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Photo: Jennifer Willis/Chattahoochee High School

How I Marched Through A Pandemic: What It Was Like to Experience Freshman Year Virtually

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Story by Rachel Alexander/VOX Media Cafe

May 2021

It was barely 64°F outside, and we were all freezing cold. Everyone was bundled up in sweatshirts and pants, a rare sight for a high school marching band rehearsal.

“Alright, I want three laps around the parking lot! No cutting corners!” said our director as the band responded with a collective sigh of grief. I smiled to myself. Even though I wasn’t excited to run, I was extremely happy that I would be on my way to my first actual season of marching band. I was so excited that I would actually be able to go to competitions, play at Homecoming and see my friends, and travel to away games – nothing like what we had last year.

As I ran, I thought about our summer camp last year, and how it was so different to cut out the majority of the activities that normally take place, including things like watching the Drum Corps International perform, and what it was like to march with a mask on. I laughed to myself as I thought about the collective worry we all experienced about going home from summer band camp with mask tan lines on our faces, matching the permanent tan lines on our arms and legs we all still have a year later. I was on my way to finishing my laps when it hit me – this year is going to be a return to normal, or whatever that was supposed to be.

In my freshman year, I had experienced marching band through the lens of a pandemic. Nothing was the same. We marched with masks on. We spaced out our drill lines to be even further than six feet apart, just to ensure that we were properly following the guidelines. We didn’t even know if we were going to finish our season at one point. 2021, however, would be a time of change. I was waiting for that change with open arms.

To fully understand the immense happiness I was feeling, you need to understand what it was like last year. Let me take you back to August 2020.

August 2020

My brother and I ran around the house in a frenzy, trying to get everything ready for our first day of virtual school. He was going into eighth grade, and was generally apathetic about it – a sentiment most eighth graders experience that parallels high school “senioritis.” I, however, was going into my freshman year of high school. As I was logging into my first period Spanish class via Microsoft Teams, I thought about my sophomore and junior friends, who had told me so many stories (some good, some bad) about their freshman year. I sighed and wondered if I’d ever be able to experience that virtually.

“¡Hola clase, buenos dias! Bienvenidos a la clase de Español,” sang my Spanish teacher with a lilting melody. I was excited. This teacher seemed great, and I couldn’t wait to get to know her. Little did I know, she would end up being one of the best teachers I ever had. The effort and dedication she put in her work was visible everyday, whether it be through carefully crafted PowerPoints, or handcrafted drawings and annotations for when we would do book studies.

We went around the virtual classroom introducing ourselves, and suddenly, one of the biggest roadblocks of this year came into view. Señora called on a student, but he failed to respond. We all figured it was the poor wifi and technical issues we were all experiencing, but this was different. We waited for a while – which wasn’t a problem in our tiny class of 12 students – but he never even tried to unmute his mic. The whole year, this same kid would not speak once in our class – something that is extremely necessary in a foreign language class, where half of your grade is how you speak and show mastery of the language.

Other than hurdles like partners that didn’t participate on projects and poor network bandwidth from time to time, I was starting to adjust to virtual school. My grades – not so much. I was doing extremely poorly in math, one of my favorite subjects. I remember crying multiple times, looking at my grades, because no matter how hard I studied, the information just. Wouldn’t. Stick. In. My. Head.

I remember, in my despondency about my grade in math and all the stress I was feeling, I decided I was going to change everything. I wrote down a declaration (of sorts) titled “Improving Rachel Alexander.” I wrote for almost an hour, addressing every area I wanted to better myself in. Eventually, I succeeded in every category. To this day, that declaration is taped on my wall.

November – December 2020

I was finally getting used to the hurdles I had faced in August. I had mastered skills like time management, which was vital considering I had marching band rehearsals and football games every week (adding up to a total of more than 10 hours per week). I also learned to cope with the stress of my first AP class, AP US Government and Politics, which turned out to be another one of my favorite classes this year. I established solid relationships with all of my teachers – who were amazing – and made lots of great new friends through in person school.

I was truly loving it all until something we had been dreading reared its ugly face: the end of the marching band season. We played our last show at the final football game, and made it the best we could for our seniors, who would never play a game with us again. It was a tearful end to the season, but most of us had at least one more season to look forward to next year.


I was lost when the marching band season ended. I didn’t know what to do. In a way, it was nice, because I had lots more time to study and hang out with my friends. That was the only benefit, though. I had come to rely on Monday/Wednesday rehearsals and Friday football games to get through the week, and without those, I found myself bored out of my mind.

January – May 2021

I never really understood why the phrase “time flies” was so popular. That was definitely because I hadn’t really experienced it, until then. Time literally flew by when we went back to school. We had a new president, and the political tension in our country was so thick you’d have to break it with a chainsaw. I still remember January 6th. That day, our AP Gov teacher had told us that class was over, and our classwork was to watch the news and reflect on it because it was history in the making. That was certainly a scary time to be an American.

By this point, I was learning to love high school. I understood my study habits completely and knew what I needed to ace tests. I was also becoming closer to the friends I had made this year. I never expected that the friends I made through random virtual projects would become some of the nicest friends I’d ever had. I was on my way to spring break, but all I could think about was something I had been dreading all year – my first AP exam.

I studied the whole last few weeks of April. I was petrified for this exam. Taking the exam, however, was not so bad. My classmates and I had all opted to take the test in person. We had to sit six feet apart, in addition to all of the barriers placed for optimal test security. I could tell that my teachers and College Board had put effort into making the test taking process as normal as possible – they succeeded. I got through the exam, and after that, it was pretty much smooth sailing for the rest of the year.

The reason it was smooth sailing was most definitely because of my teachers. I don’t think I would have gotten through this year if it weren’t for them. This year was hard enough on us students, but I don’t think it even slightly parallels what they had to go through. I saw how hard they all worked, and it was an endless cycle of work and struggle. They had double duties all year, teaching and grading virtually and in-person. Add in all of the changing requirements the country threw at them for grading, and you have a chronic headache on your hands as a teacher. They each had personal struggles on top of their work at school, and I saw those first hand – for example, one teacher lived two hours away from school and also had to take care of a baby who got sick often.

June 2021

As I reflect on this year, it was certainly one of the hardest school years I have experienced. I struggled and I cried but I learned something new everyday. I learned how to manage my time (something I am forever grateful to the marching band for teaching me) and I learned about myself (everything from how my study habits work best, to how to truly enjoy myself). I understood what it takes for me to get things done. I made friendships that will last a lifetime, and I solidified others that weren’t so strong. This year, I finally realized that we have to enjoy the moments we have. In the past, I never took that seriously, but if there’s anything that this pandemic school year has taught me, it is to cherish everyday.

I know that the workload and school is only getting harder from here, but I can’t wait for next year. I look forward to actually getting to know everyone around me. I am counting down the days to being able to see my teachers and have face to face interactions with my classmates. This past school year was harsh, but it was amazing. I hope that next year will be even better. My last note – marching band summer camp is closely approaching. Hopefully, we’ll have a normal season this time!

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