to the living room-- Microphone.

MJ

Neeah, you know you're not supposed to have that by the laptop. You need to go put it in the kitchen. Neeah, quit playing with the dog and focus. Turn off the TV. You're not supposed to have the TV on. If you're going to listen to the music, no lyrics. Yeah, it's just constant redirection and correction, over and over.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What were the ones that you said the most often?

MJ

All of 'em.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The app apparently can also record. MJ told me, yeah, you can capture moments on there.

MJ

Or take pictures.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you do that?

MJ

Oh, I've recorded. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why?

MJ

Just so I can go back and show her her behavior. Like, flipping, doing cartwheels, oh, yeah. Mm-hmm, I'll go, oh, yeah. Oh, you're doing cartwheels? OK.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did she ever cover up the cameras?

MJ

She tried to turn one before, yes, so I couldn't watch her watching TV.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Mm-hmm.

MJ

So she would always definitely feel like I was spying on her. Stop spying on me! [LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

It sounds like you were.

MJ

I mean, was I spying on her, or was I making sure she was OK? You know, tomato, to-ma-to.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah. Yeah.

Hi, Neeah.

Neeah

Hello.

Chana Joffe-Walt

How are you?

Neeah

Good.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Neeah told me she jumped the first few times her mom's voice appeared in the room with her. Other times, she says it was just confusing. Her teacher was talking, and her mom was talking. She felt like, wait, who's telling me to do something right now? A version of this happened as Neeah and I talked. MJ was sitting right next to her on the bed, jumping in here and there.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Is she the same mom through the cameras?

Neeah

Yeah, sometimes. But through the camera, she's more of a helicopter parent. Make sure you get your chores done before I get home, or I'm going to be mad, or you're going to be grounded. And I would always want to watch TV, but she's like, no, turn off the TV, turn off the music, you got to focus. No chewing gum. Make sure you're paying attention.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She said she'd talk to you about your drinks and the dog a lot, too.

Neeah

Oh, yeah.

MJ

Are you supposed to drink by the laptop?

Neeah

No.

MJ

Are you supposed to eat by the laptop?

Neeah

No.

MJ

There you go. [CHUCKLES]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Mm-hmm.

Neeah

Yeah, it seems more different over the camera, actually, because-- yeah, much more of a micromanager on the cameras than in person.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She's micromanaging this conversation.

Neeah

Yes, she is.

MJ

Yeah, I am. Sorry.

Neeah

She's doing a good job at it.

[MJ LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

You can tell MJ and Neeah like each other. And even with this setup, the cameras watching Neeah, they started calling it, "the system." It didn't strain their relationship. If anything, the system made them closer.

When Neeah hadn't heard her mom's voice for a while over the cameras, she'd FaceTime her mom, see what she was up to. She started to learn about her mom's day. She learned her habits. Neeah told me she got to the point where she could anticipate which things would trigger her mom's voice appearing in the room. Like, Neeah would turn on the TV, and as she was doing it--

Neeah

I'm like, oh, god, I know she's about to come on the camera, tell me to focus, get off the TV.

[MJ LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Mm-hmm.

MJ

That's funny.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You would know ahead of time.

Neeah

Yeah, I would know ahead of time.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did it stop you from doing the thing that she didn't want you to do?

Neeah

Um, no. Mm-mm. No. I'm still sassy. I still got some attitude.

[MJ LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

In in-person school in the classroom, this was a problem. Neeah loves to talk. She's a chatty kid, and she'd get in trouble for talking in class, distracting other kids, not keeping her hands to herself. MJ worried about it. She would get calls from school saying Neeah was acting out today. Neeah was suspended.

Parent-teacher conferences were often a lot of, "Neeah's a great kid, but she has a hard time focusing." But now, the space between home and school had collapsed. Instead of hearing about Neeah second-hand, MJ was watching. And she says it was kind of amazing. Neeah was curious. She was hard-working.

MJ

She would ask questions. Like, if she didn't know, she'd raise her hand, because you'd see her on camera-- raise her hand, waiting patiently and quietly. Whereas Neeah, she usually-- she interrupts. Let's just be real.

Not saying she never interrupted, but like, I just-- she was raising her hand, waiting patiently, asked questions, gave the right answer. And it's like, I don't ever get to see that. You know what I mean? I don't get to hear the good stuff all the time.

Chana Joffe-Walt

That's really kind of special that you got to see her that way.

MJ

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Like, to see her strengths and what she's capable of.

MJ

Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. And her weaknesses, you know. I see the distraction. She is easily distracted. You know, it is hard, and just-- well, it's difficult for her to stay focused, you know? But when she gets into her groove, you know, she stays in it. And she just does amazing things. Yeah.

I'm glad I got to see this side of my kid that they haven't seen, that I haven't seen. And it's like, this is who she is. I've had that moment, like wow, this is who my kid is.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I'd never heard of someone doing this-- MJ's system, using security cameras in your house to monitor kids doing remote school, while you have to go to work. It seemed extreme to me, but then I considered all the other arrangements and half-solutions I've heard parents devising to replace what school provided-- a free, dependable place to drop your kids.

Parents who brought kids to their jobs at restaurants planted them at a table in the corner, while they worked their shift and hoped nobody in management asked, whose kid is that? Moms who put their children in empty hotel rooms to do remote school while they cleaned the other rooms down the hall. Parents who cut back on their hours or quit their jobs, took night shifts, so they could stay up all day with their kids doing Zoom school.

Families that moved their entire lives to new cities that were cheaper or closer to a grandma who could look after the kids. MJ had a system that did not require her to depend on anyone else. The system was never late, or stuck in traffic, or sick, or too tired. It's kind of ingenious. School was not reliable. The system was entirely within her control.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you know other people who were doing this?

MJ

No. I mean, if other moms are out there not wanting to say nothing, I get it. But, whew, there's not that panic of what so many other parents had to face that didn't have a system. I feel like I should do like an infomercial or something, you know-- (LAUGHING) for the system of security cameras and things like that.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah.

MJ

I made it work. [LAUGHS] I made it work.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And then, schools reopened. After 11 months of constant contact with her mom, zero separation, Neeah went back to a school building.

Neeah

I had butterflies the entire time I was there. I'm like, oh, my god. What if I do something wrong? What if I get suspended today? And like, what if I don't make it through fourth grade?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Mm-hmm.

Neeah

Just a whole day of butterflies, and--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah.

Neeah

Yeah, in the snap of a finger, I'm like, oh, crap. And my mom's not going to be here to be-- like, be here to watch over me, tell me to focus. Like, how am I going to do this? How am I going to do that without her telling me what to do? And that's when I started getting these panic attacks. Like--

Chana Joffe-Walt

You started getting panic attacks when you went back to school?

Neeah

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I'm sorry to hear that.

Neeah

Mm-hmm. One of them was really bad, because I was in a panic attack for about 10, 15 minutes, because someone made me mad, really mad, kind of to the point where I started to cry a little bit. And then, I asked the substitute teacher if I can go to the bathroom. And then that's when it happened.

Like, I completely stopped. My heart stopped. My hands were shaking completely. I couldn't even talk. And then, thank god, this teacher, Ms. Murf let me sit in her room for a little bit, cool down, and go back to my room.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You know, when you send a preschooler to their first day of school, that first big separation? And it's so hard, but you can never really know exactly what it's like for the kid, because they're so little. They can't really articulate it. But here is a fourth-grader who can.

Neeah says she missed knowing where her mom was. She missed her voice in the room. When things happened at school, when a kid said something mean, or she didn't understand the teacher, she wanted her mom there to take care of it, to protect her.

Neeah

Like, how I said she was talking a lot on the cameras?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Mm-hmm.

Neeah

My life would be easier if she could see every move, everything that would happen, and know beforehand, and then contact somebody right away. But the world is not like that, so--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah. Yeah, that's sort of part of growing up, I think.

Neeah

Mm-hmm. It would still be nice to hear her say, don't do this, don't do that, like it is in movies.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Like, you mean a narrator in a movie?

Neeah

Yeah. Yeah, like my mom would be the narrator of my head, and she'd tell me, make sure you ask questions, get the answers right, don't get distracted.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It's kind of what you hope happens with your kid, that your voice gets in their head and helps guide them through difficult stuff, but you know, a metaphorical voice in the head that eventually it becomes their own voice as they develop into their own people. Neeah had come to rely on a literal voice and just her mom's presence.

Neeah heard from her mom so much during the day, through the cameras or on FaceTime, she missed knowing what her mom was up to at any given moment. She says it's actually what she missed most-- tracking her mom's day in parallel with her school day. It felt scary to lose that.

Neeah

I wish I could see and watch whatever she's doing. I'd want to see her, how hard she's working, or when people just don't give her anything to do. And then, just see what she eats for lunch-- if she eats lunch or breakfast-- because she doesn't really eat lunch or breakfast, because she doesn't get enough time to eat breakfast.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You worry about her not eating?

Neeah

I do, because breakfast and lunch are probably the most important meals of the day.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So if you could choose, you would like to have her watching you all the time and you watching her all the time?

Neeah

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

MJ, Neeah's mother, does not want this. What MJ wanted was to go back to how things were, where she'd drop Neeah at school and drive away, back to the time when school assumed responsibility for her child's safety and well-being. But once Neeah was back in school, MJ kept waiting for that feeling, the separation between parent life and work life, to set in.

But it didn't. It felt different. First of all, Neeah was at a different school. Right before the pandemic, MJ bought a house, not far, but in a different school district. So that took getting used to, but there were other things.

Neeah bonded with her new teacher. And then suddenly, there was a substitute teacher, then another sub. Students got COVID. Teachers got COVID. Whole classrooms closed. Neeah's favorite teacher-- the art teacher, Ms. Gonzales-- quit. The next art teacher-- she quit, too. One day, MJ went to drop Neeah off at the bus stop.

MJ

It just didn't come. It didn't come one morning. The bus never came one morning. There was issues with subs. And I mean, I don't really know what their issues are, but it was a sub on both days. And you know, I'm at work.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When she went to pick Neeah up after school--

MJ

At the end of the day, I'm at the bus stop waiting for the bus. The bus came. She didn't get off the bus. I panicked.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What went through your head when she didn't get off the bus?

MJ

Just, it's instant, like, oh, my god-- just afraid. Like, I wouldn't even know where to begin to look for my daughter in the city. God forbid.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The old way of doing school, the pre-pandemic way, felt different. MJ hated not knowing where Neeah was. She hated not seeing what was happening in the school building. The separation felt natural before, but now it felt agonizing.

Neeah would say there were fights at school. MJ wished she could see what happened. There was an incident with Neeah, another kid, and a marker. Another time, Neeah came home saying a boy touched her butt, and MJ was irate that it happened, but also that she didn't know it was happening, that the school hadn't called right away.

MJ

Whatever happens, happens. And then when they have all the information, then they want to call you. I want to know right away. Constant communication-- I don't care if you have to interrupt my day at work. If something is going on with my child, I need to know about it. Like, I'm in the loop.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah. Part of what seems like might be happening is that you had this year where you were deeply involved in every single thing Neeah did, and you watched. You were literally watching her.

MJ

Everything.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah. And now, you have to trust this school and all these people in the school--

MJ

That seems very incompetent, mm-hmm.

Chana Joffe-Walt

--and a school system to do what you were doing.

MJ

Yeah. You know, it's very hard for my daughter to be in a new district, me to not have control, to not see her, but to not be in the loop of things. Yes, that is very hard. You know what I mean? It's like, oh, my god-- it's so frustrating. Since you are, like, at the end of my workday, I am about to order my lunch, so if you could just give me one second.

Chana Joffe-Walt

No problem.

MJ

I'm so sorry.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Please-- no, eat. Eat.

MJ

But I am starving.

Chana Joffe-Walt

MJ was grasping for a plan, calling the school repeatedly for help, not eating breakfast, as her daughter suspected.

MJ

[SIGHS] I feel like I just want to pull her, regardless, before I even have a plan. You know? I'm trying to mentally come up with a plan, while trying to work full-time and doing all this over-time. I'm trying, but it's like, oh, god, that's her school calling me right now.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh, go ahead. Call me back.

MJ

OK, give me just--

Chana Joffe-Walt

OK. Take your time.

MJ

Give me one moment. OK. Hello?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Hey, MJ. It's Chana.

MJ

Hey, how are you?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Good. How have you been?

MJ

No, I've been good. I've been real good.

Chana Joffe-Walt

This relaxed, breezy person is a mother who has her daughter back at home. In January, MJ pulled Neeah from school. The district is offering a virtual option, so Neeah is back online.

MJ

Yeah. No, I'm not returning her [INAUDIBLE] with all the fifth graders-- all of fifth grade.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So you're just kind of like, we're going to sit this whole thing out?

MJ

Yeah, um--

Chana Joffe-Walt

For how long?

MJ

That's what I don't know.

Chana Joffe-Walt

MJ told me, if the school situation did not improve, she'd consider remote school for the rest of Neeah's education. This is when I began to wonder if school, as we've known it, might be over. It's not only that MJ was questioning Neeah's school in all these new ways, it's that now, she could imagine an alternative. When something ever-present and unquestioned in your life disappears for a year, you learn it's not the only way to do things. And there's no unknowing that.

Instead of returning to school, MJ and Neeah returned to the system. It was exactly the same, except for the school part. Neeah is in virtual school again, but this time it's not run by her public school. Neeah's school district did what an increasing number of public districts are now doing. They subcontracted a private company to provide an online remote-school option.

The company provides an online platform and the curriculum. Neeah can go on, get all her lessons all by herself. She's not on Zoom. There's no teacher giving live instruction, and there's no classmates. She does everything alone, independently.

Neeah

I just wake up in the morning. I get my hair done, get my teeth brushed, get dressed. I can do any subject I like, if I wanted to-- English, learning arts, math, PE, art.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you miss having teachers?

Neeah

No.

[MJ LAUGHS]

I don't.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What if you don't understand the instructions?

Neeah

I can message the teacher, 'cause it gives me a little email box.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She can email a teacher, but she rarely does. Neeah told me she likes that she can pace herself. She structures her own day. Sometimes, she starts at 8:00 AM, sometimes 9:00. Works for a couple hours, then has lunch. Watches Netflix, and just keeps going until she's done.

Neeah

I can just-- like, if it takes me all day, I'll do it all day.

MJ

I would like for it to be done before I get home, though, you know?

Neeah

I always get it done.

MJ

She shouldn't be in school while I'm getting home from work. But--

Neeah

I'm usually done at, like, 12:00.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Will you go a whole day without talking to anybody else?

Neeah

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So you can get yourself up at 7:00 in the morning, do your work yourself, take your break, watch TV, go back to doing your work, finish your schoolwork, and get to the end of the day without talking to anybody?

Neeah

Um, no. 'Cause every time I wake up in the morning, I'm like, I'm going to call Mom, make sure she's OK, make sure she got to work safely.

MJ

She calls me, literally, every day, every morning.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Is this school? It lacks every element I might have said defines what school is. She doesn't go to a building. There's no teaching, no schedule, no classmates. That's the part I couldn't get over. No kids. The only person Neeah talks to all day is her mom.

That part worries MJ, that Neeah's missing everything about school that mattered most to MJ as a kid. MJ says school's where I figured out who I was. It's where I learned I'm not the prettiest girl, but the fastest on field day. It's where she learned when to fight, how to apologize.

It's where she made her best friends, lifelong friendships, she says, of 26-plus years. She's worried Neeah is missing all of that. But Neeah sounds pretty settled, like she'd finally arrived.

Neeah

Total peace and quiet is my kind of thing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When Neeah takes a break or finishes her online work, she sits on the couch at home, and she watches her favorite show on Netflix-- Alexa and Katie. It's a wholesome sitcom about two best friends. One gets cancer, but survives. And now, they're heading to high school for the first time, choosing their first-day-of-school outfits. Will they have the same lunch period?

Katie

Everyone, get out your school schedules. One, two, three.

Alexa

I'm Alexa, and this is my best friend, Katie. We're about to start high school.

Katie

Oh, my gosh. That's in three days.

Chana Joffe-Walt

This is what Neeah's watching from her dystopian cyber school surveillance state. She's watching school. When Takeru Nagayoshi, the Teacher of the Year, who we heard from at the beginning of this show, told me pre-pandemic school was a bygone era, I think this is what that looks like-- Neeah watching school alone in her home, with cameras watching her.

That's where this story was going to end. But last week, as I was putting it together, I got one more message from MJ. She said she learned Neeah had not been submitting assignments in her online school. Turns out a teacher-less outsourced program with no actual person-to-person interaction did not work. Or at least, it didn't work for Neeah.

MJ was deeply deflated. Her system had failed, and the school system had failed, too. She told me she'd decided to send Neeah back to school in person, for now. That is, until she figures out what's next.

Coming up, a kid who disappeared from school a year and a half ago shows up again and tries to just blend in. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt, sitting in for Ira Glass. At the show this year, we've been talking a lot about a feeling we've all noticed around us-- a feeling of unraveling. We're doing a couple of episodes about people who are facing things that feel like they're coming apart in front of them. Like, we did a show a couple of weeks ago about cities and towns becoming unlivable with climate change.

This episode is also about that feeling, a slow-moving unraveling in schools. We are now in the third consecutive school year disrupted by COVID-- disruptions that have at times undone even the most basic foundational part of what school is, like the idea that kids go to school every day. Attendance is down. Enrollment is down.

I remember back when schools first closed two years ago, there were kids who just disappeared. I saw a report in the fall of 2020 that estimated three million kids were out of touch with school. A principal in Los Angeles, Vanessa Garza, told me about one of them-- a student they completely lost track of when schools closed in March 2020. And then a month into this school year, I was talking with Principal Garza on the phone, and she says, oh, that girl who disappeared back in spring 2020--

Principal Garza

Literally, yesterday, that student and her family just re-enrolled with us.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Just yesterday?

Principal Garza

Exactly. You know, I'd like to come back. We're like, great. Let's get a copy of your records. Where were you? What school were you at, so I can request them? And they're like, I didn't go to school. So in the time that the pandemic started and shut down our schools, March 13, 2020, till now, that student hasn't been in school.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She never finished sixth grade, missed all of seventh grade. And now here she was, a month into her eighth-grade school year, ready to return. This kid-- I'm going to call her Maricela. That's not her real name.

Her mom told me I could meet her at school for one of her first days back, which I really wanted to, because I'd always wanted to know, what were kids who were not in school doing all that time? Literally, like, what was she doing with her time? What were her days like for the last year and a half? And what would it be like to come back to school?

Act Two: The Case of The Vanishing Sixth Grader

Chana Joffe-Walt

So that is Act Two, The Case of the Vanishing Sixth Grader.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Good morning.

Principal Garza

Hi. Good morning.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I'm waiting in the hallway with Principal Vanessa Garza at the Girls' Athletic Leadership School, GALS. It's a charter school in Los Angeles, one of those California schools where lots of stuff happens outside next to palm trees. Almost all the students are Latina, some from transnational families that will travel back and forth to family in Mexico or Central America for holidays.

Sometimes, students who have just moved to LA from those places show up at GALS. But a kid who's been missing for 18 months-- that is not common. Principal Vanessa Garza is eagerly scanning the hallway, looking for Maricela. Is she actually going to show?

Principal Garza

Fingers crossed. It's almost 7:30 right now. [LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

We turned to see another staff member hustling down the hall toward us, silently waving her arms and mouthing, she's here!

Chana Joffe-Walt

She's here? Yay! All right.

The second Maricela walked into the building, I felt like, OK, I'm finally going to get my answer. Where has she been? What happened? And what's it like to be back here?

But she's kind of like a famous person right now, so I had to wait my turn. She enters the hallway to the school, and immediately gets sort of trapped between the bathroom, the main office, and her principal, who can barely contain her excitement.

Principal Garza

Good morning! How are you? Did you get a chance to get breakfast?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Maricela's got long, straight, black hair parted in the middle, gray leggings, and a red JanSport backpack. She's barely audible, arms at her chest. She looks like she'd very much like to make herself smaller, less visible, but her overeager host keeps offering her things.

Principal Garza

Do you want to grab something that you can save for later? Because it's just coffee cake. You're good? OK. You're in Ms. Elaina's wellness team, right? All right, so let's walk over there and check in with Ms. Elaina. And then, I'll get you a fresh mask, too. It looks like that one is well-loved, right? [CHUCKLES]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Maricela does not laugh or react at all. The wellness team-- that's the school's version of homeroom. It's down the hall and around the corner. Outside the classroom is Ms. Elaina, a tiny blonde teacher from Wisconsin. Hi, she says. How are you doing? Inaudible word.

Ms. Elaina guides Maricela into the classroom, saying, did you hear the thunderstorm last night? Silent nod. It was wild, right? Nothing. It's early still. There are only a couple of kids in the classroom.

Maricela sits, and Ms. Elaina pulls up right next to her to quietly explain what the homeroom class will be going over today, before first period starts. She says, just yesterday, they began preparing all the eighth-graders for high school applications.

Ms. Elaina

Um, have you been able to talk with your mom at all about the high schools that may be good for you, like ones that are nearby, or ones that you're interested in going to?

Maricela

No, not yet.

Ms. Elaina

So that would be-- hey, morning.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Kids are trickling in. Maricela's body is slowly forming into a U-shape around the desk. Like, maybe she thinks she'll blend in, and no one will notice there's anything here but a desk. Meanwhile, Ms. Elaina opens up a laptop to show Maricela some info on her options for high school.

Ms. Elaina

A religious school, a charter school, an LAUSD neighborhood school, meaning, like, one of the LAUSD schools where you live right around.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Nobody acknowledges how strange it is that they're talking about high school, given Maricela has missed most of middle school so far. The last time she was here, she was 11 years old. She's now 13. Sixth to eighth grade-- a lot happens between sixth and eighth grade.

I keep thinking of the blip, that thing from The Avengers where Thanos snaps his fingers? It's like Maricela blipped middle school. When she left sixth grade, they were covering early Roman civilization. She missed the entire fall of the Roman Empire-- that was seventh grade-- medieval Europe, too, and the Renaissance.

She also missed geometry, photosynthesis, chemistry. She missed a year and a half of reading and writing. And then, blip, eighth grade. Time to move on. Time to fill out a Google form on the transition to high school.

Ms. Elaina

So it's asking for your name. And then go ahead and scroll down to, which color gown do you want to wear at graduation? That's exciting. You get to vote on your gown already.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Maricela does not look excited.

Apparently, Maricela said she wanted to speak with me, but that was now hard to imagine. She was barely speaking to anyone. I couldn't imagine her feeling comfortable enough to share anything.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you want to go into-- there's, like, a little office. Or do you rather want to sit here?

Maricela

Go in the little office.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You wanna go in the little office? OK, let me see if Ms. Vanessa can get it for me. Just give me one second.

A short, agonizing walk through the hall, kids watching us, Maricela intently studying the floor tiles. We get to the room.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Here we go. You can sit right there.

But then, as soon as we were in this room, I'd barely asked a question-- I said, so I talked to your mom, and then Maricela was telling me about her mom.

Maricela

She helps people, because she even helped this lady. She was, like, 21, and she had a dog.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She was our neighbor, but then she got kicked out because the dog was biting the walls. I'd make them food. I'm a really good cook, way better than my sister. Did you know I have a sister? I don't have to go to movement class today, because I have an injury. I have a note. Do you want to see?

Maricela

I'm scared to play soccer now, because we had a leak at the old apartment. And I, like, messed up my knee. And there's sometimes where my bone just pops out. I, like, just fall.

Chana Joffe-Walt

My sister doesn't even help me, Maricela says. Did you know I have a sister? Yeah, she's younger. A brother, too. But the sister's really annoying. When she doesn't get what she wants, she smacks me.

Maricela

And then, when I told my mom, she says, no, I didn't. And she talks a lot. [CHUCKLES]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Maricela talks a lot about everything. I had assumed when I saw her in the hallway there was no way I was going to get her to tell me what happened. Where was she that whole time? Was she just at home? What'd she do? And what happened with school?

Chana Joffe-Walt

OK, so let me ask you about school.

Maricela

In sixth grade, I went to this school. And then I missed one year of school, because I had to go to Mexico.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why?

Maricela

Huh? Because at that time, it was like my grandma and my grandpa were, like, really sick. And then, being over there, we had to take care of my grandma, my grandpa.

My grandpa's mom, she had COVID in the same house we lived in. She had COVID, and she was sitting down at her bed when she started, like, hallucinating. And then, she passed away. After that, my grandpa and my grandma got sick.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Maricela and her siblings had to isolate in a room, so they wouldn't get sick too, for weeks.

Maricela

My mom's oldest sister had to, like, leave the food, like, outside our doors.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So you were just living in a room with your siblings, not able to leave the room, getting food delivered to the door?

Maricela

Yeah. I don't really like it, 'cause I don't like to be, like, locked up.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And what did you do all day?

Maricela

Um, we had to stay in the-- I had a computer over there, a touchscreen computer. I would play Roblox on there, or watch videos, or do whatever I wanted to do. And my sister had her iPad. And I had a TV, and my brother would use the TV.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Screens, a lot of screens. Of course. What were millions of missing kids up to when school buildings closed? Playing Roblox. I don't know what I expected. But talking to Maricela and hearing her lay out what happened over those 18 months she was absent from school, it did feel like such an interior, specific view.

I'd been thinking about this as a story of a kid who disappeared from school. But of course, that's not Maricela's story about herself. In Maricela's telling, she didn't disappear, school disappeared.

So much of our conversation about schools right now, our ideas about what schools need, what needs to happen to help kids catch up, to get back to normal, usually comes from the perspective of teachers, parents, adults. I want you to hear Maricela's version of this, to hear what it's been like for one of the millions of kids during the pandemic who just stopped attending school-- all the details that matter to her, the stuff that is at eye-level to a kid, stuff adults don't always think to focus on.

It was not a blip for Maricela, it was epic. A lot happened. First, her mom lost her job. Then, her grandparents got sick. And while they were in Mexico, they lost their apartment in Los Angeles. The manager said they'd abandoned it. When they came back to Los Angeles, Maricela's aunt said they could stay with her.

Maricela

We all had our schedules, like, who does this, who does that. For example, like, we would wake up, and we would sleep in the living room. We would pick up, we would vacuum the whole living room. We would have to wash the dishes, cook, and then wash those dishes, and broom the kitchen, clean the table after we're done eating, and then clean the bathroom, if it's dirty.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Her cousins' kids, though, her aunt's kids-- Maricela says they hardly did anything. She's the oldest in her family. It's her and a younger brother and sister. So a lot of the chores fell to her. It wasn't fair.

Maricela

And I couldn't tell them anything, because they're snitches. And they told their parents everything about what they do. So I would just ignore it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It got tense in the apartment. And sometime in the middle of what would have been Maricela's seventh-grade school year, her family moved into their truck. They'd drive to the park she always played at and grab a spot every night. In the daytime, they had a routine. Her younger brother and sister would sleep in the back.

Maricela

They would wake up, like, around 9:00. We would go get breakfast while they were sleeping. We would wake-- we would go park at the park again, and then they would wake up. We would fix the seats, and then they would sit down and eat breakfast.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And then, what would happen? What would you do the rest of the day?

Maricela

And then, we would go to my mom's-- to my cousin's house, and we would shower there. We had bathrooms at the park. And to brush our teeth, we'd just brush them like-- we would go to the bathroom, take a water bottle, toothpaste, and my toothbrush, and we would brush them in there.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I talked to Maricela's mom. She confirmed the basics. She lost her job when the pandemic hit, the apartment. They went to Mexico to care for her folks. But she didn't want to do an interview or get into any of this in detail.

So I don't know much about where her head was at or what shaped all the different choices she had to make during that time. She wanted to let Maricela share her experience. When they were staying in the truck, Maricela's mom called LA Family Housing. A caseworker got them a place in a hotel. That's where they're living now.

And then, the caseworker asked where Maricela wanted to register for school. I don't know if she asked or if she told her she had to. GALS is 40 minutes, in traffic, from the hotel. Maybe somewhere closer, she asked? No, Maricela said. She'd prefer to go back to the school she knows.

It's funny, when you think about it, that very basic idea that school is where you go as a kid, the thing the rest of life revolves around, it took centuries to establish. It took laws, and social movements, and fiery speeches to establish a sprawling compulsory public education system. But it only took a few months-- weeks, even, with Maricela-- for that idea to be completely undone.

And when it was, when school disappeared from Maricela's life, all the other things-- more immediate, huge dramas-- came in and filled the space. Her mom lost her job. They lived in a truck. She sold candy in the park. Her cousins were snitches. Her family died.

She can talk about all of that for hours. But when I asked Maricela, what about school, she just sort of drifts to some other topic. Not that she doesn't want to talk about it, it almost felt like she didn't remember when the pandemic closed schools. It didn't register.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What did you do in sixth grade when schools closed?

Maricela

Um, in sixth grade, when school closed, I didn't finish sixth grade.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why? I would ask, over and over. They closed schools, she'd say. But what about online school? No. Why? I don't know.

Maricela

It was-- because I wasn't in school at that time.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why weren't you in school at that time?

Maricela

I don't know.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you want to be in school?

Maricela

No. Because I knew that I couldn't hang out with Valeria.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Valeria. Valeria was Maricela's best friend at school. She lived in her building. The vague fog Maricela has when I ask her about school evaporated instantly when the conversation turned to Valeria in sixth grade.

Maricela

No, I met her-- OK, so when she came from Mexico, she would, like, go to my house a lot. We lived in the same building, and she would go, like, at 6:00 in the morning, and we would come on our way to school together. And we were, like, really close friends that-- this one time, she was knocking at my door, and I opened it, and then we made breakfast together, and then we served--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Maricela became so specific when she talked about Valeria, in that kid way where she's living it in real time, where every detail of a story is shared and assigned exactly equal weight. She knocked. I opened the door. We made breakfast. Here's who came. Here's where we sat. Here's what we ate.

Maricela

--like a tortilla. And then you crack an egg on top. And then, we sliced, like, tomatoes and onions, and we put it on the top. She went to her house, and she got clothes. And she showered in my mom's bathroom while I showered In mine. And then--

Chana Joffe-Walt

They went out walking, and they ran into Maricela's aunt, who gave her some cash. They went to the store. Maricela snuck to the side and bought something special.

Maricela

They were, like, little silver hearts that come apart, and they said, "best friends."

Chana Joffe-Walt

Like one of those best-friend hearts, broken heart?

Maricela

Yeah, but it was like a keychain thing, and we both had it, like, on our backpack. And when we came to the school both together, we were, like, so close. And we would hang out with the other girls, but there was, like, always a space with the other girls.

But me and her were, like, always next to each other. We were, like, really best friends. And then, we would go to the bathroom, and she would wait for me, like, outside the stall. And then she would go in, and I would wait for her.

Chana Joffe-Walt

March 2020, schools closed and upended the lives of millions of families. But again, that's not what Maricela remembers of this time. March 2020, the day before Maricela went to Mexico, what she remembers is that she had a picnic with Valeria at the Valley Plaza Park. Their families came. They ate Pollo Loco.

Maricela

That day, it was her birthday. And I had to tell her that we were leaving. But her brother-- her brother knew before her, but we were supposed to surprise her. But when we were singing Happy Birthday, he told her. And then her eyes got kind of watery.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What about you?

Maricela

I wanted to cry.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you?

Maricela

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Maricela told Valeria she'd see her soon, but she never did. Valeria's family had been trying to make it work in LA, but struggled in those early months of the pandemic, and decided to move back to Ciudad Juarez. That was the last time they saw each other.

Chana Joffe-Walt

How does it feel to walk through the halls now?

Maricela

OK.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Knowing what the last year and a half was for Maricela, that it was not a blip, but a long time for a 12-year-old, full of huge experiences, I consider how brave it is what she's doing-- returning to this place that disappeared from her life, coming back after losing family members, her apartment, moving between countries, returning without knowing anything about what she's missed and without Valeria.

Maricela

I was nervous, scared. I was like nervous, like, who I will see here. I go to the school, and then I leave. And then I come back, and they just stare at you the whole time. And I get nervous when they stare at me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You get nervous when they stare at you?

Maricela

Mm-hmm.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah.

Maricela

It's, like, weird.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What does it feel like?

Maricela

It feels like a bunch of cameras watching me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It does kind of seem like that. I watch as Maricela moves through the rest of her school day. She gets a lot of stares. She looks very nervous and very lost.

Teacher

People were accusing Hamilton of being what's called a monarchist. Remember King George III?

Chana Joffe-Walt

In history class, the teacher does a lot of, remember when we learned about blah, blah, blah? Like, who can tell me what we know about the monarchy? Who remembers? The elites-- what do we mean by elites? You guys remember? Maricela, of course, does not remember.

Teacher 2

OK, so we're going to do quite a bit of reading today. All right. 109, Alabama, is everybody there?

Chana Joffe-Walt

In English class, they read a novel written in verse, and then they have to write a response on an online platform. Maricela can't figure out how to submit her response. She's frustrated, but does not ask for help, does not know about the monarchy. She does not know how to use the online learning platform, and she does not speak to anyone.

She's here. She's finally in the building, but she's still really far away. I felt that deeply, watching her in math. They're playing a game. Everyone has to get up and split it into two groups, but Maricela doesn't move.

She's sitting in the back row, and she stays completely still, backpack propped on her desk, looking panicked as the other kids get up and sort themselves into teams. She's wearing a mic clipped to her shirt. She's too far from anyone else for them to hear what she's saying, but I can.

Maricela

[GROANS] My stomach hurts.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The teacher notices that Maricela hasn't moved. And for the first time in hours, someone addresses her directly, tells her, you too. Come on.

Teacher 3

You, too, pick a group. This one or that one?

Maricela

What if I can't play?

Teacher 3

You can play. It's just math.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It's just math, the teacher says. But it is clearly not just math to Maricela. I keep waiting for someone to talk to her, to ask her something. What's going on with you? Where were you? What do you need?

But school, day-to-day school, is not really set up for that. Her teachers will assess where Maricela is academically. And there's an aide in classes that could help her one-on-one, sometimes. But mostly, school is like this.

This interaction with the math teacher, it lasts 11 seconds. She locks her eyes on Maricela, Maricela shakes her head. And then another kid jumps in front of the teacher, and the room of 25 people moves forward.

Teacher 3

So I'm going to give you a question. Whoever answers the question first gets to come up here and write there, either their circle or their X. OK?

Chana Joffe-Walt

School is a machine that is designed to move forward. Kids move class-to-class, grade-to-grade. The machine does not stop. It's not designed to go back in time, to meet Maricela where she's at right now, which is at the back of the classroom, hiding behind a backpack, as her classmates enthusiastically compete to solve a math equation.

[STUDENTS YELLING EXCITEDLY]

Out of all the awkward moments I saw that day, this one was the hardest to watch, because you can feel the conveyor belt of school moving forward. I could see Maricela's panic that she could not figure out how to jump on.

And then, I see her try. Right before lunch, Maricela's standing in the hallway nervously digging through her backpack, other kids streaming past her to the lunch tables outside.

And then, all of a sudden, she calls out to another kid.

Maricela

Arecilli, mira.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She says, Arecilli, look, and opens up her bag. Arecilli is a tall, quiet girl in pink, who's been moving through the whole day in a pack of three-- three girls who, I'm told, have all recently arrived at the school from Mexico. Maricela starts showing Arecilli all the candy, and snacks, and lotion in her backpack.

Maricela

Oh, look, and I have these. And I have-- look, and I have these. I have Bath and Body Works, too. [LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Now, the three girls are all leaning in over her backpack, giggling and slowly moving through the hall toward lunch up ahead of me. And a sixth-grader quickly replaces Maricela at my side, tells me she's been on TV, so I might recognize her.

Student

Have you seen a commercial where a dad's fixing a purple Jeep with his daughter?

Chana Joffe-Walt

No. Is that you?

Student

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You're the daughter?

Student

Yeah. And do you know the show, Henry Danger? OK. [LAUGHS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

After disappointing this child star, I spot Maricela outside. She's in line for lunch, and she's with Arecilli and her friends. They're a nervous-looking pack, looking around like something bad could happen, not really talking. But they're a pack. Maricela seems OK for the first time in the whole day, actually, excited.

Maricela

Hanging out with Arecilli-- she's like Valeria.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Really?

Maricela

Mm-hmm. They speak the same.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Like, the way that they speak sounds the same?

Maricela

Mm-hmm. And they kind of look the same.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Really?

It seems to me like an effort to jump back on the conveyor belt, that Maricela's trying to replicate what she had here before that mattered to her, trying to make a new school friend, who apparently is not dissimilar to her old school friend.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Arecilli looks like her?

Maricela

Mm-hmm. It was the tall, skinny girl that was with me right now.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you think you guys will become as close?

Maricela

Mm, I don't know, because, we're already in eighth grade. And then, when she leaves, I'm going to feel alone.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But you'd have eighth grade together.

Maricela

Mm.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So you don't want to become close to her because, after eighth grade, you might not be together anymore?

Maricela

Mm-hmm. That's why.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I get it. She can't go back. They can't be as close, because Maricela missed most of middle school. And middle school is almost over. She can't go back to sixth-grade math, just like she can't go back to her apartment.

And she definitely can't go back to Valeria. Everything is moving forward without her. Maricela watches Valeria online now, becoming a teenager without her.

Maricela

I see her, like-- I see her stories, and she looks, like, way different.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Really?

Maricela

Like, she had, like, a little bit of freckles here, and they disappeared. And she had, like-- she put a nose piercing on. She's gonna-- I think she's gonna turn, like, 15.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What does it feel like to see her looking different?

Maricela

Um, it feels weird. She, like, dresses different. She used to wear, like, long sleeves and jeans. And now she wears, like, really ripped jeans. And she wears, like, cropped tops now. Actually, it's like, I miss her.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I don't know how schools are going to fit in kids like Maricela. There are so many of them-- not just the millions of kids who have become chronically absent or disappeared entirely, but the tens of millions of kids who fell behind in math and reading, the millions of kids suffering from anxiety, trauma, grief. What happens if they don't fit back in?

Maricela has been coming to school for six months now, but she doesn't always come. Her attendance is pretty spotty. Principal Vanessa Garza tells me Maricela is now three grades behind, but she will be promoted to ninth grade.

She won't be able to walk at graduation because of the attendance issues, but Ms. Vanessa thinks the shame of being held back would be the end of school for Maricela. And she has a better shot of finishing high school, if she can start earning credits toward graduation now. She'll keep moving forward.

I asked Maricela if she likes being back in school. She said, no, but she's going to keep trying.

Credits

Chana Joffe-Walt

Our program was produced today by me and Bim Adewunmi and edited by Laura Starecheski. The people who put this show together include Elna Baker, Ben Calhoun, Michael Comite, Andrea Lopez Cruzado, Ira Glass, Seth Lind, Michele Navarro, Tobin Low, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Kyla Jones, Nadia Reiman, Christopher Swetala, and Matt Tierney.

Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman; senior editor, David Kestenbaum; executive editor, Emanuele Berry. Our consulting editor on today's episode is Rachel Lissy. Special thanks to Jennifer Kottke, Jessica Cerruti, Jenn Gurrera, Koby Levin, and Chalkbeat, Nina Perez at MomsRising, Joshua Kay, Rebecca Vitali-DeCola, Michael K. Barbour, Selena Seay-Reynolds. And many thanks to all the educators and students who spoke with me, including David Eddy, Olivia Defalco, Jaden Varghese, Linda Rost, Twainna Calhoun, Liz Giacovelli, Crystal Thorpe, Regina Grossman, Teresa Hill, and everyone at GALS, especially Principal Vanessa Garza, and Ms. Mayra Olivarez.

Our website is ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to my boss, Ira Glass. He's out this week, because he's trying to branch out from radio and make it onto the US gymnastics team, 2024 Olympics. But I'm a little worried he's making a lot of enemies at the tryouts.

MJ

[LAUGHS] Oh, you're doing cartwheels? OK.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I'm Chana Joffe-Walt. Ira will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.