The robocalls from school kept coming. Ninth-grader Mia was absent, again.
"I wasn't Ferris Bueller running around skipping class. I was in my bed, doing my work, telling myself to wait one more minute before joining the next Zoom class. It didn't make sense, any of it. I was sitting there in front of screens most of the day, something I was always told to stay away from. My hair was a mess, I was still in my pajamas, and I had just woken up for the third time that day. … I couldn't play soccer, I couldn't go anywhere, I was trapped. That's what the pandemic felt like. Being trapped."
Mia's story may sound familiar to hundreds of other students, and it's reaching a wider audience as part of the Wildling Story Booth, a collection of audio recordings by young people responding to the theme "Growing Up in a Pandemic."
Young people like Sadie:
"Before the pandemic, my calendar was always filled with birthday parties, school, sports, homework and friends. It was always busy, so busy in our household, that we were scrambling to get out the door for school and activities, and I never took the time to stop… But now I know … that when we rush around like we used to, we miss some of the things that matter most."
"The pandemic helped me be more independent. I learned to do things more by myself. I made my own schedule, made my own lunch, made time to do homework, made time to have breaks … I am capable of a lot more than I thought I was."
"A year later, my friends are still here."
The Story Booth is the latest project by the Wildling, a Minnesota nonprofit established in 2018 that builds confidence in middle school students through live storytelling in a supportive environment.
"It's important for youth to feel like they have a voice and that their voices matter," said Edina filmmaker and Story Booth collaborator Maribeth Romslo, 42. "I think it will be a long time before we understand [the pandemic's] impact on youth, but I think that's also why it's important to hear their voices right now."
Designed to reach beyond the bounds of an in-person workshop, the Story Booth launched in March 2021, a year after the world shut down, and is still accepting audio submissions from students across the country ages 18 and under. The stories already create a historic capsule, as many students recorded before they went back to school in person.
"There is something really great about a simpler form, not trying to produce as much as just listen," said the Wildling founder Megan Kaplan, 45, who has a background in journalism. She was struck by stories that captured the feeling of the first moments of the pandemic. Stories of reinventing birthday parties, finding solace in books or music, and watching adults' composure for signs that things were falling apart.
"Kids provide a certain kind of stripped-down clarity," Kaplan said.
Seeking safety in a confusing world
Ten-year-old Stellan Harrison, for example, created a soundproof studio out of his mother's closet to share his story, which he titled "The Year of Worry."
"When coronavirus started getting to people and killing them, I started to get a little bit more worried, and I didn't know what was happening, and I didn't feel safe. And then we had to go to virtual school, which was really stressful for me and I cried a lot. And then George Floyd was killed by the kneeling on the neck. And I just felt like everything was lost in a deep, dark pit. … I need to feel safe, and I need everybody in the world to feel safe. Right. Now."
Jojo Naya's mom worked as a nurse, and the ninth grader had no one to talk to at lunchtime. He went outside and threw a football at the trees.
"I was a big football kid, but what's football without people to throw the ball to?" he said. "So I used to throw the ball at trees, through trees, with trees. Anything just to keep my mind off the fact that I was alone."
A chance for filter-free sharing
A "wildling" is an uncultivated plant or being, and it's the genesis of how Kaplan sees the program. Unlike school, which tends to refine and cultivate proper grammar and writing, the Wildling offers a chance for kids to express their truths with no filters, she said.
"You want to start fresh and free, and you want to be unhindered in your ability to tell a story and create," Kaplan said.
The Wildling outreach comes at an urgent time. Depression and anxiety symptoms have doubled in children and adolescents compared to pre-pandemic times, according to a University of Calgary analysis published in August. The meta-analysis of 29 studies involving 80,000 youth worldwide found that one in four youth are experiencing clinically elevated symptoms of depression, and one in five are experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms.
Speaking out can make a difference, saidElizabeth Adams, a neuropsychologist and advisory board member for the Wildling, noting that infant brains are hardwired for speaking and listening.
"[When] we ask people to talk through their stories and ideas, they tend to activate a more creative space in the brain," Adams said. "It's really profound, actually, to teach people at a young age that the sound of their voice is comfortable and worth listening to, and then it frees them up to think through things in their own way."
"I truly believe in the power of storytelling," said Kaydee Gleplay, 25, who leads the Wildling's Brown but Black Voices workshop for Black girls. "I think you're likely to speak up in other instances where you probably wouldn't. I think you're probably more likely to share your voice or your story or your opinion. I think you're probably also a better listener."
Story Booth contributor Makia Conway, 14, felt a connection after listening to other stories in the showcase.
"I felt like I wasn't alone. I felt like a lot of people went through the same things," she said. "I like hearing other people and their stories about how they got through struggles."
And along with their struggles, youth shared their hopes.
"Even if I can't go to Washington, D.C., this year, and you probably can't go somewhere either, look on the bright side," said seventh-grader Sara. There is a whole other year ahead of you, and years after that. And you have your wonderful self, the one who made it through the year COVID struck the world."
The Wildling receives funding from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, Minnesota State Arts Board, fees for student workshops (with scholarships available), and individual donors via GiveMN.
Next up for the Wildling is an educator guide that teachers can apply to the classroom. Future Story Booth topics may cover issues like racial justice, body image and climate.
Find the Story Booth at thewildling.org/story-booth/showcase.
Michelle Bruch is a Minneapolis freelancer writer.