Last month, when salons and retail stores were open and playgrounds were still inexplicably closed, I started dropping hints to my daughter that I wouldn’t mind and it wouldn’t hurt to dabble around with the parks. Early in the morning we’d spot a renegade mom talking on the phone and a couple of toddlers climbing freely over the caution tape piled loosely on the ground, and I’d say, “I’m pretty sure the playground’s still closed, but we know it’s safer now.” Early evening, I’d nod at the neglected playground equipment, look over conspiratorially and ask, “You want to go down the slide?” She always said no. Had she outgrown the park, I wondered, her sense of childlike freedom and play another casualty of the coronavirus? Or was she just too young to cope with conflicting safety messages and peer-like pressure from a parent?
It must be the latter because the playgrounds have been open in Illinois for a little over three weeks now and play is back in a big way. It is, can I just say, a complete and utter delight to walk over to the park after dinner and set her loose. No more begging/bribing/cajoling her to leave the house! No more sad, contemplative laps around the neighborhood! Obviously, I still take plenty of those, but I’m not dragging my daughter with me anymore. Four months of shelter-in-place made my once “slow-to-warm-up” kid into someone willing to play just about anyone who asks, but the best is when our friends from the neighborhood are there. She loves seeing familiar faces and so do I! Hello, moms and the occasional dad! I never thought I’d miss you but I do!
Last week, we ran into one of D’s classmates from first grade with his parents. We didn’t get to know each other especially well during the school year, though perhaps we might have if not for (*gestures helplessly around*) all of this, but that didn’t’ stop it from feeling running into long lost friends! “D, look! Look who’s here! It’s ____ from school!” The kids quickly set up shop (literally–they started playing “stick store”) and I caught up with the parents. We talked about how the school year ended up (shitty) and how the summer was going (okay!) and how hard this has been on only children and how work is starting to feel normal and about how they are going all in on a pandemic puppy and how we all want to get away somewhere quiet in Michigan for a week in August. Eventually, the conversation turned what’s going to happen in the fall. I was still reeling from the options presented in the district survey and the then-realization we were likely facing a hybrid of virtual and in-person schooling. [Note: That was last week. This week, I suspect all-virtual is much more likely.] I shared my reservations about such a system and the other mom seemed to hesitate before responding. Maybe she has a different risk assessment. Maybe her kid is radically different than mine. Maybe she hasn’t heard. I tried to level set. “Did you see the survey from the district?” “Yeah,” she responded. “Yeah, I took it, and then I pulled ____ out of the district. We’re going back to Montessori.” The other mom went on, referencing her dissatisfaction with the school outside of its response to the pandemic, but she didn’t need to justify her choice to me.
The Montessori school is committed to reopening for in-person education five days a week. The Montessori school is installing an air filtration system. The Montessori school is making small class sizes even smaller. The Montessori school will hold class outside.
We stayed at the park for awhile after that and the conversation took different turns. We laughed a lot. We bought sticks from our kids. It was a lot of fun and I left thinking, “I really like that family.” When I got home I was bubbling over with the energy that comes from just the right amount of real life human interaction. “Guess what?!” I told my husband. “We ran into ____’s family! They’re getting ____ a dog! And they’re putting him in private school!”
Later that night, I tapped the impossible to spell name of the Montessori school into the search bar on my phone. I thought I’d clocked the tuition before, though I couldn’t remember why–we’re a public school family through-and-through–and I wanted to see if it was as high as I remembered. As I tried to navigate through the maze of promises and COVID pop-ups on the mobile site, I interrogated my actions. Was I counting other people’s money? Or was I counting our own? Finally, I found the tuition page. $20k for a year of lower elementary. About what I remembered. I clicked out of the browser, tossed my phone on my bed, went back to my real life.
The next day I woke up depressed. Depressive episodes aren’t unusual for me, but they still catch me off-guard every damn time. Talking it over in therapy, it wasn’t hard for me to chalk it up to uncertainty about what fall and winter are going to look like for my family. I hurried to reassure my therapist that things weren’t all bad. We’d had a great weekend. And that great playdate at the park, which I described in detail. I’m forever leaning into gratitude as the best DIY antidote for my particular mental twists.
“That must have been jarring for you,” my therapist said when I’d finished recounting our evening at the park, “to go from making all these connections with another person and then to realize that you weren’t in the same situation. How did that make you feel?” ‘
I paused, surprised. She was trying to connect the conversation at the playground to my low mood on Tuesday, when I started feeling so bleak about the future. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I tried to think about it, dig down beneath the gratitude. How did I feel? The answers came quick.
For one thing, I felt tricked. Here I was reserving judgment because I thought the district was doing everything it could to make the best of a bad situation. Here I was keeping an open mind because thought the options presented were the only ones available. Here I was setting aside worries about access and fairness and falling behind because I thought we were all in together. Here I was thinking my community was setting some kind of example simply having the conversation about about detracking math and removing police officers from the schools not realizing the locus of the fight for equity had already shifted to private schools and private tutors and co-ops. Here I was naive to the one maxim carried forward into every new world: money and privilege are power.
This week, all the parents online are weighing the pros and cons and putting out feelers to form their pandemic pods. Next week, the conversation will make its way to the playground and I’ll realize I’m behind in providing for my child again, though not as behind as the mom or dad who works longer hours than me, or the parent whose kid is disabled or neurodiverse, or the parent of black and brown kids facing segregation on a whole new front.
When I finally put it all together, I felt angry. I felt angry that I don’t have the option or ability to make school safer–or even to make sure school remains a possibility–for my child. I felt angry for the students whose options and abilities in this regard are more limited than mine. I felt angry when I realized that any parent who can is going to pull their children and influence from the district and leave the rest of us to to fight for…what, exactly? A few months ago I might have said equity or justice. It would have felt like overkill to say we’re fighting for our lives, but it’s clear now that’s exactly what all the anxiety is about.