Tomorrow, May 14, marks fourteen months since my city’s shelter in place order went into effect. My grandma will turn 88. I will turn 36 a day later and the world I’m being re-birthed into is bigger than the one I was sinking into. The time to start thinking about wrapping up this series is here, if not a bit overdue. I’m not exactly living like a monk anymore. In last few weeks alone I’ve been to my office twice, eaten in a restaurant, taken my family to the aquarium, taken myself to the art museum, shopped at Chicago Music Exchange, hosted a birthday party, attended a birthday party, been to multiple in-person medical appointments, had an energy healing session, taken my daughter to school, enrolled her in summer camp, walked maskless with a friend, stepped inside another friend’s house, and purchased plane tickets to see my family in June. All of it has been eventful, but not in the way that venturing out of my house last year was the height of drama. COVID protocols are only a minor irritation. Other people don’t freak me out. My challenges now are in helping my daughter navigate emotionally charged and socially challenging situations without projecting onto her my own baggage and fears, dealing with my physical and mental health, making time for my marriage, reconnecting with family and friends, taking my career to the next level, and figuring out what I want to write next. In other words, my problems are back to what they were before the virus dropped into our lives.
I get that the pandemic isn’t over yet. In the last few weeks that have seen me practically frolicking through town, I’ve also worked mostly from home, attended a virtual conference, pitched new clients on Teams, hosted birthday parties on Zoom, Facetimed with family, texted with friends, supervised my daughter during remote learning, felt awkward talking to people with different COVID risk profiles, been annoyed at people still wearing masks, been pissed at people not wearing masks, searched desperately for reasonable, science-based, non-alarmist guidance about COVID protocols for kids under twelve, fretted about what school will look like for my daughter next year, and zoomed right out of a store when I heard a wet, hacking cough. We’ll be living with COVID aftershocks for a long time, but I’m training myself to stop bracing for them, and to stop second guessing the ways I respond to each new wave. All I can do is what I learned over the last year, which is to make decisions that are consistent with my values and within my capabilities, even if they take me out of lockstep my friends, family, neighbors, and the amorphous crowd of peers and perceived authority figures of whom I used to live in fear.
It’s time to turn my creative mind to other topics. The way this blog goes, I’ll probably have something to say about life in what I hope will be COVID’s end-days the week after I close out the series, sort of the way I, embarrassingly, ironically, keep writing about spirits months after shedding the moniker Sober Mormon. When I started this series, I asked, “how many more identities I will take on and shed before this thing is over?” How much of what I claim to be today will fall by the wayside?” You could say I’ve changed a lot. I would say I’m fundamentally the same person except that I see and move through the world in fundamentally different ways. I also figured out I want to try my hand at fiction. I think it might be a way to tell even more of the truth. I’m sure I’ll be back here, though. I’ve been swearing I’ll stop writing on the internet for almost as long as I’ve been at it.
This is the only time of year I miss working at my old law firm. I hated the mad rush to meet deadlines–both the arbitrary internal ones and the hard dates set by courts and arbitration panels–and I hated not knowing if I would have to be in the office right up until 5 PM on the 23rd or if there would be pressure to work on Christmas Eve but the office was always a little more sparkly at the end of the year. I loved watching the snow flutter past the window in my office. I loved watching the partners make the rounds delivering annual reviews and bonus news. I loved jetting out at noon on a random Tuesday in mid-December for the company-wide holiday party in the big back room at Maggiano’s. I loved the treats that would show up in the kitchen from vendors and signing holiday cards for clients. I loved giving cash to my assistant and I loved her holiday sweaters. I loved having my husband’s gifts delivered to the office and carrying them home in a duffel bag from the firm. I loved walking to the train in the dark and seeing all the skyscrapers all lit up like Christmas trees.
I quit that job in 2019, so this isn’t the first year I’m missing corporate Christmas, but combined with the loss of my the winter party in my daughter’s classroom and the pageant at church and the Nutcracker and Christkindlmarket downtown, the season has felt decidedly dull. And that’s fine. People are getting evicted this month. People are losing contracts and jobs. They are lining up at food pantries. Thousands of people are still dying every day. If the worst thing I can say about the final month of this year that rocked the world is that it was boring, or depressing, I’ll take it.
It has been depressing, though. Last Thursday, we got some disappointing news right before our daughter’s school closed for winter break. The principal emailed to tell us that the school doesn’t have the capacity for all the families that opted into in-person learning when if they start bringing kids back next semester, and our daughter wasn’t included in the first priority group. I understand and don’t dispute the choice and don’t want to get into the equities of getting back to school in this post. I only want to give you the context so you understand that I went to bed feeling like my family was slipping through the cracks.
The next day started off with a win, albeit a small one: for the first time in a week, my daughter willingly changed into clothes that she hadn’t slept in. Technically, she just put on a different pair of pajamas, but they were clean. Her class was having a winter “party” and she was so excited to play games and watch a movie “with” the rest of her class in the iPad. Her mood put the rest of the household in a festive frame of mind, and the day went up from there.
I put out a call for support re: the social isolation my family is facing and half a dozen good friends responded with kind messages and texts. A few kind people offered to set up video hangouts with my daughter. A good friend invited us over for an outdoor playdate.
A neighbor dropped off a big box of LEGO and books that her kids had outgrown and she thought my daughter might like.
A friend brought donuts.
A package from Harry & David, care of my boss, showed up our doorstep: a gourmet dinner, packed in dry ice, which my husband promptly dumped in a bowl for a good hour’s worth of entertainment.
I saw neighbors on my afternoon walk and stopped to chat.
My husband checked the mail and brought in a stack of cards from friends and family across the country.
I directed money to people who needed it, and started talking to my husband about the charities we’re going to support this year.
We ordered takeout for dinner and watched Bad Santa.
After all that, at the very end of the day, I got another email from the principal. The school will have room for my daughter after all when if they start bringing kids back next semester.
I didn’t need to get that email to feel seen and supported. I came by that feeling over the course of the day, when I looked around me and realized I wasn’t alone. Somehow, my world felt festive. I puzzled and puzzled, how could it be so? It came without parties. It came without flashy clothes. It came without bonuses, airplanes, shopping, or shows. I puzzled and puzzled for how long I’m not sure. Then I thought of one thing more. What if friendship, perhaps, doesn’t look like before?
Like most kids in the states, my daughter is officially “back” in “school” as of last week. Our district is all virtual or electronic or remote or whatever you want to call it for at least the next month, probably the whole semester. Nobody in our household was happy to see the summer come to an end. Definitely not me with my mountain of worry about the impact this year is going to have on my daughter’s social and emotional well-being. Definitely not my daughter who misses her teachers, misses her friends, and misses school the way it used to be. Definitely not my husband who is supervising at-home school on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis.
We tried to preserve some of the old back-to-school activities like shopping for new school supplies and replacing the sneakers she grew out of in the spring and picking out a new outfit for the first day of school. Our seven-year-old hasn’t been in school long enough to recognize these as traditions, but they are familiar to me and my husband and seemed like a reasonable way to build a sense of happy anticipation into an otherwise bleak time. My husband and daughter took a trip to Target in their masks and she picked out a long-sleeved shirt with a poodle on it, one of those shirts with the flippy sequins that little girls can’t enough of that and that, stupidly, are always all-white. She got a few notebooks and a new set of colored pencils and at least her fifth set of safety scissors. They did a drive-by to pick up her school-issued iPad. On the last official day of summer vacation, I took her to our local ice cream shop for cones and watched her drip chocolate all over the brand new poodle shirt.
One back to school tradition we completely forgot about was class assignments. I’m old enough to remember my mom driving me to school at the end of summer to find my name on a list hanging on the wall but my kid is young enough that everything having to do with her schooling still feels unfamiliar and overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting the letter with her class placement for the upcoming school year to show up in my inbox in the middle of August. I remember that information being kind of a big deal when I was a kid, with the potential to make or break my whole year, but as the working parent of an only child and being relatively new to the school, I didn’t have enough context to generate a reaction to the placement. Maybe in a normal year I’d start asking around about the teacher, trying to figure out of we knows any of her classmates, but staring up the steep hill of the upcoming year and not knowing whether my daughter will ever even set foot in her classroom, I couldn’t muster up the motivation. Is Ms. ____ a good teacher? Do kids like her? Does it even matter?
My husband had gotten the email too and neither of us mentioned it for a few days. Eventually, we realized we should tell our daughter who her teacher was, see if we couldn’t drum up some excitement for her, but we kept forgetting to do it and, when we remembered, we realized we also kept forgetting the teacher’s name. Our daughter adored her first grade teacher, but the way virtual learning went in our district the teacher more or less dropped off our family’s radar when the school shut down. It was hard to imagine how a teacher we might never meet would be any kind of significant presence in our daughter’s life.
Last year, my husband handled e-learning in a manner that inspired awe and envy in our friends. It as like he’d been running a home school for years. The resources from the school were minimal and our daughter could have blown through them in under an hour but he had a six hour schedule blocked into a mix of instructional time, individual work, rest, and play. He shifted the whole school day back an hour to start at ten instead of nine. Our daughter was reading the chapter books he kept ordering for deliver and doing math workbooks he’d found to supplement the worksheets from the school and researching whatever animals she wanted and launching model rockets and using the 3D print design studio for art and, yes, finishing all the assigned work and showing up for the handful of video calls set up by the school. We ate lunch together as a family most days. They had outdoor time every day. Meltdowns were minimal, and my husband was confident, competent. I’ve never been more grateful to have a stay-at-home partner in my life.
By the end of the first day of school this new year, he was a mess. To its credit, the school is trying to create a more engaging environment for the kids. This is critical. Not everybody has an at-home parent who is able or inclined to step into the role of teacher, fine arts instructor, lunch lady, recess aide, principal, nurse, and janitor for six hours a day. As well as last year went, he was hoping for more involvement and resources from the school. Faking it til you make it for a few months is one thing; making up a curriculum for a year with no end in sight and doing it from scratch with no guidance, desire, compensation, or training is another thing entirely. My husband was looking forward to being a little more hands off this year.
A week in, it is apparent that while my husband will be ceding all his autonomy and influence over our daughter’s day to the school, he will also be in no position to take his hands off any aspect of what’s going on in our home any time soon. She’s too young. He spent the first day of school sitting at the kitchen table getting her in and out of back-to-back zoom conferences, interpreting inconsistent and unclear instructions, trying to deal with broken zoom links and other tech issues, navigating the unintelligible learning platform our district selected for K-2 (fucking Seesaw), printing off assignments that are unreadable on the iPad, corralling her into doing as much of her assigned work in the five- to ten-minute blocks allowed by the impossible schedule, and trying not to freak the fuck out. There was no time for recess and they didn’t step outside once. From my office downstairs I kept an eye on the email traffic from the teacher and opened up an email with the subject line “Tech Help information.” It was empty. When I stepped out of my office to do a load of laundry, I heard the teacher critique the kids for not spending enough time on their work, not putting enough detail in their drawings. “You’re second graders now. You can do more when you were in first grade.” I tried to keep an open mind, consider how my daughter might benefit from a little push from someone other than me. When I asked my husband about it in the evening, he exploded. “It’s the first day of school and they’re drawing on the fucking iPad.“
There is, in fact, no better symbol for e-learning than the school-issued iPad. It’s aspirational for many families, including ours. We’ve never owned an iPad and our daughter never had a device until the school forced our hand last spring. Its compact form seems to promise that we won’t be adding much to the landfill of elementary worksheets and kid art that amassed in our house in kinder and first grade. Its corporate sheen throws light on how a year or more of learning alone at home is preparing our kids for a future in late capitalism: working in front of a computer, showing up to meetings on time, interfacing with colleagues for a screen, and then getting right back to work. These kids will be maximally efficient. At the end of the first day of our life for the next however long my husband went to plug in the iPad. The battery was shot, dead, totally drained. He rummaged through the box of supplies from the school. They hadn’t given us a charging cord.
That was my husband’s first day. It might have been better for our daughter. During the last video call of the day, which they’re calling Sunset Circle, the teacher asked the kids to share one or two things that they learned that day. Six months of video calls have taught my daughter how to use her voice and I could hear her shouting into the microphone all the way in another room. “Today I learned that I have a nice class and that you’re a good teacher!” I could end this post now and leave my friends and family feeling hopeful about the possibility that this year will be okay for us. I could leave you feeling hopeful that maybe this year will be okay for you and your kids, if you have them. Instead, I’m going to tell you my daughter broke down crying in the bath at the end of the second day of school. She said she hated e-learning. She said there were too many calls and she didn’t have enough time to do anything and her teacher was too strict and her papa got too frustrated when things didn’t work. She said she just wanted to go back to school.
I don’t know what to do with any of this. It’s only a week in and I’m hopeful things will improve, but but surely some of what we’ve experienced would be valuable for the school to know as it moves forward with this new way of learning. The school set up a helpline for tech issues but has not designated a person or place for feedback about the virtual learning in general. I don’t want to dump all my feedback and fears on the teacher. I don’t want to go to the principal and invoke the defenses of the administration or say anything that will come down on the teacher. I don’t think I’m unreasonable in wanting more than what we’re getting. I’ve already given up on academics. I don’t care if my daughter learns anything this year and I don’t expect her to. All I want is for school not to inflict further trauma on her or on our family. Is that too much to ask?
My daughter has been going to day camp at the YMCA for the last four weeks. The season is abbreviated this year so next week is her last. Summer camps in our neck of the woods started announcing their summer shut downs way back in April but the YMCA kept our hopes afloat by sending us regular emails, postponing instead of cancelling the camp start date, and continuing to process our direct deposits. By mid-May, we were convinced that even five weeks of camp would not happen. People told us not to get our hopes up. People told us not in a million years. I wondered if we were stupid for continuing to pay for membership at a facility we hadn’t swam or worked out in or used in any way for over two months, for not asking for a refund for the camp fees we’d paid for June, for worrying more about the money than the health risks, for holding out hope that D would go to camp in July.
In mid-June, the YMCA finalized the summer camp schedule. Five weeks, five days a week, with a shortened camp day from last year. Groups would be capped at 10 campers with limited and consistent staff assigned to each group. Eighteen days out from the start of camp, we did not have a clue about anything else, about safety protocols or about the camp itinerary, only the vaguely inspiring but also somehow unsettling promise that “now that we understand what we can’t do, we are focusing on what we CAN do.” People were still telling us camp would not happen, or that it shouldn’t. I wondered if we were stupid for not worrying more about the risks or the safety protocols, for putting our child in childcare that we didn’t technically need. I wondered if we were part of the problem, partially to blame for America not getting this damn virus under control.
The YCMA sent out the safety protocols on July 2: a regimented drive-up drop-off/pick-up procedure, daily health screenings and temperature checks, lots of hand sanitizer and hand washing, masks for campers and staff at all times indoors and any time six feet of physical distance could not be maintained outdoors, eating lunch in the classroom, no mixing with other groups, no personal belongings from home, a strict sick policy, and a harsh COVID liability waiver. I wondered if we were making a huge mistake, if the social and mental benefits of camp for our daughter would be wiped out by the social and mental strain of attending under these conditions. I wondered if we were underestimating the risks of getting someone sick or getting sick ourselves of our daughter getting sick.
Our daughter started camp on July 5. My husband does a contactless drop-off of our precious human cargo in front of the camp site instead of walking through the neighborhood like they did last year. D answers questions we had to explain to her the day before camp started about whether she has a new cough or shortness of breath, a sore throat, vomiting or diarrhea, chills or shaking, muscle pain, a headache, or new loss of taste or smell. Apparently no one ever told her what diarrhea was (this is why we need kids in school). A staffer holds a thermometer to her head. Apparently she runs lower than I realized, around 98 degrees. She wears a mask all day every day and when she comes home it is filthy with sunscreen and sweat and spit and mustard. When the bandana we sent her in the first week kept slipping under her nose the staff gave her a disposable surgical mask. Apparently we need to buy a lot more masks, and apparently decent ones are hard to find (this is why schools need to provide masks). She has a table all to herself in a classroom that only had five kids the first week, though it’s now up to ten. Each camper gets their own stockpile of art supplies. No sharing. An only child’s dream.
She comes home every day with a bag overflowing with paper airplanes and paper dogs and paper crowns and paper dolls and paper alligators and paper birds and homemade coloring books with scenes she drew from The Neverending Story. She comes home every day with scrapes and scratches and dirt under her nails and paint on her hands and tales about the weird and cool shit she saw: thousands of ants swarming a pile of spilled Cheetos, a bunny’s tail with no bunny attached, a cicada’s shell, a dead bird, a murder of crows, a tiny goldfinch perched on a flower, a katydid. I wondered if camp was glorified babysitting, all free-time all day, alternating between inside and out. Honestly, I wondered the same thing last year. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if it was. My kid’s got to learn how to be around other kids. She’s got to learn how to be bored. She’s got to get some distance from me and her dad, not for our sake and sanity but for hers.
At the end of the second week of camp, the YMCA sent home a video of the kids doing archery, dropping Mentos into Coke bottles, flipping cups, playing soccer and basketball, painting rocks, chalking the asphalt, listening to stories, and singing songs. “Do you do all this stuff?” I asked D. “Yeah, of course,” she said.
One day my daughter came home and announced that she had a best friend. When the staff noticed that they were dragging their chairs over to each other’s tables every day, they moved them into kitty corner chairs at the same table. “We’re still too far away, though, so we move our chairs closer.”
A few weeks after that she told us that her old best friend didn’t want to be best friends anymore so they swapped with another pair of girls. Now she has a new best friend.
When I tell people my daughter is in camp, I expect the for them to balk, and justify my decision. One day I called a friend in the middle of the day. “What’s going on?” he asked? “How are you calling right now?” “D is in camp.” He’s in another state, and was speechless. “What? How? How is that possible?” I launch into my standard speech, listing off the safety protocols the same way I did at the outset of this post. “The YMCA is doing a pretty good job. Fewer than ten kids per class. Health checks every morning. The kids are in masks all day. No touching.” He cut me off. “Hold on a second. To be clear, I’m not judging. It’s just that we don’t even have the option.”
Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has woken up in a good mood. She gets dressed and ready for the day without me asking. Sometimes she shouts, “I get to go to camp today!” Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has come home animated, energized, and excited. We spend the afternoons and evenings together watching TV, playing games, eating dinner, playing outside, going on walks, listening to music, reading, playing with toys, and making art. Every day of the last four weeks has not been perfect, but they have been pleasant.
Now, people are telling us that they would never send their kids to in-person school in the fall, even if the schools do manage to pull off safety protocols along the lines of what they’re doing at the YMCA. We just opted-in for in-person learning to begin at the end of September. We’ll see if that actually happens. In the meantime, I’m wondering, am I stupid? Am I selfish? Am I underestimating the risks? Am I opportunity hoarding? Am I part of the problem? Am I doing the best I can with the same set of limited information and admittedly different but ultimately all crappy options as everyone else?