Last Friday, my 17-year-old daughter Scout went to back to high school, one year and one day after I posted this, as part of a running Writing Boots diary in the first months of COVID called, “Let’s Hold It Together, Together.” —DM
Wednesday, April 22, 2020, 9:15 a.m.
I’m not a fan of pep talks or pregame speeches, which are usually less emotional communication and more coaches’ superstitions, and I’ve urged coaches to “Skip just one for the Gipper.”
But Monday at the tennis courts at Smith Park I heard myself giving one—a very, very heavy one—to my 16-year-old daughter, who I’d just unwittingly reduced to tears by telling her a soft-soaped version of a New York Times Daily interview I’d heard. The newspaper’s health and science reporter sounded damned credible when he said that American life will be weird, and maybe very weird, for years to come.
My wife thought it was premature to tell her that, but it seems to me that, six weeks into this nightmare—and with months and months to go—it seems it’s time the kid stops fantasizing about a summer at the North Avenue beach, traveling soccer tournaments and a return to scholastic normalcy next fall.
And starts thinking … about what, exactly?
As we waited for a court to open up, I haltingly began to tell her she needs to start thinking more broadly of life’s great adventure.
I told her that one reason we are all knocked so completely on our asses by the coronavirus crisis is that in America, we haven’t had a broadly life-disrupting event in the seventy-five years since World War II ended. World War II, when my dad was plucked right out of the University of Virginia and traded in his white bucks for army boots on a mosquito-infested base in Georgia and then was put on a ship and sent across the Atlantic Ocean, “for the duration.”
But in the decade before that, there’d been the Great Depression. About a decade before that, World War I and Spanish Influenza. And back then at July 4 parades, would march veterans of the Civil War! And lots of death and disease and danger all the time back then, between all those events. But after 75 years of relatively predictable school careers and graduations and sports and proms for a lot of people, we are culturally unprepared—not just kids, but parents and even grandparents—for what we are staring at.
As a society, we haven’t prepared for this civically or politically, and as individuals, we simply haven’t prepared intellectually, emotionally or spiritually. As Fran Lebowitz said, “It is a very startling thing to be my age—I’m sixty-nine—and to have something happen that doesn’t remind you of anything else.”
So I appealed to what I have already taught my 16-year-old since the beginning—
—a sense of adventure, physical toughness and spirit. I explained all that history that this virus now connects us with, and I asked her to try to begin thinking of being a part of that—part of “a bigger adventure” than what she’d ever expected life to be. Bigger than the games we have invented—sports, high school social drama, SAT scores. And lasting, in one form or another, for at least as long as the rest of her high school career.
“But you’re supposed to cherish your senior year of high school!” she said.
Not that none of the old pleasures will be a part of her life—and not that life won’t have new pleasures to compensate—but that life will be different enough that pining for this summer to be like last summer and wondering feverishly when Lollapalooza will be back is less useful than thinking more openly, more broadly, about what is needed, what is possible, and what we can achieve in this life, as we stand here and look at it now.
“I don’t want to do that,” she said with a tear in her eye.
“I know, Honey, I don’t want to do it either,” I said with a tear in mine. “But I think we need to at least start thinking that way.”
Luckily, a court opened up just then, and we took to it.
And you know, I’ve never seen her play harder in her young life.
Scout reported that her first day back at high school was “weird,” because the last time she was in that building as a sleepwalking sophomore, “I was a different person“—cared about many things she doesn’t care about today, didn’t care about things she does today, as a junior who like all her friends, has been through a hell of a lot.
Fought through (and in some cases slept through and in other cases pouted through and in other cases shouted through) countless cycles of doubt and despair and boredom and fear. Saw her city ravaged by civil unrest, worked as an election judge in November, gaped at the attack on the Capitol January 6—all while staggering through the standard adolescent madness without the distraction and outlet and clarifying confidence of soccer, the one thing she knows for sure she’s good at.
I’m perhaps foolishly allowing myself to think this epic, for her, may have what might be called a happy ending this coming Friday, when she and I have an appointment to get our second Pfizer shot, on my birthday.
In any case, I’m hoping what she’s seen and been through this year has made her a stronger and wiser and more compassionate and more courageous person than she might otherwise have been, earlier than she might have been. She, and all the rest of us, too.
The historian Vartan Gregorian died last week, and regular Boots reader Harry Kruglik sent along a commencement address Gregorian delivered at Stanford University, back in 2006.
In conclusion, I would like to offer you just one last thought about our shared human condition. Today information floods over us, and a millisecond later in comes another flood of data and information, and then another and another. Images of pleasure and pain, fear and joy, love and hate assault us from all the angles. The world around us is full of raucous chatter and noise. Amid all this cacophony, it’s hard to see ourselves as part of a larger whole, a continuing eternal harmony, that music of the spheres that the ancients thought we would hear only in our inner ear. Well, today I would like to remind you of your connection to history. Try to listen with your inner ears to those who went before you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and on and on, who all wanted to be good ancestors to you.
As an historian, educator and a fellow student, I feel bound to remind you that the time has come for you to return the favor. You have to learn to be good ancestors to the future.
A bigger adventure, indeed. —DM