Lessons from Kindergarten Zoom

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One day, the kindergarteners were being tested over Zoom. It was loud. So-and-so’s family didn’t read the email and couldn’t figure out the log-in and they kept asking questions and making distracting remarks while everyone was supposed to be testing. One kid was licking the camera. Others were singing to themselves. 

In the kindergarten Zoom class, some kids could already count past 100 and were probably studying for their SATs and Harvard admission interviews. Other students struggle to speak English. They are forced to take these tests to measure what they know, and as a parent, I can’t help but compare where my kid is to the others. I never seem to remember the kids who have less, but I definitely notice the kids who are ahead, like the ones who have their parents sitting next to them during class while mine has to fend for himself as I work. I notice the kids with two parents. I don’t really remember the kid who stays with their disengaged grandparent who regularly berates them, but I sure notice the kid who is fully reading while mine is barely memorizing sight words.

As a teacher, I can’t help but lament the injustice of measuring these kids’ brains by the few hours a day they get virtually in a class of thirty 5-year-olds. We can barely manage a group of thirty adults in a Zoom call, but this poor teacher has to do the equivalent of teaching cats how to have manners on a webcam. The teacher, with the best of intentions and hours and hours of work invested beyond a normal work day, can not possibly meet the individual needs of every single child. There are some days my kid falls asleep in front of the camera after lunch and nobody notices.

Pandemic schooling, it seems, illuminates every crack we have neglected to address over time. Like, why are there so many kids in one kindergarten class? And why did voters reject an opportunity to increase school funding? Still, we fixate on what is seen and felt on the surface, unwilling to wander deeper into the reasons why we have churned out generations of children who find it difficult to self-regulate, concentrate, and find self-direction in their learning. 

It’s easier to blame others. The pandemic. The teacher. The economy. The kid who keeps licking the camera. Politicians. Whoever. Someone else, something else, has to be responsible. It’s hard to admit that maybe we are all a little responsible.

During the kindergarten assessment, my little cherub’s questions kept timing out because I told him to wait until there was silence to concentrate– and there was never any silence. He has to work on his own, so he turned off the assessment with whatever score he got and went on his merry way in the direction of the backyard trampoline. This is the life of a working parent– kids who have to do the best they can.

Convinced that other kids were getting into Harvard while mine would never graduate from kindergarten, I wrote an angry email to the teacher about the foolishness of their testing system. I did not want another progress report telling me that my child was below grade level. A few weeks into the start of the kindergarten-on-Zoom school year, they gave hasty assessments to camera shy 5-year-olds, and I was one of the parents who was told that my child was not meeting kindergarten standards.

“He just started,” I bemoaned to all who would listen. “They spend half the day in class taking attendance. How is this my fault?”

I paid the tuition for three years of Montessori preschool. Maybe it was their fault?

The dead father’s fault– he could have been here practicing with Peter Jack. Helping me to read the bedtime stories and do things like teach the child how to solve quadratic equations before the first grade. 

The teacher apologized. It was a district requirement. They had to do certain assessments at certain times. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Don’t pay attention to them, the teacher advised.

But to me, it meant something. My ego was on fire. Am I a bad mother? Should I have worked more with him? Did I foolishly leave it all for the school to do? Is he never going to college now? How could this be happening to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee?

A fire drill went off and the kindergarteners were on their own as teachers on campus evacuated. So-and-so was babbling incoherently while another kid licked the screen again. A few of the more mature girls in the class used the time to try and arrange playdates that would never happen.

“I wish I had a friend,” Peter Jack casually said before getting distracted by a cat at his feet. 

I seethed with rage. I’m not sure at who– the rigid rules that had distance learning teachers working in classrooms operating according to in-person rules? The pandemic? The fact that this was the best I could offer my 5-year-old? 

Now, I realize what a privilege it was that I didn’t have to touch almost any of my older two children’s academics. It was all taken care of at school. The morning daycare drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups that I once loathed in hindsight seem like a paltry price to pay to have someone else teach your children. Now I stay awake until late into the evening holding up flashcards and banging my head against walls wondering what I am doing wrong. There is a direct correlation between my fatigue and my lack of patience, and just to be transparent, I’m always tired.

“You should watch this show,” so-and-so tells me.

“You should make time for yourself,” another person tells me.

“You should try this.”

“You should do that.”

You should, you should, you should.

But first, let’s practice writing upper-case and lower-case letters, help the 5th grader with a research project he has no interest in, work through 2nd grade Common Core math, and maybe feed these children who have termite appetites. Don’t forget the dishes. If I’m not asleep after that, then maybe I will get to the shoulds.

The kids and I were watching a movie on a Sunday night. We fell asleep on the couch, and I woke up at 2AM from a dream during which Kenneth called me on the phone. It felt so real my heart was racing.

“Where are you?” I hissed, nagging at him even postmortem. “I’m doing all of the work for the kids. I’m doing everything!” 

“I’m really sorry,” he said, sincerely. “I’m trying to get back. I’m sorry.”

I could feel the dream slipping away from me as I fought to stay asleep for a few more moments just to hear his voice, but consciousness came flooding back. Now awake, I noticed the sleeping children on the couch and I had an eerie feeling that somewhere, somehow, their father watched on and wished he could carry them to their bedrooms, their heavy limbs pressed against his body as he tucked them safely into their beds.

Later that day, we drove home from Ethan’s orthodontist appointment and I pulled into our driveway. We stopped at the pharmacy drive-thru on the way home and I had dinner prep looming over my head.

“Why are there tears in your eyes, Mom?” Ethan asked.

I had been thinking about the phone call in my dreams. The apology. Accepting an apology that oddly reconciled the anger and grief co-existing inside of me. An apology from a dream, from my own mind, from a person no longer living. The strangeness of those apologetic words soothing my hurt, tired feelings.

I think about the kindergarten Zoom class and I have to remind myself to take a breath– everyone in that class is on a journey that is just as important as our journey. They are all trying to read and do math and stay curious about the world around them. Just a few years ago they were learning how to use the potty, and now these small humans with their brand new eyes are eagerly looking around their world trying to absorb whatever they can. There are the kids with two parents who can provide them learning opportunities at an accelerated pace. There are the children who spend their time with disengaged caregivers, trying to figure it out on their own. There is my child with only one parent who has to work at his computer mostly on his own and have evening remediation with a tired mom as she stirs dinner on the stove and also checks over the work of the 5th grader and 2nd grader in the house. And then there is the teacher, trying to navigate the way for all of his passengers, the ones who read and write sentences, and the others who started the year not knowing the alphabet. We are not here in this virtual classroom for our own pleasure. We are here because science has proven it is the safest option– with the least amount of risk– in a global pandemic. It is imperfect and messy, and yet this is our collective experience. We don’t exist in this classroom in isolation. We’re in it together. I have to remind myself to stop comparing us to others. To stop expecting anything out of a situation that isn’t ideal. I have to remember to breathe and do what I can.

I yearn for the days when I could pick the kids up from daycare after I went to the gym. Days when babysitters could hold down the fort and I could do things like meet other adults or sit in a cafe to write something. When my husband first passed away, I had three separate drop-offs and pick-ups every morning and again in the afternoons. That was my ground zero. 

“It can only go up from here,” I said consolingly to myself, over and over again. It became my mantra.

The next year, there were two drop-offs each morning and afternoon. It got a little better.

This year was supposed to be the magical year of one drop-off for all three of my children. This was supposed to be my unicorn year. All of my kids at one school. 

Instead, I got no drop-offs. 

Yet, it feels infinitely harder than ever. There is less freedom. Less time. More work. Limited options. 

I am consoled by knowing that nothing lasts forever. There is a vaccine around the corner. Someday, I will miss having lunch with my children, cats on my work desk, and explaining second grade math after dinner. Our interactions aren’t always fun, but I am spending more time than ever with my children. That has to have a positive effect on their childhoods. It hasn’t been all bad. It hasn’t been all good. In a way, it’s kind of like every other year with different circumstances and variables.

We watched the 1952 movie Ikiru after I saw it recommended during a course I took on happiness by Bishop Harada at Everyday Buddhist. When I first met him, he was Reverend Harada from our local temple. The same minister who met with us in a small room to plan my husband’s funeral that he would preside. I will always remember his empathy during that terrible time. Bishop Harada has a calm, gentle demeanor that is full of wisdom. I listen carefully to anything he teaches, because I know he lives what he talks about and I want to absorb all of that into my own practice. 

In Ikiru, a man is diagnosed with stomach cancer in post-war Japan. He spent 30 years working a boring job at city hall. His wife died when their son was young, and he mostly spent his life in a vacuum of loneliness as his son grew up and drifted away from him. Now, as he faces his impending death, he is left searching for meaning before it is too late. He finds it in agreeing to help a group of women in the neighborhood who want to turn a swampy area into a park. They had been turned down numerous times– led astray by red tape and bureaucratic bloat– but the protagonist realizes he can help them finally achieve what they want, and it will help the neighborhood. This will be his legacy. 

As the man gets weaker, he stays persistent, coercing everyone in his path to do what is necessary to make this park a reality. He uses all of his strength, and for the first time in thirty years he feels more alive than ever as he works toward this goal.

The protagonist dies sitting on a swing in the park he helped create, just before it begins to snow. Nobody in the city government gave him credit for the project. In fact, the opposite– many others took credit for his work. His son didn’t know he was dying of cancer, too distracted with his own wants and needs. After the man’s death, everyone was left scratching their heads, trying to figure out what happened. How did this practically invisible man– one who spent decades withdrawn into his own suffering– manage to pull off such a meaningful project for others? The protagonist had waited until his last few months of life, but he wanted to find meaning before he died and he found it. It didn’t come from external sources–nobody thanked him or gave him praise–but from that deep sense of altruism privately marked in his own heart. 

The movie reminded me to not get absorbed in my own trials and tribulations. I spend so much time worrying about what others think, but in the end, I will only be answering to myself as I take that last breath. What kind of meaning can be derived from a life spent dwelling in the pit of one’s own despair? There is more joy in honoring what we have, and what we can do to promote the happiness of others.

I teach government and I have my students do civic action projects. One day I shared with them this movie and the concept of finding meaning in making the world a better place for others. For years, I have watched students come alive with ideas about how to make their communities cleaner, safer, happier places for all to live. I know somehow we come into this world seeking a definition of who we are, a personal image, a desperation to brand our personal existence– yet maybe this is our undoing. This obsession with ourselves–exacerbated in the teenage years but never purged from our systems– prevents us from understanding the ways in which we coexist with others. We are in need of learning how to embrace our interbeing– the fact that individual existence can not happen without the contributions of others, and an understanding that life is not just about ourselves. I want to slap the younger version of me who had a license plate frame that said “it’s all about me.” 

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about with kindergarten Zoom. It isn’t about my suffering. It isn’t about my child’s suffering. It isn’t about what should or could have been. It’s about all of us right now, right here.

We’re not all going to be here tomorrow.

This isn’t going to last forever.

But what can we do right now to make it better than yesterday?

What have I done to make this better, other than just plow through the tediousness of my own days? What can I do? Who can start first? When can I start making this change?

These are the questions I ponder. 

Questions I hope to take action on.

I know our own weight feels like a lot to carry each day. I know the burden on our shoulders is heavy and siphons our time and energy, but it’s not enough to just carry our own load. Time and again we experience our personal burdens feeling lighter when we reach out to help lighten the loads of others.

I don’t have all of the answers, just a deep sense that I need to do better. In doing better, I know I will feel better– in good times and during kindergarten Zoom.

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