Can we take a moment to recognize the strength and resilience of elementary-school-aged kids during this pandemic?
They’re putting on their masks and their backpacks and walking into school on their own every morning, even the littlest ones, whose parents couldn’t follow them on campus for their first day of kindergarten this year. They’re learning how to learn at a distance, no more hugs from their teachers, no more sharing a pencil or a snack or a high five with their classmates. Even so, they’re still finding ways to have fun with their friends. They’re still growing, socially and emotionally as well as physically.
Or else they’re booting up borrowed laptops at home, working their way through packets of worksheets on the couch or the bed or the kitchen table or a quiet corner of the closet. They’re learning surrounded by the noise and chaos of their families, or else in the silence of a home where everyone else is busy working, too, even the grownups. When they’re missing their friends, they bring their cats and their dogs and their stuffies with them into their virtual classrooms. They’re learning how to learn on their own, even as they keep their friendships alive through video chats and outdoor play dates and shared Minecraft worlds
Or else they’re simply hanging in there, day after day, while learning and friends become increasingly distant memories. They’re caring for themselves and their even-younger siblings full time while their parents work, or they’re struggling to survive on their own, in homes where emotional or physical violence are—or have become—the norm, without the option of escaping into a classroom for a few hours a day.
For some kids, the victory is that they’re continuing to learn and grow and connect with their friends. For others, the victory is that they’re surviving at all.
They’re heroes, every last one of them.
As adults, facing so many of our own real challenges right now, it’s easy not to notice this. Let’s stop and notice it now. Remember how, when you were a kid, summer seemed to last forever? For today’s kids, Covid-19 has been three summers long—so far. But they’re still here, still surviving and, on good days, even thriving. They’re handling an impossible situation, if not perfectly, still with more strength and grace than many grownups.
I wasn’t happy when schools closed last March, but I understood and accepted it—accepted that we had to hunker down for a few months to get this virus under control. By August, the worst would be over, and my daughter would be back in school.
For a month, two months, it seemed we’d get there. Arizona’s Covid cases were rising, but our total numbers remained relatively low. Sheltering in place and enduring daily remote learning meltdowns seemed to be working. It hard, but just a couple more rough months now and we could back to normal in the fall.
And then, in mid-May, Arizona—like so many states—just gave up.
Our Covid cases were still rising, but suddenly no one seemed to care. The governor’s stay at home order expired in mid-May. By the end of the month, pretty much everything was open: restaurants, gyms, beauty salons, the mall. The governor wouldn’t even allow cities to pass mask mandates to mitigate the harm until several weeks later.
Only schools remained closed. Only teachers and families seemed to get that there was still a pandemic going on. The school year was almost over. I hung on to the faint hope that staying home now would let us break our isolation in time for the first day of school. Getting in-person school back up and running was the one, the most, important thing right now.
But too many people didn’t understand that. Too many people just had to eat out, go to the gym, hang out at the bar, and get a hair cut immediately, rather than waiting another month or two. Our numbers kept rising, more steeply now, and too many didn’t seem to care. Arizona took it’s turn as the world’s Covid19 hotspot, but unlike most of the hotspots before us, we had time to see it coming. We knew what would happen.
It didn’t have to be like this.
Our family, like so many families, did all we could. It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough, when so many others were doing nothing at all. Even now, when bars and gyms have finally closed again, restaurants and retail stores remain open. I guess the people filling those places think their right to eat out with their friends is more important than my kid’s right to get an education and hang out with her friends.
So we’re not going back to in-person school this August. Of course we’re not.
And people still don’t get it. Instead of embracing the selfishness and sacrifice needed to get kids back to learning and their parents back to work, too many have doubled down on their own selfishness instead. Too many keep insisting they have the right to skip the mask, to eat out, to party with as many friends as they wanted.
Too many seem to believe, at the exact same time, that teachers and children have no rights at all, that we’re the selfish ones for not sucking it up and returning to a highly contagious, potentially deadly, environment just so that everyone else can keep on pretending everything’s back to normal.
The people refusing to wear masks or order takeout—the people who got us into this mess to begin with—couldn’t possibly be to blame. Only those of us unwilling to live with the consequences of the situation they created were to blame.
I hope that was one hell of a steak dinner you all had, one hell of a haircut, one hell of drink, one hell of a workout. Was it was good enough to be worth convincing yourself that no one but you matters, that actions don’t have consequences, that there can be freedom without responsibility or the basic community-minded patriotism of Americans looking out for one another.
I’ve always tried to avoid dividing this country into us vs. them, always tried to understand that everything looks different depending where you’re standing, that everyone deep down believes they’re doing the right thing.
But today—today I’m just angry. Angry that my governor and my legislature and far too many of my fellow Arizonans couldn’t be patient a few months more. Angry that my state values its restaurants and gyms and bars and malls so much more than it values its people.
Angry that, next week, my daughter isn’t going back to school in person after all.
Tomorrow, I know, I’ll get back to enduring. Remote learning will probably be a little better this time around. Even if it isn’t, I’ll make it through, somehow. All of us with school-age children will. We’ll manage for as long as we have to. We have no choice.
But the rest of you could at least help us out here. While teachers are trying to teach without the in-person interaction they excel at, while kids are trying to learn without the in-person interaction their development demands, while parents are trying to somehow juggle work and the stress of helping their kids through it all, for the most part without childcare or even the occasional babysitter—while we’re getting through, day by day—you can wear your damn mask. You can keep your damn social distance. You can party over Zoom like the rest of us. You can cook your own damn meals.
I don’t care anymore what sort of denial you’re relying on to convince yourself this is all no big deal. I do care that you’re more concerned with your right to continue doing whatever you want uninterrupted, without a thought for those of us whose entire lives will be interrupted that much longer as a result.
I need for you to be the ones to grow up, make sacrifices, and hunker down with the rest of us so that we all can get back to normal sooner rather than later.
I’d love for my daughter to get to meet her new teacher in person by January. But I can’t make that happen alone.
Of course, the burning mountains are only one of many things I’ll remember about this pandemic year. There’ve been so many changes, small and large.
Shortages of basic items. Hand sanitizer. Toilet paper. Flour. Minor inconveniences, which could mostly be replaced by other items. But the rationing demanded by earlier crises was slipping out of living memory, and we’d grown unaccustomed to minor inconveniences, to being unable to get what we want, when we want it.
Shortages of more critical items, of masks and other protective medical gear, shortages that left home sewers and crafters trying to fill gaps.
The fact that those homemade masks with their random prints actually were pretty charming, as well as a symbol of people pulling together to take care of one another. They were also more than a little dystopic, especially the kids masks, advertised as back to school items or made with cartoon-character prints.
Watching events get cancelled, one after another, conferences and community events falling like dominos. At last even the schools closed, something that had seemed impossible even a few days before, and then we understood that our world really had changed, that a sharp line had been drawn between then and now.
Things we’d done just a few short days or weeks or months ago seemed part of another world after that, things like shaking hands, or seeing a movie with friends, or making a grocery trip for just one or two items, or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake without worrying about germs.
The increased awareness of community, and the knowledge that you can be socially distant but emotionally close. More phone calls. Virtual happy hours. Outdoor meetups with neighbors and friends, our lawn chairs carefully spaced at least six feet apart.
The realization that all the remote connection in the world couldn’t replace a five-minute in-person meeting, or a hug.
Cooking. So much cooking. The combination of temporary food shortages and quarantine lockdowns meant we all did a lot more cooking at home, and for a while flour became another item that was hard to find.
Our attempts at hasty crisis homeschooling were much less successful that our baking. So were our attempts to replace our kids’ friends as their playmates. All the imagination in the world couldn’t make us play as well as a child could play, and all the good intentions in the world couldn’t make us teach even a fraction as well as our children’s teachers could teach. If we’d ever forgotten, no one doubted now that teachers were essential.
We realized lots of people we’d mostly been ignoring were essential. Those who treat the sick. Those who grow and distribute and sell our food. Those who package and deliver the mail.
Quarantine walks through the neighborhood, because you can’t stay inside all the time, each household keeping to its own group, crossing the street to avoid coming too close to one another. Yet also waving to one another, too, making clear that we’re still a community, that we still care about one another.
Painted rocks, left in front of our own houses or anonymously in front of neighbors’ houses, another way of saying that we’re still here, that we still care about each other.
The understanding that police brutality doesn’t magically stop during a pandemic, so fighting that brutality couldn’t stop, either. All the many layers of social and economic inequality that the pandemic laid bare.
Political campaigns run by phone, by text, by virtual town hall. It was an election year, after all. But also political campaigns run in person, as if nothing at all had changed. Somehow, the basics of public health had become as political as everything else, as if ideology could somehow stop viruses from infecting us.
Graduation ceremonies held at a distance, or not at all. Signs on lawns and stickers on cars congratulating recent graduates in place of graduation parties. Also, an epic senior prank.
The wait and hope for a vaccine. The attempts to navigate life without one. The loss of the comforting myth that we already had treatments for all the really bad diseases, that we were somehow ahead of science and history and the fears that had troubled the generations before us.
The longing to step back to the past, to the way things were, the way it still felt they should be. The need to appreciate the gifts of the present. The desire to find a way forward, into the future.
The knowledge that we’re not apart from history, but part of it, after all.
Subject line borrowed from John M. Ford’s “110 Stories,” written during another uncertain, challenging moment in history.
That’s not unusual, this time of year. Wildfires are a normal part of life in the west, and in Tucson, where mountains ring the city, we can often watch them burn from our homes on the valley floor.
Some fires are distant, a puff of smoke behind a distant ridge. Some are nearer, near enough to turn into orange snakes of flame after sundown. Every fire is different, and in memory, many fires get tied to the times of their burning.
Like the smoldering gray fire that made the Catalina Mountains look volcanic, watched from my back porch shortly before a trip to Iceland to see real volcanoes. After that, Iceland’s volcanoes and that fire were linked in my mind, and future fires seemed a little more volcanic, too.
Or a closer fire, also in the Catalinas, during which I watched the flames flare upwards in bright orange pillars I would later learn were the result of propane tanks exploding as the fire reached the Mount Lemmon retreat town of Summerhaven. Months later, when we were finally allowed to drive up the mountain, we found large stretches of once-familiar terrain laid open to gray ash and bare, blackened trees.
Less than a year later, a friend’s ashes were scattered on the same mountain. My friend and that fire—and my friend and that mountain too—were inextricably intertwined in memory after that. They still are.
Or this year, the pandemic year, when the Catalinas are burning again.
This time the fire threatens not just Summerhaven, up in the heights, but also nearer houses in and around the mountain’s foothills. The smoke is visible deep into the city, billows of white and gray and brown smoke that move like stormclouds over the peaks. At sunset, as I walk through the neighborhood and wave to our socially distant neighbors, the smoke turns pink, just as clouds do.
One day, I watched as firefighting planes dumped streams of fire-retardant red slurry into the smoke. The next day, the mountains bore the scars, lines of red clearly visible across their gray slopes.
How can the fire not become tied to the pandemic, to the protests for justice in its wake, to this entire long, strange, summer?
The slurry will fade, given time, as scars do. As the ashes of earlier fires have faded, becoming buried beneath years of new growth.
One day this moment in history will fade, too, slipping from living memory into stories and from stories into books. Like mountains, people heal and regrow, given enough time.
But I don’t live in that future. I live here, now, and I don’t yet know which houses will be lost, and which will be saved. I don’t know which landscapes will be remade, and which will remain the same. No one does.
All we really know, as we stand outside and watch the smoke, is that today, the mountains are burning.