Week 16: Super Teacher Mom?

July 16, 2020

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.

I’ve waited 16 years, and it might not ever have happened without the pandemic, but here it is, finally: my daughter and I are reading Pride and Prejudice together. That sentence above is Jane Austen’s iconic first line that perfectly sets up her novel, a wry take on the marriage market of Regency-era England. I have read this book so many times I couldn’t possibly begin to count. I adore the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, who brooks no fools, and her sexy but infuriating love interest, Mr. Darcy, who — gasp — comes to admit his own mistakes. I love the balls and the gentry and the absurd formality of their lives. But most of all, I love how Austen addresses prejudice and inequity while still making me laugh aloud. Sure, it’s prejudice and inequity directed by one very rich class of white people against one not-so-rich class of white people. I will admit, it’s hardly the world’s biggest leap. But it’s startling, to see how even members of the same society and skin color can find ways to look down upon each other.

There’s also lots of big vocabulary words, which Sarah says will come in handy when she takes the SAT this fall.

When we first went into lockdown four (four!!) months ago this week, I did not exactly pull on my Super Teacher Mom cape. At first, it was like a tsunami hit: we were locked indoors, and then one son flew in prematurely from the Midwest and then another son flew in prematurely from Africa and what on earth was this new life, anyways? Where and how would I work, and how would I get groceries, and could I finally squeeze in daily time for fiction writing? And then I got sick, and was worried even more about me: how would I get better, and when would I get better, and what exactly was I getting better from, since I never got definitive word on what I had?

Meanwhile, Sarah’s high school went online and I thought, okay, that’s not great, but it’s also pretty straightforward. Same classes, same teachers, just on Zoom instead of in person. But as anyone knows who’s been raising a teenager through this shitshow we call quarantine, Zoom learning is anything but straightforward.

Some teachers didn’t show. Some teachers hardly showed. Some expected too much and some not much at all. Sarah stayed up to all hours chatting on Facetime, watching movies and TV shows with friends around the city, and I was just glad each night, as I drifted off to sleep, to hear her giggling down the hall.

Despite the giggles, this turned out to be anything but a happy time. The life of an A.P.-taking, ambitious high schooler in America in 2020 is already an existential question: why? Why must I learn subjects I will never use again? Why must I labor to build a “resume” that will become irrevelant the moment I set foot in my freshman dorm, and another, even more consequential race begins? Why, in fact, am I racing at all?

At this age, friends can be a delight and a torture.. But at least they are there, in the trenches with you. Unlike your teachers, your counselors and your parents, who want want want from you, like you’re a product with an expiration date quickly approaching.

During quarantine, though, even the mixed solace of peers has been tempered in a fundamental way. No hugs. No whispers in class. No trading bits of gossip in the halls or at lunch. No bonding at the mall, or the beach, or a party.

No matter, though: you must learn. Now. Tick-tock, time isn’t waiting on the coronavirus or you. Get going.

It was a lot to ask of anyone, much less a 16-year-old girl who delights in making her bullet journal, crushing on Harry Styles and sketching out dresses on scrap paper. I will not ask her to lift such a heavy burden again all by herself.

LA Unified just announced, as we expected, that school this fall will begin online. Sarah, who will be in 11th grade, is signed up for four A.P. classes — Spanish, calculus (the second half of freshman year college calc; she took the first half last year), English and something called A.P. Seminar, which is the first year of a two-year-long research project. Plus, of course, regular chemistry and U.S. history. It’s a very full load.

At the moment, following the excellent lead of my thoughtful friend Anne, I’m trying to gather a pod of about two or three kids who are also taking A.P. Calc B.C. and whose parents would like to split a tutor with me. Because one lesson we learned loud and clear last spring was that, as hard as calculus is in a classroom, it’s twice as hard over Zoom. It was a Herculean effort for Sarah to pass her A.P. calculus exam this spring, made even more trying by a College Board software glitch. I don’t want to subject her to the loneliness of that again.

I think I’d better find another tutor for Spanish, and make myself available for English, history and seminar help. Chemistry, her physician father can handle. She says she doesn’t need us for those subjects, but I’m coming to understand, it’s not strictly about ability, or capability. It’s about having a person, in the flesh, who is invested in your academic life on a daily basis. That used to be her teachers. For the foreseeable future, that will be me and her dad.

To be clear, this is not how I want to spend my time this fall, hovering over my 11th grader’s textbooks. If we could afford $40K a year for private school for her, maybe I wouldn’t have to. The private school teachers, even over Zoom, have more time for each student, and the private schools may have the space and money to pull off in-person learning. Our public schools have been underfunded to the point of breaking for years, and now the fissures are turning into cracks that no one can help but see.

That, though, is the subject of another post, for another day.

In the meantime, Sarah and I are reading a book together. A book that has unusual words like draught and solicitude, which will no doubt be of assistance when it comes time to take a standardized test. My daughter is learning that young women who lived on a different continent 200 years ago were not so different from herself and her friends, and that their problems could be entertaining without being ridiculous.

I’m remembering how much I love to see Sarah laugh.

And I’m coming to understand that, for now, education, in all its many forms, begins and ends within these four walls.

Day 53: Driving

May 19, 2020

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

As I wrote yesterday, I’m finding this quarantine brutal, not only in the big ways I first imagined, but in the small ones that pile up like pebbles forming a hill.

Therefore, I’m trying to count my blessings.

Here’s one: I am no longer a chauffeur.

This was my secret joy when the world shut down in March, but as the weeks have gone by, I’ve dulled to it. It is no small matter, though. I am freed of the carpool. I am liberated from the slog of taking my daughter to dance; to her driving lessons; to her friend’s house all the way across town in Echo Park, because one of her dearest chums is, naturally, a kid who lives 60 traffic-choked minutes from our home.

There’s no more slicing up a Saturday night with a “quick ride” for Sarah to Sawtelle, which is not at all quick because so many other people are making the drive as well. She doesn’t go to Jewish teen events in Malibu, or Simi Valley, or at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, the driving back and forth of which can transform half of my day.

She doesn’t go anywhere.

I recognize this is sad for Sarah. It could even be called tragic.

But we’re not talking about Sarah here. We’re talking about me.

I now have time. I have time to write daily on a novel that for years has been more of a theoretical than an actual project. I can write this blog, which was never a goal of mine, but life surprised me.

I have time to have surprises in my life.

I’m watching a TV show here and there. TV and I have not had a viable relationship in years, but we’re inching our way back. I’m Zooming here, Zooming there, reaching out to old friends on the phone, walking (masked) with neighbors, banging pots and pans with others to celebrate birthdays on our street. I may not be able to hug anyone, but I’m keeping in touch.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the invisible labor of women — the feeding of babies, the corralling of toddlers, the supervising of children’s homeschooling. To this list, I would like to add the driving of the middle- and high-school set all over the bleeding town. I try to frame it for myself as quality time. Look, I’m talking to my daughter! When else would we get to have these intimate conversations?

But the truth is, I think we would have them, somehow or other. And when we did, I’d be a lot less harried, if for no other reason than my back wouldn’t ache so much from sitting in that car so much.

Sarah turned 16 in February, and would’ve had her license right now except she broke her big toe in January and had to take a break from lessons. She healed right about the time we went into lockdown. I’ve promised her that when she wraps up her school year, we’ll get back on the practicing.

I bet she’ll be there the minute the DMV reopens for driving tests. She can hardly wait.

Me too.