I’m a native New Yorker. I’m a staunch feminist. And I grew up playing bass in punk bands on the Lower East Side.
Those are three ways of telling you that I’m not generally a person ruled by fear, or someone who automatically does what she’s told.
So when Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the start of the summer that the city would be returning to in-person school in September, there wasn’t really a bone in my body that believed I’d soon be dropping off my seventh-grade son, Harper, every morning at his well-intentioned but criminally underfunded Lower East Side public school, with its insufficient ventilation and lack of outdoor space.
And yet here I am, with my sanitized fingers crossed.
I’ve been up since 5:45, thoughts flying around my brain like panicked birds crashing into one another for over an hour.
What if my son gets Covid and becomes a long hauler?
What if he brings it home to my husband, who has a heart disease?
A mom friend recently said: “I’d feel better just sending my son down the East River on an inner-tube and seeing what he can learn. At least he’d be outside.” And for a split second I thought, “I own an inner-tube!”
We’re heading out the door when my son says he can’t find his mask. It’s the only kind we want him wearing to school, the one we’ve been told is the safest. My neck feels so tight it might just snap like a twig and send my head tumbling onto the floor. Which, on a positive note, would get me out of having to face this day.
I hand him a bottle of hand sanitizer to carry with him, but he has worn the shorts with no pockets.
We find the mask on the floor by the cat food.
Out on the street, I frown at the gray sky and at my phone, which promised me there would be no rain today. I’ve told Harper he will have to eat lunch in the school’s yard because we don’t want him eating in the small cafeteria. The image of him eating in the rain makes me want to cry.
“There’s a snack bar in your bag,” I tell him.
“Does it have peanuts in it?” he asks.
Damn it! The no-peanuts rule. I pull out the offending bar and shove it into my mouth.
With his school in sight, I suddenly think, Hey! This is your one life, lady. Don’t waste it being upset.
I say his name, pull my mask down and smile at him. But I can tell from his reaction that the smile is too intense and awkward.
I watch him as he’s swept into the dark maw of his middle school, a small head in the huge, close crowd.
I ugly-cry all the way home. (Thank goodness for the mask.)
At 2:55 p.m., I’m outside the school, standing on my toes, desperate for a glimpse of my boy.
When I extract him from the stream of kids, I search his tired eyes — the only thing I can see over his mask.
And in that moment, I believe it was worth it. In that moment, he’s happy, and so am I.
Ali Smith is a writer and photographer. Her most recent book is “Momma Love: How the Mother Half Lives.” Joshua Bright is a documentary photographer.
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