Published on December 28th, 2020 | by Jill Stukenberg


See Saw

How old or what grade are your children?

I have one son who turned seven in May. That was after two months of the two of us home together on lockdown building blanket forts in the living room from within which we watched episodes of The Amazing Race from twenty years ago. Online I learn the Race debuted just after 9/11, so Americans first learned to love this show when huddled at home, trying to pretend the world hadn’t changed. In the fort we drew maps of the contestants’ routes, tracing Tanzania to Sri Lanka to Florida. All as far away as the neighborhood grocery store that no longer allowed children.

How has the pandemic affected your children’s schooling? 

This fall my child began second grade in the basement of a friend’s house with a set of twins who are his best and only friends and best and only enemies—the only other humanoids of his size and kind in his daily sphere. Each kid slips inside their own set of headphones and hunches toward their new teacher, so tiny in her small screen. They keep their headphones on for PE and dance breaks, wires flapping. 

The grown-ups of the pod rotate in and out according to our work schedules—and it’s tight. Sometimes one of us starts a pot of Mac and Cheese and the next takes over to add the butter. We discover our families use totally different amounts of butter. I get used to opening and rummaging through the other family’s cabinets and kitchen drawers, even changing the toilet paper roll. And I suppose they get used to me, being there and doing that. 

My turns in the basement, I realize I knew very little about what school was like. Pencil sharpeners are far more important than I knew, so too the clock as the minutes lurch toward snack time. The basement is a place of cross talk (poop jokes!) and non-sequiturs as the children unmute their mics to shout-participate in their different classroom conversations. One day my son leans in to his screen to yell how old I am. Then a minute later, “My mom was on a swim team. But she never won any races.”

There are the usual standardized tests, extra sweat-inducing with passcodes and technology glitches. 

Sometimes while listening the children stand and flap their arms, slowly, like very large  birds. Sometimes my son just grabs my arm, holding it as we wait for the page number in the math book. 

How have these changes affected your children?

They get angry when they can’t find a workbook and throw everything from their desks to the floor. They hiss at each other to be quiet, to mute their mics, to stop tapping or kicking their chair. No one wants to go on the virtual trip to the school forest, which is an outrage, insult to the name of field trip.

Also, they want to be dragons. 

This comes from a video game they play before and after school on their fun (non-school) devices—though at recess, for which we shoo them outdoors, they must settle on role playing. 

As the leaves fall and then the first snow flies, our children practice their flapping in the yard. They caw, gnash their teeth, guard and hatch imaginary eggs. 

One day during virtual school there is a fire drill—glorious, as it is only on the teacher’s end. On screen, lights blacken and strobe, and for long thrilling minutes she disappears. Our room fills with the sound of wings, the shrieks of dragons. We’re the safe ones in our dungeon cave.

How have these changes affected you as the parent?

At night we don’t argue about what’s best for him but about what among the options is the least worst. It’s like having two candidates in an election to vote between. It’s like deciding if you’ll take the chance of seeing your parents again this year. It’s like saying I’m not concerned about his reading level, I just want him to emerge from this with a competitive ACE score. Like, not too much higher than anyone else’s.

What is your biggest worry about these changes?

How to record the odd milestones in my social media feed.

There’s the day it’s the twins’ birthday, so, literally, everyone else’s birthday in the basement classroom. 

There’s the day the teacher gets so mad she starts kicking kids out of the classroom meet, but then, hilariously and sheepishly, must painstakingly figure out how to give each permission to rejoin.

There’s the hand-lettered signs my son hangs around the house admonishing us to wash our hands. It’s a new tone from last spring when he opened a therapist’s office in his bedroom, though even then his hours were pretty limited. 

Do you expect to return to a traditional classroom?

It does all come to an end when, one night, faced with a room of masked and angry parents, the school board announces the resumption of in-person school. 

 It is true it has been hard, and we are all so weary. Now each family has to make new choices and there are no good choices, or so we keep telling each other, consolingly. 

Our pod—expanded to include another neighborhood family with older children, released from their bedroom-classrooms to blink in the sunlight—plans an outdoor Halloween party, a last hurrah. 

We are outfitted now with a bonfire pit and lawn chairs spaced six feet apart. We buy an obscene amount of candy and plan a scavenger hunt, an alternative to Trick-or-Treating, which is as much dispiriting as unsafe for the 50-50 party mix of election signs in our swing-state neighborhood. We can’t promise what our children won’t shout up the driveways of the Trumpers.

On the day of, though we’ve had snow already and a few weeks of cold, the sun comes out and holds. The children offer each other skeleton hands and practice their zombie walks. My son begged to buy “RIP” gravestone decorations for our yard, which we did though it was weird with the election signs and also because just a few weeks ago, in the basement classroom, my son and his friends learned of a classmate’s death. Not of the coronavirus, not of the coronavirus—the school administrators kept repeating. But a fluke thing, if that descriptor can be matched to an eight-year-old with a surprise heart problem. We knew the girl well last year. She’d wait for my son by the metal fence in her pink snow pants, brown hair in her eyes. But this year she’d been only a classmate on screen, one tiny tile among other tiles. I’m momentarily glad for that for my son’s sake, and then guilty. I know that makes it even sadder, sign of what more we lost.

 Like we’ve overbought candy, we’ve over-planned activities. The adults eat too much barbeque, drink the beer and then break out the hard stuff, and the kids on the scavenger hunt race from touchstone to touchstone of our experience of the last two months, of pod life. Snack stash, pencil sharpener, felt planet Mercury that fell continuously from the wall poster. Another activity is an egg drop. Spaced out on the driveway, each family begins building a structure as one of the dads leans a ladder against the garage.

 Nominally it’s a competition, but we begin swapping supplies, sharing strategies, everyone trying to build crack-proof containers for every family’s eggs. There’s a wacky plot with helium balloons.

The children, of course, are dressed as dragons. They race and caw and flap around us. They both dread and want the eggs to crack and splatter. They are already gathering the pumpkins to pass up next. We’ve all been ready for something to give, to break.

Maybe we’ll get lucky, one of other moms says to me as we watch the dad climb onto the roof, beer in one hand and first egg package in the other. Maybe we’ll have done enough

I chase after one kid who isn’t mine and then another. Fix a dragon wing. Cheer as the egg structures bounce and roll and then as the pumpkins—deliciously, gloriously—explode all over the driveway. I never thought I’d live like this—share this much with people who, a year ago, I’d have described as a few of my co-workers, or parents of kids at my kid’s school

But it is chilling too what brings us here.

Also, do your children have access to technology such as smartphones or tablets?

Yes. All throughout the house. In the bedrooms and living rooms and cars. See Saw is the name of the App the school district uses. When my son first saw it, he didn’t make the connection to the playground equipment. What’s a See Saw? He asked.

It’s a kind of blade, I told him, used for cutting away what you can’t bear to look at anymore. 

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About the Author

Jill Stukenberg writes and teaches in Central Wisconsin. Her short stories have been published in The Collagist, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere, and her novel Labor Day was a recent finalist for the Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press. Find her writing about teaching creative writing online at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and find Jill cross-country skiing, sledding, or pushing her own kid face first into snow drifts.

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