A Year Like No Other in the Life of GDS

A teenager lost his grandfather. A mother cried, fearful for her Black sons’ futures. A veteran educator found himself spacing out during an online class. A new freshman debated his Trump-supporting relatives in West Virginia while struggling to meet friends in an unfamiliar grade. A senior’s sport and her college process were simultaneously derailed. A student fencer adapted his training and started an organization to meet the moment. A teacher urged her beloved pupils to find gratitude amid the chaos.

These experiences and countless others defined 2020 for GDS students and faculty. It was a year of change, isolation, death and unease, inside and outside the school community. We were faced with a torrent of tragedy and, for many, internal distress as well. English teacher John Burghardt observed the “institutional panic” of a school at which he’s worked for almost all of his adult life.

As senior Amir Chambers put it, “Whatever the thing is that tends to bring people joy essentially has been removed.” Yet with that as our circumstance—experienced to varying degrees within our school and in all corners of the world beyond—we did big things and learned to cherish the small. 

As the year drew to a close, I spoke with seven community members, for a total of nearly five hours of interviews, about their memories from and thoughts on an unforgettable twelve months. What follows is a first draft of the history of how the GDS high school lived through 2020.

“The Last Hurrahs”

Max Boughner’s teammate was fouled and made both of his free throws, sending the middle school basketball final match into overtime. “Everyone on the bench is just going crazy,” he recalled. Boughner’s school, Sheridan, was facing off against St. Patrick’s on an evening less than a month into the new year. He had already started the process of applying to high schools.

Sheridan lost the game by a few points; nonetheless, Boughner said, “it was a roller coaster of emotions, to say the least.”

Aisha Sidibe, an English teacher new to GDS last year, was still getting to know her colleagues in the winter. She’d visit them throughout the day, have dinner parties with them in the evening and attend performances and events at school. 

The high school assembled in the Forum on Feb. 7. Photo by Jordan Yates. 

Chambers was finding success in school and in fencing, his sport, faring well at national tournaments, clad in a white suit and a mesh mask, sabre in hand. 2020 was going to be his best year of fencing yet.

Senior Nadine Ameer was engrossed in the college admissions process, particularly in preparing for standardized tests. In January, she said, juniors started considering schools to which they might want to apply. 

By then, the impeachment trial of President Trump was underway and was being displayed in the Internet Cafe, captivating GDS and much of the country. 

Junior Miles Huh was struck by the significance of what was only the third impeachment in more than two centuries of U.S. history. “To have that in your lifetime as a teenager is kind of a molding experience for what you should look for in a president and how you’ll vote in two, four years,” Huh said. 

C.A. Pilling’s environmental science classes had among the best social chemistry she’d seen in her more than 20 years teaching. “There was a particular energy last year in all three of them,” she said. “It was kind of remarkable.”

At the end of February, the high school dispersed to take part in minimester. Pilling and Ameer went to the Chesapeake Bay on the same boat-building excursion, which Ameer called “life-changing.” She said the group of students, along with Pilling and administrative assistant Derek Brunn, bonded over the course of the three-day program, so much so that Ameer remembers having felt “devastated” when it was over. 

“I feel like it was one of the last hurrahs,” Pilling said of their minimester. “And when I look back in the calendar, I can’t believe that was only a few weeks before we just completely evaporated from one another.”

“The Virus Was All Around Us”

The disease induced by the novel coronavirus is called COVID-19 because it quietly began its rampage in 2019, in China. It was, for a time, a below-the-fold, faraway story. 

Not long before minimester, while participating in a Model UN conference, Huh was walking to get dinner with some peers in Adams Morgan. A clearly intoxicated homeless woman “started bothering me,” he recalled, heckling him, a Korean American, about the virus. He left the incident unscathed.

Huh and his friends joked about the unknown virus afflicting China. In a meeting of the Asian-American affinity group, AAA, “we were also talking about COVID but not really taking it seriously,” he said. 

At around the same time, Boughner’s parents read through the list of schools to which he’d applied and told him each of their admissions decisions, saving GDS, which he viewed as a long shot, for last. He said he “smiled awkwardly” upon hearing he’d been accepted and scheduled a shadow day for mid-March.

A student in one of Pilling’s classes anxiously asked her about the virus; Pilling responded by “trying to allay her concerns.”

“When it was clear that the virus had made its way” to the U.S., John Burghardt said, “I remember sitting at the tables in the staff room speculating on when or whether they would close school down. And people were talking about it as if it were still this very distant circumstance.”

On Tuesday, March 10, the circumstance became much less remote. GDS closed for “deep cleaning” after the virus had crept closer to the community with the positive test of a lower/middle school teacher’s partner

March 10 was also meant to be Boughner’s shadow day. Losing it threw his admissions process into disarray. He’d been able to shadow at other schools in the fall, but with GDS, he said, “I felt like I really didn’t know anything about the school.” He would make the decision to come to GDS mainly because he reckoned it was the least likely to admit him in the future. 

Students and teachers returned to campus on Wednesday for school as usual, hoping that Tuesday had only been a blip. But it wasn’t.  

On Thursday, Pilling remembered, “I was walking through this hallway and it was totally abuzz.” As I sat with her in the Internet Cafe in December for my first in-person interview in months, she gestured towards the first floor hallway behind her. That Thursday afternoon, Head of School Russell Shaw announced in an email to the community that GDS would transition to “distance learning”—an unheard-of term at the time—after the school week was complete.

Already, the school had canceled all nonessential events, assemblies and school-sponsored travel.  “I was really mad about the go-go getting canceled,” Huh recalled, referring to the Black Student Union’s annual party.

On Friday, the grades packed into various spaces for meetings in which we were told to bring all of our books and supplies home—preparing for the long haul. It would be over 250 days before students would attend another class on Davenport Street. At first, many were simply excited by the prospect of a restful hiatus. 

Huh and Boughner had each been excited to play on their respective baseball teams, but all in-person aspects of both of their seasons were canceled after only a few practices.

Nadine Ameer was looking forward to a spring of weightlifting, which she would do after school with PE teacher Kevin Jackson and a small group of other students. “It was gonna be a big season for me.” Now, she said, “I try not to think about it too much,” because, without access to the necessary equipment, “I’ve been totally cut off from that huge part of my identity.”

The faculty had been scheduled to meet the following Monday and Tuesday to get organized for online school. “We’d all be in chairs, elbow to elbow, chatting it up,” Burghardt said. “What we were not in any way aware of, except later, was the virus was all around us.” In the end, the meetings were held virtually.

On Wednesday and Thursday of that week, before spring break, the high school piloted its distance learning plan, with each class meeting once in a schedule organized not by period but by department. It was then that the community was introduced to the novel technology of Zoom. 

New York City quickly became the virus’ first American epicenter. Chambers, who has family there, was “distraught.” He heard from his aunt, a surgeon, about an episode in which a freezer truck arrived at her hospital to store corpses felled by COVID-19. 

Huh’s grandparents, also residents of New York, contracted the virus in March. His grandfather was hospitalized and spent two weeks aided in breathing by a respirator. On April 6, 2020, Myung Huh passed away, making him one of the first 12 thousand Americans to die of COVID-19. He was 78 and had also suffered from pre-existing conditions.

“It still doesn’t feel real, because we couldn’t even go up and have a funeral,” Huh said. “We weren’t able to go visit; we weren’t able to talk to him before it happened. It just kind of happened and then we didn’t do anything about it.” By now, 369 thousand have perished in the U.S. as a result of the virus, a harrowing but far from inevitable trajectory.

Huh stopped going out to play pickup basketball and joked about the virus no longer. His grandfather gone, he “didn’t see anyone forever.”

The Loss of Our Lives

Chambers, a student of history, said times of collective tragedy can unify a country, but that “wasn’t really what we saw with COVID, because there wasn’t a common understanding of how catastrophic this virus is.” The president routinely downplayed the invisible threat, erecting an immediate divide between those who were inclined to follow public health experts’ guidance and those who instead took science-resisting cues from him. 

No one, not even GDS, was aware of the virus’ spread early on. “We were not on top of it; we were not ahead of the curve in any way,” Burghardt said of GDS’ closure. “We just happened to dodge the bullets that were flying already everywhere.”

When school did close, Chambers said he lost all of his fencing momentum; his “upward trajectory,” not just with that but in his schoolwork and mental state as well, was halted. “I had to take a huge step back and evaluate my whole life and evaluate everything that I was doing up until then,” he said. 

After spring break, GDS entered real distance learning, which then consisted of one synchronous meeting time per period per week, plus asynchronous work. The high school ultimately decided on a grading system in which “high credit,” “credit” or “incomplete” marks for the fourth quarter would be used to calculate a second semester letter grade. Students’ initial excitement about the closure quickly faded. 

At the start it was challenging, but Chambers said he learned to adjust to life under lockdown. He practiced fencing in his garage, using duct tape to outline a makeshift fencing strip and an empty mask propped up on a chair to represent his opponent, jabbing at it repeatedly. And even as the workload grew harder, he put his full effort into school. 

Ameer’s two older sisters returned home from college. The household became hectic, making it harder to get work done. She, too, was able to overcome the initial “shock” of lockdown and fall into a routine organized around exercise: a daily run or bike before class in the morning and a walk at midday.

Aisha Sidibe said 2020 has forced us “to reckon with stillness,” which has been difficult for her as someone who loves to move. She’s had to learn how to “be in one spot and to maintain a level of self-care but also get my things done.”

Sidibe lives with her two sons—MarkAnthony, 13, and Rene Raphael, 4. While shifting her classes online was “fine,” she said, “I was mostly struggling with how to keep safe.”

In his 45 years at GDS, John Burghardt had moved from MacArthur Boulevard to Davenport Street, but he never could have foreseen that his classes’ next setting wouldn’t be made of brick and mortar at all. 

“The first weeks were just so difficult, because we had to master this new technology,” he said. “I remember every time I was waiting for a class to begin, it was like, I’m having a party—will anybody show up?” He’d be filled daily with “dread that people wouldn’t be there.”

However, he gradually adapted to distance learning and found it to be “a real success.” Beyond school, though, amid the pandemic, “the world has made me sit alone more,” Burghardt said. He speaks with friends, but there is “no casual acquaintance,” no more talking “five minutes of bullshit” and feeling renewed. 

Max Boughner said he “missed the fun part of eighth grade,” the relaxed and celebratory final months to cap off years at Sheridan with friends to whom he’d soon have to say goodbye. 

For seniors in the class of 2020, the pandemic meant missing out on their only chance to have a senior prom, an in-person high school graduation or a normal transition to college. 

In the spring, Pilling would get “a little choked up” speaking with her students, whom she missed deeply. She remembers having told them that adults’ lives are rather similar year to year, whereas “for you all, it’s a one-time thing.” 

She also made a habit of encouraging her students and advisees to be appreciative—even, or especially, during the most trying times of their relatively young lives. Ameer, who was in Pilling’s advisory, said the exercise of pausing for a few minutes to be grateful helped her recognize  “all the things that I completely take for granted.”

Almost all of the GDS community was in some way insulated from the economic hardships inflicted by the pandemic. Huh, who said he was “able to kind of exist in this bubble,” was hardly directly affected by the year’s troubles outside of his grandfather’s death. In fact, he found his experience “stagnant, while everything happened around us.”

Boiling Points, or; “Full of Trauma, Left and Right”

Aisha Sidibe stopped watching videos of police brutality against Black Americans a long time ago. So, unlike most members of the GDS community, she has never seen the video of George Floyd, a Black man, being willfully asphyxiated on a sidewalk by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

What Sidibe knows of those excruciating eight minutes and 46 seconds, she “just imagined,” she said, “and that’s enough for me.” Floyd’s cruel death, captured on video by multiple witnesses, “struck a nerve,” Chambers said.  

Coupled with earlier killings of Breonna Taylor and others, it spurred protests nationwide that were historic in their magnitude and persistence and united by a conviction that Black lives matter. In the summertime heat, it seemed as if the country had reached a boiling point.

Protesting in Bethesda, Maryland. Photo by Jordan Yates. 

Ameer was staying with a friend in Vermont when Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25. Once she returned to D.C., she started going to protests and “got into the thick of it.” She contacted Black classmates she knew well to discuss “how they were doing and what they needed from me.”

It was more personal for Sidibe. “I’ve had many moments of just breaking down in tears and had many moments of extreme fear for my own two Black sons,” she said. “But what I do, personally, is I act.” She organized a meeting of GDS’ Black faculty to form a community and discuss proposals for GDS’ anti-racism work. Now it’s an official affinity group.

C.A. Pilling was “glued to the TV literally every night for hours in the summer.” She participated in marches in downtown D.C., too, staying at the back of the pack to maintain a safe distance. 

Huh didn’t immediately go to protests due to virus concerns and his negative impressions of the looting he saw happening, but after learning more about the protests, he “became more inclined” to join them himself. 

Huh also visited Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, which had been so named by Mayor Muriel Bowser on June 5, four days after adjacent Lafayette Square was cleared of peaceful protesters by chemical-spraying, riot-ready (and some horse-mounted) police officers so the president could walk to pose in front of a church in a scene many saw as reminiscent of authoritarian regimes. 

Sidibe said that beholding the invigorated movement against anti-Black racism “has been a beautiful thing that could not have happened if there was not a pandemic,” as people, many sheltered at home, became newly aware of police brutality. 

For Sidibe, Chambers and other Black people, the acts of violence against Black Americans in 2020 were far from the shocks they were to many non-Blacks. “Seeing the killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor—and the list goes on,” Chambers said, “for me, it wasn’t anything new.”

Just as he had taken a step back to readjust when thrust into living at home at the outset of the pandemic, Chambers said, the protests “made America take its own step back” and grapple with its systemic racism. Now, he sees the country starting to adjust. 

GDS’ first email regarding race since the Floyd killing, “A Call to Action,” came on June 19, Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. The letter, signed by 13 GDS administrators, said, “Moments such as this one demand that we recommit to our core principles while engaging in deeper conversations, self-reflection, and intentional actions that serve to ensure we are in fact ‘walking the walk’ of our espoused mission.”

It also stated, “We have never been complicit, nor will we be complicit now.”

Numerous Black students and alumni publicly disagreed with the former statement in anonymous posts on an Instagram account called Black at GDS, which soon filled with anecdotes of racism at the school, accusations of administrators having mishandled race-related disciplinary cases and damning assessments of GDS’ culture. Black at GDS saddened many non-Black community members. The school expressed support for it in a Jun. 30 email. 

Burghardt was bothered by how some of his longtime colleagues were unfairly “run up the flagpole” on the account but “not a syllable of defense came from the administration.”

He said he’d heard for years about what Black at GDS merely described in a “new platform”; if administrators hadn’t been aware of Black students’ painful experiences, Burghardt said, “you wonder why.”

Shortly before the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the school shared its anti-racism action plan with the GDS community. Chambers said he was encouraged, but not satisfied, with GDS’ “interesting strides.”

In retrospect, Burghardt called Black at GDS a “public relations disaster” for the school and said of the administration’s response, “There was something disingenuous about it.”

In May, Pilling had reached another breaking point. “I found myself finally, for the first time in probably May-ish, angry,” she said, “because I saw people gathering. I saw young people gathering at the beaches still; I saw people going to parties; I saw people not wearing masks.”

She was quick to clarify that she wasn’t talking about GDS students engaging in such misbehavior. However, Ameer said that among her peers, there has been a wide range of approaches to COVID safety, with some social groups regularly flouting recommended precautions. “It pisses me off,” she said, “when white, privileged teens are having parties and spreading COVID around the community when there’s individuals who actually need to be out.”

Pilling considered the repercussions such negligence would have on the less privileged, including children whose online schooling left them “falling behind.” “I couldn’t understand how people can be so selfish,” she said. 

Huh’s plans for the summer “blew up,” so he mostly stayed at home. A video game enthusiast, he grew closer to a group of friends with whom he frequently talked and played such games as Valorant, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and “a lot of Minecraft.”

Near the beginning of the summer, Chambers heard from his aunt in New York about the immense stresses of being a medical worker during the pandemic and how the mental wellbeing of medical residents in particular was “on constant decline.” He decided to start an organization, Helping Healers, to give those residents care packages containing journals, stress balls, teabags and more.

In July, Chambers took a two-and-a-half-week break from following the news, an experience he found “pleasant.” He realized that the events of the outside world had been impinging too much on his ability to enjoy the summer and focus on Helping Healers. 

“There would be moments in the day where I would be on a bike ride, and I would be enjoying the nature,” he recalled of the time before his break, “and then all of a sudden something hits me from a story that I read earlier on the news about someone who had passed away. And it just ruined everything.”

Ameer participated in the Policy Institute’s environmental justice program, which she said was a worthwhile experience even online, spent time with friends and family and, on July 10, signed up for a date to take the ACT. By the end of the summer, however, she decided not to take any more tests and instead to apply without one, an alternative many colleges offered to applicants for the first time this year. 

It was a very difficult outcome with which to reckon after “all that wasted time and money” spent on preparing for the standardized test.

The class of 2020’s graduation ultimately took place virtually on Aug. 2, delayed out of an unrealized hope that it could be held in person. Faculty speaker jon sharp, a history teacher and GDS’ debate coach, told the graduates, “The truth is that we’re living through a thing that your grandkids will tell their grandkids about.” In place of the joyful moment they deserved, he said, the class of 2020 had been given “a dumpster fire.”

When, on top of all of that, renowned Black actor Chadwick Boseman passed away on Aug. 28, Ameer started tuning out the news. “I just couldn’t handle it,” she said. 

Like much of the rest of 2020, the summer was, in Sidibe’s words, “full of trauma, left and right.” In mid-August, as if seeking a cozy recourse, Sidibe got an adorable kitten named Jojo for the birthday of her younger son.

Synchronous/Asynchronous, Symptomatic/Asymptomatic

Going into the summer, students and teachers alike had harbored hopes that school would be close to normal in the fall. But, with no end to the pandemic in sight, those hopes evaporated with the summertime boil. 

The faculty met throughout the summer to plan for the uncertain school year ahead, Burghardt said. “People were, in classic GDS form, forming dozens and dozens of committees that were generating intricate and nuanced reports, all of which were tabled when the administration decided what it was going to do.” 

He said administrators made a “democratic gesture” to teachers while, he surmised, “they’re sitting in twos and threes and listening to parent phone calls and thinking, ‘Yeah, to cover our asses, I think we got to do this.’” (High School Principal Katie Gibson couldn’t be reached for comment on this or other statements.)

Although Burghardt thought the administration’s decision-making process was questionable, “what they came up with seemed actually reasonable”: now two synchronous virtual classes a week, with regular grades. 

September 2020 was supposed to be defined by the opening of GDS’ unified campus, the culmination of a 52 million dollar fundraising effort and years of construction on the plot of land across Davenport Street from the high school.

Starting a school year online was fundamentally different proposition from transitioning online in classes that had already come to know each other well. “I was really worried about getting to know my students,” Pilling said, without “impromptu moments” before and after periods, in the Forum and on the sidelines of soccer games. 

Pilling was also concerned about what a virtual start to the school year would mean for the survival of the GDS high school’s culture and traditions. She thinks the current juniors, the class of 2022, will have to serve as an essential “bridge” to allow them to survive the pandemic.

In late August, Max Boughner participated in a virtual orientation for new freshmen. He recalled a “really, really good question” one of his fellow newcomers asked, having seen Black at GDS, once faculty had left the Zoom: Why is GDS known as a progressive, inclusive community even though it “never takes action” to combat the problems described by that account? 

Students picked up supplies at the high school and classes began without much fanfare. 

Boughner was nervous and “self-conscious” about how he’d measure up academically at a new, larger school. He was also stressed about the prospect of meeting new people and having to make friends for the first time since kindergarten, when everything was “simpler.”

At the start of the school year, Boughner would find himself in uncomfortably silent breakout rooms but was too bashful to speak up, afraid he’d “mess up,” he said. “I feel like if people are paying attention to me, they might judge me. So if they just don’t really pay attention to me, I’m not gonna get judged that much. It’s a pretty bleak worldview,” he admitted.

Pilling started her environmental science curricula by discussing forest fires and hurricanes, which were particularly extreme and disastrous in 2020 as a result of man-made climate change. During GDS’ first week of school, much of California was blanketed in an infernal, deep orange smoke. 

Pilling said she had anticipated a major “tidal wave” of climate-change awareness in 2020, but the issue was largely sidelined by the other events and topics at the forefront of conversation and media coverage. “I would never argue it should have stayed center,” she said of climate change, “but I do think it is coming forward.”

Fortunately for Boughner, he didn’t struggle with his classes, but his anxiety didn’t abate. He would strum his guitar in his room as a stress reliever between periods. 

Huh said that while he loved school in the past, he actively disliked it this fall because of the double whammy of junior year in a primarily virtual setting. “I’m getting slammed,” he said. “I’ve never thought within the first month of school, ‘Dang, I wish it could be summer again.’ But that’s what I felt this year.”

Meanwhile, Ameer said her senior year has been considerably harder academically than her junior year was. Her teachers assigned excessive workloads, in her view overestimating their students’ free time. 

Sidibe had less time in her days because casual interactions were replaced with longer, pre-scheduled virtual meetings. On a normal pre-pandemic day, she could find time to visit colleagues, work out in the gym and grade assignments, all in addition to teaching her classes. The day we met, she’d been online almost nonstop from 9 to 5. “I haven’t had time to breathe,” she said. 

The start of school was followed in a matter of weeks by the news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a former GDS parent and an iconic champion of women’s legal rights, passed away. Ginsburg, who had been scheduled to speak at the annual Benjamin Cooper Memorial Lecture in November, was honored by a panel at the event instead.  

On Wednesday, Oct. 14, the high school gathered on Zoom to begin GDS’ promised anti-racism work with students. The program included a few presentations and student-led conversations in breakout rooms. Huh perceived it to be a “flop.”

As the assembly ended after a speech by Katie Gibson, a flurry of critical messages popped up in the chat. One student, whose identity was unclear from their Zoom name, wrote, “I think we need mroe diversity in faculty speakers maybe? idk this feels rly @whiteppl but poc are affected the most and r valuable in the community.” Another offered, “if I’m being honest this day didn’t help me at all.”

Huh said he thinks 2020 “made GDS aware that a lot of students don’t really buy into their diversity thing wholly.” Pilling, Gibson’s predecessor as principal, said she’s concerned that GDS’ progress with anti-racism was impeded this fall by the same basic condition taking its toll on community members of all ilks: the continuation of distance learning.  

Burghardt had prepared a scenario and briefs for a simulated Supreme Court case about abortion and was impressed with his students’ work. But during the oral arguments in November, he noticed that “minutes would pass and I hadn’t taken a note. Where was I? I had zoned out. I could not believe this was happening,” he said. 

He’s been a sustained presence in the GDS community for over four decades. “If I couldn’t sustain it,” Burghardt said, “who was gonna sustain it?”

No Electioneering Beyond This Point

Campaigning for the 2020 election had, like COVID-19, begun before 2020 even started. 

At the beginning of the Democratic primary campaign, Ameer said, she backed former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Many GDS students professed their support for more progressive candidates such as Senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, whom Ameer came to love. Few supported former Vice President Joe Biden. Ameer recalls that her initial reaction to his candidacy was simple: “Why are you even here?” 

Over the summer and during the tumultuous campaigning of the fall, Huh’s family, which used to never watch television at dinner, began to watch CNN every night as they ate. Their new TV habit felt at once necessary and negative, because, Huh said, “it’s just more time we’re looking at a screen instead of talking to each other.” 

The Democratic primaries aside, many Americans made up their minds to support President Trump. Among them were some of Boughner’s paternal relatives in West Virginia. He enjoys debating about politics with them—especially his uncle, who, like an overwhelming majority of West Virginians, voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020. 

“He would get me Trump shirts and then I think we got him paper straws,” Boughner said. “We also got him this Trump and Putin magnet collection.” How does he explain his “reasonable” uncle’s support for a politician like Trump? “They’re less in the loop about these things,” he said. “I think that’s kind of why—I don’t want to say brainwashed—a lot of people can still support him. It’s because they don’t try to find the full story.” 

Rather, Trump supporters—including his uncle, who works at a bookmaking factory—“just basically see what he says.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Boughner said his West Virginia relatives were “lax” with the virus. 

This fall, John Burghardt was teaching his eleventh grade English class about argument and persuasion, which he said focuses on “speaking across difference” and is “all built around the faith that people can make sense to each other.”

His students, he said, appeared to be engaged and were producing high-quality work to that end. “But I was also finding it impossible to believe that the world is actually working this way” as he observed the irrational beliefs of, say, Trump supporters who baselessly denied the efficacy of face masks. The contrast between the country’s rigid polarization and the course’s central premise created “cognitive dissonance.”

Pilling worries that the ruthless nature of today’s politics, worse than in past eras, will “become the norm.” But no matter the country’s underlying political ills, most GDS community members set their sights on helping Biden win—and, perhaps more importantly, ensuring Trump would lose. 

Celebrating Biden’s win. Photo by Fiore Petricone. 

Huh volunteered for Biden’s campaign, as did many other students. Some joined the Student Action Committee’s Voter Mobilization Initiative, a nonpartisan effort to call voters in suppressed groups. Students also volunteered to work at polling places on Nov. 3. 

The week of the election contained “a lot of emotion” for Ameer, who had just submitted her early decision college applications but was just too young to submit a vote. She, for one, said she was prepared for the “red mirage” that appeared on a sleepless Election Night before most mail-in votes were counted. 

In the days before the election and the week after, Pilling said, she noticed a “sense of anxiety kind of bubbling below the surface.” During that nerve-wracking period of vote-counting, Boughner would check Google’s election updates “every ten minutes during class.”

Most major news organizations called the election for Biden on Saturday, Nov. 7. 

Ameer was at work as a cashier at the Sheridan farmers’ market. “It was crazy. It was this huge celebration,” she said. Ameer doesn’t consider herself a frequent crier, but that day on the way home from work, “I couldn’t stop crying, hysterically bawling.” 

Ameer said she cried because of a release of pent-up angst and “emotional turmoil” about the Trump administration and, in particular, its failure to address climate change—an issue that she called “the unifier of the human race” for sitting at the intersection of racial, socioeconomic and geographic injustices. Later in the day, she went downtown to celebrate. 

On that Saturday morning, Chambers was outside of his fencing gym, the Nazlymov Fencing Foundation, which is located on the property across 42nd Street from GDS’ buildings and had by then reopened for practices with a limited number of people present at a time. Chambers’ coach was “going on and on,” he said, but, “after a while, we looked and saw people were jumping up and down, and people were honking horns.”

His coach was soon drowned out by the jubilant racket. After hearing the news, Chambers said he let out “a huge sigh of relief, a huge kind of natural exhale from my body.”

People honked their horns in Huh’s neighborhood, too. “Everyone started playing music on their speakers,” he recalled. “People had some sort of outdoor spontaneous dance party.”

Sidibe spoke about the election a lot with her older son and discussed with him “how beautiful it is” that Senator Kamala Harris was the first woman and the first person of color to be elected vice president.

For almost all members of the GDS community, it was a rare day of unbridled, intense joy in a year mostly dominated by bad news. But Boughner’s relatives in West Virginia, who reside on the other side of an intractable divide, were upset; they earnestly believed that a Trump victory would’ve been better for the country, or at least for them. A large share of the country of which Boughner doesn’t think his family is a part had even been led to believe that Trump actually had won.

“What an atrocity for me personally to see all of the ways in which this country is still so divided,” Sidibe said. “It is a shame simply because you wonder: What is human anymore? What is that shared experience that we’re having?” 

“This Desperation to Be Lovable”

On Oct. 19, Russell Shaw and Katie Gibson sent an email saying that the high school would not return to in-person classes before winter break. Two weeks later, on Election Day, Shaw and Gibson sent another letter announcing an about-face from the previous one: that the high school would start so-called “HyFlex” learning on Nov. 19. 

In those two weeks, COVID case numbers in D.C. and neighboring states only increased. GDS’ email explained that the change in plans in spite of those statistics was possible due to new developments in scientific research about running schools during the pandemic.

Burghardt was “mystified by the decision” and its “abrupt and kind of goofy timing,” he said. “It looked like there were some dissatisfied parents who had become the voice of the school and had gotten way ahead of where a lot of the kids were”—and ahead of much of the faculty, only around half of whom opted to teach in person when encouraged. 

Burghardt, who’s in his mid-seventies, decided to go back, as did Pilling.

“Even as I was harboring the thought that this is precipitous, this is customer service, this is putting teachers at risk for the sake of sort of expert persuaders and the people who are just these waiters’ nightmares,” Burghardt said, referring to parents who he believes pressured GDS to reopen, he saw that his students “were getting just attenuated by the screen.”

Sidibe decided to stay home, saying that the reopening raised the question, “What does it mean to ask Black faculty and staff to come in when COVID is affecting them in disproportionate numbers?” Each morning, she would walk her son Rene Raphael to school around the corner from their home before returning to sit at her computer.

Both Ameer and Chambers stuck with all-virtual classes as well, representative of a senior class more reluctant to return to campus than the rest of the student body. Boughner and Huh, on the other hand, joined cohorts A and B, respectively, to attend classes in person. 

Nov. 19 was Boughner’s first day ever in the GDS building as a student. Even though none of his teachers were there and lunch in the frigid garage was “horrible,” he said he had forgotten “how much better [school] could be” in person. He socialized with classmates before and after periods, getting to know them a little better. “Also, it’s interesting to see how tall some people are,” he added. 

On Saturday, Nov. 21, Shaw informed the community that a non-teaching GDS employee had tested positive for COVID-19 and that school would therefore transfer back online until Dec. 7. A lengthy Thanksgiving break would elapse before high schoolers in cohort B could attend in-person classes. 

Boughner said his family in West Virginia gathered for a Thanksgiving party without proper protections and ended up contracting the coronavirus. They all survived, but, he said, “It’s a very, very scary thing, thinking about how you could wake up the next morning and this person in your life might no longer be in your life.”

While the timing of GDS’ reopening struck Huh as bad, he said he was able to focus better in in-person classes and has felt “very safe here with all the protocols that GDS is taking”—which included COVID testing in advance and mandatory mask-wearing on campus. Huh and I spoke on the morning of group B’s second day on campus, Dec. 11, sitting amply distanced on the couches outside of the English department office. 

Nadine Ameer said the controversy about reopening “revealed GDS to me a little bit more” as she came to suspect that “funding is playing a bigger role in the school’s safety than it should be.”

Observing GDS over the course of 2020, Burghardt has seen “much more nakedly its panic.” He said GDS has a “desperation to be lovable” because its financial model is reliant on extensive fundraising, making the school “extremely concerned about how we look.”

Shaw cutting the ribbon of the new lower/middle school building (Source: GDS). 

Burghardt said he’s recently discerned “a great deal more insecurity in the leadership than I’ve ever seen before,” adding, “as is appropriate. I mean, people are losing their houses; people are in food lines. Why wouldn’t they be insecure?”

2020 is GDS’ 75th anniversary. But Burghardt is quick to remind you that GDS is a very different institution than it was when he arrived in 1975, let alone at its humble founding in 1945. In May, Shaw and then Board of Trustees Chair Jenny Abramson ’95 assured the community in an email in bold, dark gray text, “GDS is a thriving institution.”

Boughner, a much newer member of the community, said of the administration, “I don’t want to critisize them too much, because it’s so obvious that they’re so stressed”—an emotional state in which he’s often found himself in the past year.

The reopening roughly coincided with the final weeks of the fall semester, which for student were jam-packed with major assignments, homework and stress. Boughner said he got “burnt out.”

Ameer, meanwhile, is in a good place with her college admissions, having been admitted to multiple institutions. “I am really thankful for being a GDS student,” she said, “but I’m ready to leave. And I’m ready to go to an institution that values all the things that GDS claims to value and more and maybe puts them into practice a little bit better.”

At the end of our interview, I asked Burghardt whether he and retired Associate Head of School Kevin Barr still partook in their weekly catch-up meals. Burghardt told me that they continue to meet virtually for an hour of conversation; after all, there’s so much to discuss. Why don’t they eat breakfast together nowadays? “It’s hard to eat when you’re watching yourself eat,” he explained.


At the annual Christmas assembly, Shaw performed his “GDS Blues”; the Morris dancers did their thing, too. I was struck for the first time in the better part of a year by a sense of genuine community, albeit through the gray box of my computer rather than in the packed Black Box.

Three days earlier, amid the busyness of the last week of the semester, the daily newspapers each jammed onto their front pages headlines about two pieces of major—and, for the vast majority of our community, positive—news: that the Electoral College had certified Biden’s presidential victory, and that COVID vaccines had begun being administered in the U.S. No doubt, we remained in the world of loss and division and badness that 2020 had built, but perhaps with some measure of newfound confidence in the future as well. 

I spent the thirteen days following the Christmas assembly resting, transcribing my seven sources’ stories and chronicling the surreal. On Dec. 31, I stayed up to watch the ball drop in Times Square on TV. I don’t usually care to do so, but I was almost excited by the prospect of witnessing the end of 2020. The glittery sphere sunk slowly towards the crowdless ground. Once it landed, I looked around at the pervading stillness of my living room. Nothing had changed, and yet the moment had a certain ethereal—and ephemeral—glee. 

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