WHAT COUNTS ~ Some Thoughts on Recovered Family Time, Remote Learning, and the Romantic Poets
I made the checklist above on the first day of quarantine. I still think, philosophically, it’s pretty good, but it’s not really what our days look like...yet.
Every parent by now has seen the brilliant viral video of the Israeli woman in her car, coming fabulously unglued, yelling into the camera about the intense course of remote learning that’s been put in place for her 4 kids during quarantine, and how it’s stressing her out.
“Lower your expectations!” she says, with vehemence only an overwhelmed mother can muster.
I laughed till the tears ran when I first saw it, but I wasn’t yet feeling her pain.
True confession. In the first two weeks of Shelter-at-Home here in LA, where we’ve lived for only 8 months and are still getting our bearings, we have not been "homeschooling" the way it seems (at least from social media posts) a lot of people are—setting up a classroom and a strict color-coded schedule and maintaining a “regular” school day.
We kind of took the first few days to get the lay of the land, a sense of what the new online schoolwork was going to look like, and to figure out a daily rhythm that felt natural and right in these extraordinary and discomfiting circumstances.
With the 4 of us juggling 3 dinosaur laptops, only 2 of them reliable, the kids began their schools’ new online programs, and the grown-ups kept working from home, which is what we mostly do anyway.
But we also concentrated heavily on family bonding time. We went on long, reviving hikes, drove out to barren beaches to dip our toes in the ocean and throw a ball around; we picked fruit from the trees in our new yard, cooked, watched movies, played board games including a 3-day Monopoly marathon, which I will never, ever do again.
Despite uncertainty, fear, grief, and anticipation of grief, I’ve secretly, almost sheepishly, cherished this time. I enjoy the funny memes and rants of moms suddenly conscripted to round-the-clock care, feeding, entertainment, and now education, too, of their young children—I recognize their overload and exhaustion. I remember how suffocating stay-at-home motherhood often felt—even without quarantine orders.
But my kids are teenagers now. Before Coronavirus locked us all up together for the foreseeable future, my daily breathless panic was about how soon they’ll leave me, and how in the days and years that are left, they’ll be hanging around less and less. I wish it hadn’t come to us this way, but I can’t help but see lockdown as a gift of time we’d never otherwise have had with these kids—these charming, awkward, annoying, loving, infuriating, smelly-footed, eating-like-a-swarm-of-locusts, big, grown-up babies.
At first, it felt like spring break, with a little extra homework and a lot of social distance. Or rather, like one of the unscripted summers I've blogged about at length--work to be done, but so much sacred time to hunker down together.
Then things started to go off. Didn’t take long.
By week-2, we were seriously wrestling with how to proceed.
But it’s not the togetherness that’s hard.
To all the teachers—I am amazed by what you have jumped in to produce under such intense, unheard-of circumstances, and so very grateful.
This is not your fault.
What we are experiencing, though, is that while for one of our kids the school’s remote program is working fine so far, for one kid this style of learning is not a good fit. Which is to say, it is TORTURE. By which I mean, we cannot do it AND maintain our family's emotional and mental health, say nothing of getting my own work done. I would drink myself to death.
It’s simply a case of a child’s learning needs being ill-matched to sitting in front of a screen for lengthy recorded lectures, hours of annotating and analytic writing, working from long agendas without the context and support of the classroom.
It’s not going to happen. That’s the fact.
So, what now?
Again, I’m not blaming our dedicated educators who are working outrageously hard. I honor their superhuman efforts to offer the full curriculum, continuity, and a sense of normalcy. (Sidebar: I work for an educational program and a big part of my job these days is creating/adapting online content to help parents to engage their very young children while stuck at home).
But I think the reality we’re facing is that nothing we do can make these days into typical school days…or typical days of any kind. I’m not sure the answer is to try to recreate the “normal” school day at home (I know it won't work for us) especially when, for some kids, for all different reasons, the standard school day, even under the best of circumstances (like, at school), is a pretty tough row to hoe.
A number of districts in the country have already announced that this time of remote learning is “enrichment” and cannot be graded in the traditional sense. But as far as I’ve been able to find out, in California where we live, and New York, which we just recently left, there’s been no official word from city or state as to whether the tests and grades, "attendance" and assessements during remote schooling “count” in final transcripts—whether it all, you know, “goes down on your permanent record.”
At least one teacher of ours has indicated that this is regular graded schoolwork and the usual policy of “No Excuses” applies. (To be fair, when we asked for an extension on one assignment it was granted! I'm not criticizing the teacher, just making the the point that there's no uniform policy in place, state- or district- wide). In New York, Spring Break has been cancelled altogether and online school will continue in its place; our Spring Break, such as it is, begins tomorrow, but we've gotten word that more structure will be imposed after Spring Break. The implication is that expectations remain the same. Keep calm and study on.
And so, our Shelter at Home days became about cajoling, arguing, helicoptering, pleading oh-sweet-baby-moses-in-a-basket-will-you-just-bang-something-out-and-click-submit?! And for the kid, a sense of frustration, overwhelm, paralyzing boredom, and defeat began setting in—more hatred than ever of “school,” impacting emotional life in already difficult days.
The other night, I spent many of the wee hours trying to untangle a massive English assignment on Romantic Poetry, to determine how my kid had lost the way and fallen so far behind in a matter of just a few days that we probably can’t catch up. I have a degree in English Literature, and this one was a heavy lift even for me.
I sat alone in the dark living room and cried over what a terrible, neglectful, inefficient, ineffective mother I’ve been. (Things always go a little out of proportion for me at night, but still...) How had I not realized from the moment lockdown began that I would need to be totally on top of my kids' remote schooling, watch it like a hawk?
I scolded myself that we'd spent the afternoon hiking a stunning peak in the Santa Monica Mountains—the last hike for a long while it turns out, as the parks were shut down only hours later—when, among other things we should have been composing 5 paragraphs each on “Ode to the West Wind” and “To a Skylark."
Why hadn’t I realized that our "no cellphones” policy on the hike meant that these 4 vigorous miles with a gain of 1000 feet wouldn't count toward the school’s daily Phys Ed requirement because they hadn’t been tracked by GPS?
It wasn’t until sun-up, as I sat bleary-eyed on the patio with my coffee that it (quite literally) dawned on me that Percy Shelley himself might have seen a sad irony in that.
As we embark on what will likely be months of closed schools, I’m asking myself what it means to educate our children in a time of global pandemic. What is important?
Let me be clear. I’m all for the study of Romantic poetry. “Ozymandias,” I was reminded last week, as I taught it to my kid, has never been more relevant—or hopefully, prophetic.
Of course, our children’s education is terribly important. But I can’t help wondering if, as a society—parents, educators, policy makers—in our hurry to triage the hemorrhaging school hours, produce content, continue assessments, we’re missing some fundamental lesson that the universe has for us amidst the terror and tragedy of Coronavirus.
I’m not sure what it is yet.
But I know this.
The yelling woman in her car is right, at least to some degree. We do have to adjust our expectations. All of us. But it’s not a matter of lower or higher. That’s part of the necessary adjustment in our thinking. It’s a question of WHAT is most important now, and why?
In an effort to hold on to some sense of normalcy, and to come up with answers on the fly, I think we’ve convinced ourselves that the best way going forward is to maintain something as close to “business as usual” as possible. But this is not business as usual. There is no normal now. And I’m finding that the more I try to achieve that, the more frustrated and panicky I feel.
I have high expectations for my kids, and of course I worry what this time period means for their future, and the futures of the many, many kids with far fewer advantages in life.
But the first priority, and the freedom that must be afforded all parents in a time like this, is to simply meet your family’s unique needs, whatever they are. For all too many families, and probably more every day in the coming months, it will be a struggle for survival.
Our family is very fortunate that, for the moment anyway, we’re not wondering where we’ll live or where the next meal is coming from. I’m grateful for the opportunity my kids have to continue schoolwork remotely and “keep up”… whatever that means right now. No one really knows when school will resume, or even what the next few years will look like for a generation of kids after Covid-19 pressed pause on education—everything, life!—as we knew it. There are devastating downsides, and there may be big opportunities too.
In the meantime, though, we need to officially adjust the metrics and methods of accountability so that no child is penalized for what does or does not happen in “school” in the weeks or months until real school reopens. Our policymakers need to be unequivocal that while every possible educational avenue will be provided, "school" is about enrichment and support right now; families should just do their best, deciding and focusing on what is right for them. For some that will mean maintaining as much of the status quo as possible; for others, it will mean getting very inventive; for still others, their whole world may be on pause. Even the more privileged among us are struggling to figure out the new normal.
People are dying. Shit is out of control. The curve, in every sense, is steep.
None of us knows what next week holds. Last week I could not have imagined that our parks, trails, and beaches would be shut down until further notice. That I would have moments when I feel like the walls are closing in. That the beloved city we left a just few months ago would now be under siege from the virus, with many of our dearest ones still in it, riding it out and making the most of small apartments. I could not have predicted that my kid would be drowning in the new version of the old schoolwork and I’d be scrambling to find a fix because in the midst of all this insanity I’m worried about grades.
For me, the question this whole ordeal has brought into focus is this--
If you really believed these were the last weeks, days, hours you'd spend with your kids—whether due to global pandemic or just run of the mill empty nest—what would you do with that time? What would deserve your attention? What would their education consist of? What are the most important things you would teach them?
Be honest, how much time would you let them spend staring at a screen—into the cyber-abyss or even a good, solid lecture on the Romantic Poets?
I know every teacher dearly wishes they were back in the classroom with their students—we all know there’s no substitute for that. Online communication and assignments may be the best stop-gap we have at the moment, and educators are doing a brilliant job of harnessing that technology to help our students.
But the truth is, I’m more desperate than ever to minimize my kids’ screen time during this nightmare—except for when we’re connecting with loved ones, or binge-watching something brilliant, funny, and escapist as a family, eating popcorn with extra butter because full yes to extra butter these days, cuddling on the couch with our sweet little mutt who keeps us calm and present because he has no sense of time, no cabin fever, no fear of virus, no essays to write.
I’m grateful for Skype/Zoom/Facetime/Google Hangouts, because for the moment they give us a necessary sense of closeness with far-flung family, and friends right here in town, as well as the opportunity to touch base with trusted teachers. It’s all too tempting to disappear into a virtual world—God knows, I could scroll Pinterest forever, pretending I still plan my outfits (Blue sweatpants or gray sweatpants?) And haven't I spent most of today writing this on my laptop?
But I think above all, Social Distancing demands that we seek the real and tangible, the here and now, the simple and beautiful and human and natural wherever and whenever we can.
We haven’t decided yet exactly what school is going to look like for us in the coming weeks. Except that we have decided that we will decide based on what feels right—not on fears about report cards or tests or admissions boards.
I’m pretty sure it will include reading whatever excites the kids, reading together, reading for joy. Reading books with paper pages and a little smell of must and dust. Talking about what we’re reading. Getting outside and getting exercise in whatever way we still can. Who cares if GPS doesn’t track yoga or backyard whiffle ball home run derby? Maybe what the kids have learned in earth science will be useful in figuring out how to plant a little vegetable garden in our tiny patch of terrible soil. Maybe our version of studying Romantic Poetry will be composing a few stanzas of ottava rima about how much we long to slip our limbs into the stinging cold ocean again, or feel in our nostrils the mineral zing of Topanga after a rain.
We’ve decided we won’t spend this crazy, terrifying, uncharted, claustrophobic, delicate, liminal—and precious—TIME fighting over assignments, freaking out about due dates, letting fears about their educational future press the kids into hours of service to screens. Half my life is about keeping them off devices.
What counts in this time—besides doing everything we can to stay physically healthy in the age of deadly virus, worldwide calamity—is staying sane, mentally and emotionally upbeat, staying inspired somehow, and energetic; staying happy and engaged with life as it is now; holding our children close, nurturing, encouraging, and yes, educating them, as feels appropriate day-to-day in such uncertain days.
Perhaps we will try to return, at least as a meaningful framework, to my original "daily checklist."
It’s a time, a season. "Oh Wind," as Shelley wrote, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
I’m full of dread of what’s to come—it seems an almost inevitable tsunami of sorrow--but also awash in gratefulness for now, in the most immediate sense: sitting in the wicker porch chair that has become my office, at golden hour, low sun sifting through the orange tree and dappling the lawn, a breeze blowing across the sweet pink jasmine in bloom for the first time since we moved here. My husband and daughter playing with the dog, my son baking brownies. We are healthy. We are together. Somehow we will get through this.
At the moment that feels like all we need to know.
And actually, I think the Romantic poets would agree.
All text and images, except where credited, are © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2015-2021 -- All rights reserved.