My own goal in this scary moment, other than trying to help these little people learn, is to make sure this isn't lost time. To make sure it's joyful.
Welcome to Mom Academy. Our instructors boast no formal training. Our facilities may or may not double as That Room in the Attic Where Dad Keeps His Old Stuff. We are certified by no professional body. But America, we’re the best you’ve got, now that a pandemic has shut down the country and moved the job of educating children from qualified teachers to a bunch of parents who, truly, don’t know what we’re doing.
On the last day of school, my twin son and daughter piled into the back of my car, their little school bags stuffed with lesson plans and their brains overflowing with questions. “What’s corona?” “Can you catch it from cupcakes?” “You’re our teacher?!” Even I laughed at our new normal. Buckle up kids, it’s true!
The laughter stopped fast the first morning of Mom Academy, when our daily schedule (thankfully provided by their teachers) stretched out in front of us. Reading, writing, Spanish, math. More schedules brought more subjects. Music, science, art, P.E., all with actual things to learn. If you haven’t spoken with an early educator recently, I’m here to tell you first-grade math has gotten wildly complicated. So has first-grade reading, which last week included a segment on opinion writing, in which I am happy and embarrassed to say I learned quite a lot. (Use lots of examples! Convince your readers!)
2 first graders, competition and tears
Along with the surprisingly full schedule has been the challenge of motivating two first graders to stay focused for 45 minutes on a single subject, again and again and again. Sitting next to each other leads to competition (one's better at math, the other at reading), comparison ("Why did you get that wrong? It's so easy!") and occasional tears. Separate rooms means shuttling between the two trying to keep them on task, on schedule and learning something — anything.
Literally, how do teachers do this with 20 kids or more?
Comedy comes on group texts with parents, many with advanced degrees, when someone asks how number bonds work (ask a first grader if you don’t know), or how to get into Google Meet for the Friday first-grade class meeting. That last question might have come from me. Twice.
A fluke of timing has meant that my job as a political correspondent has been mostly suspended, along with the suddenly recessed state legislature I was covering, so staying at home and focusing on school has been possible for me. Other parents aren’t as fortunate, with many leaving home to work as doctors, nurses, grocery clerks or delivery drivers. Still others, including our own wonderful teachers, are working from home and juggling their own Mom Academies without the help of babysitters, day care, camps or grandparents — the daily godsends of working parents in normal times, but all off limits when the only way to keep them safe is to keep our distance.
Some parts of Mom Academy have brought unexpected ease, including no rush to get out the door in the mornings, no frantic hunts for overdue library books or matching socks. I personally haven’t looked at Pinterest in weeks. Without other moms to see your creative class snacks, who else is there to impress? It turns out my most important audience really doesn’t care what shapes their food comes in.
Parents of older kids tell me the school portion of the day is mostly easy — students work with their teachers and classmates online. Some are even thriving without the distractions and anxieties that sometimes come with middle and high school. The harder part is convincing them that staying away from their friends could save their lives, or their parents' or grandparents'. They are also managing disappointments over milestones that might never come, proms and graduations that might or might not happen.
A chance to lose some of the rules
My own goal in this moment, other than genuinely trying to help these little people learn, is to make sure these are not lost days or weeks or months. I can’t make this time less scary, but I can allow it to be as joyful as a 7-year-old makes just about everything. That has meant keeping a schedule but losing some of the rules that don’t really apply when you have nowhere else to be.
Why not sleep in a tent on a Sunday? Or let the dog wear a dress? Or have breakfast for dinner or a scavenger hunt on FaceTime? Why not climb a tree at dusk, or drive a toy car down the road or make Uno your new Little League or a pogo stick your new pony? Why not forget everything I had planned and savor the moments I was too busy to appreciate?
Before all of this happened, I left my family’s spring break trip to be back at work on a Monday. I told my sister it wasn’t the vacation I missed, but the chance to be with my family away from the world. An impossible chance to make time stand still. In the strangest way I could imagine, that’s what Mom Academy has become.
I believe deeply that time is a gift, no matter how it’s packaged. We are alive, we are healthy, and hopefully somewhere in this eerily still global chaos, our children are learning lessons they’ll carry for a lifetime.
Patricia Murphy is a political columnist and correspondent based in Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter:@1PatriciaMurphy