The second installment chronicling one family’s desperate struggle to manage computer use during the pandemic. CLICK HERE to read Part 1.
My kids’ mother makes just enough money painting floats for a Mardi Gras that won’t even happen, that I am able to stay home and referee our five and 10 year old daughters, both attempting online school five days a week to avoid contact with coronavirus. Their mom’s tenuous job keeps us afloat, so we’ve yet to panic. Still, my 6th grade daughter Cleopatra sums it all up succinctly when she says, only sometimes for comic effect, “I hate online school.”
I can’t say I disagree.
My whole house now serves as a classroom. My house now has eyes everywhere. On school’s first day, crying Xyla walked naked in front of Cleo’s entire class, prompting a stern email later from the school. The next long day, while cooking my daughters’ lunch, I snuck a small shot of Jim Beam, and almost spit it out when Cleo yelled from the next room, “Don’t do that on camera, dad!” Luckily her teacher didn’t see.
I spend each day mostly sitting in the kitchen in the center of my shotgun house, overseeing Xyla at her ad hoc plastic desk to my right, in the front room. Cleo, to my left, in the back room, ambitiously pushed two desks together and, in an extravagant display of youthful intelligence, wired three of my old laptops to one extra-big monitor that I can easily see from afar. She mounted a huge corkboard on one wall, tacked with Hamilton lyrics, and on the other wall hung a whiteboard, upon which she wrote, beside her daily class schedule, “I hate online school.”
My littlest girl meets with her kindergarten class and teachers for just one half-hour, four times daily. In between meetings, she colors her cute little assignments, then watches base YouTube videos of adults playing with tiny plastic toys. Of this, I’m ashamed. My need to make what money I can from home (mostly by cooking for people, and fixing their bikes) while simultaneously helping my kids with school, means I often betray the AAP’s suggestion that kids five years old and under watch no more than one hour a day of “high-quality” programming. Clearly it’s not just me though, since The Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, Boomerang, and Nickelodeon have all reported massive viewing increases.
Despite my older daughter’s “hate” mantra, she at first took to online school like it was her first well-paying desk job. Her compliance amazed me. A fiercely individualistic kid who nonetheless mostly obeys rules, Cleo’s always wanted to stare for seven or eight hours a day into a screen, any screen. Now, at “school,” she gets her wish. Her wish is now mandatory.
Xyla though, is still young enough to indulge in the occasional total meltdown. No five-year-old could possibly accomplish online kindergarten on their own without a fully committed adult within reach. Xyla and I have physical confrontations about the school uniform she’s expected to wear at home. Unbeknownst to her class on the other side of the screen, she sometimes sits at her laptop naked from the waist down.
And I don’t even care so long as she pays attention to the screen — which is extra difficult for Xyla, because her teachers speak only Spanish. As if this all weren’t all difficult enough… Cleo, now in her seventh year at this same Spanish language immersion school, speaks far more Spanish than I do. But had I predicted coronavirus would last this long, I’d have switched Xyla to an English speaking school for these online classes. I felt trapped, not wanting to forfeit Xyla’s spot at her charter school, so I stuck with it when I shouldn’t have. Last week, I almost moved Xyla into an in-person English-speaking Montessori school with only 18 other students (where the teachers even agreed to aid Xyla with her online Spanish school, so that we wouldn’t lose our spot there) but my kids’ pediatrician advised me not to. “That doesn’t sound safe,” she said.
I do try for my kids’ sake to focus on the few positives of this situation. By our fifth week, I’d noticed some interesting upsides. I’d always thought school started too early, but now my kids sleep in, with the distance between their beds and their desks reduced to just a few feet. “I like that I can stay in my pajamas longer,” Cleo said when I asked her if she liked anything about online school, adding, “It’s also easier to get help at school now, like with a project or something; you just email the teacher. Plus now I always have access to Google, which is good too. ”
And though being deprived of social interaction will surely have negative effects, my daughters seem, in some ways, better able to focus on this new type of school. Teachers in the past have sent home notes about both Cleo and Xyla talking in class, playing too much, laughing too much, all the things my own teachers complained about. But now, my kids sit alone, no friends, only the cat to distract them as they stare into the glow, their primary communication with their teachers a silent thumbs up or down.
“Oh, there are still group chats going on in Gmail though,” Cleo admitted to me, too honest for her own good.
“Oh really? Behind the teacher’s back?”
“Not me though,” she claimed. “I don’t do the chats.”
A questionable homeschool teacher, I nonetheless strive to kick-ass as a lunch lady. I allow no food at my daughters’ desks, no snacks, not even water, since in just the first week of school their laptops survived four water accidents. I also feel food should represent their break from the mild hell we now find ourselves stuck in. The AAP urges parents in these times to “preserve offline experiences,” and so I coax my daughters to help me whip up extravagant quiches. Or we roll fresh-caught redfish in egg and Zatarains’s seasoning and fry it in hot oil. Or we slice up healthier plates of salmon and tuna sashimi. Or I demonstrate for them how laborious it is to make the roux for the tukey and sausage gumbo they love. Sometimes this feels like the only real education they may be receiving.
And then they return to staring into their screens, as if doing an impersonation of me. Because my writing, my art, my hobbies, even my sex life all lead back to my laptop, I finally begged off my freelance writing dreams in 2018, conceded to teach some surprisingly pleasant analog English classes at a community college, and even bought a boat, all to escape what felt like life inside my computer. Then coronavirus hit, and crammed my classes and all my students into my laptop. And now my own kids are in there too.
But since Louisiana’s students began returning to their school buildings a few months ago, hundreds of schools have closed due to outbreaks. My sister teaches in Florida, which reopened prematurely, and has already had to close thousands of schools. Our online situation is far from ideal, but I personally feel we’ve no other choice right now.
I asked Cleo if she thought all this isolated computer time wasn’t putting her and Xyla at risk more than sending them to school in person might. Over the course of this pandemic, Cleo’s three best friends all moved out of state, and she couldn’t even hug them goodbye. “Mentally, I am going insane,” Cleo admitted to me. “I need people. But physically, I am fine. Except that my chair makes my back hurt by the end of the day. But the chair’s not as bad as having no friends.”
For now, I’m prepared to do what I must to keep my kids home all year, or until the vaccine has trickled down to us regular people and our suffering children. For the rest of this far from ideal school year, I’ll simply try and remain grateful that my kids are not completely fucking miserable.