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A Back-to-School Ritual Offers Me Comfort and Normalcy in a Time of Neither

6 minute read
Gutierrez is the author of the novel More Than You'll Ever Know

My elementary-school colors were purple and green, and in the children’s department at Dillard’s, I made a gleeful discovery: jeans in violet and lime peeking out of cubbyholes lining the walls. When I stepped out of the dressing room, my mom’s hand instinctively darted out to make sure the crotch didn’t sag. It was one of those mortifying childhood moments, when you feel older than your mother sees you. In a few weeks, I’d be entering fifth grade.

Every August, when it was so hot the backs of our knees slipped with sweat and the seat belts scalded us, my mom took my brother, sister, and me to Mall del Norte in Laredo, Tex., where we scoured the end-of-summer sales and picked out our first optimistic fall hues—a marigold sweater, rust corduroys—though we knew the heat wouldn’t relent until Halloween. The older I got, the more I enjoyed these trips. Clothes held a special kind of promise before each new school year. Those hours with my mom and siblings were when I’d decide who I wanted to be that year, how I wanted to be perceived.

The day before sixth grade began, I lay out my outfit: a red Planet Hollywood T-shirt, black bike shorts, red slouch socks, and black high-top Reeboks, with red and black scrunchies as a finishing touch. Seventh grade: a white ribbed short-sleeved turtleneck, pleated plaid skirt, my first bra. Eighth grade: striped crop top and soft drawstring pants from 5-7-9, which I’d wear until my mom secretly turned them into cleaning rags years later.

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I’ve been a mother now for four years. One of the strange miracles of this time is a new, layered perspective on my memories, childhood scenes overlaid with a parent’s point of view. I see my mother’s hand stretching toward those violet jeans (Mom! I’m not a baby!) and it looks like my own, patting drenched overnight Pull-Ups the next morning (You’ll always be my baby). I remember my excitement at those shopping trips (Who will I be?) and imagine the flip side of my mother’s care (How will they treat you?).

My daughter is starting pre-K this month. It feels startlingly sudden. There’s a drawing in A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, demonstrating a tesseract, or the titular wrinkle in time. In the first image, a string is held between two hands, and an ant walks across it as if it’s a tightrope. In the second image, the hands are brought close together, the tightrope reduced to a tiny bridge; the ant crosses from one side to another almost instantly. In the book, which was my favorite as a child, Meg is taught to use her mind to create this shortcut in space and time.

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In one hand, I hold the string beginning with April 2020, when our daughter wore a dress that said TWO and crammed chocolate cake with sprinkles into her mouth while our family sang “Happy Birthday” over Zoom—the start of our new pandemic reality, which we never expected to last longer than a few months. In my other hand, there is today, when she practices writing words like “bucket” and “bicycle” on a magnetic drawing board and asks me what happens after we die—about to start school. The time in between often feels lost in the maws of the pandemic. A pause button hit, then fast forward. We have held her close, and now we must release her. We get to release her. But it’s terrifying.

The CDC recently loosened quarantine and testing recommendations for COVID-19, despite the virus still killing nearly 500 Americans a day and, according to federal data, burdening about one in five U.S. adults with Long COVID. (Studies vary when it comes to estimating the prevalence of Long COVID among children, though kids are hardly exempt from symptoms that extend weeks or even months beyond their initial infection.) Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and the Biden Administration have declared monkeypox a public health emergency, and while cases among U.S. children have been rare so far, cases emerging in university settings raise the question of what could happen in schools, especially preschools and daycares, where children often have close and prolonged contact.

Then there are the 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 massacre at Robb Elementary. Sometimes I look at my daughter’s pink shoes, the butterfly wing Velcro strap, and think of Maite Rodriguez, identified by her size-5 green Converse with a heart drawn onto the left toe. What must happen to a child’s body for a shoe to be the only recognizable part of her? Not since my daughter was born have I been so regularly tortured by the possibilities of her loss, of her fear and pain.

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If having children can sometimes feel like a radical act of hope, entrusting them to the world can feel like the stupidest act of faith. I do not trust this world. And yet, what is the alternative?

Yesterday, I loaded her and my 2-year-old son into the car. On the way to Target, she talked about three friends from her summer camp. I had to break the news that none of them will be at her school. Sometimes I’m so weighed down with the big things, the impossible-to-bear things, that I forget to worry about normal things, things that are big to her. I glanced at her in her car seat, where she clutched a translucent rubbery dinosaur named Shelldon. Her big brown eyes shone with tears, and her voice wobbled, pitched high. “You’re telling me all the people I love won’t be there anymore?”

I took a deep breath and prepared to validate her feelings, and to 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. That must be where an owl lives!”

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

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