Just Outside the Back Door

The orthodontist walked confidently into our small space, outfitted in goggles, mask, and face shield. Even behind all the protective equipment, he seemed to be smiling.

“Tell me something that is bringing you joy in the midst of virtual school.”

The sassy side of my brain kicked in, as it frequently does when I am feeling pressured and overwhelmed. Well, I am confident it’s not the large amount of money I am about to drop to put my second child in braces this year. Feeling my daughter’s presence next to me, I curbed my tongue. And truthfully, I didn’t have to reflect long before a joyful memory came to the surface.

“Just today, my backyard had a few sixth grade girls playing volleyball and eating ice cream on their lunch break. I could hear them laughing as I set two little sisters up for synchronous learning with their classes. I guess it’s joyful because, if it weren’t for virtual school, I would have never witnessed this.”

It sounded so simple as I said it. Ice cream, the outdoors, and giggling with your friends; each of these pieces brought together a priceless picture in what might otherwise be a rather sad and dull time in their lives. They wanted to be the new kids in the coveted walls of their middle school. They wanted to finally have their own locker, to change classes without supervision, and to take independent steps far away from their parents and aggravating siblings.

Instead, they were stuck at home, at least until we turn the calendar to 2021. Their teachers and administrators did their best, but even from their novice perspective, our girls knew it wasn’t the same. They felt short-changed, over-looked, and really, really disappointed. 

I watched the disappointment fester just under the surface as my daughter tried to navigate these new expectations. Teachers and parents together expected hard work and a positive attitude, all while learning to understand new social norms in an unfamiliar setting. It is as if we were telling her to stuff her feelings and study hard, but without all the intoxicating freedom she should have received this year.

Even when it seems just utterly sad, I find encouragement in the small moments I have the profound privilege to bear witness. From the kitchen sink, I overhear my daughter working in teams with her peers to prepare a history presentation. As I grade papers, I look up to see her struggle with a complex graph, but learn to troubleshoot the problem without an adult’s intervention. And as I wrangle a preschooler, I see her eyes light up as her teacher praises her writing style. 

If it weren’t for virtual school, these moments of growth would have been experienced inside the walls of school, and I would be none the wiser. I would rely solely on her report from the day, and I imagine that would be sparse at best. 

Instead, I get the incredible opportunity to bear witness to this transition, the best of which might occur just outside my back door. 

As I turn my gaze outward, I see the smiles of dear friends, whose journey I’ve watched since their first steps into preschool and kindergarten. I delight in the ease of conversation, without the pressure to comply or perform like everyone in their vicinity. And I see the contagious encouragement that flows as they talk through their concerns, safe in the haven of their lifelong companions. 

Even with strife comes a silver lining. These wonderful young women will have their moments to stumble and fall, of that I am certain. One day, probably fairly soon, they will harken the coveted walls of their middle school and engage in traditional, face-to-face learning, and all the joy and anxiety that comes with it. 

But today, they’ll have ice cream with old friends and play ball in the sunshine. 

In this tumultuous time, I find unexpected joy just getting to be present. 

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Unexpected Joy”.


  1. Rachel Nevergall

    I love how you described this as “bear witness.” I’ve been feeling unexpected joy in being present with my virtual learners, too.

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