Clocks Running in Place

Time appears fleeting after a warped COVID era


Illustration by Emma Li.

Emma Li

As the leaves change, holiday decorations shine, and it is dark in the morning when people leave for school and return in the evening, the dreaded moments for reflection march back once more. The disturbances in the past year-and-a-half are mostly past, leaving students and teachers in the wake to process what truly happened, and piecing it all together with scattered memories. 

Spending an entire year in the virtual campus in the 2020-2021 school year left Daniel Son (11) a creature of habit. 

“The general schedule makes it feel shorter in memory because you’re just constantly doing the same things, but you don’t really have a sense of time,” Son said. “You keep doing the same things, so you feel like it’s just that time hasn’t changed.” 

Routines at home and routines at school provide a sense of time within each day from hour to hour, but repetition from the days to weeks to months can cause cases of contrasting perspectives of time. Olivia Qian (12) attended school virtually for her entire junior year, and recalls time passing differently.

“I didn’t do anything really for a year,” Qian said. “I was literally in the same room in the same four walls, and the repetition there made it really slow.”

Spending time away from other people also contributed to time perception.

“I feel like my days went way longer,” science teacher Jeanette Bosomworth said. “I kind of wonder if that’s because we all felt a little isolated and weren’t able to connect with each other.”

Rather than passing quickly or slowly, the era of COVID took time away entirely for others. Psychology teacher Brad Robertson barely acknowledged the passage of time at all.

“Covid’s been interesting,” Robertson said. “Each individual day seems similar to what it did before, but I also feel like in a way we’re all in one big time warp.”

But throughout the journey of high school, looking in the past can be a blur.

“Before COVID, high school went so quickly,” Avery Adams (12) said. “I feel like freshman year happened before I could even remember that it started.”

The slow process of growth causes time to speed up with age. It can be difficult for younger people to keep in mind that life has barely begun. This perception has a large impact on how slowly or quickly time appears to travel.

“I’ve had conversations with grandparents, or with people who just have a couple extra decades than I have in life,” Robertson said. “They just talk about how quickly not only the days and weeks seem to go by, but even the months and the years. And that’s pretty incredible to think about. When you’re younger, as a five-year-old or a ten-year-old, your ‘five years,’ that’s your forever. When you’re 55 years old, there’s a lot more to go back and reference, and I think that causes the time to appear to go more quickly.”

Some may characterize each phase of life with the growth, or even lack of growth, in each time. Unexpectedly, rapid change does not necessarily mean the rapid passage of time.

“I feel like middle school took a long time for me,” Adams said. “I felt like middle school is where a lot of growth happens, and a lot of people kind of turn into themselves, which can kind of be an uncomfortable process. When you’re kind of uncomfortable, it can kind of seem like it takes longer.”

A topic feared and revered by adolescents in the midst of the awkward limbo of dependence and independence is growing up. 

“I do look forward to growing up, but it’s also growing up to a point when you’re an adult, when you have stuff, and you’re at the precipice of life, at the peak of life,” Son said. “Then after that, you want time to slow down and you don’t want to grow older because the older you get, the more expectations people have on you, and the more you can’t do things you were allowed to do as a kid.”

Growing up also becomes complicated as people attempt to draw the line between calling it “growing up” or “growing old.” While the topic of maturity makes for amusing banter between under- and upperclassmen, remembering that the class of 2025 contains students who went virtual in seventh grade and returned last fall draws out the pitfalls of a lack of opportunity for growth that middle school provides. 

“I think people grew a lot last year through the pandemic,” Mythili Andharmule (9) said. “I still feel like I did grow, but maybe not as much as I would’ve if I was in person. I think they’ve changed from middle school just because they’ve realized that high school grades actually matter. I think a lot of people grew through the problems from last year, like they learned to persevere and mentally grow because being alone, it’s difficult. Being stuck at home, it’s hard to persevere through that. ”

Following the decrease of academic rigor during the pandemic and this year’s increase, time management has also changed. But after a year of limited extracurriculars, the abrupt return is a source of consternation for many who struggle to balance a busy schedule. Not only is the resurgence of sleepless nights more prevalent, the constant workload may be more unfamiliar to underclassmen who have not had a “normal” year of school since the beginning of seventh or eighth grade. 

“I became more aware of the time that I had during the pandemic,” Bosomworth said. “Especially when it felt like time had slowed down whenever I was really isolated. Now that I’m very busy and I’m also back in school myself, that’s another thing to balance. I feel like I don’t have enough time for everything, which I hear from my students as well that there’s just not enough time, and I feel that as well. It was as if I thought there was enough time for everything, but now I feel like there isn’t enough time to do it.”

Another thing that the pandemic taught many people was to appreciate time, but unfortunately, hindsight is not the same. 

“I think I realized the value of taking things slowly,” Andharmule said. “I didn’t realize how important it was to meet friends until all of it was taken away during quarantine. So, I think that helped me stay in the present more and that changed my perception of time.”

For others, the return to school in person allows a chance to re-evaluate the worth of spending hours in school. Returning to school in person is ideal for most because of the connections with other people, but the main purpose of school is still learning. When motivation dips, time seems wasted, which is the last thing people want to do after a year-and-a-half at home with so much time taken away.

“I feel like it’s important for teachers to keep students highly motivated and stimulated in class, doing activities that they usually don’t do,” Son said. “Seven hours is around a third of your day just in school, and you don’t want people to feel like they’re constantly just stuck. You want them to learn, but also have a good time so that time doesn’t feel like it’s going too slow. If students don’t want to be there, they’re constantly looking at the clock, and then their perception of time changes because they’re constantly looking at the time, asking when it is over. But when they’re highly motivated, they don’t really think about time and how much time has passed.”

Simply put, living in the moment is easier said than done.

“We move our attention away from time when it’s something more enjoyable,” Robertson said. “We focus on it when it’s something not as enjoyable.”

Mood also contributes to how people view time.

“If I’m really tired, time goes so slow,” Qian said. “If I have a lot of energy and I’m excited about the things I’m doing, then it goes really fast.”

Unfortunately, beyond attempting to sleep more, there is very little that people can do to think of time differently.

“I think something that psychology teaches you over and over again is that your brain does stuff to you without you even realizing that it’s doing it,” Adams said. “Your brain is so powerful and complex. Even for something as simple as perceiving time, remembering is all based on your brain and some of it’s not even up to you.”

As time becomes more fleeting with packed schedules, the sand seems to slip away faster and faster.

“This year I feel like it could slow down,” Qian said. “I feel like there’s so much going on that I’m really busy which is nice, but the year is flying by.”

This is greatly in contrast to how time often felt slow while many were younger, if only because of the culture of looking ahead.

“When I was little, I would always think that when we get to a certain age we’re gonna know everything,” Adams said. “When I was in fifth grade I was like, when I know how to drive, I’m going to be so smart. Now I’m almost eighteen, and I’m like an adult, I guess you could say, legally, but I don’t know everything. So, I try to enjoy the times that I have now, but I definitely look forward to the future. But, I still want to savor every moment. I feel like now as a senior, I realize that a lot of people I will graduate with I might never see after high school, which is sad in a way, but you want to savor that time and savor those moments.”

In light of realizing that age does not necessarily determine understanding in life, there seems to be less of a rush to move on for some people.

“I would love it if every minute went very slowly,” Robertson said. “As you grow older, you start to realize that your time is not infinite and it’s your greatest resource. I would love for time to slow down, even in those boring moments where we just have a greater ability to focus on the present. I think oftentimes we look forward to the future too much because of what it may hold, but in that moment, we lose what’s happening in our lives.”