Once upon a time, a full 17 years before I became a parent, this was my favorite commercial: That classic mid-90s Staples back-to-school ad with the bitter kids watching their jubilant Dad stock up on pens and notebooks to the sound of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” You don’t need to have kids to appreciate the humor, and once you do have kids, it’s some genuinely funny stuff. The look on the little girl’s face could crack a granite countertop.
The leaves are changing here in the northeastern woods, ever so slightly and somewhat disrupted by drought. We see it come earlier than most, and it’s here, brothers and sisters. The nip is in the evening air. Blink and its going to be October, and then November, and then an abyss of days until the ragged promise of April.
This winter, this winter, is nigh upon us. The experts and their statistical models are forecasting more than 410,000 COVID fatalities by the New Year.
The changing leaves have always served as the herald to school, nature’s ringing bell. Again, you don’t need to be a parent to have the scholastic ebb and flow affect you. Hell, ask anyone who has ever done a couple of turns around the sun in college towns like my old beloved Boston, September-to-May home for hundreds of thousands of high school/college/graduate/Ph.D./law students.
They all show up at once, FOOP and there they are, and the September streets are alive with the call of outraged locals gently consulting the new arrivals to “Move ya fahkin U-Haul, ya fahkin bahney!” BEEEEEEEEP.
At least one September-arriving college student blows that aforementioned U-Haul past all the huge LOW BRIDGE NO TRUCKS signs on Storrow Drive trying to get to Harvard, or MIT, or Boston University, or Boston College, and then DONK, stuck truck, and the resulting traffic jam is like an automotive pulmonary embolism that reaches all the way to Braintree and Quincy until the state police come to deflate the U-Haul’s tires and tow it out from under and out of the way. Every year, there are betting pools on when this will happen.
My daughter “starts” second grade on Thursday. She will be home, and her mother and I will be her teachers to the limit of our abilities. Her school is doing the “hybrid” thing, half there and half home, but with a separate option for full home-schooling. We and about a third of the school are availing ourselves of the latter option for a number of reasons, not the least of which being my strong suspicion that everyone will be remote learning by Thanksgiving, because the first COVID wave still isn’t over yet, and the second wave is yet to come.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association analyzed data on COVID-19 infection rates in 49 states, New York City, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam,” reports Sarah D. Sparks for Education Week. “They found that of the more than 380,000 total COVID-19 cases reported so far among children, nearly 180,000 have been reported from July 9 to August 9 — a 90 percent jump within a month. That represents an infection rate of 501 for every 100,000 children.”
Last night, I gave my daughter the world’s biggest pep talk about school, learning, books, her own amazing mind and how TOTALLY AWESOME THIS IS ALL GOING TO BE YOU GUYS. She danced around the living room before pausing to make multiplication worksheets for herself, seriously, because I give one hell of a pep talk when I put my shoulder to it. I just wish I believed it. Oh, I believe most of it, but I don’t expect the “Yay!” reaction to last much past gerunds and long division.
I’ve had a long summer to chew this over, and have reached a few baseline conclusions. First and foremost, all I can do — all any parent can do — is the best I can. On most days to come, I will not be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, and my daughter won’t be standing on her desk in a rapture of Walt Whitman. I’m going to damn well try, but the fact of the matter is, now until June will be nothing more or less than a grind.
I do also believe that, one way or another, COVID-19 will be brought under some form of manageable control once responsible people are allowed to do their work unfettered by the mayhem politics of this White House. Once that happens, school systems will need to sit down and think long and hard about giving up at least part of some future summer vacations so students have enough time and instruction to get caught back up.
Now that we know how vital schools are to maintaining the basic foundations of the nation, they must be placed on the same high pedestal as national defense, for that is exactly what school is.
No aspect of this is impossible or unreachable. It just really, really sucks right now, for the kids and the parents and the teachers and basically everyone. It sucks, and will suck for a long time to come. This winter in particular could easily become the stuff of bleak legend if matters continue to trend in this currently untethered manner.
The only thing you can’t fix is death, and so we’re staying home this school year to ride it all out. The leaves will change next year, too. They always do.