Friday, the thirteenth of March of this year was the last time my son and I were in our respective middle schools. He’s in sixth grade and I teach seventh grade Health as well as sixth and eighth grade Physical Education. My son’s school decided to close due to the coronavirus epidemic on the preceding Wednesday or Thursday, announcing a half day for all students and instructing them to bring home their books and such. My school district made a similar announcement on the Thursday and Friday was a half-day for the students and a full day for staff to plan what has become the new norm of distance learning.
With three snow days that weren’t used, my district made the first Monday and Tuesday ‘snow days.’ That gave us more time to plan and prepare. As a result, we didn’t begin distance learning until Wednesday, the eighteenth. My son’s school began on Monday, the sixteenth, but even so we were able to get to the club and play an hour of squash at 7am thanks to a 9am start for distance learning. Before that, we also had our usual Saturday session on the fourteenth. The lockdown/stay-at-home order hadn’t yet been declared by our governor and the severity of the coronavirus, the length of our school closures, and the impact on our lives were still unknowns. On Tuesday, things started shutting down and becoming very serious. For those who have suffered greatly – financially, emotionally, physically, the loss of a family member(s) – I offer you my condolences and prayers. Thankfully, my family and I have not suffered too badly although there has been a psychological and emotional toll.
That first Monday was the last time my son went anywhere. Since returning home from our squash session, other than for a couple of drives in the neighborhood, walking the dog, or venturing out for a workout (either a run, some kind of conditioning session on our driveway, a ‘squash’ game at a wall we found that has lots of room and where we can line out a court), he hasn’t left the house. With the exception of running into a friend driving by and stopping to say hello and the Zoom party we had for his birthday in April, he hasn’t spoken to anyone other than my wife and I. Oh, and the dog.
So, it was with great excitement when he had to return his school textbooks the other day. He had three – one for Social Studies and two for Language Arts – and I had to drive him to school and drop him off at a designated location. From there, he submitted the downloaded and printed ‘return form’ then, following instructions, he entered the new gymnasium (the one with direct outdoor access). Once inside, he returned his books to the assigned table. Each table was labeled with a different subject and there was a school administrator, office assistant, or PTA volunteer waiting to receive the returned texts. All of this was done with his mask and gloves on and with me waiting in the car. No more than two minutes had elapsed after I’d parked the car, when he was back and opening the door and sliding into the back seat. The book return was organized alphabetically by surname and scheduled blocks of time so it was very quick and easy.
Other than being another reminder that the school year is ending and the summer break is coming, my son was very excited for this book return event. He joked on the way that he’s actually going somewhere. When he got back into the car, he was ecstatic that he’d gotten to speak to other human beings. They weren’t deep or meaningful conversations by any stretch of the imagination. He said he recognized some of the staff in the gym but none of them seemed to know him the way one of his teachers would have so the exchanges were brief. Nonetheless, he was thrilled. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I asked him how it went. His answer was so special and heartfelt and made me almost pull the car over and hug him as tightly as I could. His reply to my question was, “Seven words.” That’s what he’d said inside the gym. During various steps of the book return process, he’d had to answer two questions and make five affirmations. He said “okay” four times and one time each for his surname, “here” and “no.” From his reaction and the excitement he was displaying, I could’ve cried. You’d have thought he was just named Squash Player of the Year or received some other highly coveted accolade
I get it, though. We live together, my wife, son and I. Naturally, we are the most important people in each of our lives and we love each other but, after twelve weeks together and 24/7 at that, any change is a wonderful thing. On one of my more recent trips to the supermarket, I had a conversation with a woman in the checkout line. Our grocery store has regular cashier checkouts as well as newly installed self-checkout machines. With social distancing, customers form a line and get called up when a cashier is open. She asked me if the line I was in was for self-checkouts or just the regular checkouts. I told her I wasn’t sure. Another customer knew the answer and told her (it’s the same line). After that, masks on, we had a chat about our previous supermarket trips and how there was no line, not many customers, and how the relative crowd on this day was probably due to the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. Eventually, using the self-checkout, she was called up ahead of me and went about her business. I’ll likely never see her again. Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to point her out if I did. I doubt she would recognize me either.
The brief chat, as meaningless as it appeared to be, was actually one of the highlights of that day and, perhaps, even of this lockdown. I’ve always been a loner. I don’t have many friends and I don’t socialize much but I do understand and appreciate the need for and value of human contact. In these dark times, positive human interaction is like striking gold. Without it, there’s the potential for conditions like loneliness, sadness, and depression to develop. So, for my son to be totally overjoyed at having had seven brief conversations, each with him only having to say just a solitary word, I am overjoyed and grateful. I’m happy that he had some additional human contact and that he cherishes it, whether he realizes it or not. I’m thankful that the school had the students bring the books back and not just the parents. Kids are vulnerable. So, too, are adults. We all need human interaction. We all need to feel connected – to one another and the larger world around us. In a small way, my chat in the supermarket and my son’s seven words connected us to our community and made us feel a part of something.
In pre-coronavirus life, these kinds of interactions would’ve been nothing more than an encounter with another person and not likely be thought about ever again. With the isolation and distancing, much needed to help combat against this pandemic, and which I think are still needed, these brief encounters become so much more. In these dire times, more so than ever, we need that sense of connectedness and community. Seeing his school and stepping in it, gave my son a bit of that. It, also, offered him a glimpse of hope and a return to some kind of normalcy; that there is a world out there and that there is a life after COVID, after crisis. Who knows if we’ll get back to the normal we used to know. Maybe we shouldn’t and we need to create a new and better normal. Either way, we need hope and hope can come in the form of a place, a person or even a single word.