“Let’s just drive over there, okay?” My nineteen-year-old had been trying to find a way to visit his high school. He’d last been there in March of 2020, a senior in his last semester.
Looking back at my Google calendar for March 2020, I see nothing special noted on Friday the 13th. But that was the day my son called me from school in the morning, saying he was having a weird vision problem and the worst headache ever. Miles has an autism diagnosis and some physical differences. But this was a new issue, and he sounded panicked.
“Something is wrong with my eyes,” he was saying. Heart pounding, I jumped in the car and drove twenty minutes to his school. Miles loved Winston School, a small middle and high school for kids with learning differences. I signed him out and we drove to the nearest clinic, eventually ending up at the hospital for tests. We spent much of the day, and by the end of it, when we were told Miles had a migraine and how to handle the next one, we’d gotten word that his school had closed after lunch, a week early for an extended spring break because of this new coronavirus, and they’d probably go back in two or three weeks.
And that was the end of Miles’s high school career. Online classes filled out the semester, and being a small private school, Winston did a decent job of online learning. But as far as Miles was concerned, that wasn’t school. School was hanging out with his friends in the morning, joking with Mr. Jacobsen in American History, watching Mr. Weber blow things up in chemistry.
School was playing Magic the Gathering during lunch with students and teachers, trekking with Walking Club out to the ocean overlook with the eagle statue, running lines for the spring production of “Much Ado about Nothing.” (He’d been Romeo the year before, opposite Juliet, his crush for the last year and more.)
There was an optional school trip planned to Montreal in May, and he was going. He would attend prom with his friend group. He’d declined the year before and regretted it but was eager to go and have fun this year. Graduation was going to be amazing, and several friends were already talking about parties. For someone who had recently developed a happy and full social life, there was so much to look forward to.
Miles had grown at Winston, unwrapping from himself and extending tentative feelers into a wider world where he felt appreciated and competent. He was acing his classes and applying to colleges, keeping his options open as we tried to sort out whether he’d go away to school or start at the community college from home. Most of all, school was a place where he had true friends, and that was everything.
As the spring of 2020 went on we were all suspended, waiting, as the weeks went by. It became clear, slowly, that not one of these anticipated events was going to happen. No prom. No school trip. No drama production. No graduation parties. The school did hold a unique graduation where students walked through and got their diplomas, while parents watched from the car. And there was an online school graduation ceremony and celebration as well. But it was like a tease; you can look, but don’t touch. I was so proud of Miles, and my heart ached for him and his friends.
And just like that, school was over. In the uncertainty, we all decided community college from home was probably best. Miles hated it. Large classes online with nobody he knew, inaccessible teachers, no way to get to know other students, which was, he felt, the main reason to go to college.
Away from physical school, time didn’t mean anything. With classes meeting a couple of times a week, Miles didn’t have a full schedule. He couldn’t walk into the teacher’s office and ask questions. He was not engaged, became frustrated, and put in less effort. I felt he was just waiting to get through it, but it wouldn’t end. I encouraged him to talk more to his friends, to see what he could join online, and as things started to open, to see some people in person, outdoors, masked, distanced. He hosted his friend group from Winston weekly on Zoom, a lifeline, but still a weak substitute for real life. He seemed reluctant to try anything new and outright refused any additional virtual spaces.
Drama was the one bright spot; the community college drama company put on two virtual shows. Miles acted and wrote electronic music for the productions. Almost everything was done from home, online, but it was more engaging than anything else he was enrolled in. He’d invited his high school drama teacher, his champion, by email to see the electronic productions but didn’t hear from him. I wondered if he had the right email, or if his former drama teacher was just overwhelmed, or depressed, as we all were. It was just another disconnect, and I was too distracted to pay attention. And Miles, now nineteen, really didn’t want my help anyway.
And all through the year, Miles talked about how he missed school, how he wanted to go back. Between June 2020 and April 2021, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through treatment, and my mom went on hospice in Kansas and died. Covid’s isolation contributed to her decline.
Despite these personal crises, I had to agree with Miles when he said, “Mom, I know you’ve had a hard time, but my life just sucks more than yours does right now.” He had been on the cusp, ready to flower, and everything he was counting on had been sucked away. He needed that last semester of school and an in-person start to college more than many students.
This spring, a year after that dramatic last day of school, as general restrictions started lessening, Miles contacted his teachers to see if he could visit Winston School. He sent emails and made calls. There was never a “no,” but there wasn’t a “yes,” either. No one seemed sure what the current rules were. The school year ended without a visit. Summer school began. One of the teachers told him he could visit, but he’d need to talk to the front desk to arrange a time. He called. The secretary told him she’d have to talk to someone else and would call him back. He waited. Nothing. Summer school was ending in two weeks.
That’s when Miles said he wanted to just drive there and walk in. I was all for it. He’d been patient and persistent. He knew he wasn’t going to see any of his friends there; another whole year had gone by and the juniors he used to hang out with had graduated now too. But he really wanted to see his teachers, and be in that place that had been home to him, that he said, had “helped me become who I am.”
So we drove to his old high school. As we came up over the hill a mile from Winston, the ocean spread in front of us, he said it was worth it just to be there, to drive the route again. I wondered why we hadn’t done it sooner. I guess I hadn’t wanted him to be disappointed. I knew it wouldn’t be what he’d remembered, and I was eager for him to move on. But I could see now that he wasn’t ready, and neither was I, that we needed to be there to start to let it go.
I stayed in the car and he went in. A new exterior fence had been erected, and some classes were meeting outside. Soon he texted: I can’t stay long. But when he came out a few minutes later, he was smiling, telling me that he’d seen Mr. Weber and Mr. Jacobson, and Mrs. S-T., his English teacher. He’d gotten to walk around the small campus. The latest civic mandates said he shouldn’t be there, but they’d allowed it, and Mrs. S-T. had gone out of her way to gather some of his favorite teachers so he could see them for a few minutes.
While Miles was attending Winston, the school had offered a Friday night Dungeons and Dragons group, run by a couple of the teachers. Students could stay after school, and in exchange for contributing to the teachers’ sandwiches at Board and Brew, they could geek out together in an ongoing adventure. So, after his campus visit, while I called a friend from the car, Miles walked up to Board and Brew to get his favorite sandwich, roast beef with a special sauce. Even that had changed. The menu was different, and he’d had to choose something else. The special sauce was not like he remembered it. It was still good, but not as good. He ate part of it in the car, saving the other half for his twin brother.
For once I had decided not to be in a hurry. We would stay as long as he wanted to. We sat quietly. Then Miles said he’d like to take one of the routes the Walking Club used to go, up to the point and the eagle statue. He led me there. I’d never walked that direction from his school before. It was a beautiful place, quiet, away from the public beach, on a breezy summer day. A closed-in neighborhood street opened onto a sandy path, then suddenly came out on the point, the statue of the eagle carved from an ancient pine stump in front of us, high on the cliff, the sea beyond. He told me what he and his friends used to do there, and showed me the seat carved into the base of the statue. I took a couple of pictures of him sitting there, then stepped away and let him have his moment while he walked out to the end of the point. I watched him wipe his eyes on his T-shirt, and wiped my own.
We got back to the parking lot. School was letting out. Miles walked back to the gate wearing his mask. I sat in the car, resisting the urge to watch. He returned with a broad smile. He’d gotten to catch up with his drama teacher at last. We were both quiet on the way home.
The rest of the day, I felt like weeping in deferred grief for all Miles has lost and will not be able to get back. He’s learning to drive now and joining the community college theater company again for the fall, and taking some prerequisites for a possible medical tech certification. But the future feels tenuous; he’s still in limbo, still seeking connection.
Fall classes at the community college look like they’re still going to be online, Covid cases are rising, and Miles is still spending a lot of time in his room, waiting for the next chapter to begin, the part where he can be with new people, make new friends, and start his adult life.
Maybe he’ll be a bit more ready this fall to embrace what’s possible. Because I think we both understand a bit better now, that he can’t go back. Not really. Maybe we’ll drive to Winston again, when summer school is over, and the school is empty, in the late summer. We’ll pull into the empty parking lot, get out and walk around the lifeless campus, look out at the restless sea. It’ll help us let go a little more so we can open to what’s next.
Michelle Goering has been writing forever, but only for herself until recently. She is a musician with a professional background in publishing, married and the mother of twin college-age sons. A San Diego resident from a Kansas farm, she has been recently published on Scary Mommy, Communion Arts Journal, and on Bahaiteachings.org.