It’s endearing, things that excite 4th graders. They celebrate 15 minutes of free time like they’ve been locked in jail and dote over stickers like they’re pricey jewels. Witnessing their simple joy transports me to my elementary school days, where all it took was an intense game of tag and a sweet trade at lunch (chocolate chip for Oreos!) to make me ecstatic. But the other day, they were over the moon about something I never experienced. They went to fill their water bottles and came running back as if finding the final golden ticket, shouting:
“Ms. Litwin! The water fountains are back on!”
My first thought was, They had been off?, and my second thought was, They had been off. Of course. It was COVID, and fountains and masks had an inverse relationship. When masks were on, fountains were off, and now that masks are off, the water flows freely. They flitted back and forth several times, continuing to express their gratitude.
“I just want to bathe my whole body in it,” one student said, arms back, chest high, looking upward as if thanking the heavens.
I pointed out the adage that sometimes it takes things going away for us to appreciate them, but they were too busy splashing around in normalcy to care. And at ten years old, it was impossible for them to understand the metaphor that was crystal clear to me. Water is life, and they’re getting both back. Playdates and parties, concerts and competitions.
I thought back to the beginning of 2020. They were eight years old, kicking balls and climbing trees. Their world was bright parties with buddies, playful shoves and wrestles. Then one day, they were sent home from school, no idea that textbooks and desks weren’t the only things left behind. The next day, their world turned shades of gray, growing darker for two years. They sat trapped in bedrooms, numbed by the silence, the sparkle dulled from their eyes. And then yesterday, the water returned, and they were Dorothy, arriving in Oz, color once again circulating throughout their world. The school scheduled the music performance and bingo night – the beginning of positive memories from this time. My class is a microcosm of what’s happening for kids around the country, I learned, when my friend sent me a video her teenage daughter made capturing the moment she and her classmates revealed their faces for the first time in high school. She said:
“I didn’t even think about the negative impact a mask might’ve had on her when I was worried about keeping her safe from a deadly disease, but look at how happy she is now.”
Everyone deserves a carefree childhood, and I’m relieved for all of them, to drink the water and taste the freedom, but at the same time, I’m still worried for me. I should’ve been more careful when I blew out my birthday candle last year, because Autumn is nearly two – the age originally set for kids to start masking – and she won’t be required to wear one. No one will. And that’s what I wanted, but I also wanted her to be vaccinated, and I’m not certain I made that clear in my wishing. While others buy flights and book rooms, I’m still constantly questioning and then justifying my every move. It’s like this:
Daycare is a necessity. And if she’s going there, what’s the difference if she goes to stores? What about planes? That mask mandate only goes until April 18 and then what? It seems like being trapped in a vehicle thousands of feet in the air is different from strolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s, never more than a minute from a door leading outside.
And then I wonder if I’m being too depressing and dark, and think maybe I need to lighten up. Kids who get COVID don’t usually get too sick, and I wonder whether I’ll continue having a difficult time readjusting to a maskless world even when Autumn is vaccinated – whenever that is – because changing to this life was hard, and reverting back will be as well.
These days, I barely recognize my students. They went from thick bands of fabric to noses and teeth, smiles and cheeks and dimples. I love seeing their expressions, marveling at their features, and appreciating the simplicity of educating the whole child – faces included.
And at the same time, I wish they’d all put back on their masks.