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.

Week 11: Social Anxiety

June 4, 2020

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I just fled a graduation party.

My smart, articulate, lovely niece graduated high school today, and my father and his wife wanted to throw her a celebration. She deserves it. First of all, because she’s worked hard. Second, because she didn’t get a prom or a senior ditch day or a walk down the graduation aisle.

So they set up TV screens in their backyard and placed tables at strategic distances, and about 20 of us sat down to watch the virtual ceremony: my two nieces, my brother and his wife; my dad and his wife; my mom and her boyfriend; my sister-in-law’s parents and brother; three of my niece’s friends; and me and my three kids (my husband was still at work, because it’s a Thursday and the ceremony was at 5 p.m.)

It’s a lot of people, even in a good-sized backyard. Still, I think I could have managed it.

But none of the guests wore masks, and people from different households sat in chairs with far less than six feet between them.

Masked waiters served passed hors d’eouvres, which you had to pluck from the plate with your fingers. Later, after the ceremony, the same waiters would serve dinner, made by (masked) chefs in the kitchen. Ingress and egress was through the house. Teenagers were hugging.

Even still, I might have been able to make it through. I saw no signs of the virus. The evening was lovely, the hostess had been meticulous in her planning and presentation, and the guest of honor is a young lady I dearly love.

But my mom’s boyfriend, Richard, has been ill with cancer for a few months now, and when I left, he was seated right in the middle of it all, mask dangling from his chair, next to my mother, who had also set her mask aside. I tried to tell myself that they are grown ups, and responsible for themselves. I know the risks are low — all of us outdoors, a relatively small crowd of apparently robustly healthy people.

Still. Every time I looked at my mom and her boyfriend, I thought I would sob. I felt horrible about that, because they looked so happy. They have been cooped up since his January diagnosis to a degree that even I, as much as I shelter in place, cannot begin to comprehend. I can see the argument that life is not worth living if you have to spend it caged inside in the same home, day after day.

But that didn’t make it any easier for me to watch them. From the moment he got diagnosed, five months ago now, all I could think was that he must survive this. Richard is one of the best things that ever happened to my mother, and we all love him very much, in no small part because of how good he is to her. I can’t lose him, I thought. I can’t lose him. The word “coronavirus” started to echo in my head. I felt my anxiety start to come at me, like snow rolling down a hill, gathering snow as it goes, threatening to become an avalanche. And I realized there was certainly someone who was going to get sick out of this, and it was me, from stress.

I made an excuse to my dad about a queasy stomach, which wasn’t too far from the truth, and scurried out of there. Now I’m home, writing this blog. The kids will text me when it’s wrapping up, and I will get in the car and drive 15 minutes to get them.

I am not going to argue that I was rational, or that I made a rational choice. I’m emotional and anxious in the best of times. Of course, I’m even more so these days. We are all more so these days.

Here’s what I learned: the world is still out there, and one by one, people are rejoining it. I am, too, to a small degree. I also went to the dentist today, and to Trader Joe’s. But I’m not ready for a party.

I wish I were. I really, really wish I were.