A back-to-school ritual offers me comfort and normalcy

MThe elementary school colors were purple and green, and in the children’s section of Dillard’s I made a joyous discovery: jeans in purple and lime peeking out of the holes lining the walls. As I left the dressing room, my mother’s hand instinctively shot up to make sure the crotch wasn’t sagging. It was one of those terrifying childhood moments when you feel older than your mother sees you. In a few weeks I would be entering the fifth grade.

Every August, when it was so hot that the backs of our knees were slick with sweat and our seat belts were burning, my mother would take my brother, sister, and me to the Mall del Norte in Laredo, Texas, where we would browse the end-of-summer sales and we chose our first optimistic autumn shades – a marigold sweater, a rusty corduroy – even though we knew the heat wouldn’t let up until Halloween. The older I got, the more I enjoyed these trips. The clothes carried a special promise before each new school year. Those hours with my mom and my siblings were when I would decide who I wanted to be this year, how I wanted to be perceived.

The day before sixth grade started, I laid out my outfit: a red Planet Hollywood t-shirt, black shorts, red socks, and black Reebok high socks, with red and black stilettos as a finishing touch. Seventh grade: white ribbed turtleneck with short sleeves, pleated plaid skirt, my first bra. Eighth grade: a striped crop top and soft 5-7-9 lace-up pants that I would wear until my mom secretly turned them into cleaning rags years later.

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I have been mother for four years now. One of the strange wonders of this time is a new, layered perspective on my memories, scenes from childhood overlaid with a parent’s perspective. I can see my mother’s hand reaching for those purple jeans (mom! I’m not a baby!) and looks like my own, patting out overnight-soaked curls the next morning (You will always be mine baby). I remember the excitement of those shopping sprees (Who will I be?) and imagine the flip side of my mother’s care (How will they treat you?).

My daughter starts preschool this month. It feels startlingly sudden. There is a drawing A wrinkle in time by Madeleine L’Engle, demonstrating the tesseract, or the titular wrinkle in time. In the first image, a string is held between two hands and an ant walks along it as if it were a tightrope. In the second image, the hands are brought close together, a taut rope is reduced to a small bridge; the ant moves from one side to the other almost instantly. In the book that was a favorite of mine as a child, Meg is taught to use her mind to create this shortcut through space and time.

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I’ve been holding the string in one hand since April 2020, when our daughter wore a dress that said TWO and stuffed a chocolate sprinkle cake into her mouth while our family sang “Happy Birthday” via Zoom— the beginning of our new pandemic reality that we never expected to last more than a few months. In my other hand is today as she practices writing words like “bucket” and “bike” on a magnetic drawing board and asks me what happens after we die – about to start school. The time in between often seems lost in the maw of the pandemic. Pressing a button to pause, then fast forward. We held her close and now we must set her free. We I receive to release her. But it’s terrifying.

CDC recently relaxed quarantine and testing recommendations for COVID-19, despite the virus still killing nearly 500 Americans a day and, according to federal data, burdening approx one in five US adults with long-term COVID. (Studies differ when it comes to estimating the prevalence of Long COVID among childrenalthough children are unlikely to be free of symptoms that persist for weeks or even months after their initial infection.) Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and the Biden administration announced monkeypox a public health emergencyand while cases among children in the US have so far been rare, cases occurring in university the settings raise the question of what might happen in schoolsespecially preschools and daycares, where children often have close and prolonged contact.

Then there is school shootings. We live an hour and a half from Uvalde, where in May three friends of a friend lost their 9-year-old daughters in the Rob elementary school massacre. Sometimes I look at my daughter’s pink shoes, the butterfly wing Velcro strap, and think of Mayte Rodriguez, identified by her green Converse size 5 with a heart painted on the left toe. What must happen to a child’s body for a shoe to be the only recognizable part of it? Not since my daughter was born have I been so regularly tormented by the possibilities of her loss, by her fear and pain.

Read more: The hidden truth about parenting isn’t that it’s really hard

If having children can sometimes feel like a radical act of hope, entrusting them to the world can feel like the most foolish act of faith. I don’t believe in this world. Yet what is the alternative?

I put her and my 2 year old son in the car yesterday. On the way to Target, she told about three friends from her summer camp. I had to break the news that none of them would be at her school. Sometimes I get so burdened by the big things, the unbearable things, that I forget to worry about the normal things, things that are big for her. I looked at her in the car seat where she was clutching a translucent rubber dinosaur named Sheldon. Her large brown eyes glistened with tears, and her voice trembled, piercingly high. “You tell me all the people I love it won’t be there anymore?”

I took a deep breath and prepared to validate her feelings and remind her that she could still see them, just not at school, and that she would find new kids to love when she pointed out the window. “Oh!” she said. “I see a hole in a tree. An owl must live there!’

I laughed, agreed and took her shopping back to school.

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