In these traumatic times, what’s required when teaching my brilliant students from afar and parenting my kids at home is much the same: patience, love and empathy.
Each day begins when I rise from the bed, dress in the darkness of my bathroom, pull on my running shoes and try to compel my teenager into some form of exercise without waking my husband and 9-year-old son, who choose to sleep in. We run in slow loops around the neighborhood or ride our bikes along the trail by the bayou; we do jumping jacks in the backyard or lift jugs of water in the garage. When we return to the kitchen, we find that coffee has been made. After breakfast, I remind both children to make their beds, to dress in actual clothes, and then some combination of adults and children walk the dogs around the block. This is all outlined in THE SCHEDULE, our only raft in what feels like an increasingly viscous soup of time: every day soaked with the same boredom, terror, grief and moments of absurd humor as the day before.
THE SCHEDULE tells us that today is a Monday and that the teenager will spend the entire day at the computer for virtual middle school and that the 9 year old will spend the day with me. He and I have decided that Mondays are for botany, so we work in the backyard garden watering plants and picking weeds, and then move to the front to collect blackberries from the bramble, where we pause to observe how different parts of the vine are in different stages of the cycle from flower to fruit. These blackberries happen to be self-fruitful, meaning they can bear fruit from their own pollen, though even this variety still requires the assistance of pollinators like bees and butterflies. The nearby magnolia tree is also in bloom, though its flowers are pollinated not by bees, but rather by beetles, since both the magnolia tree and the beetles that pollinate it evolved before bees. This part of the lesson, about the beetles and the magnolia, is new information to my son, though the rest is old news. He already knows all about pollination from school, he tells me as we watch a delivery truck arrive and the driver place a box on the sidewalk near the gate. As we collect the package and walk inside, he teaches all the names for the parts of a flower to me.
“Home schooling” is a generous and inaccurate word for what we are doing. Proper home schooling — real home schooling — is a distinct and genuine pedagogy, and people who home-school their children spend years honing their lessons, syncing their children’s learning to the rhythms of the home and the cycle of the land and the seasons. This is not that. What we are doing is crisis schooling, trauma-mitigation schooling. Beyond the blackberry bramble in our front yard, a disaster is unfolding that may fundamentally alter our world in the years to come in ways we can’t yet fathom.
Millions are sick in this country alone, more than 100,000 have died and tens of millions have become unemployed. What my children learn in the way of formal schooling in this time will be negligible, marginal — and this is less important to me as their mother than providing comfort and care and minimizing the trauma and horror and grief of this moment as much as possible. I am teaching them how it is possible to live while trying to survive.
In the kitchen, the 9 year old and I make lunch for ourselves and the teenager. While we are eating, now in a bit of a hurry, we open the package that has just arrived — a hummingbird feeder I ordered weeks ago, which I immediately disinfect before taking the cardboard package to the recycling bin in the garage and scrubbing my hands in the sink.
THE SCHEDULE dictates that I teach on Monday and Tuesday afternoons. Now that class time is approaching, I set the 9 year old up in his bedroom with his tablet, onto which I have loaded educational websites and downloaded educational apps to keep him enriched and occupied — Duolingo, Khan Academy, PBS Kids — though he forgoes these options and begins playing Roblox instead. I collect my notes and attendance records, open my laptop, and prepare the documents and windows I will share in the Zoom call with my students. It is a strange coincidence, maybe, that one of the courses I am teaching this semester is called Documenting Disaster, a creative writing course that combines instruction in the craft of long-form nonfiction with questions about the ethics of representation.
“What obligations do we have to other people’s suffering?” I have been asking my students all semester. Before they arrive in the Zoom meeting, I spend a few minutes reading the news: Right there on the news app’s homepage is a story about the death toll in New York City. In one image first responders load body bags into the back of an ambulance, in another pine coffins are stacked in mass graves on Hart Island.
The familiar chime announces students as they arrive in the Zoom meeting. We spend the first half-hour of class checking in: How has the last week been? I ask. Did you go outside at all? How is it where you are? Is your family healthy and well? Are you able to get work done? Are you eating enough? Have you gotten any sleep? When Rice made the decision to move classes online for the remainder of the semester, one student returned home to the Philippines, where, because of the time difference, she now can’t participate in our class meetings because they occur in our afternoon and the middle of her night. (On Thursday mornings, I meet with her separately.)
Another student returned to her parents’ home — a house her parents had recently sold and were planning to vacate, having already sold most of the furniture — and lives there still, mostly without furniture. Other students, returning to their parents’ homes, have reverted to old relational habits: In one case, the parents have demanded that their adult child not take her phone to her room, though she admits sneaking to the kitchen to retrieve it after they have gone to bed. The seniors in particular are grieving lost jobs, lost internships, the loss of a future for which they had planned.
The 9 year old decides to make an appearance and comes to my side to say hello. I introduce him as my new teaching assistant, and he smiles and blushes; my students wave, and he waves back. In another time, not even very long ago, I would not have felt inclined to bring my children to my class. I have learned in my 20-year career as a teacher — through messaging that has sometimes been implicit and others explicit — that my role as a teacher and my role as a mother should not mix or meet, but in truth, they’ve never really been separate. Teaching my son and parenting him are not such different activities, especially in such a sad and terrifying time as this, and the best way I can think to teach my brilliant, brave young students right now is not so unlike my approach to parenting: suffused with love and generosity, patience and understanding.
After we finish the check-in, my class talks about the reading for the day. We discuss the projects they’ve been working on all semester — one writes about the looming threat of tectonic disaster in the Pacific Northwest, another about the pandemic itself — and whether it is useful as writers to pretend we can stand apart from the chaos of a disastrous time in order to chronicle it, to create narrative order through logic and reason.
Some disasters defy logic, order and reason. My students go on talking about their projects but suddenly I am thinking of a detail from that news article I read. So many of those who succumb to COVID-19 die completely alone, mourned by family who cannot even come to the hospital to hold the beloved’s hands. Meanwhile, protesters gather in crowds at statehouses to demand a return to “normal” life, to go back to the way things were before — when people could go grocery shopping, or go to a baseball game, or get a meal with friends without worrying about their own or others’ mortality all the time.
The responsibility we have to protect and preserve one another isn’t new, but this disaster has made it newly explicit, and perhaps whatever it was about the past that allowed us to ignore that responsibility for so long isn’t something we should want to return to. As writers, we can do more than document and bear witness to the scale of our own or others’ suffering, I tell my students. We can write stories that show a way through.
Before we end the call, I ask my students to assure me they have enough money to pay their rent, that they are eating vegetables and doing at least three things that bring them joy every week — it’s an assignment and therefore mandatory. After class, I take a few moments to reorient my role to the one I play at home. I read an article about how to grow more food from my yard and look for a recipe for hummingbird food. A news alert tells me that a new model predicts that, at its peak, this new virus will claim the lives of 3,000 people in this country every day.
I find my 9 year old sprawled on the living room couch playing Minecraft and my teenager watching anime in one window and “reading” in another, but THE SCHEDULE does not dictate that now is the time for Minecraft or anime. I compel them both to log off, to take a break and to join me in the kitchen to make hummingbird food for the feeder that arrived in the mail. Hummingbirds are also pollinators, I tell my son, who assures me he knows this already. We mix together the water and sugar in a saucepan. It takes time for the sugar to dissolve. It takes time for the mixture to cool before pouring it carefully into the glass vial that screws into the colorful base. We carry it out to the backyard, where we hang it on a hook on the fence. It will take time for the hummingbird to arrive, if indeed it ever does. And so we wait.
Lacy M. Johnson is an assistant professor of creative writing at Rice. In April, she won the prestigious 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship in the field of general nonfiction.