The late afternoon sun casts a golden glow in the sunroom where I sit watching the kids at the table, bent over scratch art boards that have just arrived in the mail from my mom in Ohio. Sixteen-year-old Virginia is sitting with her laptop, scrolling and listening to The Weeknd, and Sofia, 18, is soaking porcini mushrooms at the counter for dinner.
My husband has just come home from his work at a psychiatric hospital (still considered an essential employee), cheerful and jokey, tickling and teasing the kids. He’ll drink the espresso I prepared for him, check email, and then head off to his second job at a clinic where he now sees patients via Zoom.
It’s the third day of distance learning at our public schools, and my new job is running this home school. I want to feel satisfied after a good day’s work, but I don’t. My chest is heavy with a pulsing heat and a gloom has settled in.
It should be easier by now. Why don’t I have a better handle on this? I hear about how hard distance learning is for teachers — struggling to learn how to teach online, constantly responding to questions from students, trying to take care of their own children at the same time. We have so much — a whole house and a yard, an at-home parent, a secure income — that it’s hard to feel compassion for myself.
I thought we were doing well when my first grader, Diana, who is often the last to get my help with schoolwork, was seated at the table — dressed, fed, teeth brushed — at 8:50 a.m. drafting her A to Z book. She was writing three facts about ‘C is for Caring’ while her 11-year-old brother Mark snarked about each one. “I guess you want to do a lot of jobs today!” I told him, as I kept writing points next to his name.
“Is this how you spell ‘example’?” Diana asks.
“It has two Ms,” her 9-year-old brother Luke tells her while doing his morning chore of emptying the dishwasher. She erases and rewrites “example” with two Ms.
Crash! A glass shatters and Luke freezes, his hand still poised over the shelf. “It’s OK, it happens to everyone,” I say as I get the dustpan. One of the teens floats by and heads into the basement for a class conference call, and I get the vague feeling that neither are getting enough sleep these days, but it seems like a quaint concern from the past when I worried about parties, where they were, and what they were doing with their friends.
Upstairs Diana tries to finish the ‘D is for Drawing’ page of her A to Z book on her shaggy rug, while I try to log into Microsoft Teams to find out what else she is supposed to be doing, but realize her username and password are not saved on my computer.
“Crunch, crunch. Yum!” she began her page ‘A is for Apple Picking’ on Tuesday when we first started this project. Because I’ve been writing these days, it felt natural to help her try the strategy of hooking the reader with sound words, as her teacher suggested in her daily Powerpoint.
Luke is supposed to be brushing his teeth and starting school too, but he keeps going into Diana’s room and messing with her toys and criticizing her homework. She whines and cries repeatedly, and I start threatening to send anyone who can’t stay in their own area to an outdoor study space.
Finally he starts brushing his teeth, but when I hear him tell her to write, “You can draw many things” for a supporting fact, a suggestion that seems idiotic and passive-aggressive, I blow up. “I don’t need your help,” I tell him, and realizing I have to follow through on my threat, send him to study on the porch.
I feel bad when tears come to his eyes, but I can’t accommodate everyone, and I am beginning to question whether I can accommodate anyone. Every morning Diana looks at me smiling and says, “School!” and I feel like every day I disappoint her with my repeated failures to make logins work, to have the time to spend with her, to get her set up on a computer.
Today I finally get into her first grade Microsoft Team and find in the Class Files folder a ‘Would You Rather’ YouTube video check-in from her assistant teacher. She is so excited to see his name, so I click play and head downstairs to get the boys settled.
I drag an old table from the garage to the porch and pull a chair in front of it. It actually looks kind-of inviting, with a view over the flowering peach tree in the garden and the neighborhood houses across the street. “Get your coat on and come out, Luke!”
Yesterday I had set up a child account for him with parental controls on my husband’s laptop, but every time he would log in, it would list about 15 random utilities that he was not authorized to use, and every time I had to enter the administrator name and password he would duck his head under the table, a sign that he appreciates the privilege he once tried to steal by guessing our passwords.
He plops down grumpily on the porch swing in his coat and shoes. I tell him he can log on now, and he brightens for a moment, and pulls the computer on his lap. The mesmerized look on his face doesn’t assure me, but he says, “I just have to go to Teams, Mama.”
I’m still dizzy trying to move around in the Office 365 platform the school district is using for virtual classrooms, but he does seem to know where to find his assignments, which are also coming in from his specials teachers — make a video puppet show, code a new game, design an American Revolution persuasive poster.
I go inside and check on Mark. As a sixth grader, he might be the most independent, but the amount of information and channels and teachers and schedules he is dealing with is overwhelming. He often walks around in circles saying, “I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”
After a relatively disastrous first day, we had sat down together for over an hour in the evening to try to understand the expectations of each teacher — English, Math, Geography, Science and Spanish — reading through the team newsletter and various emails and following links leading to PowerPoints, PDFs, Office 365 Teams, Clever, YouTube, and the online grading system.
“What do you have to do today, Mark?” I ask, coming in from the porch. He tells me that he has nothing to do. “Thursday…” I say looking at his agenda, “you have a live lesson with Ms. T at 9:30. That’s in 5 minutes!”
He finds his Period 1 Team window and clicks on a Join button and miraculously, his teacher appears. Other kids are joining in as video squares begin piling on top of each other — some with faces, some just black screens with a name.
Once I see that he and his classmates are involved in a discussion with the teacher about how to copy, transfer, fill out and turn in digital reading logs and other assignments — a process that will take almost an hour — I go upstairs to check on Diana, then to Luke on the porch, then back to Mark, out, up and down, making rounds among the three kids, responding to cries for help, conflicts between siblings, or that dazed look when someone has fallen down an internet rabbit hole. I kind-of feel useful, but I also have the sensation that nothing is getting accomplished.
Diana, who has scarcely used a computer until this week, spends 20 minutes typing, “I would rather eat pasta, swim at the beach, and bake cookies,” but when it all disappears, I am so tense that I yank the computer towards me, retype her words in half a minute, and don’t give her a chance to even click “Post.”
By 10:30 a.m., Mark looks bleary-eyed, Diana has watched four math videos and collapsed beside her A to Z book pages, and Luke has spent most of his time tweaking a video game he already designed in his digital communications class, so I say, “OK, everyone outside!”
I dig my hands into an open bag of Virginia pines mulch, and toss handfuls into the flower bed as if I were bailing myself out of a flood with buckets. The kids argue and whine, but eventually I hear bikes and scooters being dragged up the gravel driveway, and then the sound of laughter and calling from around the block.
About 20 minutes later, when I am pulling up wild Queen Anne’s lace around the daylilies, Diana’s face appears, and she says, “My head hurts.” Not sure if it’s an excuse to go inside, I tell her to lie down on the porch swing. Ten minutes later I find her on the living room couch sucking her thumb. Her forehead feels a little hot, and I remember how she had a tummy ache last night, and wonder — could these be symptoms of the virus?
I ask Virginia, who is tending to several pots and pans on the stove while checking her phone and playing Jhené Aiko on her laptop, if she could also set the table because Diana doesn’t feel well. She doesn’t seem happy but starts getting out the cloth napkins, and asks “What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know,” I say, and go outside to clean up the rake, shovel, and bucket of weeds, thinking what will happen if she is sick, who else will get it, who we have infected, how will I be able to take care of everyone.
When I check the thermometer under her tongue, it only reads 98.4 degrees. Diana gets up and eats all of her sister’s new healthy vegan-style cooking — green lentil pasta with basil pesto and a side of sautéed broccoli — and then jumps down and starts doing a puzzle on the floor. Filled with caloric energy, Mark climbs on the couch grabbing onto the curtains, and Luke throws Diana’s shoe in the litterbox, and she begins crying.
“Sofia, can you enforce the dishes rule?” I ask, as I get up and say, “C’mon guys, outside in 10, 9…”
“Why are you lying on the ground?” Diana asks, when she finds me on my back in my winter coat on the brick circle in our front yard next to the yellow and red tulips. The boys, after digging up dandelions in the driveway as jobs, had started shooting each other with the hose, calling each other genitalia, and wailing, so I sent everyone in for an early quiet time.
“It feels good to have the sun on my face and the earth under me,” I tell her. Diana lies down next to me for a while, her head in the crook of my arm. If someone walks by and sees me, I figure they will understand. In a time when everything is weird, nothing is weird.
We are saturated with sunlight, and the world looks blue when we open our eyes, and we go in to lie down in our beds. I read the paper from cover to cover as I do every day now and then take a nap.
When I get up, I will make coffee for me and my husband and the kids will bound down the stairs like a herd of bisons to open the package of scratch art that has just arrived from their grandmother in Ohio. When they get up and wander towards screens, I will notice my journal on a pile of magazines.
I will start writing about this day, and my journal, like a therapist listening to my angst, receives everything without judgment. And I begin to feel better.
Before the schools were closed, I used to spend my mornings writing in a quiet room. Now my laptop is used to log into Microsoft Teams where one-inch squares represent my children’s classes, and I feel like a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse on a desolate prairie who is beginning to lose it.
But another thing has changed. Before I was too scared to share my writing. Now I need to share to survive. Here, ease has sprouted from difficulty. From scarcity, a bewildering abundance.