Ceaseless fireworks went off right next to ninth-grader Neela Ravindran’s window as she sat attentively in a Zoom meeting one November day. The booms didn’t stop when Speech teacher Tammy Madden asked Ravindran to present her oration to the class. The unrelenting fireworks made it difficult for the class to hear her.
“What was funny was that in her speech, she was talking about how frustrated she was because the fireworks had been going off for hours and hours. The fireworks started again in the middle of her speech,” Madden said. “When they’d stop, she would speak again, and they’d start again, and that went back and forth until she finished.”
“It was so noisy,” Ravindran said, when asked about the experience. “I had to explain, ‘Yeah, it’s Diwali right now…and I’m Zooming in from India, and it’s the middle of the night.’”
Most remote students are separated from campus by a 20-mile radius, at the most. Ravindran, on the other hand, connects from approximately 8,000 miles away — and across entire oceans.
The physical separation is made abundantly clear when it comes to time zone differences: Ravindran is nine hours and 30 minutes ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Her schedule has changed over the course of the school year; she’s now up from dusk to past dawn.
“At first, I only stayed up until 2 a.m. Then I started joining extracurriculars,” Ravindran said. “Now it’s anywhere between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. I’m adjusted, but I don’t really know what time zone I’m on most times.”
Ravindran lives with her parents in an apartment in Chennai, Tamil Nadu; the city borders the Bay of Bengal. While she’s up in the wee hours of the morning attending classes, her parents are on a normal schedule — or as normal of a schedule as they can get, considering their daughter’s circumstances combined with the COVID-19 restrictions in India. They sleep as Ravindran learns and work as she sleeps.
Despite the challenges, they’ve made an effort to spend time together whenever possible.
“Sometimes they wait up for me, and we eat together — dinner for them, lunch for me,” she said. “My dad stays up really late. He’ll be watching his shows or doing work, so if I don’t have much going on, I’ll sit with him and we’ll catch up for a good couple hours because we don’t usually get to talk. With my mom, when our schedules overlap, she wakes up early in the morning — 6 a.m. Indian time — so we’ll go on walks together on the terrace because we’re not allowed to go out because of lockdown.”
Lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions are the reasons behind Ravindran’s learning situation this year. Though born in the United States, she and her parents moved back to India—their birth country—when she was six years old. The plan was for them to come back to the U.S. when Ravindran entered high school. That timing coincided with the start of the pandemic.
Ravindran’s parents thought Pine View would be the perfect fit for their daughter starting in the 2020-2021 school year. In January 2020, Ravindran flew to the U.S. to take the standard Pine View IQ admission test, which she passed.
Her parents wanted to move to Florida around March 2020 to get adjusted to the area before the school year started. As flights across nations were shut down, that expectation got pushed back. It’s been continuously moved back ever since.
Alongside activities like Teen Court and the Luminary literature magazine, Ravindran secured a position as one of four Variety Show shadows. With emcee and act auditions being held via Zoom this year, she was able to work on the behind-the-scenes aspects of the show with the directors, tenth-graders Olivia Liu, Aarna Shah, and Josh Worthington.
“Neela was really productive and awesome. She’d help out as much as she could, even though she was so far ahead with the time zones. We really appreciated her work as a shadow — she was amazing,” Shah said.
Shah’s sentiments were echoed by Madden.
“I thought it was pretty amazing that she did as well as she did, being a world away. She was a great student and a wonderful speaker,” Madden said.
Though her experience living in the United States ended at the start of first grade, Ravindran’s time living in the U.S. and India has taught her much about the citizens of each respective nation.
“People in India judge Americans on their accent because they think Americans aren’t intelligent,” she said. “Americans think Indians are uncultured and non-urbanized, so I’ve had people ask me if there were cows around where I live, whether I had WiFi … They were shocked that I had an Apple device. With India, there’s the Florida man meme — whenever I say I’m doing school in Florida, people ask me about the Florida man.”
Ravindran herself is a combination of both parts, which is evident in her accent.
“It’s not really Indian, and not really American, either. It’s a mix of the two,” she said.
Ravindran said she and her parents plan to make their official move to Florida whenever possible. Until then, she’ll continue Zooming in from across the world — hopefully without any further disruptions from fireworks.