When I watched my son walk into the beige brick building of his South Brooklyn public school for his first day of kindergarten, he was trailed by three other students. The classroom would be relatively empty because of new caps on capacity, but also because many parents were wary about sending their kids back to school and had kept them home. With a straight face that revealed no emotion related to their diminished ranks, their teacher marched her students across the playground and into the school—through halls I would never see, to a classroom I would never know. Though I know my son’s classmate Miguel plays video games and that Sophie’s favorite book is about soccer, I have barely glimpsed these children’s faces.
The first time I laid eyes on the place where my son has spent the majority of his waking hours (well, most of the time) was when the teacher filmed a Valentine’s Day video of the class singing “Skidamarink” and texted it to the parents. How colorful the walls were! What a cheerful rug! But, filmed from 15 feet away, with the masked kids standing six feet apart, they looked like figurines engaged in a sweet kind of semaphore; I could barely hear them.
Eighteen months ago, a scene like that would have been unfathomable. There was no “in-person” class—it was just class. The idea that I had not seen my son’s classmates’ faces would have baffled me—masks were for Halloween and dress-up. I say that “most of his time” was spent in school because that wasn’t always the case. The start of the in-person school year was delayed for weeks and then canceled (for some zip codes, including ours) after a mere three days. There were periodic shutdowns, and he was on a two- or three-day-a-week schedule for much of the year. All of this resulted in a complex stew of logistics that mandated military-grade advance planning. (I also have two other kids who attend two other, different schools, so multiply all these factors by three.)
But this is a year in which nothing was normal and everything became normal. I got used to the thud-thud of little feet as my sons ran in place next to their tablets or sidestepped across the living room for at-home Zoom P.E. We developed a system for depositing the dirty masks in the laundry to keep them separate from the clean ones, and the kids actually followed it; by the end of the year, my three-year-old was stuffing his spare mask into his little pants pocket on his own. Recently, I flipped through my seven-year-old’s school journal, and found many, many pages devoted to the washing of his hands. I am a ruthless winnower of the projects that my children bring back to the house, ascribing to the philosophy that if you don’t edit all this “artwork” it will take over your home, but I will keep that journal forever, a time capsule of a year in which hand hygiene became its own educational unit. I hope he looks back on it for the rest of his life and thinks: What a strange and foreign land we resided in during the school year of 2020-2021.
And it’s also a year in which I learned—through every late-night email announcing school was shuttered indefinitely due to a positive case—that while a plan is necessary, it is also often useless. People tell you to expect the unexpected in parenting. They tell you to make peace with the fact that there are things you can’t control. They tell you to have a sense of humor because your ability to control who your kids will become is ultimately limited. But this year truly tested the maxim of “expect the unexpected.” No matter how hard I squinted at my Google calendar each Sunday night, shifting pastel-colored blocks to make sure that no child (literally) got left behind, the only thing I truly knew I could anticipate was that something would fall apart. I wasn’t so much dropping balls as constantly picking them up.
But if the past school year was one of unpredictable fluidity, it was also one in which I felt certain things solidify. As the hours I spent with my children necessarily increased, I began to realize that the effects of all this togetherness were flowing both ways. I was much more aware of the progress they were making in learning to read or recite the alphabet, but they were also more attuned to the way in which the stresses of the pandemic were affecting me. During one particularly grim February stretch, in which my husband—due to his work—had been vaccinated but there seemed to be no shot in sight for me (a fact that at the time seemed a cosmic injustice), my five-year-old sidled up to me and, poked me in the arm, and said: “Don’t worry Mommy, I’ll give you the shot.”
It was also a year in which I realized, more than ever, the virtues of some kind of support network. My oldest son attends a school far from our house; prior to the pandemic, we’d had a “go it alone” philosophy, dispatching his babysitter to escort him there and back on the subway every day. But the subway didn’t seem super safe when he was called back to class in September, and so we reached out to families who also lived in the area, some we’d never spoken to before, to organize a carpool. (An added bonus, my seven-year-old boy would now be shuttled in a carful of older girls; education can happen anywhere.) When we began driving the carful of kids in the fall, the streets were still, for the most part, eerily empty, and we barreled up the FDR Drive in the early mornings without a single slowdown. As people gradually began to return to normal commuting rhythms, the drive time lengthened and was, on occasion, torturous, but it never lessened my gratitude for the parents (and sometimes their babysitters) who banded together to man our little life raft.
This week, when I dropped my kindergartener off for his final week of school, I experienced a different scene from the one I’d encountered in the fall. A trail of 20-something kids followed the teacher into the building, jostling with the bouncy-ball energy that only a full class of kids can generate. Later in the day, the parents attended a “stepping-up” ceremony outside at the school, watching the kids sing songs about being ready for first grade. The parents sat in distanced folding chairs and the kids wore masks, but this time, with some two dozen voices singing in semi-unison, it was much easier to hear them.
Originally Appeared on Vogue