The author with Natalie and Mason
“Hello, hello! Can you clap your hands?” I sing.
“No, I can’t,” she says as I pry her slender fingers free.
Hello, hello! Can you stamp your feet? “No,” she insists as I stamp her knees on their perch.
Can you stretch up high? I pull her bent arms like taffy.
Can you turn around? Give her chair a spin.
She stands for the Pledge of Allegiance. This much was drilled into her in preschool, but a child who has never been to real school has no idea what is truly expected. When my efforts meet with resistance, I follow her lead. We swap Post-it notes of squiggles to turn into pictures while the teacher conducts morning meeting. Natalie just wants to draw, and why not? She’s got talent beyond her years, and the pace of instruction is as sluggish as dial-up download.
It’s a year of slipping standards – showing up for school in snarls, bare feet, and big brother’s shorts; doodling in class. But a six-year-old tied to a lonely desk needs leeway, and I’m happy to claim this routine as ours.
I live seventy miles south. Natalie’s mother is a hospital nurse, and her father a mail carrier – two jobs that cannot be done remotely. One or both always work weekends, so we don’t get regular family time together. When they are home, it takes all their energy to shepherd three children, including an infant, through an ordinary day. All I wanted for years was more time with them. Now my wish has come true in the most abrupt fashion.
My old leisurely mornings before work, teaching English as a Second Language, are replaced by a 5:30 alarm, a seventy-five-minute commute, and a six-hour-day of hopscotching between Natalie and Mason and their computers. At the end of the day, there is just time for a walk before cooking dinner and falling into bed. Meanwhile, the book I should be writing languishes. Sometimes I feel like a whiner, especially on mornings when the drive has crippled my back to the point I can barely hobble from the bed to the bathroom. This is the year of sacrifices, but I’m grateful none of us has the virus.
“No one should be typing in the comment box now,” Miss Massey, Natalie’s teacher, reminds her students as the comment box floods with emojis. If everyone has a good connection, we may get through morning meeting in fifteen minutes, but a family squabble erupts over an unmuted mic.
“Remember to mute your microphones,” she gently reminds everyone.
“I don’t know what we’re supposed to do.” This is Hayden’s mantra, second only to “I don’t have______” crayons/scissors/a book/anything.
“We haven’t started yet, Hayden,” she says. “Just sit tight.”
“I love you, Miss Massey!” he says too loudly, too insistently.
And my heart breaks. Every single time.
“I love you too, Hayden,” she replies.
He’s not the only one who’s lost. A child or parent interrupts every five minutes on average. They missed the directions. They can’t find the activity hyperlink in the chat box. The website is down. They logged in late. The online library is confusing. They’ve finished their electronic flashcards and want to know what to do next.
With two children to help, I can’t give Natalie as much attention as she deserves. Her days are filled with Jack Hartmann instructional videos. Jack, a Geraldo Rivera lookalike in hokey costumes, sings and dances his way through phonics and math concepts like numatizing, which I still can’t define after six months. His campy cheer leaves Natalie as cold as a coulrophobe at the circus. She’s both bored and struggling, which I’d have thought impossible, but too much pablum will do that even to a kindergartener.
Her language assessments, by contrast, are like Jeopardy minus the vocal inflection and prizes. A robotic voice slings multiple choice questions rapid-fire, and she clicks away like the novice she is, inaccurately. It’s a lot to assimilate. Come January, she’s put in remedial reading before school with half of her class, and I count it a blessing. At least there are no interruptions. Seeing her progress with a tutor emboldens me to turn off the volume during work times, which are supposed to be silent but never are. Natalie, we suspect, is dyslexic, so she needs intensive one-on-one time, but her brother needs me more.
Mason was nonverbal until age three, and barely lettered at seven. He has ADHD, mild autism, and problems with fine-motor control, but also a gift for math, a cheery disposition, and a heart as big as America. When his baby brother came home from the NICU the previous year, his New Year’s resolution was to spend more time with family! Then his wish, like mine, came true as he limped through the spring of virtual first-grade.
At that time, I was still busy online with my own students, adults from four continents. It felt awkward at first, being distracted by my students’ children and décor. This one was on a cleaning frenzy; that one was rearranging the furniture; a third didn’t want to get out of bed; and a fourth laughed about blowing thousands of dollars gambling online. All were out of work, even the self-employed hairdresser and house cleaners, but their spouses in construction and landscaping were unaffected, so they wouldn’t starve or get evicted.
We all missed our in-person classes with word games, riddles, and comics. They especially liked Hocus Focus from the Sunday funnies, a game of finding the differences between two pictures; there’s nothing like comparisons for expanding the vocabulary. With the lockdown, I’d replaced all that with forty-minute Zoom discussions, the limit I could get for free. We talked about favorite memories, smells, phobias, and the superpowers they would choose. (Woodsmoke, spiders, and flying were popular answers.) We laughed, complained, and killed time one day at a time so it wouldn’t kill us.
One day in class, my depressed student suggested we talk about more serious matters, “Like, what you do if your husband cheat on you, or your kid do drugs, or your best friend lie to you.” There was a hush, followed by a whoop of enthusiasm. That’s when our conversations really got real. There’s nothing like the computer in a plague to bring people closer. But by the end of the academic year, with Mason barely reading at a kindergarten level as he entered second grade, my duty was clear.
“Come on, Gigi,” he urges, clasping my hands and pulling me out of my chair the first day of homeroom when his teacher plays Dance Monkey on YouTube. Hesitantly, I follow, off-camera at first, mimicking his ape-armed moves. He lifts a foot like a marionette’s, and so do I. He scratches his armpit, and I follow, trying to stay in step with the KIDZ BOP dancers just beyond my focus. Soon we’re dancing as if no one is watching – him all elbows and knees, me jiving in my slippers – and for the first time in my life I know there really is no one watching. The thumbnail shots of his classmates in Gallery View are so tiny, it’s liberating. It’s pure fun.
Mason’s teacher is more innovative than Miss Massey. Her homeroom features drawing games, trivia contests, and frivolity. But when it’s lesson time, we need all four of our ears, eyes, and hands to take notes and navigate the schedule. I’m a bit of a technophobe, but together we learn to log onto a different page for each lesson until he knows the drill. There is an obstacle course of virtual meetings with separate links for each. He has five math websites, a half-dozen language centers, two online libraries, and break-out sessions. Sometimes the students are at their desks and awake. Other times, like Hayden, they ask each other what they’re supposed to be doing. Sometimes we catch them napping.
Mason’s first math assignment forbids parental help but gives no web page orientation. He times out on the first question, 2+2, because he doesn’t know how or where to enter his answer. He looks at me with desperation, and I break the no-help rule by touching the dot grid in the corner of his screen to reveal a number pad. As for his actual math work, I work at quelling my anxiety so he won’t know I’m working hard to stay ahead of him.
By Groundhog Day, he’s breezing through exercises I don’t grasp. The most puzzling one features two wheels like interlocking gears, subdivided by giant X’s that juxtapose a set of double-digit numbers in a large, red font. The gears twitch back and forth like the second hand of a dying watch, and he clicks through the images with brass fanfares while I am clueless. Days later, I notice a tiny gray number centered above the wheels, so insignificant that my brain had ignored it. This, I finally realize, is the answer to a multiplication problem. That he’s multiplying double digits in his head, in second grade, is a shock in itself. That he figured out how to do this on his own astounds me. Yet his testing program still wants to review that first missed question, 2+2, even after he’s promoted to a gifted and talented class.
Other math exercises, simpler ones, frustrate him because they require writing with a cursor. Given his poor hand coordination, he has trouble drawing legibly even with a pencil, let alone with a mouse. So, I start him on a typing tutorial and show him how to drag and drop textboxes to type his answers. He resists at first, but eventually capitulates when I promise him a pencil-free future.
Then comes Language Arts. Mason can barely read but shows a knack for creative writing. His spelling, capitalization, and punctuation skills are virtually non-existent. For two months, he dictates assignments to me that I make him recopy at the end of the day. Then I go old-school on him, posting curriculum sight-words by his desk and having him write them in sentences for fifteen minutes a day. Some days he does me proud. Other days, he cries, and I remember feeling that way about numbers when I was his age. On those days, I let him go five minutes early.
Lunchtime with the kids transports me back to childhood. In good weather, we play Marco Polo on their trampoline. When we’re housebound, we play Giant Step in the hall. They delight in baby steps, frog hops, snake slithers, and whirlybirds. I learn their favorite memories (Disney World and Slurpees with friends), favorite smells (pizza and chocolate), biggest fears (spiders and poison), and the superpowers they would choose (speed and invisibility). We tell jokes, read the funnies and play word BINGO. They’re especially fond of Hocus Focus. Lunchtime is also baby snuggle time. Some days are everything I’d dreamed of. Other days, I want to scream.
When they finally return to school in April, Natalie has a tenuous grasp of the hundreds chart and language skills below target level. She hates to read, and I fear she hates me too, but then she moves on to being my friend again. “Mommy and Daddy made a chore chart for us,” she confides one day, “But I think they forgot about it. And don’t you tell them!” she adds conspiratorially.
Mason is approaching grade level in language arts and can take cryptic notes. He’s also developed a love of National Geographic books, which he’d not have discovered without being forced to the virtual library. I count this as a big win.
In our exit interview, I tell them they can do great in school if they work. Natalie nods and squirms away, but Mason wraps me in a big hug. “Thank you, Gigi, for giving up your days,” he says for something like the third time this year. At eight, he is surprisingly empathetic.
That night over leftovers, I tell my husband about my new conundrum. The other grandmother, who usually watches the baby twice a week, is seriously ill. The baby needs a new sitter, but I’m burnt out.
“I think you’ve done enough,” he says with a pat on the hand.
Still, I can’t help questioning my choice. Yes, I need a break. I miss the ESL classroom. I miss having time to cook and exercise. I’ve missed too many deadlines for my languishing book. But will I ever complete it to my satisfaction? Will it matter half as much as anything I taught the grandkids this year? If my ESL students should all become fluent, will their successes matter any more to the world than Mason’s or Natalie’s?
The definition of responsibility is shifty, and only my conscience can grasp it.