Monday, February 15, 2021

These Aren't the Same People We Sent Home Last Spring

A few weeks ago, a father whose daughter is currently in kindergarten told me that he wasn't in favor of the schools re-opening any time soon. "It's not that I'm worried about Covid so much. It's that my poor girl has finally adjusted to online classes." Months ago he told me about how much the girl had struggled with sitting in front of a computer screen, how she missed her friends, how she missed her teacher. For a time, she had cried every day, begging to be allowed to do anything other than "go to school." He told me back then that he worried that his child was learning to hate school, to hate learning, but now, many months have passed. Things have changed. 

Like most of us, his daughter suffered a loss. This pandemic took something she loved away from her. Naturally, she mourned the loss, but as Iris Murdoch wrote, "In order to survive a terrible loss one has to become another person," which is what has happened. All of our children, all of us, have suffered losses. I imagine some of us are still grieving, maybe most of us, but some, like this kindergartener have been transformed into someone new.

This isn't the only story like this I've heard from parents. Last spring, nearly everyone's child was suffering from their loss, but by the time autumn rolled around parents were telling me about how their child was adapting. Most expressed themselves with an air of surprise and caution. After all, they were still struggling with their own terrible losses, so it seemed incredible that their child had moved on to "making the most of things."

Of course, this is what children are designed to do. Looked at from one perspective, childhood is a time of loss. Birth itself, leaving behind the warmth and security of the womb for the bright, loud, cold, and smelly world, is certainly a loss. We lose our grandparents. We lose our teeth. Our clothing and playthings are broken, put away, or handed down to even younger children. We leave teachers and friends behind with each new passage. Indeed, the process of growing up requires a near constant process of becoming another person. This is one of the facts of childhood. So it really shouldn't surprise us that many of our kids have become the people they need to be in order to best embrace the world as it is, not as it was.

Loss, of course, remains a constant throughout life, but as adults we tend to fret and regret them more, and  for longer. Many of us are still grieving, even as our children have become someone else. And we even often grieve for that, as their growth forces us to become the parents not of babies but toddlers, not of toddlers but little kids, not of little kids, but of adolescents, then teens, then adults. We're always a little behind them in the process of becoming new people, being regularly disappointed that they are not the baby we once dandled on our knees and held in our arms. Just as their bones and bodies are more flexible than ours, perhaps they are, by and large, more flexible than us when it comes to loss as well.

I made many predictions at the beginning of the pandemic. I couldn't imagine young children ever being in any way satisfied with online "learning." I assumed they would be too bored, too antsy, too much the people they were in the past for something so inhuman. I still worry that this era has left them damaged or stunted in some way, and I'm sure it has left lasting marks on some of them. But, loss is intertwined with growth and growth is the business of youth.

The schools in our state have about two weeks to submit their re-opening plans to the state superintendent of public instruction. This doesn't mean that the schools are opening on March 1, just that the plans must be in place by then in order to receive a share of the federal money available for doing so "safely." That said, some of them will want to open as soon as possible, but not because a majority of parents want them to re-open. Only 46.8 percent of the parents of K-1 students in our state are currently in favor of re-opening the brick and mortar schools, and within that number we find that only about 33 percent of the parents of Black and Brown children feel that way. One can read all sorts of things into statistics, but for right now, at least, most parents of young children, and especially those whose children tend to be marginalized at school, think their children are better off at home for now, simply being the new people they have become.

As that father said to me about online school, "She looks forward to school now, in some ways more than she did before the lock down. I wish they'd just leave her alone."

This dad is considering homeschooling, at least for a time, but he recognizes that he will likely wind up sending his daughter back to school at some point in the future. It's possible that some schools won't open again until next fall, but they will re-open eventually. The children who answer the morning bell won't be the children we knew when last we saw them. They will know things about the world that we don't know. They won't "go back" to the way they were any more than a toddler returns to being a newborn. I have little hope that our cookie-cutter schools as institutions will make a proper shaped space for these new people, but as individual educators we can. 

These aren't the same people we sent home last spring. They have survived a terrible loss by becoming new people. It's hasn't been easy. As schools re-open, let's begin by celebrating who they have become, then make it our business to understand them as they are right now. We can't let the hyperventilating over how far our children have "fallen behind," cause us to plough ahead as if a return to normal is even possible. Because everything has changed and the children we teach have changed as well.


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