We’re finally in the last week of this godforsaken school year. For whatever reason, after drop-off, I found myself in the parking lot of our local grocery store, sitting for a good half an hour, behind the wheel of our parked car, leaving voice memos for friends and staring out the window at the masked crowds coming and going. I only had ninety minutes until pickup so I had long before given up on getting anything else done. Instead I just drank my coffee and let the groceries in the trunk grow slightly warm and refused to budge. It felt oddly like a vacation?
Perhaps the fact that it felt anything like a vacation is proof enough of what this year has been like?
My 7-year-old daughter feels so much older than she did when we drove through the parking lot of her Los Angeles public school back at the beginning of the year to pick up her 2nd grade supplies in a garbage bag. (I feel about 200 years older.) When we made her desk functional to pretend her bedroom could be a classroom, cheering and taking pictures of her two feet from where she’d slept. When we pulled her earphones out of her suitcase and set up wifi on her Chromebook. When we muddled through a semi-functional routine of breakfast-school-snack-school-lunch-school-go outside-whatever. When we made a ritual of running off to the beach with the sunrise on Friday mornings and racing back in time for her 9am Zoom. When we let her FaceTime with her friends for hours. When every single rule went out the window, one at a time, bye bye bye bye bye bye bye bye!
Who were those people making a whole world from our two-bedroom apartment?
The girl who so shyly introduced herself to her teacher out our car window back in August now wanders onto the schoolyard at her designated time — after the temperature check and the Daily Pass app has been scanned, after we’ve stood on the sidewalk six feet from everyone and fully masked — with something not exactly like aplomb but closer to determination. She reminds me of an athlete headed onto the court. Get in the game, Noa!
She avoids a hug, dodges my hand reaching to smooth her hair, rarely says a goodbye. Sometimes she’ll sort of raise a hand in a semi-goodbye, but rarely will she actually look me in the eye. This is not out of defiance or embarrassment. Not yet, at least. She seems to be stealing herself for something: the outside world, full of its people and new germs and new rules. Stay on your dot. Drink water in the hallway. Don’t touch.
My teacher told us we will be part of history, she said recently when she came home. Is that true?
I looked at her, my only child, sitting at the dining room table, surrounded by homework. This dining room table where, in the earliest, scariest days, she and I drew dogs and faces with the artists Wendy Mac and Mo Willems on Instagram; where we made leprechaun traps and did blind contour drawings; and one day, in desperation, I drew wine bottles from one of Alison Roman’s cookbooks. Where we had dinners with cloth napkins and a meat/ starch/ veggie/ alcohol/ dessert every night at 5pm because waiting a minute longer for the rest of the day to be over felt impossible to me.
Yes! It’s true! I told her.
What else was there to say?
This morning, I felt a swell of pride and sadness at the sight of all these small kids, the last in this country to be vaccinated, the most patient, lined up with their adults, waiting eagerly for their tiny sliver of a school day, their smallest moments of freedom. Masks up, backpacks laden with school-issued Chromebooks, snacks and water and hand sanitizer tucked into the pockets. They looked so brave and strong and trusting. So still.
Yes, I wanted to tell her. You will be part of history. You, my love, all of you. You will have taught us the most essential thing of all: How to keep on living.