This week, Jeremi and Zachary talk with Natalie Suri about her experiences as a high school student during the COVID-19 pandemic, graduating during a global crisis, and her new views on the world.
Zachary reads his poem, “Like an Elephant.”
Natalie Suri graduated from McCallum High School in Austin in June 2021. She received many academic honors, including the Trustee Scholar award, the University Interscholastic League Scholar award, and the President’s Award for Academic Excellence. In September 2021 she will begin her studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
[0:00:05 Speaker 1] Yeah, this is Democracy, a
[0:00:07 Speaker 0] podcast about the people of the United States.
[0:00:10 Speaker 1] A podcast about citizenship
[0:00:13 Speaker 0] about engaging with
[0:00:14 Speaker 1] politics and the world around you. A
[0:00:16 Speaker 0] podcast about educating
[0:00:18 Speaker 1] yourself on today’s important issues
[0:00:20 Speaker 0] and how to have a voice in what happens next. Welcome to our new episode of This is Democracy. This is a very special episode. This is our 150th episode. It is also our episode at the time of high school and college graduations every year. But these graduations in 2021 are different. Uh students are graduating after more than a year in quarantine and they’re going into a world that looks so different from what our world looked like just two years ago, a world where we’re still dealing with Covid, a world of many threats to democracy, a world of many questions and many challenges, but also many opportunities. And we’re joined today by a recent graduate from high school. We wanted to bring her on because she could share with us the perspective of a thought thoughtful 18 year old entering this world, reflecting on her experiences. We also wanted to bring her on because she’s Natalie Suri Zachary Series, Sister, my daughter, Hello Natalie. Hello, and she has not been on the podcast for a while and we wanted to bring her perspective in Natalie, I think we’ll have a lot to share with all of us. She is a graduate of Mccallum High School here in austin texas, a uh graduate who was proudly in the top 10% of her class, A athlete, a an accomplished student and an entering freshmen at the University of Wisconsin Madison, congratulations, Natalie, thank you. We’re so glad you could join us today.
[0:02:05 Speaker 1] Thank you. Glad to be here.
[0:02:07 Speaker 0] So, before we turn to our discussion with Natalie about um what it’s like to be a high school graduate at this moment and before we discuss these issues, we have, of course our scene setting poem for Mr Zachary, Siri Zachary. What is the title of Your problem today? It’s an odd one. Like an elephant. That’s the title of the poem. Yes. Okay, let’s hear like an elephant. It came like an elephant, Like an elephant. It wandered under the bows and stomped loudly at our front door, waiting for us to touch its trunk tenderly. It came like an elephant like an elephant. We shut the lights and locked the door and waited frightened behind the curtains for it to waddle down the road. It came like an elephant and like an elephant. We stopped as if struck by a deeper realization and stood open mouth when we came upon it in the street and it tickled the floor with its toes or stumbled in between the supermarket aisles. It came like an elephant, like an elephant. We held back our purses and our little tote bag so it’s menacing trunk wouldn’t snatch away are talismans. It came like an elephant, but like an elephant. It was really quite friendly though. It tore up the road and trampled all over the flower beds and crushed all the people as they slept on picnic blankets in the park. It came like an elephant, like an elephant. It nibbled at our fingertips and promised us something unattainable, something we wanted so badly to feel, and we touched its trunk tenderly and held out our talismans and opened the door to the sun. And it came like an elephant, like an elephant attract its own feces through the hall and spewed the family portraits with the puddles, and it tripped over the lamps and snapped the couch in half, and opened up the ceiling with its fantastic ears. It came like an elephant, like an elephant. It drooped in between the broken eaves and crumbling rafters and dripping walls. And we couldn’t help but laugh, laugh and cry at the same time. I love the imagery of that as well as the symbolism, Zachary. What what is your poem about my poem is really about how strange it’s been to go through high school uh in a year uh like 2020 2021. And to experience so many different things in the tragedy of this year, The grotesqueness, but at the same time, all the joy that comes from a shared experience and a shared struggle. Um and and it’s so surreal, it’s it’s like an elephant wandering through a city. I love that imagery and and I particularly like the uh the way it captures the, the sense of how long that year was and all the things that have happened in this, in this last year, Natalie, do you feel like this was a very long year of high school?
[0:05:10 Speaker 1] Yes, I do feel that house. So, um well it was different in a lot of ways the makeup of the classroom changed and obviously with that, so did the educational attitude. I think it’s changed differently for different people for me, I felt like it’s been much more up to me to really put effort into and to really get so that I can actually get a lot out of what I’m learning because there’s less oversight. Um, and, and obviously the one and a half hour class time that used to be for constant feedback has um, you know, stopped. So it’s really been up to the students to really seek out office how opportunities, which can be exhausting but also very fulfilling. And another positive for me has been, the assignments are usually more flexible, the lectures are recorded, so you have more time than you would have in a normal year of high school to really focus on giving 100% to all of it. But the negative part I feel in a way some people’s attitudes may have shifted, which has made the year seem longer to me is that for a lot of people it’s become easier to sort of slack by because you don’t need to put as much effort to do to do really well, you still do, but to get like solid grades, you don’t necessarily have to. So I think a lot of people might be shifting to more, oh, just, you know, doing what I can to get to get a grade, which um can be very exhausting and much less fulfilling than the than actually learning. And, um, I, I also think that another sad negative I guess. I know we try to stay positive on this podcast, but uh, I think it’s been harder. We’re going to see a real class divide between who can actually, has been able to actually learn successfully during this time period, because it’s obviously the tech access, but also just the ability to the desire to want to seek out opportunities. Because it’s hard and desire and belief that learning is important, which, um, not all families have time to do. Not all people grow up in academic families. So through no real fault of their own, they’re sort of falling into the other attitude, which is just sort of doing what you can to pass, which is not a very fulfilling way to look at it.
[0:07:37 Speaker 0] Did you see a lot of your fellow students, friends and others struggling?
[0:07:43 Speaker 1] Well, I I think that in I hesitate to really answer this because I don’t really uh again, normally when you see people or resume, they’re putting on a happy face. It’s very hard to know what’s actually going on. Um but I think that a lot of people have been struggling emotionally because like it’s very easy to you to get into a trap where you’re just like, why I’m just doing this for the great grade, it can get um suffocating. And one of my teachers was telling me the other day that she feels that some of the students haven’t left their room this whole time, which is completely debilitating because isolation only needs two more isolation. So I can just imagine how hard it is for many of my peers.
[0:08:31 Speaker 0] So, so how did this experience as a whole, really change what high school meant to you traditionally? We think of high school as this period in all of our lives. A difficult, challenging period when we come of age as young adults, when we have new social experiences, when we learn to see the world in new ways, um when we encounter new kinds of people and when we separate ourselves from our parents, but we’re not as separated as we become when we were in college, how did this last year, you think now Natalie after graduating, how do you think it transformed what high school meant to you and your generation?
[0:09:13 Speaker 1] Well, for me this year, I have learned to um how much I I really appreciate the school atmosphere and how essential teachers are. It’s been um emphasized for me, even over zoom, I’ve had some amazing teachers that even through a short time together have really their empathy and positivity really helped with my mental health. And I think I’ve also um gained a broader understanding of society, um, and through through this year, through because Covid has really illuminated for me how many issues like in the high school classroom, but also in society or how interconnected they are. So I think I, and so with that like to give an example to illustrate my point, like some Covid relates to transportation, you know, public health, biology, math, psychology, all these things. And so with this broad idea of sort of um, realized, I’ve sort of realized about how I should look at high school differently, not simply for individual, you know, gain, but also for ways to, to, to giving, giving confidence to learn to find ways to help people because it’s actually not as daunting as it seems because everything is so interconnected and yes,
[0:10:45 Speaker 0] and and uh what do you think you’ll take away most from this experience from high school? Most people when they think back on their high school years, they think back on the relationships with other students. They think back on the teachers who were mean, or the teachers who were inspiring. What what do you think you’ll take away? That’s unique to the experience of those who went through high school in this strange way the last year or two?
[0:11:15 Speaker 1] Well, a big thing is I think that uh in psychology class, we learned that the only thing that can really bring people together is an apocalypse, which while obviously was not that and people’s experiences weren’t equal. I think that there’s been a unit unifying frustration and annoyance um that that will really help us come together to solve issues.
[0:11:40 Speaker 0] Yeah. So what will you do differently because of these experiences? How do you think uh living through um high school during a pandemic? And and during such a difficult and divided time in our country? How will that impact your life in ways that it wouldn’t have been impacted if you hadn’t gone through the pandemic?
[0:12:02 Speaker 1] Well at the beginning of the pandemic there were 33 weeks, like a lot of time actually when we didn’t have much to do because which was a great contrast to you know the high school I was in before where it was like constantly activity to activity. So I that relaxation uh time period that which is that has really helped me explore different passions and and um ways and and think about how to better myself. And that’s I’m definitely going to try to take more time to do that and not fill my days completely with activities just to get to the next goal for myself. Um And also I’ve learned that I actually don’t know what I want to do it at all because I’ve uh discovered so many different things that I enjoy doing. And so uh I think that instead of focusing on goals simply being goal oriented, I’m going to focus more on fighting my passions. Um and I’ve I’ve talked about this a little before, but also learned to to focus less on just bettering myself and and more on the importance of bettering the systems and working together to do that. I’ve learned through watching all the um you know, inspiring social movements and seeing my friends watched that too. I’ve really um uh going to step back from the individual, my individualistic outlook,
[0:13:31 Speaker 0] How do you think your um your your goals, your your life goals will change because of this experience? Have you learned something, not just more about yourself, but about the kind of citizen you want to be?
[0:13:46 Speaker 1] Well, I think I’ve really learned the importance of being a good citizen and focusing not just on myself and my goals, because I feel like unfortunately that’s sort of like the that’s what the competitivity, competitivity of high school sort of chosen to you. So I’ve learned the importance of really figuring out how to be a good citizen and and helping others and the importance of that,
[0:14:10 Speaker 0] but a good citizen. In what way? How do you think that your generation, not just you, but your generation will redefine what it means to be a good member of society,
[0:14:21 Speaker 1] wow. Um I do not have a super great answer for that, but I think a big thing is that we’re aware of more issues. Um, and so that’s the first step obviously, and being able to address them and we’re aware of how interconnected all these problems are, because we’ve seen how Covid relates to so many different issues and so I think we’ll have with our confidence that it’s not as hard as it seems to reform uh the system that will be more motivated to to participate in activities that will help change our society.
[0:15:00 Speaker 0] Do you think that your generation will now be more committed to change and to trying to do things to reform systems that make it harder for people from vulnerable groups and those with less privileged to to thrive. That at this moment, which highlights the inequalities in our society. As you said, do you think this will motivate more action to repair those inequalities?
[0:15:24 Speaker 1] Yes, definitely.
[0:15:25 Speaker 0] Is that, is that something you see already with some of you, with your activities and those of your colleagues?
[0:15:33 Speaker 1] Um, I definitely see a lot of people participate that I know participated in the Black Lives Matter movement and, um, serious other movements that I’m not able to think of off the top of my tongue currently. So I’ve definitely seen the action and just we’ve had lots of conversations about it. There’s also, I think hunger to talk about these issues. So, um, and debate them, which I think is really, uh, really reassuring and gives me a lot of hope that will be able to, um, you know, come together and find, find compromises and also increase our own knowledge of these issues as we debate with our peers.
[0:16:16 Speaker 0] What do you say to some observers who think that kids in school today are, um, politically correct and not serious and too caught up in their phones and, and things like that? It’s not the experience you’re describing. What’s your response to people who, who make these other kinds of judgments about young people?
[0:16:41 Speaker 1] Um, I’d say that that’s quite ignorant. Um, you’ve clearly not talked to us, um, face to face. Uh, it’s young people are just the opposite, were, um, open, really excited to learn, more hungry to change stuff and most of us really want to understand the issues. And I’ve had many debates with friends, we’re not all of the same belief at all. We have, um, lots of different beliefs and we, we enjoy debating and coming up with solutions. We’re not trying to tell older generations that they’re incorrect, we’re trying to understand the problems and find ways to work together to fix them.
[0:17:27 Speaker 0] Do you feel through this long ordeal of covid that you’ve had to deal with? Do you feel like older people have listened? Do you feel like your voices have been heard?
[0:17:40 Speaker 1] I think there’s definitely been a lot of there’s been other age groups that have listened to us and we’ve also been trying to listen to other age groups, but it’s just it’s just really hard to know these things because it’s such a slow path to improvement. So I think we’re we haven’t quite gotten the response we wanted from the older generation yet, but we’ve seen improvement and um I’m just excited for us to keep working.
[0:18:06 Speaker 0] And as you know, as you said before, Natalie, we always like to uh close on a positive note we want in this podcast and all episodes to highlight how history and close analysis of our world can provide opportunities for growth and change. What are the opportunities you see too? Get the voice? Is the energy, the resilience, the wisdom of your generation, the wisdom born of this difficult here. What are the avenues you see the ones you’re pursuing and your friends are pursuing to get your voice is heard?
[0:18:41 Speaker 1] Um Well I think we’ve we’ve all been trying to uh using using our social media platforms to promote what we believe and also seeking out other opportunities to talk at the I’ve talked at the legislative session with a few of my friends and it’s been a really cool experience. Um and I think we’re still we’re still seeking out the best outlets. I don’t think we’ve found any perfect outlet that reaches anyone. So um definitely work in progress.
[0:19:11 Speaker 0] I want to ask one final question and that’s really what does it feel like emotionally to be part of, of a moment that is so clearly um going to be a centerpiece of our history moving forward to to really feel history catch up with us. It seems like for decades we never really, we never really felt necessarily that we were living the history right? Uh and yet now we seem to be in the very center of our history. Um what does that feel like?
[0:19:41 Speaker 1] It’s quite daunting and it makes me feel like I have a lot of responsibility to to leverage it and be a part of it. And I think um other people feel like they have a responsibility and an opportunity to use this moment and what they’ve learned to change.
[0:20:02 Speaker 0] So you’re optimistic, Natalie
[0:20:04 Speaker 1] yes,
[0:20:05 Speaker 0] optimistic. And I’ve learned
[0:20:07 Speaker 1] from you always be optimistic.
[0:20:08 Speaker 0] What are you most optimistic about?
[0:20:12 Speaker 1] I’m like I I sound like a bit of a broken record, but I’m just optimistic about the willingness I’ve seen for my friends to have conversations and also the desire and the fun that we found in discussing these discussing possible ways to solve these issues and and I feel like people are coming together. Um and I’m I don’t know, I’m feeling a lot of things also that I can’t describe that I’m very excited about
[0:20:39 Speaker 0] well. And I think what I think what your answer reveals is uh that the optimism is as much about attitude and motivation as it is about anything else. And one of the things we’ve certainly covered in in so many of our episodes is the importance of people getting involved. You don’t have to have a solution, you don’t have to know how to fix the problems around you to make a difference by getting involved. Zachary, does this message of getting involved? Do you think it resonates for other young people like yourself? And do you think it is a positive moment for our democracy in the sense of increasing participation among young people? That’s what I’m hearing from Natalie. I think it does. I’d like to disagree just a little bit with Natalie. I think the divisions are are real, but I think that the result is the same. I think the divisions in our society, the very fact that we seem to be so at odds with each other, is motivating the kind of discourse and not always pleasant discourse, but important and necessary nonetheless, that we haven’t seen for decades. And I think that that kind of coming to the fore is what’s really going to bring change. And in a sense then it means that issues are not being swept under the rug. That’s exit difficult issues around race and inequality, because now they’re right in front of us and so we’re arguing over them. But you see that as a positive moment for our democracy because we’re not ignoring the issues we’re talking about and young people are motivated. Exactly. I’m not sure it’s an enjoyable time to be alive in, but I do think it’s it’s it’s a it’s a moment for for real change, the kind of change that we don’t see in in in decades back to your poem about the elephant, right? I mean, it takes a long time to get the elephant to move, but once the elephant starts to move things. Exactly. I think that’s a very optimistic and helpful note for us to close on. I really want to emphasis. I think one of one of the key themes that Natalie and Zachary echoed so well, and it’s a main theme for this is democracy, which is about youth involvement, young people feeling that there is a value and a purpose in arguing over important issues and trying to make a difference. Even if we don’t all agree, even if we don’t all know what to do. Democracy as franklin Roosevelt, our inspiration said democracy is in the making, it’s the writing of the next chapter and you don’t know where the next chapter is going to end, but you have to start writing it. Natalie, thank you for sharing your insights and experiences as a high school graduate during this strange and important time and sharing your perspective on how your generation is writing the next, the next chapter for our democracy. Thank you so much.
[0:23:23 Speaker 1] Thank you
[0:23:25 Speaker 0] and thank you Zachary for your moving poetry as always. This is I think a poem number 150 now or so. And thank you most of all to our loyal listeners who have listened now many of you to 150 episodes and I hope you’ll be with us for the next 150 as our democracy continues to grow continues to deal with many challenges and we hope finds a way to thrive with a new generation of leaders named Natalie Siri and many other names out there. Thank you so much for joining us for this week of this is Democracy. Yeah. Yeah.
[0:24:02 Speaker 1] Mhm. Mhm. This podcast is produced by the Liberal Arts I. T. S. Development studio and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of texas at Austin.
[0:24:14 Speaker 0] The music in this episode was written and recorded by Harris Komotini.
[0:24:18 Speaker 1] Stay tuned for a new episode. Every week you
[0:24:21 Speaker 0] can find this is
[0:24:22 Speaker 1] Democracy on apple podcasts, Spotify and stitcher.
[0:24:26 Speaker 0] See you next time