The last time my son attended high school in pre-pandemic times, he was a shiny freshman, probably four inches shorter and a lot more smooth-skinned.
He’s been back full-time since last September, but mask mandates only just lifted for his high school, one of the largest in the country with some 6,000 students. I was over the moon when I sent him off for the first maskless Monday, chirping about what a milestone it was and crowing about how great it would be to see each teacher’s face. Joe took his mask, though, “Just in case.”
When he came home and I asked how it went, I got the usual shrug. “Did everyone have their mask off?” I asked. “About 80 percent kept them on,” he mumbled. I made him repeat that, thinking at first that he must have meant 80 percent had it off. “Did you keep yours on?” I pressed. “Yeah,” he admitted.
OMG. Teens, as recently reported by The New York Times, are reluctant to take off their masks.
I should back up to say that the weekend before the mandate lifted, Joe asked to get a haircut (it grew, untamed, the whole of the past two years, and I let it go) and he asked where my husband keeps his razors, so he could go ahead and shave. I took these preparations to mean that he was excited to unveil himself. I probably should have seen it as a manifestation of teen anxiety.
One of my high-school friends teaches at Joe’s school so I texted him. “Joe says everyone is wearing masks anyway,” I wrote. He confirmed it. “I was all ready to not wear mine but then I saw so many kids and teachers wearing theirs that I felt bad. I was disappointed.”
My son says that a reason kids are giving to stay masked is, “Let’s see how the numbers go,” meaning the COVID rates in our city. But I think that’s kind of BS. These teens are old enough to be vaxxed and boosted, and the CDC bets that more than half of kids have already had COVID. Granted, I generally support a “better safe than sorry” approach. But teens are not known for being the most safety-conscious population.
Showing your face has always been nerve-wracking for teens. Imagine if no one had seen you for two years and suddenly you were supposed to go public? Heck, adults even appreciate the anonymity of a mask. My coworkers admit they’re happy to mask up before shopping because it means they don’t have to put on makeup.
So like with so many things, I am staying quiet and not pressuring my kid either way. I suspect he’s not wearing the mask for health reasons or to make a statement about safety. This is a guy who pulls his hoodie over his head and sits in the classic teen hunch. He doesn’t want people to look at him, especially without a mask, reminding me yet again how tough it is to be a teen. It’s enough that he likes going to school. I’ll take that as a win and assume that, eventually, people will see his sweet face again.