When the school bus finally comes

Quarantine schooling and looking for light at the end of the tunnel

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They will go back to school someday. 

I tell myself this because it’s vague enough to be technically true no matter what happens, and because I need to believe in a light at the end of the tunnel. I know we can’t go on like this forever: running two unproductive satellite offices and a failing charter school out of the same handful of rooms. I’m Lennie in Of Mice and Men, and schools reopening in the fall is the farm in my dream. I know how the book ends, but I’m still thinking about petting those nice soft bunnies. It’s the hope that sustains me. 

The first week of lockdown, we did science experiments. I showed them how dish soap breaks the surface tension of a pan full of water and makes black pepper scatter; I built a baking soda volcano using grocery bags and a whiskey bottle, because that’s what I had on hand. (Y’know. Quarantine prep.) We were making it work, and if it wasn’t celebratory, there was at least a guarded lemonade-from-lemons esprit de corps to the whole venture.

Last week they watched Frozen 2 seven times. 

An underappreciated after-effect of this moment in time on their generation’s political views will be the impact of all the time they spent as small children considering the validity of ecoterrorism and anticolonialist revolt in the context of Arendelle-Northuldra relations. At least they’re learning something from it, which is important, because they haven’t been learning much from us, other than “if Mommy and Daddy both have conference calls at the same time, we get to watch Frozen 2 again”.

They’ve grown wise to the fact that Zoom calls aren’t real socialization and have mostly sworn off participation in them; having sat through more than one discordant rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung to a classmate through fifteen computer microphones, I can’t say I blame them. Both of my children are in preschool, and while early childhood education is deeply important, I don’t have state guidelines to meet.

The curriculum has gotten loose.

“The Reggio Emilia educational pedagogy is a student-centered and constructivist self-guided curriculum that uses self-directed, experiential learning in relationship-driven environments,” I proudly recite from Wikipedia, as my son digs a hole in the lawn. He’s learning important things about fine motor control, the natural environment, and how his father is as bad at lawn care as he is at teaching. 

A few other recent lesson plans from our Uncertain Times Academy:

  • See how many different leaves you can find in the yard

  • Okay, now many different birds do you see?

  • See if you can spot a cardinal

  • See if you can spot a blue jay

  • See if you can spot a snipe

  • Huh, that’s weird, you couldn’t find one? Well, we’ll try again tomorrow.

  • Run to the mailbox and go get the mail

  • Anything good in the mail?

  • No, I don’t think we need new aluminum siding. Yes, the flier is very persuasive.

  • Well this is a brick house, for starters. Remember the other day, I had you count the bricks?

  • Yes, we probably do need debt relief, but I doubt that mailer has the solution.

  • Why? Well, because it turns out kids cost a lot of money. I thought I knew this before we had you, but it turns out I didn’t comprehend quite how much money.

  • Oh, why the flier wouldn’t help? Well, it’s called a scam. Remember our snipe hunt lesson yesterday?

  • Hey, run to the mailbox again, see if the mailman came twice today.

  • What? The door is locked? Well, see if you can find the spare key out there. 

I’ve always been appreciative of educators — there are a number of teachers in my family, and I already knew both how demanding and difficult the job was, and how unsuited for it I am. These last few months have only served to hammer that point home, as I’ve discovered the exact limits of my own patience by running headlong through it by 10am each day. I’ve been very scrupulous about social distancing since the beginning, but the first day I can hand my children over to a qualified educator again I am going to ask to kiss them directly on the mouth.

I’ve written about parenting with some regularity here, and a few months ago I had begun to consider fleshing out some of the essays that I’ve published already into a book. It was to be organized chronologically on a loose timeline of our first five years together. Five’s a nice round number, but it’s also a time period with a clear endpoint: the beginning of kindergarten, which is slated to happen for my oldest this fall.

With two full-time working parents, my kids have been in some form of daycare or preschool since infancy, so that break was going to be somewhat of a ceremonial technicality; a marker of a new phase in the oldest one’s life. Practically, it wouldn’t have changed a whole lot, other than a tremendous relief in our household finances with one preschool tuition falling off the balance sheet. 

Now, it’s going to change everything. 

In a flash of optimism in the early weeks, I remarked to my wife that, for all the challenges it would surely bring, this moment was going to be a rare opportunity for us to spend time with our children at a special time in their lives. It was probably foolish optimism, but then again, what optimism isn’t foolish? I had to sell a story I could work with, and that was the story I could tell then. 

Nine weeks later, now that we’ve passed the length of her two maternity leaves, I can say that neither of us has ever spent this length of uninterrupted time with our children, and certainly not with them as walking, talking, full-fledged people. I’ve struggled to provide them what they need right now: education, socialization, clarity. They’ve struggled not to scream when I’ve asked them to be quiet while I’m on a call, and to not occasionally brain each other with a broom from their play cleaning set.

I’ve learned more about them than I ever did on evenings or weekends, though. I’ve learned what frustrates them about learning and what excites them. I’ve learned that each day’s lesson plan has to be written in pencil. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t ask a child to draw their feelings unless you’re sure you want to see what they’ll draw. I’ve learned that sometimes we just need to skip the Zoom call and go stomp in puddles.

They will go back to school someday. I hope it’s on time this fall, but more than that I hope it’s at a time that’s safe for everyone involved. A classroom can reconvene, one that can give them real instruction and real socialization, the things that can’t be provided by two tired parents trying to create a structure from thin air. They can continue on the road they were on before we had to pull everything over for a while.

The school bus is coming. It may not be tomorrow and it may not be in August, but one day it will pull up and take them away. I will squeeze their hands a little harder when I see it, and at that moment I’ll appreciate having had this time together.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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