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  • katherine halligan

Tears and Fears

Late last September, six months into the pandemic — which had already felt like six centuries; little did we know what lay ahead — we made a tentative but joyful foray back into quasi-normalcy. Our rates were low enough that elementary schools in our excellent district were — following a summer of intense and expensive reconfiguring of classrooms, logistical headaches, and sheer hard work — finally going to reopen, albeit on a hybrid model which meant just eight hours a week on campus.

But we take what we can get these days, so I sprung into action, relishing the familiar if rather rushed routine of returning to school each September. Many weeks later than usual — because our county’s sudden jump to a new tier meant it all happened rather unexpectedly — I hurriedly bought lunch boxes, labeled water bottles, had the girls break in their school shoes (because the flip flops and bare feet they’d worn daily weren’t going to cut it back on Planet Normal).

They planned their outfits (again, for they’d already done so for the actual first day of school, which had taken place on Zoom), they requested elaborate hairdos (again), and I started waking them up an hour earlier to break them in ahead of time for the morning scramble of making lunches and packing backpacks and actually getting a real door. Only slightly daunted by the lack of sleep and the somewhat frenzied preparations, since we’d done nothing at full speed for a long while, we all looked forward with great anticipation to Being Normal again.

In the end, that sense of normalcy lasted precisely four hours, which is as long as my younger child was in school for her first day back on campus. Having skipped off in the morning full of just-barely-bridled joy, first in line to get back into the classroom, she came home deeply distressed and almost despondent. It turned out that her seat-mate was not the promised six feet away, and that he had decided (undoubtedly because his parents are openly and rabidly anti-mask, which still utterly baffles me: it’s like being anti-jacket or anti-sunglasses or anti-any-other-sensible-protective-barrier) that the rule about face coverings did not apply to him and so proceeded to spend the entire day removing his mask every time the teacher’s back was turned.

On the far side of a plexiglass wall, blinded by its glare and perhaps a desperation to continue teaching no matter what, the teacher did not see him. And so my child — who understands the science remarkably well — spent the entire morning leaning into her own plexiglass barrier to shield herself, pressing herself so far in across her desk that she came home with an aching tummy and sore ribs and a broken heart.

However far she tried to climb inside her pitifully mere barrier, our little scientist knew she was exposed to virus in an enclosed space and felt — quite rightly — unsafe. That basic trust that school is a safe place, full of grownups who will take care of you, had been violated, perhaps irreparably. When I asked if she’d at least enjoyed recess, she reported that class cohorts were intermingling, as we’d been promised they would not do, children were hugging, and teachers looked on without intervening.

The fun wasn’t safe and the danger wasn’t fun.

I’d had my own doubts already as the school custodian walked right through the crowd of parents and children lined up six feet apart on that first morning… without wearing a mask. The message was clear: the staff were feeling (overly) relaxed about the virus and, in their own desire to return to normalcy, felt that the rules were flexible. (And why not? If the highest office in the land also openly and constantly flouted the rules as well as the laws and the Constitution with apparent impunity, why should anyone else follow any of them anyway?)

But our daughter is a rule-lover, and part of the reason she likes school so very much is that there are so many rules and she is so very good at following them. So when the adults break the rules, or don’t enforce them, the world starts going topsy-turvy. In an already upside-down world — where bars are open, but schools are mostly shut, where tattoo parlours have reopened for business while playgrounds are closed again — this breaking of trust was fairly catastrophic for her.

And for us too: having been presented back in August with the option of a “Virtual Academy”, we had weighed up all the many factors, and we had sent our children back to physical school instead, trusting that the pillars that upheld that in-person model — mask-wearing by all students and staff, without exception; frequent hand-washing and sanitising of the classroom; and social distancing at all times — would be solid and real.

We were not entirely naive in our trust; our older daughter’s school has complied rigorously with all of the rules, so we know it’s possible to follow the guidelines in a way that keeps children and staff safe, both physically and emotionally. But a school is a microcosm of the broader society in which it functions, and it takes the active participation and compliance of everyone to make it work. So when some families or staff decide they are above the law (hmmm, that sounds familiar) then those pillars start to crumble — and as is too often the case, the children pay the price: they are the ones falling off those cliffs, with consequences we can only begin to imagine.

It wasn’t just about the fear of transmission of the actual virus — though that was real — but more about her fear that school had become an unsafe place where anything could happen, where the rules that were meant to keep her safe were, apparently, assailable and fragile and breakable by some. As she became fearful and mistrustful, her sense of injustice deepened, too, and her love of school turned into fear. And, as Yoda reminds us, “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to the Dark Side.” Life became pretty dark indeed, which is especially unfair for a seven-year-old.

One of her favourite parts of the rule-based system during normal times was the clip chart. This is a classroom behaviour management technique, whereby each student has a clothespin (or peg, for my British friends) and the teacher moves them up the rainbow colours on the chart for good behaviour, and down for bad. If you get to the bottom of the chart, your parents get a note; if you get to the top you also get a note, and from particularly astute and sympathetic teachers you also get a jewel on your clip.

My daughter — who at age four told a preschool teacher that she needed more structure — normally has a clip that falls off the chart due to the sheer weight of the jewels with which it is crammed. The straw that broke her little rule-abiding back was the day she was clipped down for misplacing a piece of paper, while the mini mask-hater beside her continued — despite our multiple phone calls and emails to the teacher and principal — to get off scot-free.

We persisted because we felt that our child should not have to sacrifice her right to an education with a real human teacher in a physical classroom; it was the rule-breakers who had forfeited their right to attend the school. Since district policy clearly stated that any student unwilling to comply with the rules would be asked to go home, we felt we had the law on our side. And yet, all that changed was her assigned seat-mate; because we were not the only parents who’d complained, the classroom was rearranged into something that looked about as deeply divided as red and blue America. And so when our frightened, angry child begged us to pull her out of her school after three weeks of stress and misery, we did. (Of course we did: what kind of parents would we be, if we failed to race to the rescue of our deeply distressed child? Thanks to administrative inaction, we had no choice. Oh wait — that sounds familiar…)

So here we are, right back where we were last March: eleven months later, I am on call once more as an utterly unqualified IT coordinator and as an only marginally more qualified teaching assistant, and our child spends her days plodding through reams of digital content that are but a poor, frustrating shadow of a real classroom. The “Virtual Academy” we had eschewed in favour of human contact is indeed all the things we had feared: hours online, no contact with other children, the world’s most boring TV show overshadowing all her days.

However, it is also offering something else, the full impact of which we had not foreseen: a sense of security for our child. She is at home — the safest place in the world. She is with her mother constantly and her father often — the safest people in the world. Her wonderful teacher’s warmth and kindness is such that it breaks through the screen, ensuring from the first five minutes in her (virtual) presence that our daughter immediately and unquestioningly loved her and trusted her. So her faith in school — whatever it looks like now — is restored. She is engaged and connected once more, and her sullen, fearful expression has been replaced by one of earnest, satisfied concentration.

She is happy.

Most of the time.

Because as sweet and lovely as her teacher is, our child sees her for around sixty minutes a day, and sometimes only forty, which is a terrible shame because her new teacher is excellent and kind, and my daughter longs to hug her and be in her presence all day long (even though she also knows that she couldn’t hug her if she were in her presence, which is unspeakably sad). After that pitifully little amount of teacher time, the rest of her day is spent plodding through piles of digital work, which is as infuriatingly dull as it is inappropriate for seven- and eight-year-olds to spend their entire day on a screen. Say what you will about workbooks and worksheets — and I say that they are the death of creativity and engagement with learning — they have become the highlight of her day now, as she picks up her pencil and turns away from her screen.

In order to keep her more engaged and less heartbreakingly lonely, I sat by her side for the first several weeks of her new entirely virtual life. I didn’t have much choice in the matter anyway, because if I left the room to do much-neglected chores (for my month of intense political activism meant that literally no housework was done; you can imagine what further havoc the election wreaked on it) or to catch up on how the election day-that-became-a-week was unfolding or to work or to use the loo, well… to say that all hell broke loose is not an exaggeration.

First the whining would start, then the shouting, then the throwing of things, then the shrieking, followed finally by the sobbing. So I wrote not a word of either book or blog, let the house sink still further into disarray, and learned to test the boundaries of my patience as well as those of my bladder.

Just as our trust in the systems and institutions that form the cornerstones of our lives — our schools, the White House — was seriously eroded last year, so has my sanity. Because I was getting absolutely nothing (let me repeat it: Absolutely. Nothing.) done anymore, which has been profoundly frustrating. So there were two of us, glued to each other’s sides, frustrated and sad and bored and furious. It’s not really a formula for success.

So these days I spend my time wiping my daughter’s digitally-induced tears, which spill all too often, for reasons that are entirely understandable. For instance, she had to retake an online math test twice, because Google didn’t register the first one. Videos glitch, so she can’t watch what she is supposed to view. Logins randomly fail. The internet suddenly drops its tenuous connection. Until she memorised it, she sometimes couldn’t find her Zoom code (despite my taping it to her computer and the wall and the desk) because she would get into a complete panic about being 14 seconds late to class and start to hyperventilate and fail to focus, which would then make her a further three minutes late, and in her desire to please her new teacher she would come utterly unglued. Instead of working on forming neat letters with a pencil, at which she was becoming fairly accomplished last year, she has to create Google slides with little hands that are still dimpled, which should be holding crayons and real books and the rails of the playground climbing frame and the hands of friends.

But at least these days the tears are far fewer than those that fell during the three weeks she was attending a physical school. And her fears are mostly gone. So it seems we have traded fears for tears — or rather fears and tears for mere tears. And — say it with me — we take what we can get these days. So we’ll take those mere tears, thank you.

But nothing awful lasts forever, as our presidential election and then inauguration have shown us. Hope springs eternal, and there is light at the end of most tunnels, eventually. So I am delighted beyond words to report that by December — after a desperately needed week’s break for Thanksgiving, and more importantly after turning eight — she began to display a new independence with her schoolwork. Most days now, she logs on all by herself and continues independently all morning… unless we have technical glitches, which still happen all too often because — despite living in a metropolitan area of California, one of the tech capitals of the world — it seems that upgrading our internet to a higher speed service and double the bandwidth has, paradoxically, resulted in a slower, clunkier connection than ever (which feels rather too like the California vaccine rollout). She reads her assignments and completes them with far less input and emotional support from me. She watches the clock and knows when her teacher is about to rescue her from the Zoom waiting room (for her penchant for being first in line in the morning at school is unchanged, merely reshaped for her new reality). In short, she has grown accustomed to the new face of school (again). In short, she feels confident and strong (again).

In short, she is growing up.

And because she is growing up, I know that I will treasure those volatile few weeks of transition when I had to sit glued to her side, quite literally holding her hand as she wrestled with the monsters of her unhappiness. In these times, where we seek whatever scraps of goodness we can find and hold them tightly, I am thankful that I can hold that sweet, still-dimpled little hand and offer her comfort. (Far less often, and so perhaps with even more gratitude, I am also called upon to hold the also-still-dimpled hand of her older sister.)

I realise I am contradicting myself and being somewhat unclear about how the state of things in our home these days, but such is life in these absurd times.

More tears, mere tears, fewer tears, new fears.

So we stumble along, finding our way through the tears and the fears. If you were somewhere between the ages of six and thirty-something in the 1980s, you will get my reference: in the words of Roland and Curt (they of Tears for Fears fame, if you aren’t in my demographic), these days we often to have to “shout, shout, let it all out”. (It’s certainly also truer than ever — Republican senators, take note today — that “in violent times, you shouldn’t have to sell your soul”, because “everybody wants to rule the world”… but one particular man should never again be allowed to rule America.)

But perhaps the most relevant lyrics come from their song, “Mad World”: “All around me are familiar faces… going nowhere/ And their tears are filling up their glasses… I find it kind of funny/ I find it kind of sad… it’s a very, very mad world.”

Those words come back to me, as I grapple with my own sorrow at the absurdity of our lives, at the profusion of their tears, at the madness of this new normal, at the fact that neither their tears nor their fears are going away as soon as we all might wish… and then when they finally do, too much of their young lives will have been shaped by these terrible times, by this mad, mad world.

We are told that children are adaptable, but surely there is a limit to what they can withstand before that malleability meets its limit. I fear the damage that we cannot yet see or even imagine. But perhaps we will learn, as we hope our children will, to emerge stronger from all of this, to transmogrify our tears and our fears into something better, something less mad and more marvellous.

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