I happened to be taking the train to work while jamming to some old school music. This was about the time they closed the City University of New York (CUNY) in early March. It felt as if everyone was running to get their paperwork and everything they needed to survive at home to work. I remember having a conversation via text with a friend about the next chapter of my life and its uncertainty after undergrad. Everything seemed to be okay because I felt fine. But I started to get nervous and sweat with a sense of terror. My heart suddenly began beating very fast as if it tried to escape, and everything was so blurry. I was having difficulty breathing. I started to lose control, and I was scared. As much as I tried, I could not catch my breath, and luckily, I was already outside, and I knew where the benches were located. I sat down to put my hand in my chest and tried to focus on my breathing. I slowly inhale and exhale a few times while I closed my eyes. I could not shake off this feeling of being scared. I started to calm down while focusing on my breathing. I thought about my family, my community, my students, and their uncertainty. This is how I began my experience dealing with COVID-19 in New York City.
Having a mother migrating from Mexico to the United States in 1989, she grew up with limited resources and knowledge. It was difficult for her to be able to navigate in a new world while trying to provide for her family. The best way to describe my mother is a woman working two to three jobs trying to make ends meet. When I was 13 years old, I had to quickly adapt – sacrificing education for financial gains and playing the role of a parent to my younger brother and sister, even though I did not know what I was doing. There isn’t anything that I will not do for my family so as rumors of a possible lockdown were approaching in NYC, discussions about my 13-year-old brother moving back with me were on the table. My mother and I agreed that my little brother will benefit academically to be with me, and it would help my mom be more at ease working her long hours. Without any hesitation, we packed his clothes and all of his schoolbooks, and we left.
As a parent to my son, I can understand the feelings that my mom had for my little brother when she had to say goodbye to him. Four years ago, my then seven-year-old son took the chance to live with his mother since he barely knew her. It was an opportunity for both to be in each other’s lives and make up for six years of lost time. It affected me in a way that I did not know how to feel. From being a full-time single parent to co-parenting on the weekends, I just did not know what to do with myself with so much time. But as we were getting ready for my son to move back with me in September 2020, COVID-19 changed everything. I had to move things ahead of schedule, and my son had to move back with me before the lockdown by early March.
In the beginning, it was hard to adjust to the lockdown. Overnight, I became the principal, a teacher in multiple fields, a gym coach, and an unofficial therapist for students in our English classes, while being a parent to two kids, a philosophy major, and managing two jobs. I work as a mentor coordinator for the CUNY Fatherhood Academy and as an educational case manager for the Center for Immigrant Education and Training (CIET) at LaGuardia Community College. I have not gotten accustomed to being a full-time parent to two children. It was even more challenging to do la compra “the groceries” for the house. I had to monitor the work my kids were doing – if not, they would take advantage and not complete some of the assignments. I had to focus on reading articles and typing my essays as well. I continuously checked on my students in college and my students who are English learners that were being affected by the coronavirus on a different level. If I stop to think about everything that I was doing, my heart will suddenly begin beating very fast, and my eyesight will become blurry. Once again, I will have difficulty breathing, lose control, and be scared. I realized that this was entirely too much for me and that I had to put boundaries and give up something before I failed everything. There was too much pressure, and I just wanted to give up. Because my professors were constantly checking up on us, to make sure we were mentally healthy, I felt safe to reach out to them. I spoke with my professors about dropping out of the semester. I explained to them that I am a student that does better in a classroom environment, and online classes were simply too difficult for me. My professors convinced me to stay because they believed in me, and they were willing to work with me. I decided to stay and create office hours for my students and only work within the hours I was reporting. My schedule began with the kids’ schoolwork, work or class, a break to cook and eat, and back to work or class and to study late night and when I had to, work on essays all night, which were overwhelming. The weekends felt five hours long. I found myself always busy in a world that had stopped. It seemed ironic.
Even with setting boundaries, it was difficult to manage. My CIET students were facing the reality of the coronavirus from getting sick, losing their jobs, and relatives being sick. There was no end to it. Most of my students did not qualify to get a stimulus check or relief funds. I think what hit me the most was when a student of mine lost his son, and then he was hospitalized. I did not know how to grasp reality for a moment. It did not help when my brother was feeling sick and had a slight fever. I started to get nervous and sweat with a sense of terror all over again. My heart suddenly began beating very fast as if it tried to escape, and everything was so blurry once again. I started to have difficulties breathing. I began to lose control, and I was scared. I had to leave my home and walk for a while and tried to level myself. As a philosophy major, I am always concerned with whether I am making choices based on my emotions or logically. It was one of the scariest moments of my life, but I had to maintain myself. I am a big brother so I had to be more reliable and be able to help them.
There is a saying that New York is the “city that never sleeps,” but it seems to be trapped in a nightmare. It feels like we are all trapped in the same dream. Eventually, my brother got better. It was a slight fever that he got from the weather constantly changing. Nothing that Theraflu and Vicks can’t fix. Even though it’s challenging to manage everything, I am still holding on and looking for the future. As New York is ready to start reopening, I am excited to see my son start middle school and my brother start high school. I barely managed to finish my last semester. Still, I made it through and now I have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Can I say this last semester was worth it? I am not sure, but I am glad it is coming to a close.
Jesus Benitez is a mentor coordinator at the CUNY Fatherhood Academy and an educational case manager for the Center for Immigrant Education and Training at LaGuardia Community College. He is also an Ascend Parent Advisor supporting the Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative.