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Tangrams and Tantrums

My daughter and I just finished a yelling match in the kitchen. We weren’t arguing. Just yelling as loud as we could. It was her idea and as she started smiling (while frowning, while yelling) I decided to join in. It felt GREAT. We just made a very loud WAAAAAAAH sound. Try it. When was the last time you yelled just to make noise? It’s brilliant.

This was not, in fact, a tantrum (trust me, it was going to be, but rather accidentally the sight and sound of her mother yelling along with her turned it into a fun game), but there are a lot of real, honest-to-god, full-meltdown tantrums in our house these days. Sometimes it’s one girl, sometimes it’s both, sometimes it’s me (my husband, not so much — he prefers quietly grumpy to actively shouting and crying). And so I have recently discovered — since it’s definitely not our norm — how liberating it is to join in when they start falling apart. Normally I become calmer the more frantic and unglued they become: my voice softens, I am ridiculously tranquil (probably irritatingly so), as I (slightly unconsciously but also a little bit deliberately because they melt my heart with their utter loss of self-control) try to balance their misery by emanating intense peacefulness. Usually it works, the storm passes fairly quickly, and happiness reigns again. We have cuddles, share a story or a snack or both, and all is well with the world.

These days, the fix isn’t so easy and there is no cuddle cuddly enough, no snack satisfying enough to make this all OK (although as I type this I wonder: what if I just suddenly offered a marshmallow to the shrieking child? It would have the added benefit of muffling the sound and I could just pop it into the surprised O that their mouth would make out of shock that I was voluntarily giving them sugar for which they didn’t have to beg. Hmmm. Yes, I might try it — I’ll get back to you on that one).

So the other morning our seven-year-old had a tantrum of epic proportions (you probably heard her wherever you are, and wondered what that noise was). She was so frantic and hysterical and violent, we were scared she would hurt herself (she had already hurt her sister and both parents — that girl can kick like a mule), so after pulling her off the kitchen island twice, I had to put her in my version of a psych hold. Imagine holding someone from behind in a hug that also involves your legs; I basically pinioned her to my lap. Unsurprisingly she wasn’t a fan at first but in fact it did slow her down enough to stop flailing and start breathing again.

The thing is, I get it. I have utter sympathy for their freak-outs: the world is falling apart in an epic fashion, so why shouldn’t they? These days, I sometimes yell too. Not at the children (at least not too often), but at the ceiling, the walls, the windows and doors and floors that are the new boundaries of our world. We are exactly eight weeks into our shelter-in-place experiment. California closed early, and we were even further ahead of that curve, pulling our girls out of school a few days sooner, having lost our nerve as our March Miracle dumped desperately needed inches of rain on our parched landscape and sent children indoors where viruses of any sort would have had a heyday.

So now, apparently, I have a new full-time, unpaid job, which absorbs most of my waking hours and not a few when I am supposed to be asleep. I am — unlike most of the population — not entirely without qualification for this new role in which I suddenly find myself. Aside from my excellent educational qualifications (which are not-insignificant so I am permitting myself a rare moment of boasting, since I have also apparently lately lost any social graces I previously possessed and say things now that I would never say in normal company), I also briefly taught Spanish to high schoolers for a few summer sessions. But although it’s alarmingly possible that my ten weeks of experience put me far ahead of my fellow parents who are suddenly thrust into teaching roles, I truly have little clue what I am doing.

But needs must, so I developed (overnight, because that’s the pace at which our world is changing) a schedule and a curriculum. I did this mainly for the edification of my children, but also, I admit, because it makes me feel like a better parent. My husband, who was also educated at expensive private secondary schools and top-ranking universities, hangs his head while I wring my hands in our collective guilt that we have not replicated our own fancy educations for the next generation of little Halligans. Thus our children, who are frankly ridiculously bright and far more talented than the sum of their parental parts, are doomed to a more mediocre state education, with huge classes, little personal attention, learning the F-word on the kindergarten playground. (In fairness, I learned it from the first-grade bathroom walls at my posh private school, and my husband learned it from workers on their farm in Ireland at the far more tender age of three, so perhaps on balance that doesn’t actually matter). Thankfully this is all mitigated to some degree by the excellence of their teachers, and I want to be clear — now and always — that our gratitude to those exceptional and highly dedicated people is immense.

But this is not about me, indulging in a wallow about the fact that we feel we have, to some degree, failed our children, at least in the educational department. This is about this enormous, international experiment in home-schooling into which we have all suddenly been immersed.

And so it was with great gusto that I flung myself into filling the gap. I bought gorgeous art materials and beautifully illustrated books and historically relevant novels and shiny packs of flashcards (all delivered to our doorstep by the heroes at UPS, kicked into our decontamination zone for 48 hours, then duly rubbed down with Clorox wipes), and started a private school for two. With our perfect student-teacher ratio, we began. A few days in, my older daughter announced, flinging her arms around my neck, that she wanted to do “Mommy School” forever.


At Mommy School, they dressed up as prehistoric people and made Stonehenge out of modelling clay as we discussed the engineering challenges those ancient Britons faced without the benefit of the wheel; they did country studies, making maps, creating flags, drawing portraits, dressing up in native costumes, cooking the local cuisines; they studied weather and climate, and how they shaped the lives of ancient peoples, making a storm in a jar, writing haiku about weather, and constructing teepees; they read Greek myths and created their own goddesses, writing their own myths and dressing up (there was a lot of dressing up; it’s a bit of a theme in our house); they learned about ancient Rome, making mosaics and erupting their own Vesuvius. We played games for learning Spanish, incorporating their newfound delight in rolling these deliciously foreign sounds around in their mouths into yoga, walks in the park, and animal-drawing competitions. We played games for learning math: thanks to a teacher friend, we subtracted and divided with edible manipulatives (or, as my children called them, math snacks); we added the numbers on dice in Yahtzee; we went pretend-shopping with real coins; we made pictures out of tangrams (and if you haven’t tried a tangram, you should. These things are fun and fun is good). We played; we learned. We learned; we played. I was part of that ‘we’.

I was a teacher! My children were expanding their minds! They were having fun! Let’s be honest: I was having fun! And I got to do it all without any of the bureaucratic or practical headaches that paid professional teachers have to endure: the mountains of admin, the piles of prep, the sitting in far-too-close proximity to the running noses and unwashed ears of children to whom they did not give birth.

Then, after two-and-a-half weeks of our little educational revolution for three, the school district caught up. They announced the launch of their online learning program. Behind the scenes, while we were immersed in all that creative learning and fun, there was a huge amount of incredible hard work being done by teachers. As the daughter of teachers I know well how much (often invisible) works goes on every day to make the wheels of our educational institutions turn. I know what it means for an educator to have to adhere to a curriculum that can be restrictive and is all too often focused on educating to a standard that fails to challenge the brightest children and is designed instead to keep some children — those who most desperately need their hours in school to make their lives better and richer — from falling through the cracks of society. In our solidly middle class neighborhood, this number is thankfully very small, and we are happy and grateful that we are able to send our children to an excellent local state school that is peopled with amazing, committed teachers who provide outstanding care and learning opportunities.

But schools are inherently social institutions, because both children and adults are inherently social creatures, and the change to online learning has been hard. Now we churn through the work without any real satisfaction. Already we have lost the things that were best about school: the girls miss their friends and teachers and learning spaces, wonderfully decorated and welcoming and familiar. As parents we no longer hand them over to experienced professionals, miss our offspring all day, and then get them back at the end, smarter and tired and grateful to see us again.

We miss school for these reasons and more, but I have to say we adjusted to Mommy School rather quickly and rather well. I would give myself a solid B+ for whipping up fun lesson plans so quickly and not so badly either, and the girls an A+ for adapting so quickly to a totally different (but perhaps in some ways familiar, hearkening back to their preschool days) way of learning. Their sweetly eager little faces, looking at me expectantly every morning, ready to learn and trusting that I would deliver something interesting and meaningful, made my heart ache with a whole new layer of love for them.

Life these days seems to involve sipping from a fire hose and then — a very brief interval later — just as you’re not drowning and think you’ve figured out a way to lick around the edges of the blast, the hose changes angles or directions or increases in intensity and you are blown away all over again, struggling to get to your feet, regain your balance, and start drinking from that fire hose all over again… when really all you want is a nice, neat, trickling arch from a drinking fountain (as if anyone will ever drink from one of those again, in our post-viral future), quenching your thirst with friendly little human-sized slurps instead of the titanic blasts to which we are now becoming accustomed.

And so suddenly, in one fell swoop, we were deluged by new frustrations, dull worksheets, IT headaches. Mommy School was over, and the mommy was on a new learning curve. I continue to be an under-qualified teacher, but bound now by the rigours of their workbooks, full of terminology and methods of teaching that are subtly-but-jarringly different (and undoubtedly better) than the ways we learned in the 1980s. I can no longer enrich their minds by delivering a pint-sized lecture on the differences between red and black vase painting in ancient Greek art; they need me instead to guide them through Chapter 8 in their math books and Chapter 13 in their reading books, all at the same time, a first and fourth grader no longer sharing ideas and imaginatively travelling around the globe together, but divided into two separate classrooms of one.

Inevitably, fights broke out as they suddenly had to compete for my attention once again. Unbound, no longer tethered together on our little raft of learning that our dining table had become, we fell apart anew. Tears were shed and eyes widened in panic when logins failed and they knew they were late to their virtual classroom and I scrambled, pulse-racing, to try a new or different Zoom dial-in code as those changed and passwords were added to avoid potential perverted Zoom-bombers invading their virtual classroom with obscenities. On the one hand, I supposed I should be grateful that ‘shelter-in-place’ no longer means what my children have learned in heartstoppingly awful drills — to hide in their classrooms from a gun-wielding maniac — but on the other it means their worlds have been turned upside. Again. New dangers, new boredoms, new challenges.

I have gone from being a happy, creative teacher of two bright little buttons, to an utterly inept IT coordinator for two newly anxious little girls whose tenuous cyber-connections to their teachers and classmates are a lifeline but also a source of yet more stress as they navigate a strange and unsettling digital world they have no choice but to enter. From the stress come new tantrums.

And so now I’m ready to have a tantrum all of my own.


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