World wide web: The virtual bond that created an inseparable friendship

Two students met online in the Chatham County Schools Virtual Academy. Now they’re on their way across Europe together.

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Back in mid-December, Massiah Smith struggled to figure out the plotting and functions assignments in her math homework. She decided the best way to solve her problem would be to send an email to her fellow classmate.

She didn’t have a particular reason for choosing Mary Harris as the recipient; she just had a feeling about it.

“It was just something ... I don’t know,” Smith said. “That something just made me text her.”

Whatever that je ne sais quoi was, Harris ended up being the right person for the task: not only did she help Smith with her math homework, she also became a fast friend, instantly clicking with her classmate and using Snapchat to send messages back and forth.

“Massiah was always the funny one of the class, even though it was online,” Harris said.

Smith and Harris met as 8th graders through the Chatham County Schools Virtual Academy. The virtual schooling option, offered for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, was required during the height of the pandemic but is now optional.

Harris said when Smith reached out, neither one of them really had close friends because school was in a virtual setting. But now they have a message to others who are struggling to make friends in an increasingly virtual world: reach out.

“Just send an email,” Smith said. “Take a risk to make new friends.”

After the two connected, the class went on a field trip to Central Carolina Community College where Smith and Harris met in person for the first time. Their friendship didn’t skip a beat. Smith went to Harris’ house to hang out that same day and ended up staying three nights in a row.

“She came over to the house and we just became really close,” Harris said.

Now, the two do all sorts of things together — shopping, making TikTok videos or attempting to bake cakes. Over the course of those first few days together, Smith was already invited on the family beach trip in August. After that was accomplished, Harris started working her mom on the next big ask — being able to take her new friend on the family’s vacation trip to Europe.

“We just started begging my mom to let Massiah come too,” Harris said.

The trip was already planned for seven family members, and the begging worked. They’re now on a two-week trip that’s taking them from Amsterdam to Paris. Harris’ grandmother even funded Smith’s plane tickets for the trip, which began last week.

“It’s exciting,” Smith said before leaving. “I’ve never been out of the country, especially to something like this. It’s a dream come true.”

The trip’s stops include the Anne Frank House, a dinner cruise in Delft, the Rijksmuseum, Versailles and more.

“It’s not going to be relaxing at all,” said Mary’s mother, Laurel Faisst. She organized the trip with an itinerary down to the last detail. It’s Faisst’s fourth visit to Amsterdam, but the first time she’s bringing such a large group with her. She made everyone folders with printed itineraries and tickets.

“With this many people, organization was a must,” Faisst said. “We need to be on those trains and at those museums, it’s bam, bam, bam.”

After they return from their jam-packed worldly travels, Smith and Harris will be parting ways, at least in the classroom: Harris is attending Northwood next fall, while Smith is sticking with the Virtual Academy. Each said the Virtual Academy has been a blessing in disguise because it fosters their independence and self-growth.

“I feel like you become more mature about things,” Smith said. “You really got to start early with what you want to do. This all goes by fast.”

CCS has announced it will continue the Virtual Academy next year with virtual-only teachers being paired with virtual-only students. Students in grades K-8 will be enrolled in the Virtual Academy at Bennett School, not at their base schools. Students in grades 9-12 will transfer to Chatham Central High School and enroll in Chatham Central’s Virtual Academy. Student enrollment in Virtual Academy is at no cost to families and requires a semester-long commitment for students.

What started as a virtual bond between Smith and Harris has become a meaningful friendship. And even though they’ve only known each other for six months, that bond is sure to last for years to come.

“I feel like I’ve known her my whole life,” Smith said. “When you’re with someone you truly love, it feels like the friendship has been a lot longer. You’re having so much fun with this person and all of a sudden time is flying by.”

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

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