"Where you gonna go in your winter coat? I wonder what you're hiding cause it's not too cold."
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So my younger son Wynn ran away last September. It required a specific confluence of circumstances for that to happen. We usually keep a pretty close eye on him.
My older son William was with my wife at a scheduled dentist appointment, his regular checkup that had been postponed a couple of months because of the pandemic but went forward with everyone tripled-masked, wearing Hazmat suits, being lowered into the doctor’s office Mission: Impossible style. I was actually just about a mile away from home at a campus blood drive, doing my part to assist in a blood shortage while also getting an antibody check, just in case I’d gotten Covid months before without realizing it, a circumstance, had it turned out, would have felt as if I had won the lottery. Wynn and his best buddy Charlie, who was in our first-grade pod with us and happily causing trouble with Wynn all day, were home with our teenage babysitter who had gotten the job by blurting out, before we’d had a chance to say a word, “Oh, I’m SO SCARED of Covid. I’m staying home all the time and think all my friends that are partying are morons.” We immediately hired her, obviously. September 2020 was really quite a trip.
So Wynn and Charlie were playing in the backyard when the babysitter went inside to use the bathroom. When she came back outside, she could not find Wynn. “Where’s Wynn?” she asked. Charlie shrugged. He was gone.
I discovered all this when my phone rang as the nurse, wearing one of those inflatable dinosaur costumes and a welding helmet made of pure lead, was taking my blood pressure. I answered, my wife screamed “We can’t find Wynn!” and then I told the nurse that I’d have to reschedule. “That’s OK,” she said, spraying disinfectant into her eyes and scraping the skin off her arms with a Brillo pad, “your blood pressure is way too high to give blood now anyway. You should really do something about that.”
I sprinted back to my house and came across my next door neighbor, a very nice woman named Gwen who gives Wynn quarters to move her trash cans back inside after the trucks empty them. She had joined the search. “I haven’t seen him,” she said, and she looked very worried. I then came across the babysitter and Charlie. She was bawling. “I’m so sorry, I just looked away for a second,” she said, and I was sort of relieved to realize that I wasn’t mad, that I just felt terrible for her. Charlie shrugged again. Whaddya gonna do?
I made it back to my house, where my wife was pounding her head against the wall and my other son William had that look kids have when their siblings have done something wrong, and while they know they’re not the ones in trouble, they can’t help but suspect this is going to end up blowing back on them somehow. We all wandered around our Five Points neighborhood, shouting Wynn’s name, feeling terrified and also like we were the worst parents who had ever lived.
After about 20 horrifying minutes, my wife’s phone rang. It was Gwen. “They found Wynn,” she said. “He’s on his way home now.” Before we could ask who “they” were, we saw the police car coming down the street toward our house. Wynn was in the front seat. He had a huge grin on his face: The cop had let him push the siren button. This grin faded, fast, when he saw his parents.
“A couple of college kids saw him,” the police officer said. He was young. For some reason I can never really get over how young police officers are. “They went over and sat with him, and then they called us.” Gwen had come across him around then as well, but the officer, when he arrived, wouldn’t let her take him home because she wasn’t his mother. So he got to ride in the car, and push the siren button. And then he had to deal with us.
After we successfully convinced the officer that Wynn was not fleeing a home where he was being beaten—at least not yet—he released our little boy back to our custody. You could tell even through the mask that the officer was frowning.
“He said he was trying to get to school,” the officer said. “He told me he did not want to do school at home anymore, so he decided to walk to school.” We were furious with Wynn. But we also, right then, sort of understood.
The pandemic was, is, whatever linking verb you prefer to use, awful for everyone, in one way or many ways. It has affected us all differently. Some of us lost someone dear to us; some were gravely ill ourselves; some of us lost our jobs or had our careers severely disrupted; some of us struggled with isolation, anxiety and depression. None of us have gotten out of this fully whole. Everybody got hit.
My family has been fortunate. My wife and I are both still working. We have not lost anyone close to us. Our children are still happy and vibrant and fun and silly. My hair’s a lot grayer, the blood pressure isn’t all the way down yet, I miss the friends and extended family I haven’t seen in almost two years now, but there is no question that I, and my family, have made it through this still standing.
But the hardest part, the thing that nearly knocked us over, was school.
Our children go to the greatest school. It is charming in exactly the way you want your kids’ school to be charming, with smiling, good-natured, extremely dedicated teachers welcoming children from all sorts of different backgrounds into a warm environment conducive both to learning and to finding one’s place during the most formative period of a child’s life. When we first moved to Athens in June 2013, the primary reason I wanted to buy the house we eventually bought (and still live in) was because it was within walking distance of this school. It was the sort of school I wished I’d gone to as a kid: Optimistic, hopeful, diverse, a community in and of itself. Every parent wants their kids to have a better growing-up experience than what they had. This was undeniably, unquestionably better. We watched as our children made friends, grew more deeply involved in school activities (Wynn took up tae kwon do in the after-school program and spent most of winter 2020 anticipating being able to show off his skills when the spring came) and became a part of a community that was larger than themselves. They belonged. It was great. It was all so great.
Then came early March 2020, and the first hints of trouble. Our school even made a charming video with all the kids reminding everyone to wash their hands and stay clean so they could keep our school intact and safe. William shows up briefly in it. The video was made 17 months ago. It feels like 17 years.
School shut down after Spring Break in March. Like everyone else, we adjusted. In retrospect, it wasn’t so hard in those first months, at least not here: We were all still in shock, so which actually made it easier to roll with the upheaval. School-issued laptops for the last two months of school? We just gotta get through these two months. We’ll be back to normal come August. We’re all in this together. But then last summer came, and it became clear that, whatever other counties in Georgia were doing, our county, Clarke County, was not prepared to go back to in-person schooling. And suddenly the temporary condition became the new reality, with no ending in sight. This led to discord, the way everything ended up leading to discord last summer and fall, the way the world started feeling designed specifically so we would all start fighting with each other. Some parents (including us) started petitions and Facebook groups; some pulled out of the public school system all together; everybody thought everyone else was doing everything wrong.
All the while, the little people who lived in this house, my third grader and my first grader, stared at their laptops all day, by themselves. I lamented at the time that I wished the pandemic would have happened either five years earlier or 10 years later. Having it hit at the exact time that my children needed socialization the most felt like an unusually cruel punishment. This was compounded by the inherent incapability of virtual instruction with the brain patterns and attention spans of small children, particularly when it was so (understandably) hastily cobbled together amidst the terror and confusion of a pandemic. (Not to mention an increasingly, uh, tumultuous political climate.) My wife and I had spent most of our first decade as parents telling our children that iPads are bad, that they weren’t ready for technology, that they didn’t get to be the kids who had phones and stared at a screen all day. Suddenly, here we were, telling them they were legally obligated not to look away from them.
The effects of the shift to virtual learning were disastrous for millions of children, in many ways needlessly, in ways that it will take us decades to unpack. We were the lucky ones in this house: At least my children’s parents had jobs that allowed them to work from home, albeit jobs that were obviously done a lot more poorly with kids in the house constantly having their Zoom classes crash or the wireless conk out. But we were fortunate: Comparatively speaking, our children made it through. So many families went through so much worse. But there were still clear effects even within our own home, from our children becoming quieter and more sullen to them, despite teachers’ best efforts, falling behind in their basic learning, to … well, the time that my son Wynn ran away from home because he missed his school, why wasn’t he in school, wasn’t he supposed to be in school?
If I’m being honest, now that it has been almost a year since he did it, I’m almost proud of him. After all, the college kids found him just down the road from the school. He almost made it.
When we look back at the pandemic, whenever that blessed time is, we’ll remember the masks and the tumult and the divisiveness and all of it. But more than anything, in this house, we will remember it as the time that our children were taken out of school for a full year. You do what you can to be prepared as a parent, to do your best to be ready for whatever life is going to throw at you. But having the third and first grade happen on a computer, in your kitchen, that’s one none of us saw coming. It was a bomb that went off in our children’s lives, and we’re all still dealing with the fallout.
This coming week, school starts in Athens, Georgia. Most people don't realize just how early school starts in the South. This week, we have a fourth grader and a second grader.
This year, in Clarke County, school is exclusively in-person, with no virtual option offered. The school district is “committed” to continuing in-person learning throughout the year, and I believe them, particularly with vaccines for children presumably (right? right?) just a few months away. It will not be entirely “normal” yet. Everyone on school grounds is required to be masked—which I am completely on-board with, and the kids don’t care about it at all—and unlike in pre-pandemic years, parents aren’t allowed to walk into the building with their children. (Something I suspect my kids are old enough to probably want me to stop doing anyway.) But they will be in class, with a regular structured day, and they will have after-school programs, and recess, and lunchtime, all those times for being around other kids, to figure out how to fit in and figure out this world that’s difficult enough already.
It will not undo the damage of last year. It will not immediately catch them back up, or replace everything they have missed. But it is a start. It is a step back toward reclaiming a childhood that they, and millions of other schoolchildren, deserve. I’m grateful to have these kids back at that wonderful school, among their wonderful teachers and their (mostly) wonderful classmates, being in school, doing kid shit, as they should have been doing all along. When I look back at the pandemic, I suspect this is what I will remember the most: Having my kids’ lives so disrupted, precisely when they could least afford it. It’s my desperate hope that, when they look back at it, that’s not what they remember. I hope they don’t remember it at all. I hope it’s just a brief blip away from an otherwise normal kid life. I hope someday Wynn thinks about the time he ran away, just so he could see his school, and think, “Running to school? Why the hell would I do that?”
They are on their way back. It’s my sincere hope that we all are.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Tucker Carlson Has to Sleep in This Bed Now, Medium. Be careful of what you pretend to be, as the man said.
The Superhumanity of Simone Biles, New York. Just tried to get this one right the best I could.
Five Winners at the MLB Trade Deadline, MLB.com. Well, at the very least, Cubs fans have to watch Jon Lester in a Cardinals uniform now.
M. Night Shyamalan Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with Old.
Matt Damon Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with Stillwater.
The Best MLB Players of July, MLB.com. Hey, look, it’s Harrison Bader.
Internet Nostalgia: The “Friday” Video, Medium. Now we just live in the algorithm.
Bonus Thirty: The Most Untouchable Player on Every Team, MLB.com. The Angels’ one was a fun one to figure out.
Ten Awesome Things About Being Fully Vaxxed, Three Months Out, Medium. I tried to make this funny and ironic, but I don’t think it worked.
Grierson & Leitch, “Old,” “Snake Eyes” and “Tombstone.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I went on a Mike Shildt rant.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week, starting weekly on Tuesday.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Lesley Ann Warren Answers Every Question We Have About Clue,” Devon Ivie, New York. It is very possible that my sister and I watched this movie 1,000 times when we were kids. Thus, I ate up every single word of this Q&A with Miss Scarlett herself. I will confess some of my earliest impure thoughts came from this movie.
BOOK I’VE READ THAT YOU SHOULD READ
“Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused,” Melissa Maerz. If you ignore the incorrect spelling of “all right” in the title, Maerz’s oral history of the Dazed and Confused is a great story of the making of the film but an even better look back at that whole decade of movies, and really of American culture. I absolutely devoured this thing.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Gold on the Ceiling,” The Black Keys. I am not a Black Keys superfan to any stretch of the imagination, but I do enjoy them, generally, and more to the point, they’re playing a small venue here in Athens in September and I’m going. So I’m binging their stuff a bit. I’ll confess to finding them a bit minor, but pleasantly so. This is probably my favorite song of theirs.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
Also, here was some news that happened this week:
So that’s good. I hope. Thank you all for helping make that happen.
Have a great weekend, all …