School will not resume after Spring Break, and it’s all so serious I feel only kindness toward district Director of Communications Julie Boyle, upon whose recorded voice messages I have heaped such scorn many a snow day’s eve. My wife can still go in to work for now, but the library is closed, which leaves me on point for childcare. Our kids, who are in first and third grade, receive the closing of school as happy news, but they see it mainly as another opportunity to feed their already frightening videogame and YouTube habits. So there’s nothing for it but to homeschool, and today is my first day.
Luckily, it’s also the first day of my new mustache. A few of us at work had a contest to grow them, and today was to be their big debut. We text each other photos instead. In mine, my eyes show a touch of madness. I’m going to need it.
“I’m your new teacher,” I say to the kids after I shave off my beard and emerge from the bathroom. “You can call me Mr. Mustache. I’ll see you at the dining room table at 10 a.m.”
My students told me I needed to start with a morning meeting like their real teachers (remember those superheroes?). I’m happy to oblige, then ask what this means. They want a “Question of the Day.” I come up with some, write them down on little slips of paper, and toss them in a bowl. My daughter draws one and reads it aloud. As we contemplate the question, the dog walks over, gently takes it from her hand with his mouth, chews it up and swallows.
"I guess that's what we'll do with the questions when we're done," I say.
Then he pukes a gooey white blob right onto the top of my slipper.
"Okay!" the kids say.
For once I have a lesson plan. It’s message in a bottle day. This covers so many subjects, and seems somehow appropriate for the times. I print off an article on history’s greatest messages in bottles and we read it aloud, draw maps of the rivers leading from here to the Gulf of Mexico, pop popcorn and watch Paddle-to-the-Sea. After lunch we’re going to write our own messages and launch them into the Kaw. Only, I’m not getting much buy-in from my son. In fact, instead of writing a friendly note and including the anonymous email address we have created for the finder of the bottle to contact us, his writes: “Hello person if you found this please put this back where you found it. And you don’t need to tell anyone.” When I try to write “MESSAGE INSIDE” on the outside of his bottle with a Sharpie, he snatches it and writes, “DO NOT PICK UP” instead.
I have another lesson plan today. We’re going to repaint (Art!) a long forgotten styrofoam solar system model (Astronomy!) I found in the basement, reduce the planetary distances to a scale that will fit in the parking lot across the street (Math!), then set them out there and see how far apart they really are. However, my daughter wants no part of this project, and she's not too keen on us completing it, either. Giggling maniacally, she grabs Saturn, stuffs it down the back of her pants and prances around the room like Mick Jagger. My son says, “Hey, Saturn doesn't go that close to Uranus.” (Anatomy?)
Yesterday my wife took over for the afternoon, and the kids had their best day of homeschooling yet, my lesson plans a distant memory as they ran and played in the backyard as kids should. I hung up a new swing in our big oak tree in front. Now we have two tree swings, one for each kid, so they won’t have to fight all the time about who gets to swing. However, none of my complicated calculations of trajectory and acceleration (okay, I stared blankly up into the tree while drinking coffee for a few minutes) indicated that the kids would collide in mid air if I hung the second swing from the branch I picked. Where I find a potential ER visit, though, they find pure joy. So they swing during morning meeting today. At one point, unused to the path of the new swing, I stand in the wrong place at the wrong time, and my daughter’s fully extended legs kick me, as we say in our house, “right in the beans.”
Today’s question of the day: “What time period would you travel to if you had a time machine, and why?”
My son’s answer: “Fifteen minutes ago, so I can watch Mr. Mustache get kicked in the beans again.”
Question of the day: “What is the first thing you would do if you could be invisible?”
My daughter’s answer: “Kick Mr. Mustache in the beans.”
New rule: If your answer to the question of the day involves imagining me getting kicked in the beans, you must provide a second answer. It’s not going to matter anyway, though, since I replaced every question in the bowl today with just one: “Why are you so mean to Mr. Mustache?”
The big mystery is what my daughter wants to do in home school. She's such a smart kid, and does so well in real school, but three weeks in, a pattern has revealed itself: I tell her my plans, she opts out, then we yell at each other and feel terrible afterwards. I’m happy to open it up to her own suggestions, but she doesn’t have any. Yesterday I let her get as muddy as humanly possible during our P.E. hike in the Baker Wetlands, so there’s something. Today, while her brother dutifully does a worksheet, she is at least willing to help identify animals on a cool citizen science link her aunt sent her. I solve the mystery as she glumly tags penguins in photos of large groups congregated on the ice. All she wants is to be like them, hanging out with her friends. And that’s the one thing I can’t give her.
The cavalry arrives in the form of iPads and instruction from the school district, and not a moment too soon (we’ve been playing blackjack for nickels, and I allowed way more bad words in a recent Scrabble game than I should have). Now I have activities and assignments drawn up by professionals, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that the kids can attend morning meetings with their real teachers and classmates. But it also makes me uneasy, since our homeschooling efforts to this point have been intended largely to combat the narcotic effect of screens. Yet another riddle of the quarantine: The thing kids need most right now is also the thing they need least.
In my work as a librarian I need them, too, since all I can order for the library these days are ebooks and eaudiobooks, and I do it from home on a laptop. The print books my kids have checked out are so stale now, there is a palpable hunger in the house for new ones. The kids' grandma has sent some reinforcements, and we’ve splurged for a few deliveries from The Raven, plus there are so many great children’s books available on the library’s digital platforms, Overdrive and Hoopla. But kids sometimes struggle to focus on the same devices they use to communicate with friends, play games, and watch their favorite YouTubers.
I walk past my son’s room and he's holding his pet parakeet up to a laptop to show his whole class. Then I pass my daughter’s room, where she talks to a friend on a tablet, screen split between the cute grotesqueries they make of their faces--outsized eyeballs, rainbow vomit, mermaid bodies. They laugh and laugh.
I give up.
It’s funny how often these days I find myself with the kids on the same ground we once covered with our old double barreled stroller, before they’d even heard of Kindergarten, and life was a blur of long walks, tantrums, and naps. Most of my old tricks from those days don’t work anymore, and sometimes I feel like a washed up pitcher in a late inning jam trying to survive on wits alone. Well, and cardboard. And duct tape, I still have plenty of that. In fact, I have a new lesson plan today. I woke up early and made a miniature Plinko game so we can play the Price Is Right (and of course, that mountain climber game, which I never knew was called Cliff Hangers. I'm using the quarantine to learn new things).
My daughter won't "come on down" for Bob Barker, Drew Carey, or me, though. Instead she walks right by and heads for the basement to go “work with Mama.” I can’t blame her. I meant to cut stuff out of newspaper ads to bid on, but the recycling went out yesterday, and all I could find was the Vermont Country Store catalog.
“Rod Roddy, tell ‘em what they’re playing for.”
“Well, Bob, it’s a new ankle-length flannel night shirt!”
Salvation comes a few minutes later, though, when the sweet song of the Yodelly Guy lures her back to Contestent’s Row. I know we’ll fall off that cliff again soon, but for now my heart soars.
Day 28 (Easter Sunday)
Up from the basement where I carve out my own work time on weekends and in the wee hours, I’m getting ready for a Zoom meeting with my extended family. Andrea Bocelli sings to empty cities, heartbreaking and surreal, in our living room. Suddenly there we all are on the same screen. My sister and niece make the tactical error of renaming themselves a few times, which opens the door for my kids to cycle through a series of inappropriate aliases and crack themselves up for the rest of the call. I hope their laughter is at least a minor balm. I don’t know who that is above my name with the wild hair and full beard. It doesn’t look like me or Mr. Mustache, so it must be someone else I need to be to get through all this, and whatever is yet to come. I see his mom, sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephew, wife, kids, all safe, smiling, relatively sane. Whoever that guy is, he’s the luckiest person I know.
–Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library. Mr. Mustache and family would like to give a special shout out to everyone at Cordley Elementary--teachers, staff, and students. We will meet again! And hats off to the real homeschoolers who do it all year long. I've always admired you, and now my respect grows each day.