SAN CARLOS, Calif. — While many kids shuffle out of bed in the morning to their computers for another day of online school, Central Middle School 8th-grader Christine Chang heads down to her garage for the day.
Decked out with desks, school supplies, hand sanitizing stations, and all the regulars of a modern-day classroom, 13-year-old Christine’s garage is the closest thing to school that she’s been able to replicate after months of struggling to adapt to distance learning.
Like many other kids her age — including her four closest friends that join her at “garage school” every day — Christine couldn’t stand the constant Zoom meetings, online homework and persistent lack of interaction she experienced back in the spring, when the rampaging coronavirus shut down schools across California.
“Every day I would get up at 10 a.m. and do everything for school by noon,” Christine said. “We all thought quarantine was going to last a couple of weeks. But then months happened. I had no social interaction and I wasn’t learning anything. When they said they’d do virtual learning again this year, I said ‘I’m definitely not going to spend all year sitting alone in my room.’”
At first Christine thought she might set up a study group with her close friends to help with homework and to have people to hang out with safely at the end of the day. But California’s historic wildfires put a damper on outside plans on smoky days. Determined, Christine spied an opportunity to create a new school environment with her friends and asked her mother Michelle Chang to move her car out of the garage, paint it, get some furniture in and give it new life as a learning space.
It’s something she needed to do, Christine said. When distance learning started, Christine didn’t want to fall in the trap of working in her living space, so she moved all her school work to the living room and made a work station there. Despite the change in scenery, it wasn’t easy going.
Christine didn’t fail any classes — in fact her grades didn’t drop at all — and she wasn’t struggling to keep up with online school. Even so, Michelle said Christine looked like she didn’t have the heart for school anymore. A ballerina usually known for her good posture, Christine slouched around the house and lacked the interaction to keep her energized.
“They really tried hard, but it’s difficult to recreate that connection you have with other students,” her mom said. “I think all humans and especially teens and tweens thrive on what I like to call the ‘dust of life.’ It’s seeing the people you don’t talk to but know about. It’s missing the annoying kid in class or seeing familiar faces around you. She missed all that.”
It took some convincing, and not everyone was on board right away, but Christine was convinced this is what she needed. She’s definitely no stranger to taking things into her own hands. As a cancer survivor, Christine “is always trying to find a way to make any bleak situation a little better by bringing her own brand of sunshine, said her mom, adding that the project brought new life into her daughter.
“She was collecting things from unused backyard furniture to getting stuff for free from people and even carrying an old filing cabinet that was free up the hill to our house,” Michelle said. “It has honestly lifted up their experience so much. It has changed completely what distance learning is like for them.”