Back to not-quite-school

When we were on vacation in Clark Lake my sister taught me how to take beautiful long-exposure sparkler photos. Somehow I’d never quite figured it out despite the hundreds of sparklers we’ve waved through the night air. On that trip we also learned our school district’s official options for students and began to weigh the pros and cons of each. No matter which option we chose we would have a minimum of nine weeks of fully virtual school in our future, possibly more. Before the week was out I had a spark of inspiration for another long-exposure photo I wanted to take: I imagined myself sitting at the table in the mudroom where I work, this time with laptops and school supplies strewn about, with the kids moving about me as they might on any given day, blurs of motion and activity while I try (often in vain) to focus.

We tried to choose the option that sounded like the lightest lift for parents. Not because we’re lazy or because helping our children with schoolwork is unbearable, but because we are two full-time working parents and couldn’t compute how this was even tenable for a second grader and two kindergarteners. As the last days of summer ticked by and this strange school year grew nearer I did what I do when there’s too much uncertainty and no way to control it: I tried to get organized. I ordered chalk board contact paper and markers in a rainbow of colors so that I could put everyone’s schedule on the wall in the kitchen. I ordered a wheeled cart with three shelves, one for each child’s school supplies and laptop, and went to the hardware store to buy supplies to make headphone hook magnets for the side of the cart. My need to feel as if I had the situation under control was a powerful force, but at the end of the day it still felt like chaos. We didn’t have schedules of any kind until the Friday before school started. I blocked off huge swaths of time on my work calendar without any sense of when my children might actually have class. The kids and I stood, masked, in a long line of cars waiting to pick up laptops and school supplies and sign off on registration forms. I ordered a magnetic meal planning and grocery list notepad for the fridge.

The night before school started Kristin suggested we break out the leftover sparklers. It lifted everyone’s mood, and she said that we ought to use them whenever we all need a boost. I told her I’d have to figure out when they’re available for sale next and buy them by the case. I have a feeling we’ll need them.

The first week of school is over now and when I reflect on the photo I thought about staging the reality is almost the opposite. The kids are still, the way kids are in front of screens, or draped over furniture bored and longing for our attention. I’m the one who is anxious and hovering. Moving between their screens, checking that Google Meet is working properly, that they can hear and their headphones aren’t too loud, that they know how to unmute when necessary, emailing teachers, triple checking attachments and scheduling updates. I’m the blur.

When their classes are over (before lunch time this week) they’re desperate for something to do, someone else to socialize with, but I’m trying to regain a sense of focus, take off my school support staff hat and put my Director of Talent hat back on. Kristin is teaching high schoolers all day long (from the dining room table this week) and while Vivienne video bombs most of her classes, desperate for human interaction, Mama K is mostly unavailable until 4:00. We’re too distracted to make good use of the task chart I built in the spring so the chore routine is deteriorating and I have the distinct sense that they could be using their time so much more creatively, getting so much more exercise and fresh air if only I could make time to be with and guide them. We shout at them to go outside when they get rowdy, but it sometimes goes unenforced.

Scrolling through Instagram this morning I stopped on a photo from someone I don’t even know, a gorgeous twilight photo of a lake on a farm with the most magical description that conjured up visions of a slower pace, lots more room to spread out and for kids to explore outdoors all day long. I love our home and our yard but it’s not a farm, and what our kids sometimes call “the woods” is a single row of cedar trees that line the chainlink fence at our backyard neighbor’s property line. We have a playhouse and a slack line and swings and tree climbers, but the kids are running out of things to do. They’re restless and lonely and now we’re both unavailable all day long.

I don’t hate my job, not at all, but in a ghost ships sort of way I’m wishing that I had the time and space to have chosen “option 2” and taught the children myself. Maybe it would have felt stressful and fraught in different ways, but I might not feel so guilty and spread so thin. I’m not sure how to engage with the kids during or even just regarding virtual school. I watch as Jonah gets frustrated and bursts into tears on screen or as Jude hides from the camera and refuses to participate out of overpowering shyness. I can’t decide if I’m meant to intervene and support them and the teacher, or pretend I’m not there at all since if these things happened in the classroom I’d never know and therefore never have the chance to worry or fix it.

I believe that being bored is good for kids, it fosters creativity and problem solving and sometimes even conflict resolution when we leave them together and allow them to hash things out, but what about when they’re just draped over the furniture for hours at a time? When we can’t talk them into getting any fresh air, much less exercise, and we’re too busy with work to enforce our own recommendations.

One of the problems with public school is that so much of the focus is on making sure that all of the people are doing all of the things. That teachers are actually working, that students are attending, that work is being completed, and in all of this bee watcher watching there isn’t much time left to think about what it takes to raise good, capable humans. To the teachers’ credit they actually include a good bit of socio-emotional learning content, but I’m also thinking about things like how much screen time is really OK, and how much exercise I wish they were getting, and the chores I wish I had time to teach and supervise. In the spring we did all of these wonderful family art projects together that I absolutely loved. Today we got an update from the school on how “specials” are going to roll out next week. The kids have to watch an art class video and listen for a secret code word during the lesson and then record that code word in a portal to prove that they attended. No art has to be created. The same goes for gym. They could watch a gym video while sitting on the couch as long as they log the code word. I know it’s the best the district can do in a terrible situation, but it’s disappointing and I feel like something deeply important has been missed.

I’m exhausted just thinking about this year because, my god this is only week one. I have no idea what I’m doing and nothing about this arrangement feels quite right.

The kids have good, sweet teachers who are more than capable of giving them a wonderful year of learning. They (well, two out of three) woke up full of enthusiasm on their first day, and they don’t seem to have the same sense of “this could be so much better” that I do. And I have no intention of ruining that for them.

But is it healthy not to know how much more beautiful things might be, or is it sad?

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