Like most weekday mornings for the past two months, I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my second grader, listening to the video her school has provided to teach her how to write an essay. I squirm, uncomfortable with this YouTube teacher’s methods. “Don’t say, ‘Going to the beach is my favorite vacation,’” she admonishes. “Say instead, ‘The beach is the BEST place to visit with your family. You MUST go to the beach.’” Aside from the fact that Stay-at-Home orders mean we can’t go to the beach right now, even if we do think it’s the absolute best vacation, I don’t like what she’s teaching my child about words. “Use strong language!” the online teacher exclaims, pushing her superlatives.
Like other parents across the country, I’m thrust into the world of homeschooling. Or rather, of facilitating our school’s education of my child at home. One online article says this isn’t Homeschooling; this is COVID-schooling, and that sounds right. I haven’t prepared for this. I enjoy having my girls home with me, but I’m not set and ready to teach my nine-year-old Language Arts, Science, Social Studies, and Math every day, keeping her up to date with public school Standards of Learning. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m ready any time to teach her Reading, Grammar, Writing, and a healthy dose of Art Appreciation.
It’s complicated. I want my girls to learn and grow. I want my oldest not to fall behind in Math or Science, which were never my strong suits. But I also want them both to reap the ready benefits of this otherwise-difficult and certainly strange time: the expansive beauties of home and nature that have little or nothing to do with formal school. This week is easy. We do Language Arts and Nature Study; caterpillars arrive in the mail. We all like the lessons. Everyone is happy. Still, that doesn’t stop me from wondering if, next week, we should harden down on some math, even though that means videos, and videos mean frustration (both technical and instructive), and also lead to the glazing over of eyes and the discontenting of tempers before lunchtime. It’s hard to know in these times what is the right thing to do. Every morning, I approach this homeschooling thing differently, or not at all. Every evening, I wonder if I made the right education choices for the day.
Also every evening, once the girls are in bed, except on days we are particularly stressed or worried, my husband and I sit on the sofa and turn on the local news. I have never, ever liked watching the news, until now. The delivery begins the same way every night: “Coronavirus Pandemic Update” flashes across the screen, and the newscaster says the exact same thing: “Tonight, we bring you the latest COVID-19 numbers for the state of Virginia.”
It amazes me how glued I am to the details, how I hang on every story, how frustrated I get if a non-COVID story gets mixed in with the coverage. Except for the weatherman. My husband and I, confirming, perhaps, our middle age, have become smitten with this delightful man. He is so earnest, so eager to foretell the weather experience we will all share here in Central Virginia in the next few days. He rolls forward on the balls of his toes to show us the lovely clouds rolling across the Blue Ridge Mountains on the daily skycam; he rejoices in the blue skies above the view of Smith Mountain lake, gleefully pointing to a motor boat as it sails across the bottom of the screen. He worries along with us when a late cold snap threatens the vegetables we’ve begun planting in the garden. He is happy when the warm evening weather means we might enjoy barbecuing on the patio, though he also commiserates that this means our seasonal allergies will flare.
But his segments are short, and we’re soon back to the COVID coverage I’ve become alarmingly addicted to, where concern replaces enjoyment, and superlatives abound. In the early weeks, we hung on every snippet of science we could glean from the news reports, any sliver of information that would help us understand why wearing masks was or wasn’t effective, how standing six feet apart helped. But as the weeks progressed, we began to cringe and shift in our seats, not at the ever-growing numbers, but at the way the news correspondents pushed for conclusive answers, for strong language, interviewers goading experts into saying more than is true. “Will wearing masks definitely stop the spread of the virus?” one woman presses from behind her desk. The doctor she is interviewing responds thoughtfully, carefully concluding that wearing a mask to the store is better than not wearing one, that yes, it’s a good idea. “But is wearing a mask the BEST thing to do? Is it certain to keep us from getting sick?” The desire for clear answers, for definite right-and-wrongs, abounds these days—maybe always—but this careful man won’t be pushed into saying what he doesn’t know, into hyperbolizing his way out of truth.
“Use strong words!” Back at the kitchen table, I cringe over those essay videos. I waver. Is now the moment to teach my young daughter to question what she’s taught? It is. I must. We have a conversation about how careful, precise, even gentle words can also be strong. I ask her, “What do you think about saying the beach is the best place to go?” She furrows her brow; she tries to please me and say, “It’s good,” but she won’t lie, either. She shakes her head and sends the cobwebs of inaccuracy flying. Firmly, she tells me, “I think the word ‘best’ makes it less true.” I am celebrating inside. She’s got it. Together, we write a topic sentence about how the beach is a special place, which we both definitely agree on.
Tonight, as on every weeknight, our weatherman will predict the upcoming highs and lows with his habitual delight, avoiding hard rights and wrongs, and the tension between fact and hyperbole altogether. Well, maybe not altogether. He is likely to joy, as always, in the fact of sun today, rain tomorrow, the predictability that one day will follow the next, and each will have its own weather. He will help us, much like the expert physician using careful language, make good choices in the moment: “Don’t forget to cover your plants tonight.” “You’ll probably want your allergy medicine.” He will revel in the possibilities: “This will be a great night to spend on your porch.” “A good day for gardening tomorrow!” And he is very likely to draw our attention to that blue sky, laid out like a blanket, like a banner, like glory, across the tops of the mountains that neighbor us, and aren’t going anywhere.
I catch glimpses of those mountains as I drive through town to the grocery store, face mask in tow. Here’s what else I see. Though this is certainly a hard time and a bad time in many ways, and in different ways for different people, it is not the worst time. And the choices before me each day are often unclear because there are daily, hourly, momentary paths to take that are neither right nor wrong. The truth is, our family is here in this home, alive and (so far) well. If we can go, not superlatively (I MUST teach my child Math today!), but carefully, thoughtfully, and gently with ourselves, with our decisions, we may find the strong ways to walk through this pandemic.
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