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We created a pandemic pod for our high schoolers. It was just what we all needed.

What would you do in a zombie apocalypse? Would you rather have more time or more money? Do you believe there is good in everyone? The teen pandemic pod debating such questions in a "speed dating" exercise. (Holly Ojalvo)
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Picture it: A small group of teenagers, masked and distanced, yet together.

Debating medical ethics with a physician in an overgrown yard. Pondering personal identity by way of the Ship of Theseus thought experiment. Bundled under seven layers, sipping hot chocolate, listening to a trial lawyer describe an art forgery case she prosecuted. Sprawled on the floor in a heap of newsprint, cutting and pasting found poetry collages.

Welcome to our adolescent pandemic enrichment pod.

When public schools closed for in-person learning last March, all eyes turned to young children, who suddenly needed help with everything from reading to log-ins to snacks. Teens retreated to their rooms. They were independent, already on their screens, so they were just fine. Right?

But the teens have not been all right. Public high school was a hot mess, with few if any student cameras on during limited live sessions, rendering class discussion all but impossible. The less demanded of them, the less they gave. As parents, it was painful to watch our formerly vibrant teenagers become shadows of themselves, Zooming in the dark.

We wanted to do something. To give back to our teens a piece of themselves, a piece of each other, a piece of what they were missing.

In all the talk of pod fever last summer, the focus was geared toward little kids. So we hatched an experiment: We’d form a pod for a small group of teens. Part after-school club, part youth group, with brain food.

We started by approaching teens who had been childhood classmates and now attended different public high schools in New York City, entirely remotely. All of whom — after gentle prodding — would be game to try whatever we threw at them and commit to showing up, and whose families would follow safety protocols so as not to put the group at risk.

With seven we had a pod: Asher, Gideon, Miranda, Noah, Phoebe, Ruby, Zoey. Two leaders. Often a fellow parent as a special guest.

We developed ground rules: Chiefly, it had to be discussion-oriented and social, with varied topics and activities. Each weekly meeting would be self-contained, never requiring preparation or homework. We’d kick it old school, eschewing screens for pen and paper. It couldn’t feel like school or seek to replace it. We’d serve as guides, not teachers, and play it loose, follow their lead, making sure to let a lot of air in.

We’re well aware that our privilege made it work. Our shared costs ran mostly to notebooks and weekly pizza, not pricey instructors or learning materials, but we had other luxuries: know-how (we’re experienced educators); time (we were both working from home, but neither of us have 9-to-5 jobs); access to an extensive parental roster of guest experts eager to share their skill set; and ample meeting space, both indoor (a parent’s office after hours) and out.

As longtime educators we had most of our “lessons” already in the bag, and also were able to devote an hour or two each week on prep: brainstorming and collaborating on a topic. The parents who contributed did not need to prep much, either, maybe one hour in the evening the night before, as they mostly just facilitated discussion around their area of expertise.

On day one, we asked for input on the lessons. “Can we read a book?” Miranda asked, tentatively. So we immediately broke our “no homework” rule to read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” “And hang out,” added Noah, which meant: Just let me see real-life people.

If you had walked by our meeting space on a Tuesday evening, you might have observed seven teenagers bumbling around in distanced chaos, but you’d have heard a buzzing debate on Supreme Court reform. “Doesn’t it seem crazy that nine people control so much of the country, its people and their rights?” exhorted Zoey. On another night, that bunch of teens loitering on a street corner was our pod analyzing the use of public space with a fellow parent, an urban planner.

Sometimes they left enlightened (“It allowed me to appreciate learning for the first time in months,” Asher told us), but sometimes the content was mostly a pretext for talking, laughing and using masks to slingshot Oreos into our mouths.

It soon became clear that no matter what we were talking about — the election, the economics of hamburgers, how they’d survive a zombie apocalypse — our weekly sessions were a respite, provided some shape to otherwise formless weeks and buoyed us all with human contact.

They weren’t all home runs. Our exquisite corpse writing game devolved into profanity. In a conversation on empathy, they just couldn’t muster much of it for Britney Spears. (“Who?” they said.) Of course, subjectivity played a part. Our found poetry activity left Noah bored, yet it was Zoey’s favorite. Even if a topic didn’t catch fire, at least they’d spent a couple of hours together. Plus, they lived for that pizza.

Like watching withering plants responding to water and sunlight, we saw our teens soak up the sustenance they craved. “It was an opportunity for normalcy in a time of abnormality,” Gideon said. “The pod made my life so rich,” Noah said.

As high schools have started to reopen and the nation moves toward routine, our pod has wound down, but we’re holding onto meaningful lessons for a post-pandemic world.

Teens often signal that they want to be left alone, but that’s not always what they need or even truly want. In lockdown, that became magnified. By asking just a little bit of our group, we were able to break the cycle of withdrawal, if only momentarily, each week.

They need to get outside, spend time with peers, try out ideas, put on real clothes. Ruby told us, “Seeing people was something I looked forward to, even when it felt hard to leave home.”

It’s not always clear in the moment when teens are engaged, either — often, like runner’s high, we noticed the effects afterward, in body language, small comments, lifted spirits. As Phoebe put it, “Whenever I left, I felt better.”

Perhaps most important: They chose to opt in. The open floor we provided encouraged them to “have easygoing, fluid discussions,” as Miranda put it. “What made it work was that it wasn’t school. We were there for ourselves,” Zoey said.

Adolescents may need a little help navigating social reentry. We saw week after week how light structure facilitates interaction and eye contact. Our zany riff on “speed dating,” for example, used a host of prepared questions as conversation starters. If we’d just said, “Talk amongst yourselves,” they probably would have drifted to their phones.

As parents, we found it rewarding to hear their passionate takes on just about everything. Selfishly for us, the sound of their laughter was a balm. A reminder that our teens, for all their moods and disaffection, still love to crack each other up, get a little rowdy, make paper balloons. They’re still kids.

Above all, teenagers want to talk and debate, to be seen and heard. They are not too cool for school. To the contrary, they want it more than ever.

Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collection “Doll Palace.” Her debut novel, “LECH,” will be published in 2022. She tweets @saralippmann.

Holly Ojalvo is deputy editor of the Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to reporting on issues that affect women, and is a former high school teacher. She tweets @heoj.

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