EDITOR’S NOTE: Gracie Hopkins is a graduating senior who previously expected that the spring of 2020 would involve planning her last Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) Night of Noise dance and participating in Senior Ditch Day from her high school in Northern Illinois. She takes some comfort in the fact that the school musical was held right before stay-at-home orders were issued, rounding out her four-year stint in theater lighting. She is the eldest daughter of Dr. Juliet B. Ugarte Hopkins, Physician Advisor at ProHealth Care, Inc., Vice President of the American College of Physician Advisors, and a frequent contributor to RACmonitor and ICD10monitor. Both mother and daughter actively keep their fingers crossed that Gracie’s plan to join the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this fall can happen in person, and not via remote learning
I am 18 years old. While I currently live in a smallish town in Northern Illinois, I am looking forward to moving to the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. As a senior in high school, I rode out my last year counting down the days until I could leave and start my own life as an independent college student.
Those who know me know that I am not a high-school person. I don’t pep, I couldn’t care less about prom, and graduation for me was going to be an opportunity for my family to show their love and support, which I know would make them happy – it would not be a long-awaited final walk across a stage representing an end to the best years of my life.
Ever since my first day of freshman year, I have been excited to move on to college. I don’t want to paint the picture that I hated high school – I was just fine with it. I went through the classic adolescent highs and lows, and the inevitable challenges of high-school drama and awkward changes. However, my eyes were always looking toward the horizon of opportunity and independence that college promised.
It would be fair to say that I was clocked out of senior year once that countdown hit a month and a half until graduation. Every morning, I got up half an hour before my first bell rang, got dressed, packed my breakfast to eat during my first hourlong class, and took the five-minute drive to school with my windows down, blasting Kendrick Lamar in an attempt to get my motivation flowing for the day. I would finish my homework from the day before during free time in class and during my lunch period. After school, I would hang out with a few close friends and usually make it home by 9 p.m. to settle into bed, watch a movie, and answer some emails before falling asleep.
As someone who was diagnosed with anxiety about a year ago, routine is key for me to stay grounded. I have little things I get excited about throughout the day, and my routine provides the sense of control and normalcy that I need to function. I was well-established in my school-year flow, starting to get my mind accustomed to the upcoming changes that college life would provide. I felt confident in myself and the upcoming new life I was beginning to create for myself.
Then, conversations in my classes started to focus less on course content and more on what could happen if the coronavirus made it to our county, or a county above or below us. The news started to move away from the upcoming election to the death count attributed to coronavirus. And, seemingly unendingly, we heard and read about how little we knew about the new virus scientists didn’t have any answers for.
I don’t remember thinking a lot about it. My brain considered it too much of an unknown that I didn’t even have it on my radar. I would joke, “hey, I wouldn’t mind missing a few days of classes.” Teachers made plans to convert to online schooling, and we left the last day of school before Spring Break, thinking we might get a two-week break instead of one. I wish I knew then that it would be my last day in my high school, where I had devoted four years of my young adult life as a student.
Spring Break came and went. The week after came and went. A school lockdown turned into a state lockdown. The possibility that I would resume my senior year at school evolved into an impossibility. I was frustrated. I had all this new free time on my hands, and I couldn’t spend any of it with my friends. I pushed my parents to let me visit my one closest friend from time to time. Since I was still working as a store cashier, adding one more person to my contact list wouldn’t really matter, I reasoned.
Every time I went on my phone or turned on the TV, there were ads to donate money to this charity and to buy literally anything from local businesses. But as a high-school student with a minimum-wage job, I only have so much money to give to local businesses. I saw how others were finding ways to support essential workers, which made me think about one of my favorite teachers, who I knew was married to another teacher in my high school. They happen to live in my neighborhood, and I knew they had a 4-year-old and 5-month-old at home. I imagined how difficult it must be for them to create virtual learning sessions while also managing such young children, so I asked if they needed a babysitter to get some work done.
I began to babysit for them twice a week, in addition to working my cashier job at a large chain store. Every time I got home from work, I would undress in the garage, immediately take a shower, and wash my clothes that I had worked in, along with my cloth mask. I was nicknamed “Mask Lady” by my co-workers because I was the only one in the store who wore a mask. I spent the majority of my shift cleaning my workspace and sanitizing my hands in between each customer. I felt I was doing the best I could, and I was being careful enough to be able to see one person outside of my family in a social way.
Then the first case of COVID-19 was verified at another store in a nearby state. Corporate leadership told us of the precautions they were planning on taking, and explained their highest concern was the health of their customers and associates. However, their actions said otherwise. They were always a week or more behind our competitors in changing store hours, putting up plexiglass shields between customers and cashiers, and providing associates with masks. They told us it was necessary to inform the entire company about the first confirmed COVID-19 infection in an associate, but they wouldn’t necessarily tell us about new cases, going forward. This led me to ask, “would we be notified if there was a case in our store?”
Their response? “No, not necessarily.”
I put in my two weeks of leave and told them I would check in when I was ready to return to work. To fill my time, I started babysitting three times a week and tutoring a neighbor in middle school to help her out with online classes. It was honestly a great feeling. I love working with kids, and I want to be a professor when I complete graduate school. So replacing a job where people laugh in my face for wearing a mask and yell at me because the price of birdseed is not to their liking with jobs where I can actually see the impact I am making with those I’m working with, was terrific.
The day of my last shift as a cashier, I woke to a text from my mom that my stepdad, Jason, was in the hospital and headed for abdominal surgery. My mom has been working in hospitals throughout her entire adult life, and when her husband was rushed into emergency surgery, she couldn’t be by his side, because no one is allowed in the hospital unless they are a patient because of COVID. Without Jason in the house, it felt empty. If our house is a human cell, Jason is the mitochondria. He brings the energy into our family, keeps things moving, and motivates all of us to be our best selves. He bikes or runs at least 50 miles a week, remodels houses, gets the groceries, and runs all errands while my mom is at work, and basically takes care of everything so my mom doesn’t have to. We all had to face the idea that he would be gone. How would our cell function without the mitochondria? How would we function without our Jason?
My mom and I just sat on the couch in silence. I can’t imagine what mom was thinking. I was thinking about the people going out to beaches and throwing parties while I was sitting at home hoping Jason’s condition wouldn’t take a turn for the worst. These people are going out because they don’t believe in the virus, or they don’t think it affects them, I thought. They are going out, prolonging the lockdown, and prolonging the time when I can’t visit Jason. I felt an immense guilt wash over me for visiting other people during quarantine. Going out to have fun didn’t seem like as much of a priority, when compared to the life of a family member. At that moment, I vowed to myself and everyone in the hospital, all essential workers, all parents who are struggling to work and take care of their children, all renters who are afraid of being evicted because they can’t pay rent, all who have lost family and friends from the virus, all who have had experimental treatments postponed because the resources are relocated for a vaccine for COVID, and many others, that I would abide by quarantine restrictions to flatten the curve and bring this pandemic to an end.
It’s been two weeks since Jason got back from the hospital, and he is healthy and happy – although I am sure he would tell you he is going a little crazy not being able to help out as much as usual, because he is still recovering. Quarantine life is forming into a normal groove, and I’m beginning to find a semblance of a routine. I don’t feel as trapped at home anymore, because I’m keeping myself busy making plans for college and signing all the verifications I need to prove I have everything in order for all that comes with it (including ANOTHER email address). For the love of God, why does adult life include so many email addresses?
I have spent a lot of time thinking about my growth throughout high school. I came out as a proud queer woman, found what it is to be a true friend, and learned that self-love and acceptance isn’t a path, but a battle that you always need to fight for, yourself. I won’t be walking the stage at graduation, but I will be moving on to become an alumna of my high school who will go on to make all those teachers and staff that supported my journey proud. I won’t have my last week of high school to enjoy, but I will always have the memories from those four awkward, strange, scary, exciting, and priceless years.