Of all the many lessons I have learned from being a parent, the most important has been not to sell my kids short. When I’m concerned for their fears, they exhibit inspirational courage. Where I’m worried about them adjusting, they adapt quicker than I do. And what I expect they won’t understand, they grasp far deeper than I ever could anticipate. Yet, how often do we really heed what comes from the mouths of babes? Trying to live my life according to the lessons I learn (rather than having to learn them over and over again) in times of trouble, I will often engage my kids’ wisdom, which is accepting and open and observant. I think we should want to hear them speak.
Every few weeks now, we try to assure ourselves that we’re in post-COVID times; that soon life will go back to normal; that wherever you fall on the socio-political spectrum that has become the barometer for pandemic acceptance for all people, the nightmare is nearly over. I considered this—the “nightmare”—as a woman walking into King Soopers behind me complained about having to put her mask on for the 20 minutes she would be inside the store. Also, as I nearly collided carts with a man who felt a mask shouldn’t prevent him from detailing his many opinions, which were printed across it. Certainly, thousands of people throughout the state and across the country have been living a nightmare, but for most of us reading this magazine, living in this place, has it really been a devastation? Or are we simply talking about inconvenience?
Well, what do the kids say? For starters: “Don’t complain about wearing a mask,” said Reed, 9. “At most, you’re at the store for an hour. I don’t take mine off for seven hours a day, five days a week.” Yes, a 9-year-old told me this. You know what else he said? “But I don’t mind the masks” if it means being in school with his friends.
Reed has been attending elementary school this year at a location that has been open full time, just with restrictions like mask-wearing and social distancing. He and his buddy, Will, 8, agree that it’s better than nothing. “It’s tiring to wear masks,” Will said, but when he hears people complaining, “it breaks my heart.” They remember what it was like to be remote learning.
All of the kids do. “Every day started feeling the same,” said Reese, 17. “It became hard to find things to look forward to.” In her childlike wisdom, just like Reed and Will, Reese found the lesson. “It eventually taught me to appreciate the little things more.”
Because for these kids, the nightmare of the pandemic wasn’t having to put a piece of cloth on their faces to run an errand. Their worlds were turned upside-down, and the grown-ups they normally could rely on to set things right, well, they were scrambling too.
Allison, 9, said, “It’s so hard online—so many people are talking during the meetings.” “Agree,” said Tatum, 8. “It’s funny that we’re all in those little squares.”
“We end up self-teaching because Zoom is stressful,” said Maya, 14, and Izalea, 12, said that her grades suffered because of it. But to be clear, these kids were explaining. They weren’t complaining or teacher-blaming. In fact, quite the opposite. In the midst of the trauma, they’ve uncovered how much their teachers really care about them.
“Our teacher really takes care of us. She loves us!” Will told me. She’s Reed’s teacher, too, and he said the same thing. “She’s the best teacher I know,” he added.
I would like to insert here that I have not the space to list all of the stories these kids shared. Teachers, the little things you do: the extra steps you take to make a project hands-on but sanitary; the many times you’ve arranged and rearranged desks to accommodate social distancing and a social environment; the tools you’ve researched and the extra projects you’ve created to make a hard day fun—these things have not gone unnoticed. You unsung heroes have made an incredible difference in these kids’ lives, and I think you should know that’s what they’re saying about you.
Because kids notice when the adults are actually paying attention. They understand the discrepancies that perhaps we adults don’t even consider. They see the disparity in having experienced a pandemic like the rest of us, and now having to deal with the consequences of that experience on a sustained, daily level. “Sometimes I’d like grown-ups to give us a break,” Reed said.
“I get mad,” Ski,10, said, talking about an imbalance in perception. “I don’t say anything, but I’m at school in a mask all day,” and Ski says that’s a lot. His classmate, Izalea, concurred. “If you don’t want to wear a mask, just stay inside.”
Kids are just small people. They have all of our same emotions. It was terrifying for them, too, in the beginning. “I was scared it wouldn’t ever go away,” said Tatum, 8, and her classmate, Calla, 8, was brand-new to the school, trying to make friends with covered up faces. “I was really nervous,” she said. But then these kids did what kids do: They faced their fears, they adjusted and now, simply, they’re better for it.
“I think it’s good and interesting that this happened at this point in our lives,” said Izalea. “If it lasts, we’ll have an understanding. It’s harder for older people to learn to cope. We can soak up new things.”
“We learned how to adapt to change,” Bell, 14, said. Now there’s a lesson. Even to write this article, I conducted interviews with masked kids over Google Meets. In some instances, I gained information through group text, which felt incredibly Gen Z of me if I do say so myself. I’d probably have my journalism professors pulling their hair out—but then again, what happens if we aren’t willing to be resilient, to make adjustments for how the world moves on? Yes, these children are at an age to be resilient, and we could all make great human strides if we allowed this “nightmare” to lend itself to An Age of Resiliency.
That’s what it takes. A collective mindset. A working together. A commitment to, all of us, face our fears and make small changes and just decide to do the thing whether we like it or not. To be in it together—and to understand that “together” needs to include others’ perspectives, not just ours.
“Kids who aren’t in school must be sad,” Reed told me before he left our Google Meet. “I know I would be. I need my friends. I need to talk to them. When I’m doing hard work, I like knowing my friends are doing it too.”
Like I said, from the mouths of babes.
One more thing Reed said. “Even without the girls I would feel sad.”
A big thank you to all of the kids who educated me during this process: Calla, 8; Tatum, 8; Will, 8; Allison, 9; Reed, 9; Ana, 10; Ski, 10; Izalea, 12; Ruby, 13; Bell, 14; Maya, 14; Avani, 17; and Reese, 17.