Look at us, at how green we were, how unprepared: That first chart we made in the fog of last March, our first stab at pandemic homeschooling, had Pilates on it. Pilates! Our plan was that we’d get up, have a cup of coffee, and then, as a happy family, do a little morning exercise. We parceled out and color-coded the school day from 8:30 to 4:00. We taped the chart to the fridge. We were serious.
We lasted maybe two weeks.
Our chart these days — these final days of accidental elementary homeschool, we hope — isn’t really a chart at all. There’s a longish block of school in the morning. There’s a dog walk. There’s a smaller block of school in the afternoon. Unwritten, but usually achieved: breakfast and lunch. Maybe a little trampoline time. It took us until well into the second school year at home, though, to learn to leave long stretches of empty space. If we’re going to do this, we decided one frazzled evening, let’s at least make it what we’d do if we were homeschooling on purpose. Remember when our then-first grader’s teacher sent us that bean seed in the mail in April 2020 and asked us to put it in a Ziploc bag with a moist paper towel, then tape it to a sunny window to see what happened? Let’s do more of that, all the time. So we did. Or we tried. Second- and fifth-grade boys are perhaps not the ideal humans with whom to spend 15 months of lockdown. It’s hard — miserable, even, a fair portion of the time — to be their teachers and their parents all day, every day. But every now and then, it’s been shot through with wonder, too.
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Pilates foolishness aside, we did manage a bit of decent work early on. We bolted seatbelt-strap climbing nets into their bedroom ceilings; we bought about six miles of PVC pipe and 4,000 PVC couplings and cut the pipe into lengths for fort-building; we took them on long springtime bike rides. They folded hundreds upon hundreds of origami cranes. I took our little one, The Wee, down into the basement a few afternoons in a row to help me organize the workbench. Here’s what a rasp does, I told him. That’s a drill bit. Sure, you can fool around with that pipe wrench. Just be careful — we don’t want to have to go to the hospital. This was the fairly frightening refrain of those first weeks and months.
We bought about six miles of PVC pipe and 4,000 PVC couplings for fort-building.
We survived, though, found something of a rhythm. The Wee learned to cook eggs. He learned to love greens. He learned to tend the garden, sort of. Our older son, The Toad, our fourth-and-then-fifth- grader, helped me — truly helped me — put together the trampoline we bought this past fall. It’s like Legos! he said, peering at the nearly incomprehensible diagrams, then telling me what to do. We made sun tea. We struck up a weekly family pizza tradition, both boys helping set the no-knead dough in motion each Friday morning. How does it work? they asked. Let’s look it up, we told them.
When it rained, we still went on walks. We mail-ordered galoshes, and The Wee, especially, became fascinated by the fluid dynamics of water rushing down the streets in downpours. We hiked down to the flooded creek at the bottom of our hill, taught them the word alluvial. Things they built or tested during this long year: boats, homemade kites, baking soda rockets, fairy houses. They’re currently obsessed with a very 1980s bike/scooter/ skate ramp out in front of the house, just plywood and stacked-up two-by-fours and the boys hurtling through the air while I ask them to at least pretend to pay attention: We don’t want to go to the hospital. But they’re 8 and 10, and even in a pandemic, they need to play, to run and jump, to learn: Here is how a body moves in space.
“They folded hundreds upon hundreds of origami cranes.” illustration by Ed Fotheringham
In good weather, our front porch was a reading room. In chilly weather, we wrapped up in blankets and went out there anyway. The Toad may well have read 20,000 pages of Greek gods and cat clans and wizards and chocolate factories. The Wee commandeered an entire section of the linen closet in the laundry room, climbed in there to read and attend Zoom school for a while. They built hideaways out of boxes and blankets. They designed elaborate sofa-cushion bunkers, then tore them down again. They were engineers, architects, demolitions experts. They were kids finding their own place in the world, even as that world shrank to one neighborhood, one street, sometimes just one house.
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These months have been something of a blur: masks, case counts, social distancing, vaccines. Uploading homework. Dialing into whatever Hollywood Squares-style video call they’re supposed to be on. They’ve now seen, from home, the daffodils and dogwoods and azaleas bloom twice. It’s hard to know what it all means, what it all meant, how they’ll remember this time. We had it harder than some, easier than others. These boys were never all that self-sufficient, school-wise, so the running tally of one of us saying Go to school! is give or take infinity. On the flip side, they were just young enough that we didn’t have to lean on them about grades, didn’t have to push them to finish their AP physics homework. We could let our littlish kids go out front with a pile of leaves and a magnifying glass and call the fire they started science.
We desperately want them to go back, and we have high hopes for the fall. I’ll probably weep from joy that first day we drop them off and come back home to an empty house, a morning stretching open in front of us, space to do our own work. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say there was something in all this. Every day is the same day, we would joke with our neighbors, our friends. It wasn’t, though, or at least it wasn’t for these boys. They kept finding something new — and we tried our hardest, once we got smart enough to try, to give them space enough to do it.
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One of the last old-school fish houses in Onslow County stands sentry on the White Oak River. Clyde Phillips Seafood Market has served up seafood and stories since 1954 — an icon of the coast, persevering in pink.