The End of Learning

I had to drive around the block to see them, my children, as they carried themselves towards the old stone steps

A photograph of en empty school hallway
Photo by kyo azuma / Unsplash

I had to drive around the block to see them, my children, as they carried themselves towards the old stone steps and into their school for the last time. It's a historic landmark, that school. I aimed to pull over and watch them from the curb behind a loaded dumpster on the street - yet another housing flip. The houses in this neighborhood are neglected but have good bones, so they say. I can't help but wonder if anyone will talk about me like that in another few years? "He was neglected but had good bones."

I shouted goodbye to Rita, the crossing guard. I waved at teachers who probably wondered why the distant random guy in the minivan was swerving and yelling indiscriminately. Then there they went. Past the PTA President who was handing out golden Mylar balloons to the graduating fifth graders. Past the two teachers who stood as proxy for guards outside in the mornings, a human filter for who got in or got kept out. My kids went past the old limp dogwood tree, half its roots and limbs long broken off by snowplows and school children, but God bless it if it didn't still find the strength to bloom each spring. Up the stairs and through the shadow of the metal-framed doorway. They didn't even look back to see if I was watching.

As all parents do, I remember the first day of dropping my kids off at this school. Their ironed, white shirts tucked in, each with hair braided and combed, stuffed backpacks double strapped to them like an adventurer's epic gear, and the innocent gap-toothed smiles from ear to ear. In those days, they hadn't asked me if they were ugly, they didn't worry about bullies, and they weren't embarrassed if I walked them to the door. They were excited, and a little scared, and proud to hold my hand.

Years later, today, wearing stained, wrinkled shirts half-tucked, pandemic hair explosions atop their heads, I sent them both in with sandals, even though that breaks the dress code. Their shoes were ruined from a trip to a lake at a state park last week. Well, the trip did not ruin them, but when I left both pairs in the car for three days during a mid-nineties heatwave, that did. Mold grew in them. The smell was marvelous - I think I created a whole new life form, there in my children's shoes, in the sunny minivan incubator.

Back then, during remote learning, who was thinking of shoes? This year there have been whole stretches of weeks, maybe longer, that we have gone without shoes. Or vegetables. I heard that the blue jean industry suffered during the early days when everyone opted into sweats or comfortable pajamas. I do not think such indignity was sustained by the potato industry. 2020 was a year of glory for chips. 2021 will be glory for pants with stretch waistbands.

Cue flashback sequence: It was Friday the 13th, March 2020, a half-day for the district. I picked my kids up and jokingly hollered, "See you next year," to one of the math teachers. That Sunday, we got a robocall explaining that children could not attend classes until further information was sent out. Something like this was expected. Our pantry was already stocked. I had food in the freezer. There was toilet paper in the closet. We had been watching the news. It was just a matter of time until the shutdowns arrived and even public schools closed, but no one knew what that would mean, exactly. Or how long it would last.

A year later, the kids were invited back for what amounted to ten and a half days in the building. Here I sit, having watched them vanish into the last of them. Did the school figure out all the problems they faced? Did they ace all the hurdles? No. They did not, but somewhere in the blush of the last year-and-change, I grew to accept the risk - to almost want the risk - just to see my children experience a few days of the old normalcy, for their mental health. We take such risks because we have to move through our lives. We cannot remain in limbo, waiting.

I stare another moment into the shadowed entry. It was the last time my children would enter this school together as students. We opted to transfer them into another district for the coming year, one that costs money to attend. A pseudo-private school, one of those experimental lab schools connected to the local public university.

The pandemic exposed too many unresolved problems lingering in our free public school's usually unseen administrative layers.

I feel like I had given up, stopped fighting. But I have to ask, should school be a fight? Shouldn't it just work, considering the vast budgets and layers of professionals and years of experience? So I am leaving the battle for equity in public schools, dignity, and socio-economic diversity in public schools for someone else to wrestle with. For now, at least. Today, my kids will sit with their teachers in a real classroom. They will eat bagged lunches alongside people their own age. They will indulge in the glory of that old marble and brick school building for one last time. And it is enough.