Myasia Madkins is your average teen navigating COVID-19 life, racial unrest and remote learning, challenges faced by many youth this past year.
Separated from school last March by the pandemic, Myasia, 17, and other Catholic high-schoolers, returned to a hybrid learning system last fall.
She and half the student body at Holy Trinity High School attend classes in person Tuesdays and Fridays; the other half, Mondays and Thursdays. Students attend virtual classes the other two days. Wednesdays are reserved for teacher meetings, catching up on work, etc.
It’s the hybrid system 26,000 Chicago Public Schools teens will embark on when grades 9-12 return to in-person learning this month.
Myasia’s journey spotlights the challenges weathered by many youth this past year.
I was introduced to the South Shore teen last summer, when Katherine Rush, executive director of the Partnership to Educate and Advance Kids, emailed a poem Myasia wrote in the wake of protests following the killing of George Floyd.
The Minneapolis police officer charged with murder in Floyd’s death is currently on trial.
Protests that began peacefully and grew violent had ravaged communities like Myasia’s.
“Chicago, So what happened to the Covid-19 concern? Did the daily death totals suddenly disappear? ... Now there is a curfew in Chicago! The National Guard called in! Looting in neighborhoods with unnecessary bloodshed to follow. Fires set! So now when will it be about George Floyd?” Myasia’s poem read in part.
Rush had turned PEAK’s social media over to 47 PEAK Scholars, inner-city youth who receive four years Catholic high-school tuition, plus mentoring, through the 20-year-old nonprofit.
PEAK finds sponsors for the $40,000 tuition per student and helps them get into college.
“Myasia is remarkable,” Rush said of the junior, diagnosed on the autism spectrum. One of six children of her single mother, her family has struggled with housing issues.
PEAK targets students with average grades, as opposed to those excelling academically.
“Her freshman year, she told me during orientation she wanted to be a writer,” Rush said.
I’ve followed Myasia since that June protest poem. She and mentor Anushka Mansukhani, a business technology analyst at Deloitte, were featured in the December newsletter.
“Myasia seemed one of our most at-risk freshmen,” the newsletter shared.
“Despite her strong potential, she was struggling academically. One day at a time, with the support of her PEAK mentor, Myasia has turned herself around.
“Anushka’s stories from high school and college helped Myasia consider new perspectives on how to empower herself through academics and empower others through her art. Today, Myasia is a straight-A student,” the newsletter read.
I wanted to meet this budding writer and teen succeeding against the odds.
Myasia popped into PEAK’s offices at Holy Trinity after school last week to chat with me.
“I’ve been through a lot. When you experience something that messes with you emotionally, you tend to act a little irrational or reckless at times,” she said of her rocky high school start.
“Being on the autism spectrum of course means I’m socially delayed. I was picked on in grade school to the point where I felt like I just didn’t belong. Besides moving from place to place growing up, I was going through a lot of stuff where I was really insecure.
“Coming here, I was still a bit of a wreck. Still desperately trying to be accepted, I was completely negligent of my academic work and had to do summer credit recovery.”
But her first mentor, who left the program due to a new job, “taught me to never give up, that everyone makes mistakes, and that’s what makes us stronger,” Myasia said.
She got paired with Mansukhani second semester sophomore year — before the lockdown.
“We clicked like a seatbelt and buckle,” she said of 25-year-old Mansukhani.
Mansukhani noted PEAK and other nonprofits serving at-risk youth had to pivot to reach them with virtual programming.
“Myasia and I met up a lot before COVID. Once the pandemic hit, we had to find alternative ways to connect,” Mansukhani said.
“We meet virtually, text a lot and now are exploring PlayStation. Seeing her progression the last year and a half has been amazing. She really stepped up in getting her fellow students to share their thoughts about George Floyd and all the things going on in their world.
“Differentiated socioeconomic backgrounds aside, these are students who are struggling in school. I’ve been there,” Mansukhani said. “That’s what stood out for me most with PEAK.”
Myasia’s biggest challenges with remote learning?
“Internet issues. And sometimes having to ask a teacher for help videos in order to understand a subject. And virtual exams,” she said.
How, then, was she able to improve her grades?
“Honestly, I have to say I was afraid of losing my PEAK scholarship, because I love it here. But also, because of COVID and being at home, I didn’t have as many distractions,” she said.
“I focused in on schoolwork. I’ve basically been on my toes since the start of junior year.”
As the May 25 anniversary of Floyd’s death nears, Myasia’s and the voices of fellow PEAK Scholars speak poignantly to a city and nation potentially bracing for renewed protests.
“These are current photos of stores in my neighborhood that are trying to recover. I think that each store should be able to have a good business,” Maishawn Washington, of Austin, wrote. “How are they supposed to run it well if people break in and burn them down?”
Yareli Santoyo, of Cicero, wrote: “We don’t need a tragic event to happen to create change. We already know racism exists. We can make an effort to make change little by little every day to create a progressive transformation.”
It’s the change that many corporations and institutions promised, in the national reckoning with racism following Floyd’s death. And nonprofits like PEAK invited them to walk the walk.
“All year long, we’ve approached corporations about underwriting scholarships as a way to move the needle immediately on educational equity, paramount to racial equity,” Rush said.
Knowles Corp., which stepped up to sponsor a student, said education is a logical starting point.
“Over the last year, we thought deep and hard about how we could address inequities,” said its senior director of human resources, Smita Sah. “In PEAK, we found a great partner for following up on our commitment to address inequities in education.”
“If we could get 10 more corporations to step up, we could take a huge freshman class,” said Rush, as she stamped postcards for “Coffee With PEAK,” an April 22 virtual fundraiser.
But this is really about Myasia, your average teen, navigating COVID, racial unrest and remote learning. And she offers these words to peers, a poem she wrote this school year:
“Step on stage, the crowd is waiting for you ... The big judge is there waiting to give you the thumbs down or thumbs up ... Some in the crowd may dislike your talent. But it wouldn’t matter as long as you like it ... Give it your best effort and if you slip up, keep on going. Until the curtains come down, just keep on performing.”