By: Kristen Witucki, CSP Curriculum and Content Editor and mother to Langston, Noor, and Karuna
"Mama, up!" my toddler daughter insists. When sleep is over for her, it's just over. No gradual shift between being asleep and awake, no coffee addiction. Karuna is fueled on youth and life and whatever the day ahead will bring. But I sometimes worry it won't bring her enough!
My nine-year-old, Langston, stumbles out of bed a little while later. He's closer to adulthood in that he needs some time to adjust to being awake. He remembers what normal used to be, that he used to eat a hurried breakfast and run out the door to school, that he hung out with a bunch of kids on the playground after school. All of that has changed now. He takes his time eating. He also hardly goes anywhere. Without a car, I can't take him to socially distant options like nature preserves and hikes. But he has more virtual communication options and a friend on our block he can hang out with.
Usually last to awaken is my middle son, Noor, a wild and wonderful four-year-old. He's the most social of us but now has the fewest connections during the pandemic. Once in a while he hangs out with a four-year-old on the next block, but we are also careful. She attends school in person and has a wider contact net than we do. Now that cases are surging again, we have quietly ended our physical connection again.
My husband is older. COVID could hurt any of us in unknown and possibly irreversible ways, but statistically it's most likely to affect him. As a blind, African American older man, would hospitals de-prioritize him if they reach capacity? I try not to think about that.
For almost all my children's friends, school is still a thing. They either check in virtually or go masked and in-person. I worried that virtual school would not be terribly accessible for me to keep up with as a parent-teacher, and in-person, though it's daily tempting me with my pre-K student, seemed too risky for us. So, I'm homeschooling. From March to June, I would say I was crisis-schooling rather than real homeschooling—year 0 or the pilot year—or maybe unschooling? But now that it's November and year 1 is solidly under way, I'm starting to own the title of homeschooling a little bit, though I second guess my own abilities daily.
Karuna's school is still life. We work on Montessori concepts when we can. She rides a tricycle around the house. She stacks and nests and chatters to her dolls. She makes us pretend coffee and works a little on pouring water to practice drinking. Each day she learns a new concept. Yesterday it was pocket. She loves going for a walk and insists on wearing a mask, even as the boys hope they don't have to wear them.
Noor's school is puzzles and books and magnetic letters. Weeks ago, I ordered sandpaper letters for him to trace to help him with his writing. I still haven't received them. And I still haven't figured out the best method to evaluate his writing, especially in real time. Noor and I have also delved into the world of imagination. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs inhabit a very earthquake-prone castle. The unicorns resent that they've moved onto their land. Oh, and Rapunzel also lives there.
Langston, my fourth grader, needs the most school time/structure. Since the beginning of the pandemic, birds and butterflies have captured his fancy completely, along with animals in general, so his science units are a lot more biological than the fourth grade common core standards. Otherwise, we do stick to them for math and social studies, as he has recently completed a unit on the Lenape tribe, who once lived in New Jersey, and is working on some math review and bar graphing. His proudest moment of homeschooling came when he presented virtually to a group of second graders in Elmhurst, Queens, about the life cycle and wonders of the monarch butterfly, complete with live butterflies he had raised himself. All of those butterflies are far away now—we hope they are traveling safely and have found a colony to hid among. We hope they will return in spring, but we decided after some thought not to risk damaging their wings by tagging them. He swears he hates fiction—how can he be related to me? So, I do my best to introduce it in a casual way as a read-aloud at night. We've started covering kid poetry every week or so during a laid-back ritual I read about in the homeschool community called Poetry Teatime. I think he enjoys citrus tea the most, but I hope the poetry sinks in.
Remember when I said I question my homeschooling ability daily? Each day, something goes wrong. One siblings gets jealous of my attention to another; my time with them is often not even, and whoever gets less time usually realizes this. Sometimes kids don't want to learn when it's time to learn. Sometimes we debate about what they should be learning, and sometimes I even lose those debates. My daughter is still too young to be part of most of the arguments, but my boys have their fair share. They can even argue over two identical balls—one for each of them—about which of them should get which identical ball, because they swear once bounces higher than the other.
And yet...pre-pandemic, my older son would have often completely ditched my younger one to hang out with friends or by himself. The pandemic has given them the realization that for better or worse, they have each other. They still argue, but they also realize how important they are to each other's play. When my older son hangs out with his friend from down the block, they almost always want his younger brother to join in.
Before I know it, the morning is over. It's time for work. Our supervisor has given us the flexibility to work in the afternoons and be with our children in the mornings. As she put it, this is a very unusual and difficult year, and we should at least remember some moments of enjoyment with our children. And I do. In the afternoon, I'm fortunate that my husband is with them, but while he's great at keeping the physicality of the house moving—food, laundry, cleaning—he's not the educator in our family. His own school experience was difficult—I've talked about that a bit in the novel I've written, Outside Myself—so I can tell him a few things, but really the kids' school day has ended. Sometimes they are outside; other times they are captivated by a screen. Pre-pandemic the extra screen time would have filled me with helpless fury, but now it's something I can't fight, thought I won't deny that I regret how many principles have caved during this time. My company is already more than accommodating of my bizarre split schedule. I will do my best, in return, not to let our College Success students down.
I mentor students as well. Sometimes virtual learning can be incredibly difficult for them, while at other times, it makes them feel freer. One student has trouble following along. Another student told me that her social anxiety actually diminished when she met people from home.
Dinner and then evening. The boys get along the best in the evening, but they're also craziest. They chase each other, play hide-and-seek, and, despite my best efforts, sometimes end up using the furniture as a gym. Bedtime is the climax of all of this, as I tell them for what I feel must be the six thousandth time that they need to brush their teeth NOW. But, even though those few minutes of putting off the inevitable are brutal for me, soon enough, we're reading, and then they are asleep.
Nighttime. I've accomplished some of what I wanted to do. My kids have theoretically learned something new, and I've cleared my work to-do list. I always have the nagging feeling I've forgotten something—it's a condition of motherhood, and after almost a decade, you'd think I'd be used to this feeling—but the pandemic has caused it to swell into a roar in my brain.
I stay up for a few hours after the kids are asleep. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I catch up on work, sometimes I complete the online shopping obligations. Sometimes I try to learn a little more about homeschooling, to gather a new suggestion I can try tomorrow. Sometimes I reach out to friends via WhatsApp, where it's easy to record messages, or email, my equivalent to the handwritten letter. I read novels per my original calling as an English major, but I find myself drawn to rereading rather than investing in any new characters. Sometimes I spend too much time "doomscrolling" which, for those who are unfamiliar, is "the act of consuming an endless procession of negative online news, to the detriment of the scroller's mental wellness," per Wikipedia. Death holds a new kind of terror this year. I have been eerily lucky that no one I know has gotten sick and died. But even the thought of the death of a book character fills me with dread. New books will be a resolution for 2021. For now, all of life is so tenuous, even though in many ways, the days are so similar that you could almost call them Groundhog Days, that I need my reading to be predictable.
Someone without children asked me how time is passing for me these days. I've learned about the difference between Kairos and Chronos, which is especially obvious when you have a toddler. Kairos is typically the reason each moment can seem eternal, but then Chronos gives you the ability to look back and think, "Wow, that flew!" For me, the primary difference between this time perception now and pre-pandemic is that I don't have many "Chronos" thoughts. Or maybe my Kairos and Chronos have gotten mixed up. The moments fly, but the days spread out behind and before me like untrodden snow. I don't really think, "That went so quickly" because it didn't. In many ways, time has slowed way down. I'm primarily with my husband and children with occasional respite visits with my mother, who is also quarantining. Seeing someone from the outside world, even our neighbors down the block, fills me with a bizarre feeling of, "How did you get here?"
I wonder what hanging out with good friends from far away will feel like when it finally happens again. Will I want to hold them and not let go, or will I sit there in complete awe that I'm physically with this person again, or will I talk and talk and talk? Do my kids feel this way too, or have their brains more malleably adapted to the new normal? Only time will tell!