Free Time: Fantastic or Futile?

Remote learning has left Stuyvesant students with an abundance of free time. How are they using it?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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By Sabrina Chen

For most Stuyvesant students, free time is as foreign a concept as working escalators. On a normal school day in a non-pandemic year, students wake at ungodly hours of the morning, spend hours commuting, attend school and extracurriculars for most of the daylight hours, and finally make their way home. All these make for a jam-packed schedule with little time for leisure activities. However, the 2020 school year has been far different from any other. With a schedule that starts over an hour later than usual, half the usual amount of classes every day, and a drastically shortened commute that consists of only walking from bed to desk, daily routines have completely changed. Another major novelty? Spare time.

In senior Aki Yamaguchi’s case, quarantine has brought greatly appreciated free time. “I have more free time during remote learning, and I definitely love it. I think it’s a combination [of the fact] that I’m a senior, so I have fewer classes this year, and the fact [that] we have half our homework load every day,” she said in an e-mail interview. Yamaguchi explained that she’s been using this time to de-stress, work on her college applications, and reconnect with some of her local soccer friends.

Junior Yaqin Rahman seconded this sentiment. “I spend that [free] time scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, watching anime, watching sports videos, and many types of videos on YouTube as well,” Rahman said in an e-mail interview.

Unlike Yamaguchi and Rahman, who are upperclassmen, freshman Erica Chen is still adapting to Stuyvesant’s rigorous academic schedule and, thus, does not have as much free time. While Chen does believe that remote learning has been easier on her sleep schedule since she no longer needs to commute to school, the demands of Stuyvesant have more than made up for the time she used to spend commuting. “The amount of time that I spend on schoolwork has increased dramatically since I entered Stuyvesant, so this [workload] decreases the amount of free time that I have to myself,” she explained in an e-mail interview. “In middle school, I would be able to finish all the homework I had for the week in about one or two days, but now in [high] school, I work almost all day.”

Chen’s heavy workload has not kept her from pursuing her hobbies, however. She’s been able to continue reading despite the constraints of quarantine. “I have been reading but definitely not as much as I did before. I prefer reading an actual copy of the book, but as the libraries are still closed and I’m not really allowed outside, actual books are not available,” she said. “I’ve been reading more online books, though—usually translated Chinese novels.”

Yamaguchi echoed Chen’s ideas: she is a big reader too and has been borrowing books from an online library. She reads mostly at night and admits that her late-night literary sessions are part of the reasons for her delayed sleep schedule. “I’ve started reading manga as I started watching Haikyuu (it’s a Japanese anime), which is certainly interesting,” she said.

English teacher Eric Ferencz is no different. By his estimates, he reads about an hour every day. He explained in an e-mail interview, “A few months ago, a friend and I decided to read the same books at the same time so we’d have something interesting to talk about outside of what we ate that day.” He continued, “So far we've read Patrick Radden Keefe's ‘The Snakehead’ and James Gleick’s ‘The Information.’”

For librarian Christopher Bowlin, the time he spends reading hasn’t changed much since pre-quarantine. The material he is reading, though, is different: he’s been reading far more e-mails and e-books. Bowlin does miss his paperback pals: “I begin to miss the sensory kinship of physical books if I’ve read too many back-to-back e-books.” He went on to list some of the most compelling books he has read recently, which include “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead and “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

Other folks with readerly aspirations haven’t been having as much luck. Guidance counselor Sarah Kornhauser has found it difficult to maintain her pre-pandemic reading habits. “For so long, I was always a big reader, and I used to use the train to do a lot [of] reading. For the first many months of the pandemic, I had a book by my bedside, but I could not read it.” She continued, “Instead of torturing myself with it, I started listening to audiobooks on my walks and runs. That’s something that is very pandemic related—I cannot read.”

However, Kornhauser has picked up some new habits. “I've been practicing cooking, and I’m cooking myself through a cookbook. It’s taken me a long time, but it’s leading me to do things that I’ve never done,” she said. Cooking is not the only thing Kornhauser has picked up, though. “I do macrame, so I’ve been making wall hangings, plant hangers, and welcome mats, and I actually had a sale last week, so I’ve been selling some of the things I’ve been creating too.”

Reading and new hobbies aside, Stuyvesant students and teachers have found another incredibly productive use for their newfound free time: sleep. For the perpetually sleep-deprived, remote learning has presented a unique opportunity to catch some badly-needed time in bed.

Yamaguchi has spent a lot of time napping. She’s been able to nap more often because school days are significantly shorter and because she is always at home. However, these naps have adversely affected her sleep schedule. She said, “I usually [nap] right after class before I have a meeting or soccer practice later. The bad thing I started doing is napping after 10 [at night] or dinner and then waking up at midnight or 1:00 [a.m.] to do my work.” Her first class begins at 11:20 a.m., which has kept her up late into the night because she convinces herself that she will still get eight hours of sleep. But Yamaguchi is conscious of her own sleep deficit. “This leads to me staying up longer, and [I end] up sleeping less,” she said.

Chen’s sleep schedule is far more structured. She always goes to sleep before 11:00 p.m. at night on weekdays and wakes up at 8:00 a.m. “Before quarantine, I would sleep at around 11:00 [p.m.] or so and wake up at 6:00 [a.m.],” she said. She credits the increase of sleep time to the absence of a commute, which she estimates is almost two hours. Recently, however, Chen has been waking up even earlier. “Recently I’ve been waking up at 7:00 a.m. to start homework earlier [and have] more time to FaceTime with my friends during the day.”

Rahman, too, has been developing healthier sleeping habits. He said, “Right now, it’s actually really stable for the first time in forever, and I get a healthy amount of sleep now.” This schedule is a stark contrast to what he had been experiencing before remote learning, when his sleep time would fluctuate frequently. “On school nights, I would get three to four hours of sleep and nap during the day to compensate. This would trickle down into the weekends [when] I would end up sleeping at 5:00 a.m. and wake up at 3:00 p.m.,” he said. Rahman’s new sleeping arrangement keeps him energized throughout the day, so he doesn’t nap. In fact, he views naps as a thing of the past, something he used to do to make up for the lack of sleep the night before.

Similarly, English teacher Eric Ferencz does not nap. He stated frankly, “Usually when I wake up from a nap, I’m a crabby grump who just wants to go back to sleep.” Ferencz maintains a routine sleep schedule, which he believes helps him fall asleep without difficulty.

Despite these new sleeping arrangements and somewhat productive use of free time, many feel there is still room for improvement in how they use free time. Rahman is one of these students: “I wish I spent less of my free time on Instagram and more on media that’s more fulfilling. Reading books is definitely something I want to pick up on, as well as spend[ing] more time watching anime and reading manga or webcomics.” Physical activity is important to Rahman as well. “Working out is also something I want to spend more time on since I regularly did it before but started slacking recently. I plan on controlling all of these things in a timely manner so I still have time to do work.”

Chen also finds herself struggling with productivity. She noted, “I feel like doing remote learning makes me feel a bit too relaxed; it doesn’t feel like school. I never used to procrastinate, but remote learning has definitely caused me to feel lazier and unproductive.”

In contrast, Ferencz feels pressure to work during any extra free time he has. He explained, “I tend to think that I need to be as productive as possible, every single day, and I need to remember how downtime is valuable for my mental health and the quality of work I hope to produce as a teacher.” This sentiment is surely applicable to many Stuyvesant students who feel that they need to leave quarantine with extraordinary accomplishments.

But for students feeling disappointed in themselves because of their (lack of) productivity, Kornhauser has advice. Establishing a consistent routine and setting aside work time can help both students and teachers manage school and free time. She explained, “Make a ritual around what happens when the school day ends. Go outside, change your shirt.” She elaborated on the importance of structure as well: “Sometimes you just need focused structure because it takes so long to do things when you multitask. You have to carve out work time and not work time. Otherwise, it’s just one big blob.” She also offered a small tip for students who procrastinate or cannot focus: “Don’t look at your phone. Set a timer on your phone, and say, ‘I’m not going to do anything until the buzzer goes off.’ After[wards], you can resume your activities.”

In these difficult times, Kornhauser reminds us that it’s important to be kind to ourselves. “Think about the little things that would give you a little pleasure, and think about if it is possible to give yourself them. Let yourself have them,” she said. “What else do we have?”

Kornhauser’s advice is certainly grounded. During a time of such hardship and uncertainty, it can be difficult to be productive and continue working at the same feverish pace that so many Stuyvesant students pride themselves in. So take it easy, Stuyvesant. Slow down. Be kind to yourself. Use that free time.