Back-to-School Shopping Brings Comfort During the Pandemic

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. That was one of those moments in childhood that make you feel more mature than your mother. 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. These trips were more enjoyable as I grew older. Clothes were a symbol of hope before every 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.

My outfit was laid out the day before sixth grade started. I wore a red Planet Hollywood shirt, black shorts and red slouch socks. Black high-top Reeboks with red scrunchies and red-and-black scrunchies. My first bra, a short-sleeved white ribbed turtleneck with a pleated plaid skirt. 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!It looks just like mine, with my overnight Pull-Ups drenched in sweat the morning after (You’ll always be my baby). I can still recall my excitement on those shopping trips.What will you be like?) and imagine the flip side of my mother’s care (They will treat you like a child.).

Pre-K is the first year for my daughter. This seems so 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. The hands of the second image are held close to each other, and the tightrope is reduced to a narrow bridge. An ant can cross from one side to the other almost instantaneously. Meg, a book that was my favourite as a kid, teaches how to make shortest paths in time and space.

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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. It is easy to lose the time between the events. The pause button was pressed, and then the speed dial. Now we need to let go of her. We Get To release her. But it’s terrifying.

The CDC released new recommendations regarding COVID-19 testing and quarantine. This despite the fact that it still kills nearly 500 Americans each day. Federal data shows that about one fifth of Americans suffer from Long COVID. Although studies vary on the extent of Long COVID in children, there is no way to know if they are more common than adults. However, symptoms can last for weeks and even months after an initial infection. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Biden administration have both declared monkeypox an emergency. While cases in the United States have not been reported, they raise questions about what might happen to children in universities, particularly daycares or preschools where there is often close contact and long-term exposure.

There are also school shootings. One hour and half away from Uvalde is where our daughter lives. In May, her 9-year old daughters were killed in the Robb Elementary shooting. 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? Never since the birth of my daughter have I felt so tortured every day by her pain, fear, and loss.

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Although having children might feel like an extraordinary act of hope at times, trusting them with the rest of the universe can seem like the most foolish act of faith. This world is not trustworthy. But, there is an alternative.

Yesterday I took my 2-year old son and her to Target. As we were driving towards Target, she spoke of three childhood friends. She had to let me know that she will not have them at 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. She was holding a transparent rubbery dinosaur called Shelldon in her car seat. I looked at Shelldon as she sat down. Her large brown eyes were glistening with tears and her voice sounded high. “You’re telling me all the people I love won’t be there anymore?”

After taking a deep breath, I prepared to validate my feelings and remind her she still could see them at school. She would also tell me that there were other kids she loved. “Oh!” she said. “I see a hole in a tree. That must be where an owl lives!”

I laughed, agreed and went back to school shopping with her.

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