Shawn Adler and 49 of his senior Honors English students knew when the coronavirus pandemic hit, they were living in historic times — so they decided to document the moment by writing a memoir together.
Over the course of six weeks from April through June, Adler, 38, helped a group of his students at Cliffside Park High School in New Jersey reflect on and write about their experiences living through a global pandemic in an area that became the epicenter of the virus outbreak.
One by one, Adler took their emotional stories and compiled them into a memoir titled The Class of COVID-19: Insights from the Inside, which has since been published and is available to buy on Amazon.
"These kids, they've gone through a lot and lost so much. It really is a slap in the face that they've had to grow up so quickly," Adler tells PEOPLE. "We talked a lot about lost things in class. What are some lost things? Do you ever get lost things back?"
"At the end of the day, it's never going to replace a person, or their senior year, or their prom, but it's something that they can have on their shelf," he continues. "And at least in 10 years, they can look back and say, 'I did lose that, but even during tough times, there are things you can do and it doesn't have to be a total loss.'"
The idea to write a book with his class first came to Adler, a former writer for MTV, after he kept hearing stories from the students about how the pandemic was affecting their lives.
"I was in a meeting every day with the kids on Google Meet and I kept thinking that these stories were profound — the things that they were sharing in the classroom and sharing privately about the effect of COVID, about whether they were working or whether they were in touch with someone who was sick or whether they were worried themselves that they were getting sick," he recalls.
"We went away for Easter break and when we came back, I said, 'I really think it's important that we share these stories, that people have this as a primary document for as long as they are learning about what we're going through in history,'" Adler adds.
Both sections of his English class were immediately on board with the project, and got started on April 20 by writing their chapters, as well as conducting research on how to self-publish and publicize a book.
Though not all 49 students wrote something for the memoir, Adler says they all contributed in some way.
"Right away, I had 100% commitment and 100% enthusiasm," Adler says. "It was unanimous and it was incredible. They just put so much effort into it. I couldn't have been prouder."
With the help of his administrators and other teachers in the school, Adler edited and revised the students' pieces — which vary from stories of anger and heartbreak to concern for a loved one's health and safety — before arranging them into individual chapters.
By June 1, the final product was complete. The following day, their memoir was available to purchase on Amazon, with all proceeds going toward scholarships for the students.
Aside from designing the book's cover and pages, Adler says the most difficult thing about the process was taking in all of the challenges that his students were facing.
"Some of these stories broke me and would stop me dead in my tracks," he says, emphasizing two particular chapters where students discussed their father's relapse amid the pandemic or the suffering and trauma they endured while sick with COVID-19.
For some, such as students Dorothy Anderson and Jesus Peña, having the unique opportunity to write about their experiences under Adler's guidance also provided some valuable life lessons.
"In the 13 weeks that we were quarantined, I learned how to deal with my anxiety and depression," Anderson, 18, says, crediting a conversation with her sister Jamie, about whom her memoir chapter is written. "My sister reminded me that we are resilient. She sat down with me and explained that we just needed to communicate with each other every time we felt uneasy."
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"Mr. Adler allowed us to dream big, to realize anyone’s thoughts and feelings are important [and are] outcomes that another person can learn from," Anderson continues. "There are only a handful of teachers that I will miss talking with and Mr. Adler is one."
Adds Peña, 18, who wrote about the passing of his baseball coach, Ben Luderer, from COVID-19: "Working on the book made me have to take a step back from everything and really analyze myself and the situation as a whole."
"It was helpful for me to have to do this though because it helped me find closure and peace in writing about how my coach’s death impacted me and changed my viewpoint on the situation," he says. "Mr. Adler made me want to go deeper than what I was and he challenged me to do things that I found more difficult."
Overall, Adler hopes that when people read the memoir, they will be inspired by his students' resiliency and vulnerability in the same way that he was during these uncertain times.
"Only Christian could have written Christian's story. None of them are stories that could have been written by anybody else," he says. "I think that is what I'm most proud of, that their voice and their individuality is so specific and so open. That, to me, is the beauty of it."
"Just being vulnerable, I think, inspires others to be vulnerable. If you're willing to share that, I think that that means you can get that back, and that's so important when we're distant," he adds.
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