In the depths of the pandemic lockdown, my 2-year-old son’s best friend was a stop sign.
Most days, we would walk down the street to the local preschool, just the two of us. The gates to the playgrounds were padlocked, so we played invented games in the empty fields. And when we walked through the deserted parking lot, we would stop to say hello to his friend. My son would wrap his arms around it and press his cheek against the cold metal signpost.
“I’m huggin’ my frien’ the stop sign,” he would say.
On the best days, our time around the preschool had the feel of an early morning after a snowstorm: hushed, peaceful, insulated. Most days were filled with worry: about my aging parents, my job, my wife’s job, grocery shopping, walking too close to passing strangers, how the country seemed to be coming apart, whether my wife and I could cope if the worst happened and our son got sick.
My dreams took on the pall of horror movies. In them, I would wake up suddenly to see my son standing before our bed, covered in vomit or bleeding uncontrollably. Fortunately, I wasn’t sleeping much.
I even worried about what would happen if he stayed healthy. Pre-pandemic, he seemed to be a half step behind his peers: less interactive, more uncertain. Right before schools and day cares closed, his teachers suggested we begin early intervention therapy — which we continued, such as it was, over Zoom. Would our isolation leave him even further behind? I pictured him alone at recess, standing by the playground fence, talking to his stop sign through the bars.
My world got very small, and my family occupied most of it. But like educators across the country, I also worried that my students were missing something vital, even if they and their families were staying healthy. School is where students test their wings and explore who they are and what they care about.
But school is also where germs congregate — whatever’s out there in the community makes its way through our doors. I felt that caution in reopening made sense, even though isolation was no better for my students than for my son. But as the lockdown wore on, my concerns grew: Would my students ever recover what they had lost?
This year’s seniors ended middle school on Zoom and most began their four years of high school in a hybrid system. We tried to reinvent our educational practice on the fly; students did their best to follow along — or didn’t. We masked, cleaned desks after every class, and practiced social distancing. Each classroom had a huge bottle of hand sanitizer and an even larger bucket of bleach wipes, which was refilled almost daily. We asked families to test and quarantine.
Connections between schools and communities frayed. Academic progress slowed. Anxiety grew. I didn’t see my students’ unmasked faces in person for more than a year.
Now this cohort is just a semester from graduation. Some students weathered the pandemic better than others — a combination of family circumstances, school district resources, and luck factors into student outcomes. Although such disparities are nothing new in education, the pandemic exacerbated them. As a result, meeting each student’s needs has become even more difficult. These kids display a wider variety of strengths, motivations, and behaviors than before; classes often feel like a mix of fourth-graders and college students.
The data is worrisome, and intensive remediation to address the most glaring shortfalls should be a policy priority for years to come. But students are more than data, and those of us who work in schools see many positive signs as well. The kids may not be completely all right, and their pandemic experience has left its mark. But they are determined not to let it define them. Although their test scores may lag those of past cohorts, this group may be more prepared in other ways.
These seniors walk the halls with swagger — a mix of false bravado and sincere belief that they are ready to make the world their own. They’ve grown up: There’s the senior who commanded the attention of an auditorium full of younger students as he recounted his journey over the last four years. He is hardly the same person who at one point in his freshman year had a 16 percent average in my class. Then there’s the girl who could hardly do more than stare glumly at her desk four years ago. Today she looks her teachers in the eye, speaks confidently, and serves as a teaching assistant to a class of sophomores. Through the pandemic’s adversity, they learned lessons we can’t teach.
It is possible that kids just bounce back more readily than the rest of us. The adults I know — colleagues and friends, my students’ parents, and even (especially) me — are more worn out than we used to be. Our pandemic worries have taken a toll, and our emotions are heightened — the negative ones, anyway. Optimism seems tempered.
Which is not to say we were wrong to worry or that our pandemic fears weren’t justified — only that we could take a lesson from my students in how to let go.
My own worst fears about my son still haunt me sometimes, though they never came to pass. Now a kindergartner, he and his classmates careen around bounce houses at birthday parties; a goose egg on the forehead or a bloody lip is almost inevitable. School recess revolves around zombie games, which, near as I can decipher, involve running around with his friends and screeching — a lot.
He has forgotten his stop sign.
Stephen Lane teaches history and economics at Concord-Carlisle High School. He is the author of “Long Run to Glory,” a book about the first women’s Olympic marathon, and “No Sanctuary,” a history of the grassroots efforts to provide in-school support for LGBTQ students.