A Letter To My Mother
I'm finding it very difficult not to think about my mother right now.
She died almost four years ago. But when she was alive, we had a complicated, fractured relationship that was never mended. I think about her a lot, but as I write this post, on what is the 48th day of quarantine here in Washington, I can't stop imagining how this global health crisis would have affected her and our family.
A few things to know about my mother:
She was a low wage health care worker my entire life.
For most of my childhood, she worked as a CNA in nursing homes.
She almost always worked 3rd shift.
My parents were divorced, so she was the sole income earner in our family.
We depended on public assistance like SNAP (Food Stamps back then) and Medicaid to survive.
We didn't own a car (my mother never learned to drive) and depended entirely on public transportation.
My mother was a lifelong smoker.
It's in that context that I continue to think and wonder about how my family would have handled the shift to remote learning that has transformed the end of this school year around the world.
My family moved around a lot, but let's pretend for the sake of this scenario that we stayed put during the entirety of the quarantine. And let's also pretend that my school had been able to provide me with both a device and hot spot (because there's no way my family would have had a computer and internet - we often didn't even have food or power). Even if those things were true, there are several other truths that would have prevented me from participating in online learning.
My mother worked all night and slept all day. This meant:
I was the other de facto adult in the house. I cannot remember a time in which I was not in some way responsible for cooking meals, cleaning the house and caring for my younger brother. I simply wouldn't have had time for school.
The work my mother did was physically and emotionally grueling. She came home exhausted and broken. She lacked both the capacity and motivation to tag team with our teachers to make sure we kept learning while schools were closed. And even if she had been capable of those things...
She would have likely been sick. Her work would have put her on the frontline of this thing. I can't imagine a scenario in which she didn't, inevitably, get sick. And because she smoked and, generally, did not take good care of herself, I doubt the prognosis would have been great.
Plus, because we depended on free breakfast and lunch at school, there wouldn't have been enough food at home. We'd have been hungry.
All of this has played heavily on my mind these last several weeks as I've watched schools pivot to remote learning. And, look... I know educators are doing the best they can. I know we're building the plane as we fly it. This post isn't about criticizing those efforts.
But here's the thing: there are a lot of kids like me out there. Kids who were poor before COVID19. And kids who will still be poor after this is all over. Kids who not only don't have access to a computer or the internet, but who also don't have access to books, enough food, heat or adults who are capable (for whatever reason) to take on the additional responsibility of making sure their kids are focused on school.
If there's one big, fat lesson that schools should be taking away from all this, here it is: Equity is about so much more than access to a device. All of the factors that would have prevented me from being successful in school during a pandemic, are the same ones that kept me from being successful before any of us knew what COVID19 was. Coronavirus didn't cause the inequities that make (remote) learning so difficult for many of our kids. It simply made those inequities much harder to ignore.
My great fear (one of them, anyway) is that when all of this is over, in our haste to get back to "normal," we'll forget this lesson. But I really hope we don't. Instead, I hope our new normal includes no longer accepting our old one.
In a strange way, all of this has made me appreciate my mother a little more. I think I've always recognized the unique and terrible challenges she faced as a parent, but I've never felt her struggle more deeply than I do right now. Despite the fact that it was rarely good enough, I realize now, more than ever, that she did the best she could. I have very few photos of my mother, but now when I look at those I do have, I see (perhaps for the first time) how beautiful she really was. How forgotten and broken she was by a world that didn't care for or protect her. She spent most of her time on this planet hanging on for dear life until, finally, she couldn't anymore. None of this excuses her choices, of course, but it certainly helps explain them. And that helps. A little.
Anyway, I titled this post "A Letter To My Mother," but I've yet to deliver on that promise, so here it is:
I forgive you.