By MAUREEN SMITH, Commentary | Published May 29, 2021
The loops take up three walls, swooping gracefully from their hooks and finally spilling onto the floor where they pool in the dust, waiting for one more hook to be added to the wall. They are colorful—mostly bright solids, some neon, others with a smiley-face pattern. You might think my child has a penchant for music festivals, but these are fever bracelets strung into a paper chain around her room.
Each day, a school employee takes her temperature. If she has no fever, she gets a bracelet to wear.
When the year started, she would peel them off and leave them on her desk as she started her homework. I don’t know why she decided to string them together as a paper chain, but it didn’t take long for the links to outgrow the desk and then the headboard. It ended up strung between hooks on the wall.
Each of those bracelets represents a day of struggle, a day of triumph, a day when the students, teachers and staff kept their heads above water for a few precious hours. I imagine this bracelet on my daughter’s wrist on days when she wanted to comfort an overwhelmed classmate, but had to do it out of arm’s reach. I imagine it on the wrist of a teacher who popped into the faculty bathroom for a good cry between class periods. I imagine it on the wrist of the cafeteria worker hoping for no more quarantines.
Our school communities had to string together one day and then another and then another to make it through this year. As the colors of the bracelets changed, administrators had to absorb new medical information; teachers found ways to connect with students in the classroom and on the screen. They had to figure out how to play music, sing and compete in athletics while constrained by masks, worried parents, anxious kids and the dark specter of a potentially deadly virus.
I still remember a Sunday evening Zoom meeting one of the teachers offered to help my child with a concept she just wasn’t getting. This teacher was giving up her family time to get someone on the right track. There is no bracelet to represent that day, but there is a pretty strong link in the chain, nonetheless.
Catholic school communities knew in-person instruction was the best for kids so they had to build a long, complicated chain of protocols to make schools safe for the kids, the staff and the community at large. This took a herculean team-effort on the part of a central committee of advisors as well as constant work at each school.
For the love of fellow students, teachers and workers, each student and staff member put on a mask. There were days when my child wore a mask for 10 hours to be the link in the chain that allowed someone else to attend school in person. For the love of fellow students, teachers and workers, we stayed home more than we might have otherwise. Prior to a performance, an important exam or a big game, we made the choice to hunker down and sacrifice social activities. We became the link that let someone be on stage for the first time or play in a championship game.
As disjointed as this last year-and-a-half has been, I can see now that it wasn’t disconnected. In fact, we may be even more connected now than ever before. I am so grateful for each little decision, for each little kindness that made this year possible. I know people had days when they did not have one more drop of energy to give and yet, they did anyway.
I am not sure how long this paper chain will hang in my daughter’s room, but I hope the positive lessons of this year stick around for a good long time. If we come away from this with a better understanding of how we can each be a link for others, we will have really gained something.
Smith is director of communications for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.