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June 9, 2020

Student Voice: When TikTok and Tiger King are more important than homework

Produced by PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs


Editor’s note: Six high school students from PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs’ (SRL) Homegrown Fellowship program produced this video about what life has been like under quarantine. Read fellow John Barnes’ accompanying piece and answer the questions: How have you coped with being at home during quarantine? What stories will you share one day about your experience? 


by John Barnes, 11th grade, H-B Woodlawn High School, Arlington, Va.

It’s 11:15 at night. I’m lying awake thinking: I never found true love. I never went to college. I didn’t become famous. 

John Barnes is a fellow with PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs’ Homegrown program. Courtesy: John Barnes

Before this existential crisis, my mom and I had a horrendous fight. It started when I began coughing, and she said my head felt warm. I had made the choice to go into work at a local bakery eight days before. I told her that I didn’t feel sick, but all of a sudden, as we argued, I felt as though it was hard to breathe. A slight pressure on my chest. Anxiety or a deadly virus? I realized it’s probably the question of the year for 2020 so far.

So now I’m lying in bed, having my daily breakdown. I tell myself that I should be dead by next week. I assume my mom will be gone by next month. I regret that I spent the last week of my short life doing pointless busywork from school. 

Surprise! I awake the next morning to find I’ve miraculously survived after eleven hours of sleep. I drive over to the pharmacy, have an employee put my prepaid digital thermometer on the asphalt, and I return home to take my temperature. After about ten different readings, the thermometer consistently says I have an internal body temperature of 98.2º. 

After about ten different readings, the thermometer consistently says I have an internal body temperature of 98.2º. 

This pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone. We’re all stressed, exhausted, bored and afraid. Watching daily updates about innocent people perishing while hearing that “WE WILL NEVER GO BACK TO NORMAL” is not very reassuring. At some point, I decided to put my happiness first. I just stopped doing the homework that was “assigned” (teachers in my county cannot technically grade for the rest of the year). At first, I felt horrible.


What about the stuff you need to know for next year?!

Do you have any motivation?!

My internal monologue wouldn’t shut up. These were valid arguments, but after I shut my laptop, I felt relieved. Life felt almost normal for a second. I forgot about my schoolwork and focused on editing video for an internship. I was being creative, learning a new skill and making myself happy again.

Do what makes you happy. If that’s scrolling on TikTok for three hours, then by all means, go for it. Bake bread! Whip up some coffee! Watch Tiger King in one day! We are in a once in a lifetime historical moment. What I’m trying to say is, your history quiz can wait.

Do what makes you happy. If that’s scrolling on TikTok for three hours, then by all means, go for it.

I’m not saying school (or work) is pointless. There is still value in learning and keeping your brain stimulated. But if you can take a break from your work, whether it’s your fourth counterproductive Zoom call, test practice, or laggy online meeting, TAKE THE DAMN BREAK. 

Unfortunately, it’s all going to suck for a long time. Episodes like my panic attack in bed are not going to stop. I will probably think I have a mild case of COVID-19 for the rest of my life. The news will get worse. My anxiety will come back in waves. The world may still feel like it’s on fire for quite a while for all of us.

But for now, if I want relief, I know I can put down the pen, leave my Zoom call and bake some homemade bread. I can do what makes me happy.

If you would like to contribute to Student Voice, please send your idea to Victoria Pasquantonio at For education news highlights, sign up here.

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