Our year of pandemic schooling did not begin well. On the first day of school, my wife and I sat at the kitchen table with our three elementary-age children and their district-issued Chromebooks, while our two younger kids ran circles around the room, loudly pretending to be ninjas. I thought I had an easy assignment: helping our (usually) gentle and even-keeled second-grader, who has always loved school. It turns out, of course, that virtual learning is never easy. Within the first few minutes of class, he was already struggling to hold back tears.
His teacher had announced a simple icebreaker: she’d call on them one by one and each student would say his or her favorite color. Hearing these instructions, my son looked over at me and smiled, with an enthusiasm that seems a little heartbreaking in retrospect. He raised his hand right away, virtually and physically. But his name didn’t get called. Ever. A technical snag kept his teacher from seeing several students. “Okay, I think that’s everybody,” she said brightly, moving on to the next activity. I looked at my son, who did that thing where you smile when you actually want to cry. I told him to unmute himself and tell his teacher that she skipped him, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Then he made eye contact with his mom and the first tear fell.
That established the basic routine of our family’s virtual-learning experience: tech issues followed by tears. In nearly every session, at least one child would encounter some obstacle—faulty headphones, faulty links, faulty parents—that prevented them from seeing their teacher or hearing their classmates or, worst of all, from being seen and heard themselves. Our fourth-grader did fine for the most part, but it became harder and harder to get the second-grader and kindergartener to the table each morning. They would sometimes throw themselves to the floor just before we logged on, refusing to get up. My son started yelling, “I hate virtual!” We all became sulky and irritable. I often entertained the idea of throwing myself to the floor and refusing to get up.
I found myself asking an increasing number of Why Questions: Why won’t you get off the floor? Why are you guys so loud? Why can’t y’all be pirates somewhere else? Why are you chewing on your brother’s headphones? Why are you naked? In David Gates’s novel Jernigan, the eponymous narrator asks his teenage son a question, then immediately reprimands himself: “Mistake: asking Why Questions was just a way of giving people shit.” That sentence always stuck with me, although it hasn’t prevented me from making the same mistake. None of my Why Questions improved my children’s behavior or our circumstances, of course. They simply demonstrated my own helplessness.