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diSConnected: The kids are gonna be all right – if you let them

Roll the clocks back a few years and 15-year-old Paige Dayton wouldn't wear purple on a bet. But the pandemic actually helped her get confident in her feminine side – and with her art, which she hopes to follow as a profession.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Roll the clocks back a few years and 15-year-old Paige Dayton wouldn't wear purple on a bet. But the pandemic actually helped her get confident in her feminine side – and with her art, which she hopes to follow as a profession.

This story is part of ‘diSConnected,’ an occasional series from South Carolina Public Radio that looks at how South Carolinians are coping with loneliness and connection after two years in the COVID pandemic.

If Paige Dayton were a generation or two older, it might be easier to put a label on her fashion sense. Goth maybe. Or emo. But you know what? Why quibble over labels that don’t matter. Paige is Paige, and she’s comfortable with that.

What’s notable about Paige being so all right with herself is that when the pandemic shut down South Carolina two years ago this month, she was 13 years old, finishing eighth grade, and as unsure of herself as anyone ever was in middle school. She did know she hated anything that made her look too girly. But past that, she considered herself an artsy introvert with a hip thrift store wardrobe who didn’t have a lot of confidence in herself.

Now 15, Paige embraces the once-reviled color purple and leans into her art so far that she’s applied to the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities (fingers crossed for April, when she finds out if she’s made it) with a no-doubt-about-it goal of becoming a professional artist.

She also took up the ukulele, joined a theater group (or two), and studies jiu-jitsu, because she’s quite sure who she is now, and who she is a person who, turns out, likes the company of others and unabashedly needs some people around. She’s still not into large groups, but she’s “definitely more on an extrovert than I thought I was,” she says.

And what’s notable about all that is that it was the pandemic that did it for her.

Sitting across from Paige at her dinner table, it’s preposterous to think of her as the shy, insecure kid she’s describing her former self to be. There’s a confidence that’s almost eerie because it’s the kind of confidence a 15-year-old should not yet have.

But for two long years of schooling from home and reorganizing her social circle to fit more of who she is now, Paige grew up faster than she’d expected. She didn’t think she’d figure herself out until college or so, she tells me. But the pandemic forced her hand; immersed her in a disconnected life in which she could break down and cry or figure herself out. And she opted for the latter.

Part of what she figured out is that she doesn’t always have to be okay. The coronavirus still worries her enough to be careful about it, and she’s still looking for that particular balance of live-a-life-but-life-aware that so many of us are working out.

She says the pandemic actually helped her mental health, though; that it gave her a chance to find her inner strengths (and embrace her feminine side), and for that part of the past two years, she’s grateful.

But she admits to having felt the weight of being cut off from what would have been her normal life, apart from friends and seeing only her family for so many months at a time.

“I love my family, but I can’t spend all my time with them,” she says. “I need social interaction with people my age.”

You know who else felt that way? Paige’s two brothers, Logan (8) and Liam (12). Paige’s mother, Christine, says the boys – particularly Liam – did not handle the disconnection from school well at all. They were happy at first to get a couple weeks off in March of 2020, she says, but eventually having to navigate online and hybrid learning, especially as the 2020-21 school year kicked in, hit them hard.

“It was tears to get [Logan] to do schoolwork when we were doing it at home,” Dayton says. Logan went back to in-person school in January, the semester after Liam did. He now bounces out of school at the end of the day and can’t stop talking about what he and his friends were up to.

Sending the boys back was a torturous decision, Dayton says. As parents, she and her husband wanted to keep the boys safe from the coronavirus. But as a social worker who understands the relationship between mental health and physical health, she says Liam’s distress at being isolated from his friends in school had gotten to the point that all her anxiety about the virus needed to step aside. So the Dayton’s finally decided to let him go back.

“He was begging,” Dayton says. “We ultimately decided that we could feel comfortable enough [sending him back], even though we weren’t completely comfortable doing that.”

Paige is still doing at-home schooling. She’s always been comfortable on her own, but next year, whether she gets into the Governor’s School or not (where she would live on-campus), she says she will likely be ready to head back to class. She’s found that time away from her peers has rendered her socializing skills a shade rusty, but she isn’t too worried that she couldn’t get them back.

Liam was (happily) in school as Dayton and I chatted at the same dining table where Paige was showing me some of her art. But elsewhere in South Carolina, a different 12-year-old at a different dining table opens up about the toll at-home learning took on him.

“Certain parts of the day would take longer than others,” says middle-schooler Ryan Bussell of his days doing remote learning. “You’d get this mindset that one subject is harder and much longer than the other, so you kind of lose track of what’s happening during the day. Once you finally look at the time and see no time has gone by, you feel like ‘I’m going to be stuck here forever.’”

The return to school through hybrid learning – two days in school, three days remote schooling – threw Ryan into a temporal discord in which he lost his sense of time.

“To me, it wasn’t fun at all, it made everything a lot more stressful,” he says. “It made it hard to keep track of the days and everybody in the school was kind of cut in half. Half the school would go Monday and Tuesday, half would go Wednesday and Thursday. It would separate you from a lot of people you might know, or didn’t know. So you kind of felt alone in that because all your classes were really small.”

What made it doubly awkward for Ryan is that the pandemic started just as he was heading into middle school. His sister, 15-year-old Olivia, had the same transition – and the same temporal disruption – entering high school when the pandemic was new.

“It just felt very alien to be in this liminal … time,” Olivia says. “I just felt like I was floating through my days. That fall semester was my first year of high school, so it was really odd and isolating to meet people and teachers in this environment where I just felt very distant from everything.”

What both Bussell siblings (who are back to in-person school full-time) found out about themselves was that, just like Paige, they were much more people-oriented than they’d thought they were. Ryan says his friend group shifted from all the quiet, reserved people like him to more outgoing friends – driven, at first, by the fact that they were the ones around, and later kept because he found he just likes a little more life in his life.

Olivia, too, says she learned a lot about herself, namely how to get a better handle on her anxiety and how not-a-loner she is.

“I didn’t really realize my need for people until quarantine,” she says. “Until I just sat there and thought, ‘I will not see anybody else for at least three more months.’”

Not everyone found a hidden need for more human contact in the pandemic, though. Across a not-at-all-for-dining table in Columbia, 17-year-old Megan Keener says the pandemic’s disconnecting nature helped her understand that she’s just fine without much company.

She did, however, get closer to her 14-year-old sister, Stacey.

“She was always my friend,” Megan says. “But right now she’s one of my closest friends, and so with COVID, me and her really got closer. We started talking, and she was actually kind of funny, she was actually kind of cool. We have shared interests – we have games that we both like and movies we both like, so we would watch those together, play the games together, and then I guess the ball went rolling.”

Stacey says she likes a little more company, but agrees that rattling around the house for so long with just Megan was just fine with her. Neither of the Keener sisters say they felt lonely during the pandemic.

“There wasn’t much loneliness going on,” Stacey says. “I’ was alone, but not lonely.”

If anything strikes one about the conversations across these various tables, it’s how much more mature kids seem to be these days. The pandemic, in its way, has been an accelerant for coming of age to a lot of kids – an event that has forced teens and tweens into a kind of self-reckoning usually not faced for another decade or so.

But Olivia Bussell insists that despite having their worldview thrown into a woodchipper, the people of her generation will be all right – as long as their parents and teachers let them process the traumas and disruptions, let them be who they are, and, above all, be patient.

“I think that treating children with the thought that time heals … just needs to be given,” she says. “I think it’s important to just give us some time sometimes.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.