What It’s Like to Be a Teenager Now: The Winners of Our Coming of Age in 2021 Contest – The New York Times

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I can’t believe I decided to come today. When did I get this tall? How has no one come up with a better version of capitalism yet? Everything I make is garbage. That was due? Well, this is the part where I recognize the impossible burden of managing every aspect of my own life and step into the role of mitigating the consequences with hopeful conviction. He’s cute. Bob Ross would have made a great president. Why isn’t my best good enough? How many sine curves does it take to fake my math homework? Aaaaaaaaaaaaah. You tell ‘em, Greta. Am I trying my best? Today is the day I sleep earlier. Today is the day I will sleep … Oh god, I’m not ready to be an adult. Anarcho … primitivism. Anarcho-primitivism. I wish I could go back to not caring. She’s cute. Oh no. Oh oh, that makes so much sense. We can do this. It’s going to be fun. Just watch.

In December, the United States surgeon general warned that young people today are facing “devastating” mental health issues.
That wasn’t news to us. Via our comments section and contests like this one, we hear from young people around the world every day, and have watched as nearly two years of pandemic isolation and disruption have intensified all the other stresses this generation is facing. As 13-year-old Courtney Duffy says in her winning piece below, “Coming of age in 2021 is realizing that the world is going up in flames, and you have to be the one to locate the fire extinguisher.”
But as traumatic as the last 22 months have been, it’s not all flames. Spend some time with this collection, our 25 favorite of the 4,000-plus multimedia submissions we received, and you’ll see that being a teenager right now is also singing karaoke in the bathroom, making mochi on cold December nights, 3D-printing face shields for frontline workers, and coming out to your dad (and being relieved when his response is, “Okey dokey, sweets, whatever floats yer boat”).
Then, as many of you did when we published last year’s winning collection, post a comment and reflect on what you saw, read and listened to. Let these teenagers know you heard what they had to say.
Note: Below each entry is a condensed and lightly edited version of the artist’s statement each student was required to submit. And at the bottom of this post, you can find the names of our runners-up and honorable mentions.
Mississauga, Ontario
Synonyms for Growing Up” (embedded at the top of this post, and featuring Xiwen Hou as the actress)
There isn’t another stage of life quite like adolescence. We are sophisticated yet irrational, intelligent yet ignorant, ambitious yet unstable. Our film aims to capture this paradox, the byproduct of trying to find the balance between intellectual awakening and emotional development. While we’re scrambling to grow up, we’re also coming down from the high of childhood, and opening our eyes to all the harsh realities of the world.
This was filmed over the course of two days. There was barely any acting involved; we merely captured a high schooler existing in their natural habitat.
Washington, D.C.
Conformity”
We all, as teens, struggle in our own ways. Having a social life while staying safe; doing schoolwork; and managing stress, how we look and social media. There is so much that we worry about without even being aware. Every part of our life has a grip on us, and many times we can’t control it. It is a constant debate between being unique (usually the harder option) and conforming. I have to admit, I’ve done the latter.
This painting represents that it is okay to acknowledge the things that control you. It’s not your fault that society manipulates its teens.
Bryn Mawr, Pa.
A Companion Nonetheless
I have struggled with isolation long before 2020. I am somewhat of an introvert, so making plans to meet my friends is really hard for me. Then, once they’re made, it is so tempting to flake, especially when the plans are casual and therefore easily-flakeable.
I made this as we began to go back to school in person. I wanted to personify loneliness as a companion. I didn’t make him look evil or looming, since being alone is safe and almost comforting. But when I let myself be alone for too long, I get in my head. I go on Instagram and realize how much I’m missing out on (the dreaded FOMO), and I hate myself for canceling those plans, or postponing them to an unforeseeable and nonexistent date. I hate the fact that I am incapable of working up the courage to instigate plans myself, so I am permanently stuck waiting for others to reach out first.
Brier, Wash.
The day in the life of a pandemic
I chose to make a video game because it is the one thing I’m good at. Over the pandemic, I have made a lot of games on Scratch. This one shows the average day for a teenager in 2021.
Instructions: To put the mask on, you drag it with your mouse. After that you can use arrow keys to move. After school, click on the computer or phone to open the screens for them. Then click on the modules in canvas or apps on the phone to use them. When you want to end, click on the pillow in the room (only after you have completed school). Play the game in a separate window here.
Charlotte, N.C.
Asian Melancholia
When she looks into the iPhone, face covered by a white facial mask and hands clasped around her neck, there is something in her eyes. It is ungraspable, a shadow thrown upon her retinas, a ghostly haunting.
I took this photo of my mom in our home. The photo was my meditation upon the recent awareness of anti-Asian hate in the United States. Before movements like #StopAsianHate or #BLM, I and many others were blissfully ignorant of the racism that still permeated American society.
A school survey once asked the question, “Has anyone discriminated against you because of your race?” I had answered no. I had not lied, or at least I did not think that I had lied. Perhaps such unawareness was because I had been told that racism was a thing confined to the past. Maybe it was because my family refused to talk about discrimination. However, discrimination is everywhere. In every uncomfortable cringe I have when my parents struggle in broken English. In every one of my thoughts about my narrow eyes.
Freud’s theory of loss argues that Asian immigrants, and immigrants as a whole, exist in a state of melancholia, where they perpetually grieve the loss of their homeland but also never attain proper assimilation into their new country.
Carl Jung’s archetype of the mask — the personality we show in public — and the shadow — every trait we have cast into oblivion — became my main inspiration. This facial mask represents the persona of whiteness that Asian Americans are forced to wear. The shadows everywhere else portray the heritage and homeland they are forced to discard and repress.
We can chase whiteness forever, but we will never truly attain it, and if we get anything, it will never be more than a mask. We are born of emperors, of spiraling temples, mosques, palaces, of jade, gold, and billowing silk. We will no longer exist as shadows.
Asheville, N.C.
The Internet’s Our Only Influence
Sometimes it feels like I can actually talk to my computer. I ask it all my questions, and during lockdown it was the closest thing to someone my age. Connecting with my friends online, even through a skewed angle, was everything. Social media was the best I had. The internet was my biggest (and only) influence.
I wonder what effect spending so much time alone, with only the internet’s influence, will have on us later in life. I learned that our years leading up to adulthood were some of the most formative, after our infancy. We’re the first generation to come of age under these circumstances.
Marblehead, Mass.
Outed.
I wasn’t planning on coming out anytime soon. Maybe before next Pride … but that’s not really soon at all. But I was writing lyrics this summer, and then Carrie and I were given this project, and we decided we had to do it.
This contest was assigned on Friday. My dad (who plays drums, and basically is the producer) was going on a camping trip that next Thursday, so I realized that we not only had to get the song recorded, but I needed to come out, and then practice beforehand.
My friend and I were at the gazebo at the top of Burial Hill where we sat during quarantine. I just said, I need to do this now because if I don’t, I won’t do it later, and it kinda needs to get done today. I had a text saved that I made her hit send on because I physically couldn’t do it. My dad’s response, literally, was “Okey dokey, sweets, whatever floats yer boat.” (I have the screenshot if you don’t believe me.)
We recorded “Outed.” in two days. Dad mixed it on Wednesday and left to go camping. I was on guitar and vocals, Carrie on bass, and my Dad on drums. Coming out for me was daunting because I didn’t know how to go about it and honestly, I would have rather not at the time. But I did. Nothing’s really different. Who I am now is the same, but it’s one less thing that I think about, late at night when I cannot sleep.
Seattle, Wash.
Note: This is an excerpt from a longer piece of writing. Read the full piece here.
winter
I wrote “winter” last winter, at the height of the pandemic. At home, in the absolute stillness of five a.m., I thought about mochitsuki, mochi-pounding.
I wrote it as diary, as a record of my experience that year — waking at five, feeling the chilled Seattle air, and moving in the space between the warmth of sleep and the brilliant, cold winter. There is a clarity in that space, where everything is barely awake and fully attuned. I would write poems before remote classes at eight a.m., and as I sit across the table from where I sat last December, at the same time of year, in the same winter I wrote of, there’s a symmetry to the years, an echo from the depths of 2020.
I wrote it as ars poetica. I had been writing poetry for nine months, and I was (am) still learning. I was the mochimaker’s apprentice, a boy watching the mastery of Rilke, Eliot, and Vuong and wishing to do the same, some year, some day.
And I wrote it as metaphor. Every year, every December, we hope this December will be the last of the Decembers where we cannot yet live fully. We cannot pound the mochi, we cannot go out, and this relationship between the two mochimakers reflects this — the kneader must have deep trust in the pounder not to hammer their fingers. Every interaction is now this — a dialogue of trust. When I go out, I trust every person around me because my life is in their hands.
To be a teenager today is to be in these liminal spaces — half at home, half at school; half grown but half not; half skilled and half novice. And we yearn to be fully all these things, but perhaps there’s joy in halves. I found joy in the half-asleep moments; I found joy in being half a poet.
We just needed a strawberry daifuku to get through it all.
Marblehead, Mass.
Amidst the Blaze”
On the last day of 2020, we celebrated with enthusiasm and relief. We crossed our fingers that 2021 would bring progress, fresh opportunities, and a successful vaccine rollout. Less than a week into this new year, however, U.S. democracy nearly toppled.
January 6, 2021, was a Wednesday, which was a remote school day for me. I logged in to each of my Zooms, debating whether to put my video on, completely unaware that 450 miles away the Capitol building was under attack. Later that day, the radio in our car blared news from Washington, D.C. as my mom, sister, and I waited in a drive-through line to get Covid tests. A man swabbed the insides of my nose while Trump supporters advanced into the building and lawmakers hurriedly evacuated. During the next twenty-four hours, the three of us waited for our test results while the nation waited to hear the aftermath of the riot.
Since January 6, the problems have been all I can see.
I want to focus on school, on my artwork, on cross-country and track, on my friends, on my future. Instead, I’m left wondering if there will even be a future for my generation. In my piece, I used orange and yellow paper for the background because coming of age in 2021 is realizing that the world is going up in flames, and you have to be the one to locate the fire extinguisher.
Shanghai
Limits
I only used three notes in this whole composition. I divided this piece into three sections mimicking teenagers’ self-exploration process: a piano solo (0:00), a transition section (0:44), and an orchestral section (1:06). In the piano solo, the push and pull between reckless plunges and hesitant pauses capture the internal conflict when teenagers try to balance individuality and normality. The gradual buildup of the transition section explores the slow yet continuous process of self-discovery when realizing one’s background and cultural limitations. Finally, the thick and flourishing layers of the orchestra act as a reminder of what one can achieve when looking inward and fully embracing one’s uniqueness.
The special rule of using three notes seems strict and restraining at first, but it was the limit-setup that pushed me to break my usual habits and expanded my artistic boundaries.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Strings
This painting illustrates the deceiving misinformation that plagued us during the pandemic. I shattered the features of David, a Renaissance icon for humanism and a symbol of the liberation of human expression, to be orchestrated by the strings of a cross brace. We were, and are, held captive not only by the rules and regulations in quarantine, but also the misinformation that blinded our reason.
New York City
The People Within Me
The pandemic has taken everything we knew about ourselves and destroyed it, leaving a black hole in the middle of our lives. Every teenager was challenged to go from child to adult in the blink of an eye.
I created this piece in my bedroom to give life to the many versions of myself, which I had battled losing, or fought to keep, throughout this last year and a half. The basketball player who was lost, due to a lack of time and resources. The student who holds onto her grades and academic hopes because they are all she has. The tired teen who collapses on her bed every night because she can’t continue the fight against her body and mind. Then, finally, the pressure of being a Nigerian daughter who is trying to please her mother and make her family proud.
La Canada, Calif.
Bathroom Karaoke
My alarms have had the most grueling schedule in the past year: 10:55pm (Wake up); 11:00pm (Seriously, WAKE UP); 12:30am (Don’t fall asleep); 3:55am (Wake up if any activities); 3:57 am (In case I didn’t hear the last one) …
Although I could participate in classes and interact with friends over Zoom, I felt like I lived like a domestic rat; a nocturnal creature that lived in China and studied in America. In the dark, while the entire city slept, I dragged my body out of bed, affixed an energetic façade, and placed it on the screen for my classmates to see.
It was not long before my body warned me that something was wrong. Although I was fatigued, I failed to sleep. My normal affable nature disappeared as I grew irritable. The doctor said I had high cholesterol, endocrine dyscrasia, and other diseases not commonly found in a 16-year-old girl. I felt extremely tired even if I did nothing. Like a bicycle without a bike stand, I needed to be propped up to avoid falling into the paths of others.
Everyone told me: “Change your way of living.” But how?
My remedy for the anxiety, disorders, and isolation was … karaoke in the bathroom. In a private and secure space, I roared, howled and wailed. I drained myself until not a single joule of energy remained. The wax of anxiety melted away. I truly felt the fun. Eventually, I realized one’s true best friend, the faithful companion through the downcast moments, the confidant who knows those unvoiced, uncomfortable feelings and could make things brighter in an instant, is oneself.
Bangalore, India
Note: This is an excerpt from a longer piece of writing. Read the full piece here.
The Roarin’ 20s?
The pandemic hit India more than hard; patients were running out of beds, oxygen, and funds. Artists all over the world were thrown into depression, doom scrolling, anxiety, and a world of ghastly displeasure. Some were seeing the true colors of those they trusted the most, including authorities, and to that poets said: I will promise to write about citrus, and trains, and to personify death, blood, and anger, because, without poetry, we are rigid animals who see the beauty in only what shines.
Being a teenager in 2021 means being inherently political because, whether you like it or not, your actions today dictate how you and others will thrive in the years and generations to come.
South Pasadena, Calif.
Eye on Me
I saw a stranger on the train the other day, getting yelled at by another woman about “bringing the virus here.” I waited. Then I shouted at the woman.
I don’t know why I did it. Maybe because no one else on the train did, or maybe because of all those inspirational stories online, or maybe because the stranger looked like me.
I don’t know if I did the right thing. If screaming back at her put me down on her level, if escalating the situation could have been dangerous, or if I should have said something to the stranger instead.
The stranger just sat there ignoring her. Maybe that was the best solution, I thought. But if I were in their situation, the last thing I’d want is to feel alone on a train full of people pretending to be blind and deaf.
I got off at the next stop because it was my destination, but it turned out to be everyone else’s too. All except the woman and the stranger. I felt guilty. I should’ve stayed, but it was my stop and I only had one ticket back and fifteen minutes to spare.
Maybe that’s what everyone else thought, too.
Hemet, Calif.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
This is an acrylic and paper conversion of a photo taken the first day that kids 13 years and above were able to get their vaccine shots. My little brother is trying to be in a Zen place before he gets his. I look warily at the camera.
Since February of 2020, my brother and I have been making face shields from 3D printing. Thousands of hours of 3D printing from four printers humming away in our garage. My dad’s the chief of surgery at the local community hospital and my grandparents are in their 70s and still seeing patients in nursing homes and hospitals. We started printing the UCSF face shield which takes two and a half hours to print. We posted about it, and soon we had hundreds of requests that we had a hard time filling. We asked our friends and teachers and soon 18 local area schools helped out. Over 19,600 face shields were printed for frontline workers who weren’t always the first to be in line.
For me it was personal. We lost three people in our family, and around the world almost 30 people in our family work in healthcare. We had sent PPE to Tanzania where my grandmother and her family were from even though we had to label them as ‘spit shields’ since they didn’t acknowledge Covid-19 at the time.
Though the pandemic has shown the divisions within our society, having this group of people from all political persuasions showed we could get together and help each other out. This picture shows a bit of exhaustion and relief when we got our shots. I’ve been trying to convince my friends to get the shot. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
South Paris, Maine
Too Much Going On, Still Not Doing Enough”
The past year and a half has been so incredibly stressful. This piece is something I illustrated by hand and animated digitally through Adobe Photoshop. The things that surround me are stress-inducing, from failed attempts at creative output to dirty dishes and laundry. The struggle of being a teenager for me the last year has been about time management, lack of creativity, and a never-ending waterfall of work.
The bulb is about to go out as it flickers to stay alive.
Benicia, Calif.
Note: This is an excerpt from a longer piece of writing. Read the full piece here.
Obsolete
An old friend reached out during one of the loneliest times of my life looking to reconnect. Within almost no time we grew very close. I spent all of my free time cross-legged on her bedroom floor or binge-watching trashy TV beside her on her couch. We were inseparable. A year of quarantine passed and I regarded her as a sister.
Still, there was an unspoken contract between us. When I was with her, I had to be cheerful and lively. If I was tired, she would lose interest in me. If I was boring, I would be ignored. It didn’t matter how I felt or how exhausted I was. I plastered on a smile. When she called, I picked up the phone. When she needed a shoulder to cry on, I provided her with mine. It was my job to sit, listen, and occasionally chime in with reassurance or flattery. I was little more than a way for her to feel better about herself during the pandemic, but I didn’t care. I had someone and that was everything.
We had big plans for our return to in-person school. We were going to attend football games, pep rallies, and school dances. It was going to be the best year ever.
At least, it was supposed to be. She stopped talking to me shortly after school started after deciding that I didn’t fit in with the perfect high school experience that she so desperately craved. She never said goodbye. Why would she? She didn’t need me anymore. My purpose had been fulfilled.
Just like that, I was alone again.
Bryn Mawr, Pa.
My New Armor
I created this piece in May of 2021. I made both the mask and necklace with aluminum wire and beads.
At the beginning of Covid I had the mindset that other people were my enemies. I had to stay as far away from them as possible. I hid behind my mask, hoping it would protect me.
But soon my mask was protecting me from more than just Covid. It protected me from feeling insecure about my acne. It protected me from nagging thoughts asking “What if I have food in my teeth?” It protected me from the desire to wear a full face of makeup.
Wearing my mask was the best thing that ever happened to me.
My mask became my armor. With it, I felt invincible. And, when I finally went back to in-person school, I marched into the battle of high school with the feeling that I could do anything.
Asheville, N.C.
Exclusion of Expression”
Take a moment to imagine something. Imagine being denied access to the correct bathroom, imagine being redirected to somewhere that you feel you’ve never belonged, imagine being told you HAVE to be something that you’ve never wanted to be, and imagine your identity being stripped away as you’re told “This is NOT you. And this will NEVER be you.”
As a trans student in high school, I know what it’s like to be misgendered, to be deadnamed; I know that it leaves you feeling miserable. And Donald Trump threatened to take away trans people’s rights simply for trying to have an identity!
The hands represent the different sides fighting over trans rights, tugging from both sides. This is America. Aren’t we supposed to be based around freedom? If you take away people’s right to be themselves, you’re taking our America away.
San Jose, Calif.
My Experiences During Covid
My grandfather got Covid and was in a coma for a month, I was suddenly cut off from friends, and had to make friends with anyone online who would talk to me. School that I once enjoyed was now what chained me to my desk.
To block out the dullness and chaos, I turned to creating music. Giving words to the noise racing in my brain helped acknowledge them. This is a song I created on FL Studio, inspired by Earl Sweatshirt’s type of music. The cover image was automatically generated using AI based off the words “vibrant forest.” I hope others feel heard when they hear this verse and find their relief during this tough time.
The complete lyrics are available here.
Hempstead, N.Y.
How Covid affected me
Before the Black Lives Matter movement became a big thing, I felt very alone at times. I was scared to share my struggles, and ended up holding all my feelings in. After seeing on the news all the protests happening all over the world, I felt happier to see other races come together and fight for Black lives.
I have gained a lot of confidence since April 2021. Since I was little I have felt racial discrimination toward myself, my sisters and my parents. Now I brush those dirty stares and whispers off my shoulder and hold my head high and proud.
Kodaikanal, India
online school
At the beginning of this year, I hated the life I was living. My room started feeling like a nuclear bunker, with the walls growing ever thicker. The outside world became nothing but a memory. I wanted to document the misery of living in isolation.
Making this video allowed me to reflect on the life I was living. It made me ask myself to what extent I was responsible for my misery.
Miami, Fla.
dual school life
The feeling of being torn apart between multiple responsibilities is a common struggle, but when one of your “extra responsibilities” is a living person the struggle is heightened.
My baby brother Adam was born two months before COVID-19 first reached the U.S., and by the time the nation went into lockdown, Adam had reached the age when he required continuous attention and care. Coming from a family with two highly occupied parents, I knew that I would have to start adjusting to becoming a “full-time babysitter” in addition to being a student. From changing Adam’s diapers and playing with him after virtual school days, to holding him on my lap during Zoom classes and putting him to sleep at night, I quickly became Adam’s second mother. As heartwarming as it was to spend a more significant amount of time with both Adam and my other younger sibling during the lockdown, I was simultaneously yearning for the personal freedom only children possessed.
Singapore
Note: This is an excerpt from a longer piece of writing. Read the full piece here.
It took a pandemic for me to …
Singapore is a small country, and we opened up relatively quickly compared to the rest of the world. While we still have our masks on, it became easy to forget just how much this event has impacted my life.
But as I wrote this piece and I reflected on how much I’d changed over the past year, I found the difference in myself really startling. Everyone grows up at this age, but doing it during a pandemic accelerates it.
I’m thankful the pandemic gave me more than it took away. This piece is a way for me to remind myself of how much gratitude I have, and how much I’ve grown in these past two years.
Alyse Wicentowski, “Heart”
Angel Zhao and Fiona Xing, “teenage homage”
Bobby Goldyn, 14, “Lost Voices”
Cassie Garrett, 14, “Kindness in the Pandemic”
Dorothy Du, 16, “The Sound of Rain”
Eliana Robin, 15, “Warning: The World is Crumbling”
Eveleen Jiang, 17, “Out of Touch”
Hailey Jones, 15, “Growing Up in 2021”
Hiewon Ahn, “A Cutlery Awakening”
Ilona Lebron, 18, “Painting Something New”
James Kim, 17, “Life was rough.”
Jingyi Yang, 17, “Daydream in Heatwave”
Kalina May, 15, “Shame of Experimenting (in highschool)”
Kasie Leung, 15, “neurons and wings and other fleeting things”
Kevin Park, 16, “The March of Nature”
Kia Brazhnikova, 15, “Impassive”
Leona Su, 15, “Chinatown”
Phoebe Han, 16, “Burdened Puppet”
Selina Zhan, 13; Mia Kang, 14, “Diving into the Device”
Sena Chang, “Triptych: INFODEMIC”
Stella Turowsky-Ganci, 15, “what’s inside my head”
Surya Newa, 17, “To Each Their Own”
Xinyi Zhang, 16, “Me in the Mirror”
Ziqi, “Nest”
Zoey Lestyk, 14, “Just Do It”
Find the full list of students whose submissions received an honorable mention here.
The team that helped choose these finalists included educators, Learning Network staff and Times journalists, as well as teenagers who have won previous Learning Network contests. In alphabetical order they were:
Adee Braun, Amanda Brown, William Chesney, Nicole Daniels, Shannon Doyne, Jeremy Engle, Nora Fellas, Ross Flatt, Annissa Hambouz, Henry Hsiao, Michael Gonchar, Karen Hanley, Callie Holtermann, Susan Josephs, Isabel Hui, Isabel Hwang, Phoebe Lett, Simon Levien, Rachel Manley, Sue Mermelstein, John Otis, Natalie Proulx, Katherine Schulten, Ana Sosa, Ananya Udaygiri, Emma Weber, and Clare Zhang
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