I’m 17. Here’s how this pandemic year changed me.

At first I was adrift. Then I found purpose.

I’d wake up at noon with no plans. Would I spend the remainder of my day wallowing in self-defeat, or would I manage to get something done? 

Pretty soon after the pandemic began, I found myself consumed by gloom doing the most menial tasks. As I helped out my father with our weekly grocery runs and completed assignments, it seemed as if the whole world was circling around me, watching as I stood still. This went on for months. When would I finally be able to go back to school? When would everything go back to before?

Leonel Ramirez (Courtesy photo)

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, I’d say I had the average day-to-day experience of any high school teen living in New York City. It would start off with waking up ridiculously early with enough time to catch the L train and a cup of coffee before my AP U.S. History class. After that I would participate in my culinary-centered courses and socialize with my peers.

“We’ll be back in no time,” I said this to myself every day as I scrolled through social media and saw all the amazing things people were still managing to get done in the midst of the tragedy. I wanted that to be me, but instead I spent long stretches reminiscing about life before the coronavirus. I was exhausted, and I wanted more than anything to return to school. 

But I also realized that, even before the pandemic — back when I bathing in my accomplishments and taking part in new things — I spent a lot of time living up to everyone else’s expectations of what I should be and how I should act. That’s hard to do, especially when this notion in your head is secluded from the outside world and all its tribulations. 

Until that epiphany hit — that realization some people have in the shower or right after you wake up. While in the middle of my weekly shopping outing, I realized it was time to stop feeling so sorry for myself and take action before this new world. 

Alongside my peers at Food and Finance High School, I helped in create a first-of-its-kind magazine celebrating chefs of color, Pass the Spatula. We got all sorts of media attention, from the New York Times, Food & Wine, and Taste. I knew right away with all the momentum we were getting that I had so much more to do. 

I knew I had to use this as an opportunity to highlight not just people that had the same interests as me, but people from different walks of life. I soon began to branch out and met amazing creatives. Scholars with successful careers in academia, peers who were, like me, taking a summer class at Columbia University, and people who worked in the field of mutual aid, all making strides in their community.

Among them, there was Carmen Lopez Villamil, a Beacon High School student who is the campaign lead at the youth activism organization Teens Take Charge. There was LA Ramos, a student at the Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies, and a member the Youth Leadership Council, the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute, and many other groups. And there was Anais Aboab, a Gramercy Arts High School student who has brought to light issues facing impoverished communities through her work in mutual aid and film.

Regardless of where we come from and the different work we do, these individuals and I have this in common: We work in environments that are made to defy us. We are constantly negotiating the apparatus and redefining the system that has confined us to this one image. In the end, we don’t owe anyone anything but remaining authentic to our true character. 

I won’t say that I came out of this pandemic a different person. Just as someone with new experiences, new goals, and a new interpretation of what it means to be a teenager working his way up.

Leonel Ramirez is a 17-year-old student at Food and Finance High School in Manhattan. Leonel is a member of YVote and the Youth Leadership Council.