You are superheroes. This is not hyperbole. I already knew it, having been a student all of my life, raised by teachers, married to a teacher, friends with teachers, and a teacher myself. But I am a college teacher and although my job has its own challenges–mostly due to many of my students not having good internet access and/or being essential workers–during this pandemic I have been apprised of the differences of teaching mostly adults versus teaching children. And may I repeat: you are superheroes.
I’m guessing Stella is a relatively easy student as second graders go. That’s what I hear in Parent/Teacher conferences anyway. But even if she is the easiest second grade student on planet Earth to teach, which I doubt, by the way, I have learned I could never be a second grade teacher. Not in a million years. Not for any amount of money. Sadly, quarantine has taught me that I am not as patient as I previously might have believed.
Our day begins like this: I get up early when it’s not raining to walk 3 miles. When it’s raining, which it usually seems to be, I sleep in till around 7:00. I get coffee and start my morning routine of checking email from work. There are typically only a thousand or so. I have calls to make to students, papers to grade, Web-Ex meetings with various people at work (basically ATU’s version of Zoom). Normally it is during one of these meetings with my boss when Stella comes through the shut door of my bedroom/office with the hairbrush, scrunchy, and directions for a messy bun or high ponytail. Easy enough. I can mute myself and turn off my camera and still appear to be paying attention in my meeting while running a home salon. I never get the hair right the first time–I’m not a gentle brusher, not good at messy buns, and I frequently do not get the ponytail high enough. But for some reason I never lose my client. Morning after morning she is back with renewed confidence. It’s as if she has hope multiple opportunities will eventually result in my improved skills. So far, her hope is misplaced. But I digress.
Let me digress just a bit more. As I’ve been sitting here trying to write this, my little darling has come forth for her usual drop-in appointment. I tell her I refuse to subject my hands to the amount of grease that has accumulated in her hair due to poor hygiene. She grins wickedly. I raise my pointer finger with authority, as if to say, “I mean it this time. You cannot go another day without washing your hair.” Surprisingly, she accepts defeat without a struggle. I settle back in for a few more minutes of blessed silence to collect my thoughts and write words, when the air is pierced with a cry. Stella runs back into my space–no clothes on of course–and informs me there is a bug in the bathtub and it will have to be removed before she can carry out my instructions. So I put down my laptop, move the dog who is lying across my feet, and follow her to the bathroom. And it’s a Mayfly. A Mayfly that is now drowning in the swirling waters of the toilet but please don’t tell Adelaide–my 13 year old–that, because she is a radical Jainist who doesn’t eat meat unless it’s lived a happy life first, forces me to forego straws in my Dari-Delite Diet Dr. Peppers with extra ice in order to save sea turtles, and googles what to give a pet cow as a treat since apparently it’s not enough to keep an orphaned calf in a pen by your house with loads of hay, a roof over its head, and an all-you-can-eat buffet of grain and fresh water. His name is Bean. Like coffee bean. Because he’s the color of espresso. And also because, I think, she is trying to give us subliminal vegetarian messages.
In the time it took me to write that, Stella is back, allegedly with clean hair. It’s wet, so harder than usual to de-tangle, but we soldier through and the high ponytail is accomplished. She proposes the bargain she proposes every day, which is that if she gets her piano practiced and all of her AMI work done, May-she-please-go-down-to-the-Fords’-and-play-Ladybug-and-Cat-Noir-with-Hunter?
Yes. Yes she can.
The first task she sets about is piano practice, also counted by me as AMI music class. There are three other people in our home who can teach beginner piano. They suddenly and mysteriously disappear. So even though I have just retrieved my laptop from under the paw of the fattest Boston Terrier who has ever lived–who is standing on it in order to see her own image in the window and bark because she thinks she sees a challenger to her throne–and I’ve erased the two pages of gbhjngbhjnnjbhfnkbngjkfdbjbjkbbffkhjoisdbnkbfbkjdbgfjkdbfgkjdbfkdfbgdbkfjkdbfjkbkjdfgjdgbj caused by said paw, I must set it back down again. Which I do. Somewhat martyr-like. But I still believe I’m a good parent with infinite patience who has got this homeschooling thing nailed. After all, I am a teacher. And I’ve been giving piano lessons since I was 16 years old. How hard can it be?
“Okay, Stella, I want you to practice the songs I assigned to you in our last lesson. Let’s make sure you’ve got those down.” This takes her about 30 seconds. “Okay, Mommy, what’s next?” “Well, turn the page and read it.” “Okay. I’ve done that.” “Okay, well, practice the songs on that page then.” “But, Mommy, this page is wrong. It says I’m supposed to play with the left hand but the stems are going up.” “That’s okay.” “No, it isn’t.” Teacher voice: “Find me where it says up stems can’t be played with the left hand.” “Okay. I know it’s in here somewhere.” Searches book for confirmation bias; comes up short. “Well, I still think you told me that or something.” “Well, if I did I was wrong. I’m sorry. Now, let’s practice these new songs with the left hand.” I explain the whole concept, make sure she understands, then go back to my computer. Dog goes back across my feet. “Mommy! I need you to come here!” At this point I pause for some mindful breathing. Like Lamaze, but hopefully in this case effective. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)
“Sweetie. Dear. People have paid me to teach their children piano lessons since I was 16. Here’s how piano lessons normally work. I spend 30 minutes with a student, teaching new material and making sure he or she understands. Then I assign things to practice so the student gains the new skill. The student practices in his or her own home, separate from me, about thirty minutes each day for a week. Then the student comes for a new lesson and shows me what he or she has learned.”
“No, I don’t want those kinds of lessons.”
“Well, it’s different for you since you live with your piano teacher and you’re a quick learner and we can go a bit faster. Like how I just gave you a thirty minute lesson yesterday and I’ll probably give you another one tomorrow. But now you need to practice your new pages to make sure you’ve got the skill down.” On and on ad infinitum. She does learn a very cute rendition of Ode to Joy if I do say so myself. “Time for Math!”
Now, there’s something you need to understand about me. I am great at budgeting. It’s a non-negotiable job qualification for the mother in a family of six living on two teachers’ salaries. I can actually squeeze water out of a turnip if need be, and the need usually arises every month the week before payday. But I do not like Math. I figure, if I cover the words, music, and culinary arts in our family the least Stone can do is cover the numbers. But naturally Stone is nowhere to be found.
“Okay, babe, let’s do some Math. You sit here by me and we’ll snuggle and I’ll do my writing and you do your Math, and if you need help I will help you! Okay?”
“That’s not how Daddy does it.”
Grits teeth. “Really? How does Daddy do it?”
“He helps me work out the problems.”
“Well, that’s good. But I think you can probably work them out yourself and it will be good practice for you. I will be right here.”
She settles in beside me and opens up her chromebook. I’m trying to string words together like beads when a little monster character appears on her screen and says, “Twenty-three plus fifty-six! Now what can that be? How do we calculate twenty-three plus fifty-six?” My string snaps and the beads scatter all over the floor. His little monstery friend appears. “Uh, I don’t know. How do we add twenty-three and fifty-six? Like this?”
I contemplate violence, prohibited only by the cost of a broken chromebook. “Darling? Do you have your headphones? Could you put them on, sweetie?” Well guess what. All of the headphones in the house are currently in use by siblings. A riot ensues. It culminates with me hiding in the closet eating chocolate covered almonds and finishing this dang letter. In which I originally intended to praise every possible teacher in the Ozark School System since, like the old woman in the shoe, I have kids in nearly every building. But I fear my battery–both literal and figurative–will soon run out. Computers, like normal people after all, do not hold an infinite charge.
Suffice it to say, dearest teachers, we unintentionally homeschooling parents are in awe of you and what you do every day. We are in your debt. More than ever we recognize how much you deserve to be paid like the superstars you are in our society. You deserve Nobel Peace Prizes, your faces carved into mountains, songs and poems written in your honor. You are the glue–our kids’ connection to a world of information and opportunity and each other. Thank you for using your genius and your kindness in service of our families. For figuring it out in real-time, doing whatever it takes. Thank you for Zooming, and calling, and Facetiming. For sending pictures and assignments, and Facebooking and Instagramming, and writing handwritten notes. For worrying and caring and engaging and giving feedback and encouraging and nurturing. For the boundless patience you have with our kids and with us. Never doubt your worth; I pray the world never will again. We see you, we love you, and we are so grateful for you. You are our superheroes.