Katharine Peng

2021-2022 Live Deliberately Essay Contest

Katharine Peng, 16

14-16 Age Group Honorable Mention

Sewickley, PA

In the weeks leading up to my fifteenth birthday, I never would have imagined that I would be celebrating alone, reflecting on another year of my life come and gone as I listened to a grammar lecture from behind an eight-by-eleven-inch screen. I never would have thought that I would end my freshman year in my bedroom, wishing more than anything that I could escape from the four cream-colored walls that constrained me. And even in the weeks following the initial lockdown, I never would have believed that the novel coronavirus pandemic would continue to ravage my community for the next two years.

In just a single afternoon, the rhythm of my life was inexplicably altered, as the world around me struggled to adapt to changes that were rapidly evolving. The pandemic stole years of my life that I will never be able to relive, but as we have seen time and time again, it is only when we have lost our sense of normalcy that we start to truly evaluate the intricate fibers that are woven into the fabrics of our lives.  

Being the eldest daughter of two Asian-immigrant parents, I have constantly felt both societal and familial pressures to prove my worth through academic excellence. And this intrinsic need to demonstrate my value as a student did not fade during the pandemic: in fact, it only seemed to escalate day by day. I lost my perception of boundaries in academia, suffering more and more as the years went on because I told myself that since I was at home, I could not be anything less than perfect. Even now, that pandemic pressure still haunts me, as I continue to ignore my personal limits in favor of seeking materialistic validation for my efforts. 

The novel virus not only changed the way my world spun on its axis, but it also made me realize that I was looking at the world through a microscope: only focusing on the parts that I wanted to see while blurring out everything else. As I watched in horror as xenophobic crimes committed against minority groups skyrocketed during the pandemic, I looked to my own community, thinking that they would stand in solidarity with the victims. However, only a small group of local activists rallied for change, as the overwhelming majority of people either sneered at their efforts or gave them comments that oozed honeyed nothings. The issues elicited by the pandemic highlighted the cracks in my world that I failed to see, and these deep-rooted divides ultimately split my community in two.

Though my views of academics and of my community have changed drastically from the pandemic, I have still been able to recognize the good that has come from the long months of isolation. Just as Thoreau kept in contact with his friends in his solitary stay at Walden Pond, I looked to my own friends to ground me when my self-deprecating thoughts overtook my logical rationale during quarantine. The strength of character that I surrounded myself with in my early youth shined through during this time of crisis, and even though we were all quarantined for over a year, I emerged from my isolation feeling more connected to my friends than I had ever felt before.

And although I have often complained about the monotony of quarantine, the time I spent in solitude allowed me to distinguish my personal voice from that of the crowd’s. Instead of surrounding myself with those who would simply tell me what to believe, I began to formulate my own opinions about divisive societal issues. I found that the isolation of lockdown allowed me to “turn off” the unceasing commentary from those who spoke with hot-headed spite, and from the silence, I was able to emerge with a stronger sense of purpose.

Through the novel celebrations and tribulations that have come from the past two years, I have come to gain a better understanding of my role in this world. I have learned that true, valuable relationships are only made stronger while being six feet apart, and as issues regarding racial equality continue to go unaddressed, I have come to realize that there is nothing stopping me from using my voice to speak up for change. As I now come upon the weeks leading up to my seventeenth birthday, I recognize that it was only through losing my sense of normalcy that I was able to find a stronger sense of individual purpose.