A teenager left to care for his family. One who found his faith, and another who watched his father relapse into addiction. They are the firsthand accounts of a group of New Jersey high school students living during the pandemic, brought together in one powerful memoir.
The idea for the memoir came from Shawn Adler, an English teacher at Cliffside Park High School, who wanted to document what his students were going through — both as a way for them to take ownership of their experiences and to share it with the world through creative writing.
“I was devastated to know that they were going through this, and many of them are going through this feeling alone.” Adler said. “You know, your first reaction as a teacher is always, ‘What can I do? How can I help?'”
Adler, a former journalist, said his students were over the moon with the idea.
“I was expecting them to roll their eyes. I was expecting them to give me the teenage cynicism,” he said. “They were so immediately on board with the project, I was flabbergasted.”
The students’ accounts are actually part of a second volume of stories, “The Class of Covid-19: Second Wave,” published by Adler, which came out this month. The first volume, “The Class of Covid-19: Insights from the Inside,” came out in June with contributions from 46 students. A deluxe edition with both volumes was released in January as well.
After what Adler described in the book’s introduction as a “never-ending roller coaster due to COVID,” the 24 memoirs in the second volume are a bit darker than the first.
Adler said new students reached out to him wanting to share their experiences, so he spoke to the administration about publishing the second volume.
“I approached the administration and they were really on board and it became a club.” Adler says he contacted all the new kids who were “desperate to tell their stories” and did the “same thing again.”
In the second volume, 16-year-old Wilbert Alvarez writes he and the other five members of his immediate family caught Covid-19 at the same time.
Wilbert explained that when his parents grew feeble, he had to take on their responsibilities.
He “had to think about the incoming bills, because they weren’t working,” he wrote. The food supply at home dwindled, and he had to make a trip to the grocery store with his sister, putting on two masks and “all kinds of protective gear.”
“There was truly no one left to care for us when we needed care the most,” Wilbert wrote.
While Wilbert dealt with the physical effects of the virus, Sofia Loiacono struggled with the mental and emotional effects.
Sofia, 17, a competitive dancer, wrote that “everything in the dance world shut down.” Her mother, Nancy Loiacono, said not dancing for months left Sofia “sad and exhausted and drained.”
Loiacono said publishing the memoirs gave Sofia and her classmates a sense of relief.
“You see them brighten up, you see them sit up straighter, you see them speak more eloquently about their experiences,” Loiacono said.
Adler said the book encouraged students to control their own narrative after months of living through the pandemic.
“They kept feeling powerless,” Adler said. “And I thought, what an opportunity to share their stories and share their voices and to claim some of that power back from the universe.”
Student Julianna Baldwin said that’s exactly how she felt when she contributed to the memoir.
“I was feeling helpless,” the 16-year-old said. “By me writing this book, it was giving me the potential to help even one person by sharing my story. And that filled me with the strength to keep going every day.”
Sixteen-year-old Nareg Kassardjian said writing about the impact Covid-19 had on his Christian faith was healing.
“No one ever asked, ‘How do you feel about church being closed? Or how are you feeling?'” Nareg said. The writing was “like therapy,” he said, and helped him appreciate going to church: “You never know the true worth of something until you lose it.”
In the books is also a memoir from Benjamin Luderer, a beloved teacher and coach who died in March due to complications from Covid-19.
The books can be purchased on Amazon, and according to Adler, 100% of the profits will go toward a scholarship fund for the students.