What I remember most, strangely, is having to buy my four-year-old child her own computer. All the other kids had gone to school weeks before, which had resulted in a run on cheap Chromebooks—not just the Wirecutter recommendation, but the runner-up, the runner-runner-up, and every competing recommendation on every site that recommended cheap Chromebooks for students. Every student in America was learning remotely, and they all immediately needed screens. I found a refurbished third-runner-up Chromebook at a local electronics concern and paid too much for it.1 Kina was ready for her first day of school.
We had thought a lot about where to send Kina for pre-kindergarten—toured the grounds, talked pedagogy, considered her friends from threes. At the end, we decided to send her to the school around the corner from us, which happens to be the kind of public school that parents from other neighborhoods attempt to bribe to get their kids into: an enormous gym, spacious classrooms, devoted teachers, and gardens. How lucky, we thought, to be able to walk Kina two blocks to the front door of a school in such high demand. How much easier my commute will be, said I! I should have been more careful with my wishes.
Instead, my commute was to the bedroom, hers to the couch. We tried to get Kina to sit in a chair, but the whole affair was strange enough, and so Kina attended school this entire year surrounded by cushions and plied with snacks. The rules, otherwise, were clear: You gotta get dressed, and you gotta pay attention. Class was fifteen minutes each morning, with interest supplements throughout the day (stuffie club, science club, movement club). Laurea and I studiously avoided the couch during those times, and we tried not to look Kina in the eye, lest—like a feral cat—she would stalk us. It took a few tries, but I set up her laptop so that she could launch Zoom on her own, and she quickly took to it. Starting Zoom isn’t the kind of thing you expect to say that your four year old does very naturally, but here we are.
After a few hectic episodes of getting Kina to the school-slash-couch by the eight-thirty Zoom, we agreed that school time would start at 8:28 AM, which we took to calling “eight two eight”. The minutes before sign-on every day gave us moments to pivot around and settle in: eight two five, eight two six, eight two seven. Within a couple of days, “two six” had become “twenty six”; telling time isn’t the kind of thing you expect to say that your four year old does very naturally, but, again, here we are. At eight two eight, Kina would punch the Zoom logo with her forefinger and stare at the waiting screen, white on black, that told us her teacher—Ms. Olenick—had not yet begun the meeting. Some seconds before eight thirty, the screen would turn white with black text and inform us that Ms. Olenick would admit us shortly. Then, on cue, the bell would ring,2 rectangles would flow in, and Kina would start her video and unmute to wish her teacher a chipper “good morning”. We are, if nothing else, a prompt family.
Singing was, in some ways, the greatest travesty. When you think of preschool, you think of kids arrayed in a loose circle on a colorful rug and singing happy little songs in unison as they wave their arms around in synchrony. The sound is archetypal. The problem with Zoom school is that there is no unison, no synchrony. On Kina’s very first day, the teachers sang a song together to welcome all the children in the four remote classes. The result was an example of the greatest shortcoming of real-time discussions over video—by the time others hear you open your mouth, you’ve already been speaking for two seconds. The teachers, and some forty-eight kids, attempted bravely to sing “Friends, Friends, 1, 2, 3 / All my friends are / Here with me” in lockstep, producing a gradually slowing and scattershot chorus of well-meaning musicians. Kina was baffled. The teachers did their best. Singing quickly became something the children did while muted. It was something nobody expected to have to figure out, but it was for the best.
Art worked, sometimes. Kina had no point of reference, and the art teacher had done her best to convey her tasks through (extremely well-produced) videos, but couldn’t be here with us to guide her student to a result suited to her skill. Some science projects landed well, and we ended up reproducing them time and time again—like the “potion” experiment involving food coloring, baking soda, and white vinegar. Letterforms were tough; the spirit was willing, but the flesh weak, and Kina’s relationship to wooden rods is now fraught at best. Few of our expectations—anybody’s, really—worked out as we expected, though all parties tried as hard as they could. Sometimes Kina wept from frustration, other days she picked at her toes; on many days—especially near the end of school—she paid rapt attention and complemented the other children. School was still school, even though it wasn’t. We did our best.
The best parts were the one-on-ones, uninterrupted fifteen-minute meetings with her two teachers, which Kina quickly commandeered as performance salons. Laurea and I would sit back as Kina danced her way through “Let It Go”, after which the teachers would clap; Kina, the consummate artist, would emerge after her performance for small talk and praise, which she adored. Eventually, she took over one-on-ones entirely, talking about most anything with her teachers on her cheap little Chromebook without her parents in the room at all. Through this, her teachers learned what she was thinking about, Kina explored her imagination, and we could see the little shaft of school-shaped light that shone in the darkness. Everybody, I think, found a little joy in that, and it was one moment every week in which we could watch Kina grow.
She grew up. She did her best, and everybody else too. We should all be proud.
I later learned that we could have just borrowed one from school.
I found myself wishing that Zoom’s “joined meeting” chime could be customized to be like a clanging school bell, if only because the standard doorbell sound reminded me too much of work.