Give a Girl a Break

by Tom Swift

“You always hear about the comedian who wants to play Hamlet. I think writers are probably something like that, too. What fun is it for Frank Deford to write about a guy like Frank Deford?” -Frank Deford, Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, “Naked Slept the Commissioner”

I saw her coming for more than block. The little buddy and I were back on a common route again after he had taken us on a short detour and the woman was walking on the same side of the sidewalk from the other direction.

She was so far away that I could not tell much — not her approximate age nor anything much about her features — but I would later confirm she didn’t have a leashed dog or buds in her ears. You don’t these days, especially in winter, see many people out walking solo for the purpose of walking solo.

The one distinguishing aspect I observed, when I wasn’t keeping my eye out for mounds of sidewalk salt that irritate a dog’s paws, were her hips. These hips swayed with her stride. She was confident. Or she meant business. She seemed slight, her hips were bold.

Minutes later she crossed the thoroughfare that had stood between us and veered into the street — keeping her social distance — yet remained close enough to us that a greeting came naturally.

I raised my mitten.

For some reason I felt compelled just then to ask how she was. This is an odd question to ask a stranger anywhere anytime because the question implies a history with the person you don’t, of course, have.

“I’ve been better,” she said,. She looked at me as if surprised — either by my question or by her answer, I’m not sure which.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

She twisted those hips in my direction and stopped in the middle of the street. Her eyes looked heavy. “Do you have school-aged kids?” she asked.

I wondered if this rules me out of conversation before it began. Turns out, not.

It was late Saturday morning. On Monday, this woman would return to physical school under ever-shifting state guidelines. She is a teacher. A teacher of young special-needs kids. Her job is more to help with the functions of daily living than it is to instill the fundamentals of arithmetic or grammar.

“The parents –”

She didn’t have to say much more. Even in normal times her job would have to be a hard-to-imagine challenge and these, of course, are not normal times. Yet it wasn’t COVID or the kids but the expectations of parents that weighed on her. Already, forty-eight hours out, she was out walking, worried about Monday.

I imagined a long weekend ahead for her. Also how long could a sensitive soul do such work. And how important is such work — we need people like this woman — even those of us without school-aged children — and I wish I had better words to say to her right then, wish my offers of assistance were more useful. What I am at least able to recognize in such situations is this: I did not try to pretend that I had any answers; I didn’t mansplain or speak in any way that suggested I knew what she is going through. But I do know enough that things are different now than they were when I was a child or when this woman (early 30s? Hats and coats make it harder) was a child, where parents are less inclined to let other people be authority figures in their children lives. It just doesn’t take much imagination to conjure challenges in her job that would try anyone right now.

I thought later of what I might also have said or offered. Very probably I just appreciated the real, in-person interaction, wanted to continue it for selfish reasons, and I liked the way her eyes seemed a little lighter by the time the beast and I pivoted for a new section of sidewalk and she resumed walking down her solo road.

It is very early Monday morning now as I finish these thoughts and I hope the woman is getting from her morning what she needs, that her fears about what today will bring prove lesser than she expects, that she is able to hold back the torrent of varying expectations placed on her by parents as she does her best for the most vulnerable, and that by the time this day ends she is able to exhale, maybe go for another stroll, and maybe find reason to smile.