A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

Girlhood in a pandemic: 5 friends share their experience

6 min
Miniature figurines stand within chalk circles in a large grid on concrete, socially distancing from each other.
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This piece was produced in partnership with YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists.

Before COVID-19 hit the world, you would find me and my friends at a restaurant or party almost every weekend. We are all involved in many extracurriculars from dance troupe to orchestra and model UN, as we all love staying busy and being active in things we are passionate about.

March 13 was the last day of school for most kids in Chicago and we all believed that we would be back to normal within two weeks, but we ended up finishing the entire school year virtually. It was a difficult transition moving to remote learning, but even weirder having all friendship interactions online as well.

I pride myself on my friendships and the people I surround myself with; it says the most about me. Four of my closest friends and I recently discussed our main takeaways — negative and positive — from the year so far. On Sept. 20, I talked to my friends Nairobi Toombs, 17, who attends Whitney Young High School, and Ava Viti, 16, who attends Jones College Preparatory High School, and on Sept. 21, I talked to two of my University of Chicago Laboratory Schools classmates, Bella de la Cerna, 17, and Iris Xie, 17. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.
Photo collage of four images in a grid with portraits of girls from the article in each square

The risks and rewards of activism

Ava, Nairobi and I are a part of a local organization called Fempowerment that hosts events and workshops centered around BIPOC and LGBTQ+ issues. Nairobi and I took over the organization this summer as the founding members went off to college. We found it really important to continue activism work even through the pandemic. We planned an outdoor thrift sale where all proceeds were donated to the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR).

Not all of my friends’ experiences with activism this year have been so positive.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, my friend Bella attended a protest that was an eye-opening experience. Bella and another friend were shoved to the ground by Chicago police officers during the demonstration, she said. While talking, we realized that as girls, we often feel exempt from brute force like that. After the protest Bella described being shocked because she could vividly remember “seeing the officers smiling, and I still don’t understand how they could find any joy in the pain that incited the protest.”

Going to a protest was a difficult decision during a pandemic as she would be risking her health to be surrounded by so many strangers, but Bella decided to go anyway. “I knew that I was putting myself at a higher risk of getting COVID, but the cause was absolutely worth the risk.” She wore a mask while protesting to protect herself and her family while in a big crowd, but noted that the police officers did not take the same precaution. While marching through the streets Bella and a group of protesters around her noticed that someone had opened their window and started yelling at them. “He just leaned out his window and started screaming at us to ‘Go home!,' It was really shocking because we were in a very diverse neighborhood,” she said.

The pros and cons of virtual connection

We’re used to having a large social media presence, but when we were all locked inside, the internet was all we had to stay connected. During the quarantine, we had a lot of group Facetime calls, used Snapchat all day long, and tried to text each other as much as possible. It was difficult transitioning from being with friends at school all day to spending all of that time with our immediate families.
“I miss the energy of concerts! You can feel everyone is there because they love that person and you all have that shared interest."
Nairobi Toombs
I asked what’s been the hardest part of the pandemic, and Iris said, “Getting used to the disappointment of things getting canceled.”

COVID-19 has stolen many rites of passage from us this year. As close friends in Chicago, it is almost mandatory to attend the Lollapalooza music festival every summer. Nairobi said she missed the energy of concerts in general. “The friends you make at concerts, you probably won't ever see them again but they feel like soulmates when you're with them.”

When I asked Nairobi if this year has had a silver lining for her, she mentioned that one of her closest friendships were formed through TikTok.

“I was scrolling on TikTok and I saw this video of this really pretty girl in California with cool fits and her life looked really fun. I commented, ‘Hey I know we would be friends if we lived in Chicago.’ I didn't expect anything of it. I just thought it would be nice. Then she DM’d me and said, ‘I’m coming to Chicago next month!’ We ended up instantly connecting and I got really close with her family and I am actually going to visit them in Malibu in the future,” Nairobi said.

Friendships formed, and others strained

Nairobi’s friendship with her new friend blossomed while they were together in Chicago. Even though they met online, she told me that their friendship was just as deep as the ones she’s formed with friends at school.

Nairobi is no stranger to making friends remotely. She made her first online friend while commenting on an influencer’s Instagram posts. When she moved to Chicago her freshman year, she “found friends before the school year started on Instagram and sent them a message asking them to hang out.”

My friend Ava talked about how the pandemic has helped her get to know herself better and realize who her real friends were.
“I feel like I spent so much time trying to be someone else around people that all of a sudden I was so free when I wasn’t around them.”
Ava Viti
She just started her junior year and said the biggest change in her life this year has been moving on from friendships that drifted apart. She found that the isolation of quarantine led people to reveal their true selves, which resulted in many people growing apart, she said.

Ava practiced meditation over the quarantine, which helped her center more of her thoughts and understand why she had specific emotions in different situations.

“I’ve been able to spend a lot of time really seeing who my true friends are and learning that not everyone is meant to be in your life. You kind of have to be your own best friend first and really love yourself before you can put all your energy out to other people,” she said.

Ava noticed the friendships she no longer has were with people that “stopped reaching out.” A lot of the work she did to learn more about herself also allowed her to notice a change in the way she felt when she wasn’t around some people. Ava expressed, “I feel like I spent so much time trying to be someone else around people that all of a sudden I was so free when I wasn’t around them.”

Holding on and letting go

Once the quarantine was lifted in Chicago, we began seeing each other in person, wearing masks around each other as we didn’t want to spread anything we had picked up from the grocery store or the pharmacy. Now, as the world has gone back to some semblance of normalcy, we’ve gone back to working, but we do make it a priority not to be around too many other people aside from our small group of friends.

This year has been a battle, and my friendships have helped me get through every hard moment. We’ve grown so much and formed unbreakable bonds. We often talk about all of the stuff we desperately want to leave behind in 2020 — from serious things like bigotry and the coronavirus to things like wearing leggings all the time. But when it comes to my friendships, I’m holding on tight.