• katherine halligan

Evil Penguins and Other Beasts

I’ve touched more than once on the topic of insanity, and how we’ve all been wrestling with it of late. And though there are too many causes of our collective madness to list here, I am laying the blame for the bonkersness in our house almost entirely on our now-thankfully-ex president and an evil penguin.

(Oh yes, she has truly lost the plot, I hear you say. But allow me to explain, for I have not fallen off the Cliffs of Insanity entirely. Or at least not yet.)

If you have a child and that child hasn’t had the great good fortune for your school district to spend tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds and hard-earned PTO money on this program (instead of, say, an art teacher who comes more often than once a month), then allow me to share it with you. In a bid to avoid libel or whatever the IT equivalent of saying true things about bad systems might be, I’m not naming any names. So this program, whose name I shall not name, may or may not be fronted by a particularly pointy, peevish-looking penguin mascot who leads you through a virtual world of math problems.

It’s supposed to feel like a game, but for my children it’s actually a form of torture that feels anything but fun. Both girls are good at math on paper. (I was too, all the way through pre-calculus, but then full calculus nearly did me in — though in my defence I had a teacher who lit your quizzes on fire over the trash bin if you didn’t do well, and was relieved of his position not long after my brief spell in his classroom, due in part to his serious gambling problem and possibly also to his dubious teaching methods— and so I just quit). But when they are faced with these unfathomable activities without any directions to explain what it is they are meant to do on a given level, they are frustrated and confused.

As am I: when they come to me for help, I have no idea what to tell them about the purpose of those stretchy alien arms, paint splashes and worryingly violent-looking blasters. Just… none. I am, as I’ve noted, fairly good at math — especially fifth grade and second grade math, at which I totally rock — but the relationship between a pie-eating monster and a crane and subtraction, at least in this iteration, leaves me completely flummoxed. So I sit down to help, and often end up the victim of violence, little fists flailing in fury and frustration as I fail to resolve immediately whatever problem faces us on the screen. This program touts itself as being intuitive; I pride myself on having excellent intuition, so its utter unfathomability often feels like a very personal assault on my own sanity.

I’m sure there are benefits that I don’t know about. Just like there are benefits to the questions asked in printed math books too, which I simply don’t know enough to appreciate, like — real example — how much does Marisa’s TV weigh in comparison to Toni’s. Who are Marisa and Toni, and why on earth are they weighing their TVs? Especially when they could be doing something so much more productive, like weighing their siblings. Or their math books. Or doing online math.

My children dislike it so intensely that the other week, when my second grader completed her obligatory half hour of this program, she then opened her actual math book (the printed and bound one where real learning happens) and completed 14 pages without pausing for breath. That fact alone tells me that there is at least some merit to this computer program, although I doubt it was the one which its creators and zealously keen adopters intended.

My frustrated progeny have had to do this program-of-dubious-benefit ever since it was adopted by our district, which happens to be as long as we have lived in California; my older child remembers doing “proper maths” from her days in England, but my younger one knows no world in which this hasn’t been required (though mercifully her kindergarten teacher looked the other way when they didn’t meet their targets and handed them crayons instead). In these pandemic-ridden days, it now it looms disproportionately large. It is but one more digital component of over their overly digitised lives, but it is the one onto which they vent all their frustrations.

It has become their nemesis, the penguin that broke my children’s back, their bete noir (or, in this case, noir-et-blanc).

Sometimes it is far too easy and slow, and they are forced to watch while the penguin walks through an obstacle course or moves a bulldozer or does something strange to flowers in a bid to explain the problem they have just answered correctly (which seems somewhat backwards to me: shouldn’t they explain the problems they don’t get right? But no; in that case you are left to wander around lost in the program, the penguin crashing into walls and making the “bonk” noise that reminds you that you don't understand what's happening instead of the “bing" noise that tells you that you’re correct, until you somehow stumble upon the correct approach to solving that particular problem.)

And sometimes, far too often, it’s just too hard, and it is this repeated sense of failure with no explanation or support that drives my children, completely understandably, around the bend. In a world where there are no teachers or classmates right there to help them find the right answer they are left to wander blindly through a maze, bumping into walls and coming away bruised, until they accidentally stumble upon a solution.

This is, of course, how most of America felt under the last administration: failed, forgotten, abandoned, trapped, confused, alone, utterly lost.

So it is not at all surprising that both my children have had nightmares in which the pointy peevish penguin is chasing them; it is even less surprising that the waking nightmare we all lived for four years seeped into their dreams.

But enough of that — I am too exhausted by it all to write anything further about it, just as I suspect you are too exhausted to read anything further about it. I heaved a massive sigh of relief on January 20, and exhaled — I’d been holding my breath for four years, and it hurts — and so now I am relishing a collective national return to sanity (she says, optimistically). But for now, I’m leaving aside the macro and heading back to the micro, where I prefer to be anyway, and which is a luxury one can only really enjoy with the knowledge that we now have a competent adult running this country again.

So, once again, I mindful of my gratitude.

I am thankful that their biggest problems these days are caused by a penguin, not a president.

I am thankful that I gave up my career (twice) to stay home and mother my children through whatever life was going to throw at us.

I am not at all thankful that that often entails me sitting next to them, soothing their frustrations at the penguin’s latest antipathetic antics — but I am thankful that I am there to do the soothing.

I am thankful that I can sit here in my pajamas at 9:00am on a weekday, and that both my children are here with me, and not out in a world where mentally ill people can purchase assault weapons as easily as strawberries or milk and then go out and murder complete strangers who are actually buying strawberries and milk, or who look different than they do or who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Because of course there shouldn’t be any place or any time that is so very wrong to be in, in the first place. Of course it shouldn’t take a pandemic to keep us home and therefore safe.)

I am thankful that — because of the pandemic, which has been tragic on an epic scale, but which has also given us tiny gifts to treasure and carry us through the dark times — I am able to manage, to a small degree, impossible messages and conversations that no one should have to have. This is possible because our children are here with us, and as much as they might wish otherwise, we have all (admittedly, the grownups more than the children) found cause to celebrate our constant proximity.

I am thankful that I can be a fly on the wall, that I can witness the learning even if I am doing pitifully little to advance it, that I can enrich their days at least a tiny bit with art and stories and hugs. That I can listen in on their virtual field trips as they gaze at redwoods and meet Holocaust survivors, and that I can then help them try to gain perspective: that we are small, that our present troubles are few, that this too shall pass.

I am thankful that I can help to sop up their rage and their fear and their frustration.

That I can be necessary.

That they can feel safe, and loved.

That I can help fend off the evil beasts — from penguins to pandemics to ex-presidents — that stalk their dreams.

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