The barricades at the end of our street meant only one thing – we needed to walk. Running short on time, we had to be quick. Up the street, past the barricades, we waited for an opening. The fittest were in this group, so the race must have begun recently. All lean, long lines, even the shorter runners. “Runs like a gazelle” isn’t an empty phrase, I decided.

We crossed the street during a break between a quicker runner, and one behind him a little slower. Jackson lead the way, putting me a few paces behind him. No longer shorter than me, his strides began to take him further from me. I knew he didn’t want to stop for me to catch up, so indeed he urged me to keep up. He couldn’t be late.

My feet were cold in my flip-flops – I thought we were going to drive! – and the edges of the dollar store shoes were digging into my feet just enough to annoy me. My calves and feet were sore from being on my feet all day the day before, but I pushed myself, meeting his stride with one and a half of my own. I kept the pace behind him as he continued to lead us down the sidewalk.

I laughed out loud as I recalled when he was a little boy and he was the one working hard to keep up, even when I took short slow steps for him. His little legs would give out eventually and he would say, “Hold you,” meaning he wanted me to hold him. I would pick him up, his arms outstretched ready to lock behind my neck. His cheeks on my chest, first one side and then the other, until his picked his favorite angle. And then I would say, half-singing, “Momma got the baby…. Momma got the baby….” I never felt a more pure love than in those moments, and I longed to stay there forever.

But here we were, me walk-skipping to keep up with him. As we got closer to the high school, I asked him to let me know when he wanted me to stop walking with him. I knew he wouldn’t want me to walk all the way up to the gate. He agreed. He didn’t want to hug me goodbye in front of the other kids. I get it.

He was nervous, yet confident. This was after all, his eighth SAT test. He wanted to try and get a perfect score, and get into his dream college. He could have prepared more, but can’t most of us say that? When is it ever “enough?” In his senior year, it was a tetras game of shifting and rearranging schedules to meet deadlines.

I looked at the back of his mass of brown curly hair and smiled because he has embraced the curls. He used to want me to cut them short and try to get them to lay flat. He has since learned to use hair products to at least tame the frizz. One of his violin teachers told Jackson his hair was like that of a great Hungarian violinist he knew of. That was the moment that changed everything.

As we walked, I told the back of his head how much I loved him and was proud of him. That he is a kind and good person. I was talking to his hair, but I knew he was listening.

I continued my lifelong pep talk, leading with the rhetorical question, “What is the first thing you’ll do when you see the longer reading passages?”

“Start with the easy questions,” he said.

“No, hun. You take a deep breath. You take three deep breaths so you can slow your heart rate down. With a lower heart rate, you will be more calm and in control, and will increase your odds of making better choices on the test. Remember, 5 seconds in, 5 seconds hold, and 7 seconds out…. Always make the “out” part longer and it will slow your heart rate….”

“Oh, yeah… I will. I’ll remember….”

We approached the school property and began the long walk along walk between the parking lot and the field, next to the long metal fence adjacent to the sidewalk. It was only

7:35 am in December, so the sun was still only rising. Bright sunlight flashed in our eyes from behind each of the verical fence posts. It made a beautiful shadow of the fence on the concrete.

Soon we approached the main building, and it was time to hug goodbye. Reviewed the strategies…. Breathe, pace, believe in yourself… and I turned to go back the way we came. I managed to get a photo over my shoulder of him walking toward the crowd. I saw him walk up to the posted sheet with room designations. I knew he would be ok.

Walking back home alone, I noticed the runners had become walkers. Keeping pace, I remained on the sidewalk while they had the street. This was my crowd. I saw a police officer pick up a felled orange traffic cone. I thought about asking, “what race is this?” but I didn’t have the energy for small talk. I was thinking about my son and if he would remember to breathe.

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