There was a time in my life somewhere between the day one of my elementary school teachers made it abundantly clear I would not be the Milwaukee Brewers’ starting shortstop when I reached adulthood and ultimately choosing print journalism as my career path when teaching sounded like a noble profession to pursue.
I could see myself in a high school classroom teaching U.S. History and making even the most mundane subjects interesting to developing teenage brains (“George Washington’s face was not the first one shown on one-dollar bills! It was Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War!”). Or maybe I would be a bespectacled college professor, decked out in a tweed sport jacket and breaking down every minute detail of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This morning, I am teaching a 14-year-old eighth grader with Autism the very basics of natural resources, simple addition and subtraction, and something called “News-2-You” where the first topic is March Madness, which is a painful reminder of how much I would like to be watching sports – any sport – right now. Perhaps even the 2006 Johnsonville Brat Eating World Championship on this thing called ESPN the Ocho.
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has thrust me into the role of homeschool teacher.
The schools in our state have been closed indefinitely, as is the case with districts across the nation. The students in our district will begin online learning sessions today. Meanwhile, Nolan will be at the kitchen table with me either sitting by or standing behind him and helping him maneuver through the sheets of paper containing the lessons his teacher did an amazing job of compiling in a very short amount of time.
He will get mad at me because I – gasp! – am asking him to do his schoolwork. He will stall by asking for food because he’s a teenager and it’s always eat o’clock somewhere. It’s possible he might soil himself once or twice in an attempt to get out of working, which won’t work. All it will do is add to the amount of laundry I need to do, but perhaps I could use that to my advantage with the math portion of his homework (“Nolan, we have one dirty shirt and one dirty pair of pants. We also have 25 other pieces of laundry. Twenty-five plus two is 27. Lesson two: Exactly how much laundry can we fit into a 3.5 cubic foot washing machine?”).
Homework as school-age kids and their parents know it is unfamiliar territory in our household. The closest thing to assignments Nolan’s teacher sends home nightly is a sheet that Cindy and I fill out telling her what he did after leaving school, what he ate for dinner, what time he went to sleep and woke up, and any other pertinent facts we think she needs to know. I think she’s come to see over the last three years that Nolan is a bright kid. However, he’s also nonverbal, and it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how much he knows. Almost every assignment he does in the classroom requires hand-over-hand assistance from the teacher or a paraprofessional. The tug-of-war in which I’m about to engage plays out almost every day at school.
Nolan’s teacher told me to just do what I can last Wednesday morning when I picked up some of his belongings before the school was locked up. I spent part of Sunday with the small forest of papers spread out on the couch trying to prepare what I would need for this morning. Nolan’s adaptive physical education teacher emailed to tell me he had sent Nolan a link to Google Classroom that he will use to post weekly phy-ed tasks. Trouble is, we’ve never needed to use Nolan’s school email address before, and we’re waiting to find out how to access it. Nolan’s speech teacher will start sending lesson plans to that email address next week once she returns from leave.
Is it time for recess yet?
Now, I volunteer in the fourth-grade corridor at one of the elementary schools in our city, and I think I hold my own working with nine- and 10-year-olds. I listen to them as they read to me. I usually can help with very basic science assignments without messing up. I try to impart my nearly five decades of wisdom when they get free choice time and play “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” on their Chromebooks (“Harrison Ford is the only actor not to play James Bond … AC/DC is the band from Australia.”). Basically, I’m there for support. The teachers are there to help these kids learn and reach their potential.
And I have to say that they – as well as countless other teachers in this country – do a damn fine job and make me glad I didn’t go down the education career path in college before ultimately realizing I should have made that left turn at “Change your major now!”
I remember my mom telling me that my grandfather sometimes would – how can I put this nicely? – question her level of intelligence when she struggled with her homework and he was trying to help her. While I obviously never would berate Nolan, who needs a tremendous level of support, sometimes there is impatience bubbling just below the surface in my body. That’s the last thing he needs from me now. I know he’s going to need to take sensory breaks from his work. Maybe he’ll let me join him.
Nolan really needs something as close to structure and normalcy that Cindy and I can give him now that there is an abundance of free time from 7:10 a.m., when the school bus typically pulls up in front of our house, to when I pick him up at 2:50 p.m. I have a feeling that May is the earliest the kids in our state will return to school. I think there’s a very strong possibility they won’t return to school until September. I worry about Nolan regressing, which is the last thing a kid who is entering high school in the fall needs.
So I’m likely taking a deep breath and preparing for the job that lies ahead as you read this this morning. I transcribe city government meetings and work from home, and my workload will shrink to almost nothing after this week because most of the boards, commissions, and committees have cancelled their meetings for the foreseeable future. I’m too old and uncoordinated to be the Brewers’ shortstop, and Major League Baseball is on hold. I left the newspaper industry nearly a decade ago, and there is no job to return to – not that I would want to do that, anyway.
I’m a teacher now. Please wish me luck and patience. I’m going to need them.