On March 13, 2020, when Governor Newsom shut down schools in California including in LAUSD where my son is now a senior, I held my breath. The closures, we read, would last at least two weeks. My son dropped his heavy knapsack on the floor with a loud thump and slammed the door to his room. My husband and I stared at each other. Now what?
In the year since, the knapsack has remained by the front door, a daily reminder of the old normal. The door to my son’s room has stayed largely closed and when he cracks it open, my husband and I can glimpse a maelstrom of extreme teenage messiness and a worrisome lack of air and light (the shutters have remained closed too). We examine the breadcrumbs and dirty dishes my son leaves in the kitchen during the night (he’s decided he’d rather sleep during the day) and tiptoe in to clean a little and open the window when he is out, which is not often.
When the door does open, there is a lot of yelling and then I too am awake at night, angry and sometimes in tears, imagining what it would feel like when we can all go somewhere, anywhere. But behind that closed door, unseen to us, something good is happening. Always a high achiever, my son has bent the circumstances to his will. In the dark, his screen glows. We hear snippets of laughter and calm, deliberate debate; his network has grown. He is leading his clubs, including the one he founded that’s focused on teen mental health. From time to time, my son has shared some of his essays and I am reading about his interest in politics and his concern for the world in which he and his generation would soon have a say.
“How do you do it?” I ask. He pauses at the end of the line, to consider. (We live in a two-bedroom apartment but communicate via text, phone and Zoom.)
When I think about all the stuff I can’t do, I just say, f**k the pandemic and do it anyway. When I couldn’t reach the co-president of Our Minds Matter club, we found a workaround on What’s App, merged with another mental health club on campus, and are now back on Zoom, bigger than ever.
I know that we’re very, very lucky. In my work life, as head of communications for Teach Plus, a teacher leadership non-profit, I talk to teachers everywhere, all the time. From California to Texas to Massachusetts, things are so tough. Kids are not there on Zoom, they don’t have food and Wi-Fi, they have to work to support their families, and so many have been subjected to the severe trauma that the pandemic has unleashed and that no child should have to endure.
President Biden is right; schools need to open, safely, and soon is not soon enough. But this is also a moment to re-do, re-think and re-imagine. Kids and teachers know how it’s done. Sometimes you find a workaround and sometimes you break the system apart, with a swear word thrown in for good measure. “What if we made life the curriculum?” wrote one of the teachers I work with. Others are taking inspiration from Tinker Hatfield, a legendary Nike sneaker designer, and turning coffee and Kool-Aid into art and T-shirts into face masks.
A year in, smart ideas from kids and teachers abound and we need to pay attention, to start listening. Yes, we want to go back to school and also, some of us are doing better online. Yes, we want to go back to school but we need to build more inclusive classrooms, where every child is welcome and has a voice. Yes and yes, but have you spoken to that teacher in your neighborhood school? She’s saying that we need to be more flexible, that students need to access instruction in a way that works for them, even if that means relaxing the rules and turning off the cameras.
My son turned 18 in January. Is his high school graduation going to be virtual? We don’t know. With vaccinations on the uptick in California, a lot can change between now and June. What we do know is that he is more than ready for college. My husband and I can’t wait, not least so we can open the shutters and finally deep clean that room.