Things are so far from normal this academic year that I hardly even recognize my own life. Over the summer, my spouse and I watched as politicians made decisions about education. Some claimed schools could be made safe enough to open. Others argued that virtual learning might be preferable. But the undercurrent, the real concern for many, was the economy. Schools needed to open, not so much so that students could learn, but so their parents could go back to work. Since kids allegedly didn’t get COVID, or didn’t exhibit symptoms to the same degree as adults, many politicians and administrators thought it reasonable that schools resume in-person teaching. My spouse and I listened to all the arguments. We read incessantly — especially what the science community was saying — and in the end, for once, we reached the same conclusion. Our son, G3, would not return to public school this year.
In short, the virus is still too new. Science doesn’t have enough answers regarding the long-term effects of COVID-19. There was no way we were sending our child to school so that he could be a guinea pig. Our main priority was keeping him safe. Learning virtually wasn’t the answer, for us, either. We figured staring at a screen all day couldn’t be good for his development, and nothing beats in-person instruction.
Back in April — when my father and I got infected — I lost my job. Between the depression sparked by my father’s death and being too ill to work, someone else needed to pick up my classes. I was only an adjunct professor, so I had no job security. It was easy enough to let me go. My unemployment meant that I’d be home. So instead of looking for a new job — where would I even find one in our crashing economy? — I decided to homeschool my son.
There have been several times throughout this pandemic that I have felt as if my life’s journey prepared me for nothing more than to face the misery and chaos of 2020 head on. First, my love of and obsession with writing enabled me to keep a detailed blog of life in New York City during the height of the first wave. I was also able to narrate my Dad’s decline, interspersed with memories of happier times — a written memorial for the man who had given me so much.
Additionally, my background in education equipped me to be my son’s private tutor. My experience has run the entire gamut of the academic world. I taught two year olds all the way up through college as I tried desperately to find my niche in the world of education. Apparently, I failed, but my failure would be my son’s gain. With degrees in literature, writing, history, and education, the humanities would be easy and fun to teach. I haven’t taken a math class since high school, but I figured fifth grade math couldn’t be too complicated, and if it was, my spouse could easily run point. Being married to a math teacher finally had its perks. That left science — my greatest weakness. However, many teachers I once worked with only stayed a chapter ahead of their students. I figured if I did the same, it wouldn’t be too bad. Besides, with access to the internet there would be videos to watch and articles for my son to read. And it would only be for one year — or so we hope.
We broke the news to G3 that we were pulling him out of school. He took it well. Having lost his grandfather — his hero — to COVID, he knew the severity of it. What he wasn’t happy about was having to spend the next semester — possibly the entire year — with hardly anyone other than me. Kids need friends. But as an only child and with only a few people we could really trust to be COVID-free, his contact with peers would be severely limited.
Our condo is tiny, too small to separate or socially distance from my spouse who would be teaching high school classes in-person. Also, the landscaping noise in our condo development is loud and pervasive, not at all conducive to either teaching or learning. To further isolate in a more peaceful environment, my son and I decided to live in my dad’s summer house out on Long Island. The beach was close-by, an idyllic setting for classes on warmer days, and a quiet place to walk or read on the weekends or in the early evenings. If I had to be stuck anywhere in the world for an extended period of time, the beach was definitely not a bad place to be.
It wasn’t until our first day of class — a warm enough day to pack up and head directly to the bay — that I realized G3’s idea of being homeschooled was completely different than mine. He seemed to think that in not attending a physical institution he’d be able to lounge in front of a television for half the day. When he understood I intended to make him work, he had the first of many meltdowns. These, of course, ended up extending the academic day not shortening it.
The best part of homeschooling is not having to answer to either parents or administrators. I’m following the state curriculum and standards — mostly — but I get to do things my way. I don’t have to worry about being too leftist, reading stories that some may deem inappropriate due to violence or ‘witchcraft,’ and I can take whatever tangents I or my son wish to follow. And to appease my son’s curiosity there have been many tangents. With COVID constantly in the news, along with the presidential election and racial violence, I draw lessons from current events. The news also prompts a slew of questions from my son which makes for some interesting conversations. Recently, he asked, ‘I heard the word ‘Cabinet’ on the news. But I don’t know what it means. Can you tell me?’ Connecting the past with the present and random dry facts with his personal experiences breathes life into the textbooks and makes them meaningful. I enjoy his excitement when things click and his smile when he learns something new.
The hardest part of vacillating between my roles as mom, teacher, and writer is the trying to eke out a few minutes every day to write. Like so much else in my life, I’ve begun to fear writing will become a casualty of this pandemic. Before the world shut down in March, I wrote every day. I was in the middle of novel — okay, middle might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I had started to draft a story. Now, I’ve lost my momentum. I’ve attempted a few essays, but progress is slow. I’m with my son all day. And when I say all, I mean we get absolutely no break from each other until he goes to bed. By then I’m yawning and struggling to keep my own eyes open. It’s hard to think and be productive when I’m falling asleep, so I’ve taken to writing when G3 works on his writing assignments. For twenty to thirty minutes every day, I make him write and revise — narratives, persuasive essays, informative pieces. And when he turns on his computer, I turn on mine. Of course, it’s not the same as it once was. Silence is non-existent. The minutes are punctured with comments — along with complaints and random stories from my son that have absolutely nothing to do with his assignments. But slowly, one sentence at a time, I’ve managed to cobble together a few short projects.
Yes, I miss my former writing life, but I am also keenly aware that my son is getting older. When the pandemic ends, time with friends will supplant time with me. So I choose to look upon these days as a gift. When we aren’t trying to strangle each other or compete in a shouting match, we do share some special moments. We both study taekwondo. My son is a first degree blackbelt. After twenty-five years — including a hiatus of twenty-two — I’m finally two tests away from also achieving a black belt. Between school lessons, G3 and I go outside and practice together. Stepping out onto the grass our roles switch. He becomes the teacher and I the student. He corrects my stances and blocks and helps me with my kicks. What I enjoy most is running through the staff form with him, a form we both recently learned. Forms in taekwondo are much like choreographed dances — rhythmic and beautiful — until you peel back the performance aspect and realize each move is designed to be a sharp powerful blow that can cause serious pain or injury to an assailant. My son is better at them than I am. I’ve never had any grace, so I’m often in awe at how simple he makes it look. Taekwondo in many ways has become our release valve. It’s recess, therapy, and gym class combined. When we are frustrated and angry at each other or the world, when we are sad at all we’ve lost and missing my Dad, we kick and punch the clapper pad until we feel a little better. Taekwondo keeps us grounded and sane, and it gives us something to strive for, goals to accomplish in this otherwise dark time.
Darkness! Lately, it is ubiquitous and if you believe the numbers in the news — which I do — it’s getting darker. There are so many questions, and hardly any answers. Where will this virus lead us? What lies on the other side of this pandemic? What will be the long-term consequences of our withdrawal from society? When the world is once again safe, will I have prepared my son well enough to return to school? Yes, that’s the one that troubles me most.
Some days I’m extremely confident that I’m keeping him ahead of the curve. In rare moments it seems so simple. He constantly has my complete attention. I am able to move at his pace. And I am there to walk him through any and every problem he has. I can dissect his writing and his written and oral response questions more closely and methodically than I ever could if he were in a class with twenty other kids.
However, not everything is as perfect or as smooth as I envisioned back in September. On days when G3 asks me science questions I can’t answer I feel as if I’m letting him down. Of course, Google can answer anything, but it’s not the same as having a knowledgeable teacher. It’s not hard to feel the energy level completely shift as we move from history to science. What troubles me most is my fear that I may be setting unrealistic goals. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve taught middle school. I’ve become accustomed to college level expectations and I’m not sure I’ve diluted them enough. During moments when my son cries that I’m not being fair, that I’m giving him too much work, that he just wants to be left alone to work on another 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, I wonder if he’s right. Maybe I am being too hard on him. The truth is, I have no concept of what other kids his age are doing. Even if I did, I’m not sure it would make a difference. Because when the screams subside, and he stops fighting me, he’s capable of doing and completing everything I give him.
But I’ve come to realize that my insecurities — am I a good enough teacher for my son? — have nothing to do with teaching G3. I’m an unemployed middle-aged woman living in a society where one’s worth is based solely on what job you have and the salary that accompanies it. Based on those criteria, I’m worthless. To feel value in my own life, perhaps I’m putting too much pressure on my son. He needs to excel this year, so that he can feel successful. Maybe that’s just too much for a ten-year-old to shoulder. So lately, I’ve given myself permission to take a step back. I let him have more time for his puzzles, and I focus on what I know instead of dwelling on what I don’t. The entire country is a mess. The educational system is in a shambles despite teachers working overtime. Everyone — every single teacher and student — is doing the best they can under these really crappy conditions. Perhaps what G3 and I need most this year are not more goals, or more complicated projects. Maybe we simply need to enjoy each other’s company. School will always be there, as will tests and assessments. But life is fragile, it could be gone tomorrow. Why am I worrying today?
So tonight, we’ll skip the homework and we’ll sit together on my dad’s chair — the one where he and my son used to cuddle together — and turn on the television. Without his grandfather, and in a world he too no longer recognizes as his own, what G3 needs most is not more lessons or a better education. He needs a new buddy with whom he can watch Marvel movies and briefly escape this sometimes suffocating reality.