Pixels to people
Class of 2024 students carry friendships made through virtual platforms over to an in-person learning environment
October 1, 2021
At first, for sophomore Ishara Shanmugasundaram, the person about to walk by her is just another face in a mask. There’s something familiar about their round glasses and the brown bangs, but Shanmugasundaram can’t pinpoint it. The person stops and stares at her for a second, and flashes a curious look.
Then it clicks.
It’s sophomore Melissa Brown, a once-virtual friend, forged through hours of Messenger chats and Discord calls. Shanmugasundaram and Brown have only seen each other on computer screens and smartphones, but as the pair move closer together, conversation rife with inside jokes spills out. And when they throw their heads back in laughter, they appear lifelong friends.
“I remember the first time I saw Mel in person, I did not recognize her at all, and I felt so stupid. But then after that, it was like, ‘I know this person so well, there’s no reason for me to feel awkward around you,’” Shanmugasundaram said.
Even after a year filled with gray icons and silent breakout rooms, students in the class of 2024 found ways to connect with each other. Brown and Shanmugasundaram— along with fellow sophomores Medha Ghattu, Zumi Riekse, Yasmin Kudrati-Plummer, and Erin Chen— form a group of six friends who have their origins in the Class of 2024 Discord server.
“I met all these people [through messaging them] and realized, ‘Wait, even though we’re online, I can still make friends,’ and we formed a friend group,” Kudrati-Plummer said. “We have good energy. We all know how to bounce off each other in a way.”
After messaging each other individually, the six friends made a group chat together and eventually decided to watch a television series called ‘Fate: The Winx Saga’. It was through ‘Winx’ that their group dynamic sprouted wings and took off.
“We watched one episode but it was so bad. It was more like a joke, like ‘let’s watch the Winx Club’ and we just never did,” Chen said. “They’re our [shared] childhood memories.”
The sophomore six soon became virtually inseparable.
They played truth or truth (dare wasn’t possible) so many times that everyone soon knew each other too well to continue. They spammed their chats with inside jokes and details about every day. And when classes allowed for it, the group hopped on joint Discord calls to listen to Olivia Rodrigo’s newest hits.
“It’s just nice to have someone that you can talk to when you’re online and more than just for class,” Riekse said. “It’s great to have people who you genuinely enjoy talking to and who can be your friends.”
Beyond the online platforms at their disposal, the flexibility of virtual learning meant that the group could talk to each other anytime they wanted. Whether it was 3 p.m or 1 a.m, the six set group chats and calls alight with their constant chatter.
“If we have a problem or we don’t know something or like we need help with something, we can go to each other and we’ll know that there’s always someone to help,” Riekse said.
Though the group has had trouble finding times to meet in-person so far during the school year, they remain as close as ever. Encounters in the hallway and during lunch show no sign of the discomfort that may come with the transition from pixel to in-person.
“With some people, who they are online and who they are in person is totally different. But with these people, I’ve talked to them so much about myself and they’ve also talked to me so much that I feel like I know them so well,” Shanmugasundaram said.
Outside the school day, Riekse, Brown, Kudrati-Plummer, Shanmugasundaram, Ghattu, and Chen continue to message about classes and social events. For this group, the conversation is never-ending.
“If there’s anyone I would talk to anything about, it’s these people,” Shangmugasundarum said. “These are the people that I trust out of everybody.
There was nothing biology teacher Katherine Morrow could do. No matter how hard she tried to inspire in-class interaction, Morrow knew she would be spending ninety minutes talking to a wall of lifeless circles and blank chats.
“I had one class that was very, very quiet the entire time. I could not get them to talk to me or each other, even in breakout rooms,” Morrow said.
It was a different story in a number of her other classes though. Morrow found that many of her virtual classrooms grew closer together through group projects, classroom-wide jokes, and interactive assignments.
“I think anything that kept us laughing and smiling last year was helpful. Even if I didn’t see their faces, I knew that they were engaged because of the amount of typing that was going on,” Morrow said.
In the end, Morrow felt it was the students who ultimately made the biggest difference.
“There were some students that were very quiet at the beginning of the year, but they ended up becoming friends with more extroverted students,” Morrow said. “I love that about TJ. Students that are extroverted don’t just play together, they actually pull in the introverts and make friends with them.”