At my son’s first in-person recital since COVID, I cherished the small, tender moments

Getting this glimpse into my kids’ education felt like a gift after two years of pandemic restrictions. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

I smiled so much Monday my face hurt as my son and his fifth grade classmates swing danced and boogie woogied and waltzed across the stage of their school auditorium for the fifth grade ballroom dance performance. Their faces were tight with concentration, even those behind masks. And their 10-year-old awkwardness was on full display even though the tango was touchless. (It was social dist-dancing, their instructor joked.)

My favorite moment, though, was before the fox trotting and merengue-ing even began, when my son stepped on stage, craned his neck, and scanned the crowd for us. My husband and I waved maniacally until his eyes met ours, and then he jumped up and down and waved back, relieved.

Carrie Melago (photo by Julia Xanthos)

It was such an ordinary school recital moment, one that probably played out across the Brooklyn auditorium among other nervous dancers and enthusiastic parents. That normalcy, that familiarity is what caused tears to sting my eyes. As COVID restrictions ease, my sons’ school is welcoming vaccinated visitors and bringing back some of the plays, recitals, and events we missed during the pandemic. And getting this glimpse into my kids’ education felt like a gift.

The last time I sat in that auditorium was a little over two years ago, just days before New York City shuttered its school buildings. We were all anxious at the third grade superhero concert on March 12, 2020, some folks sitting far apart and others flinching at every cough or sneeze. I was so on edge I almost didn’t bother taking any photos of my son, whose dirty blond hair and orange superhero cape were barely visible in the second row of students. But even then I wondered when I would see him sing (or dance or score a goal) again. So I recorded videos of the children singing sweet songs about being forever friends, about tomorrow needing us, about being agents of change. 

We watched those videos and flipped through other old school photos over and over in the trying months of isolation that followed. There was my older son’s star turn in “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and his sign language rendition of “I just called to say I love you.” There was my younger son’s Groundhog Day sing-a-long, and his belting out of “This land is your land” at pre-K graduation, his thumbs tucked behind his special suspenders. 

It pales greatly in comparison to the more significant and traumatic losses that so many New Yorkers suffered in the pandemic. But I’m nonetheless saddened by the in-school moments we missed. Kindergarten graduation. The school play. Countless little visits to the classroom.  Face-to-face parent teacher conferences. The Zoom recitals and ceremonies were valiant efforts by overworked staff, but I missed squeezing into child-size chairs to fashion stamps out of apples or build Balsa airplanes.

The Zoom recitals and ceremonies were valiant efforts by overworked staff, but I missed squeezing into child-size chairs to fashion stamps out of apples or build Balsa airplanes.

Not all parents share my warm fuzziness about school involvement. For working parents, the timing of school activities can feel like a cruel joke, the request for boxes of coffee or sliced cantaloupe just one more item on the endless to-do list of parenting. Before I worked at Chalkbeat, where my status as a mom and public school parent is considered a positive, potlucks and performances were a source of immense stress. 

And as the pandemic has reinforced, schools have not felt like welcome places for many parents, particularly parents of color who have seen years of disinvestment, discipline disparities, and inequity. Building that trust and rethinking what parent engagement means is likely front of mind – or should be – for many administrators as restrictions ease. 

Ahead of the ballroom recital, a school staffer mused to me that she wasn’t sure if the dancing was more for the students or the parents. I assured her that my son had gained so much from his twice-weekly lessons – the self confidence and pride that comes from trying something way, way outside his comfort zone. Plus, he learned a few new moves that could come in handy on TikTok someday! But maybe this performance was also for the parents and caregivers who have longed for a chance to applaud, to beam, to wave wildly, making sure their children know they are there for them.

Carrie Melago is one of Chalkbeat’s managing editors for local news.