One year ago this month I picked up my four year old son from preschool and was told the children weren’t allowed to return by order of the Governor. For a week we played spring break with his little brother who was just shy of 2 years old. We built forts and had “snowball fights” with cotton balls and waited. After Shabbat I turned to my husband and said, “No one’s going back to school this year. I have to become our son’s teacher.” He agreed.
At that point we had been wrestling with the notion of sending our then-four year old back to preschool for another year. His teachers felt he needed “the gift of time” to adjust to a classroom setting. After all, his birthday was late and he’d had such a hard time adjusting to his new class in the beginning of the year. We had also just enrolled him in Occupational Therapy to help develop his fine motor skills. Unlike his classmates he wasn’t keen on writing, drawing, or cutting; things that would raise red flags with public school kindergarten admissions.
All of this had struck me as odd because the picture of my son that had been painted by his teachers stood in stark contrast to the child I knew in my heart. At home my son was mature, conversant, curious and outspoken. When I had mentioned homeschooling to his teacher in a previous conversation she quickly dismissed the idea, saying, “We can get things out of him that you can’t.” A private school admissions board had suggested he attend another year of preschool as well. Still, none of it sat quite right with me. Little did I know that my decision to take on homeschooling mid-year would quickly reveal why.
For a week I gave myself a crash-course in home education while playing up the notion of “Mommy School” to my son. I pulled out the oversized drawing pad and washable markers and drew up a calendar. I dug around and found American flags the boys could twirl while we said the Pledge of Allegiance. And I worked with his Occupational Therapist to schedule Zoom sessions during which I’d be her hands and she’d lead the way. On our first day of Mommy School we learned the Modeh Ani, recited the Pledge, and got to work learning addition with toy cars. When I handed him a pencil to write numbers down he looked up at me and said, “This is hard, can I be done now?”
“Honey,” I said, “I will never ask you to do anything you can’t do,” I explained, recalling to mind HaShem’s admonishment to Israel in D’varim 30:11 (“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach”). “You can do this,” I nudged, “just try.”
A month later his Occupational Therapist’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor when I showed her his handwriting. “I didn’t think he’d be picking up a pencil until at least September,” she responded in awe.
I had learned a lot in that first month of homeschooling. I knew how to deliver the basics in a fun fashion in about an hour every morning. I also caught on to the fact that when my son was confronted with an assignment he didn’t like, he’d quickly say, “This is too hard, can I be done now?” It was how he’d gotten out of several assignments in his old classroom. Now it was his turn to learn an important lesson: What had worked then did not work now.
This was the lesson of Covid in a nutshell. As I turned my dining room into a classroom and stocked up on rations at the food store I’d remind my husband we simply had to adjust to the new normal. If my grandmother could birth and raise two of her three babies on ration books during World War 2, I could handle homeschooling my kids. When I’d read stories of other parents having meltdowns over remote learning I pushed harder into becoming a better homeschooling teacher. When my son’s Occupational Therapist (OT) asked if I had everything from tongs to muffin tins to eye droppers laying around my locked-down house, I never said no. If I didn’t have what was needed, I found a way to improvise; a key word my mother, a professional nurse with ICU experience, had emphasized when I was growing up. While the world around me saw crisis in Covid, I saw opportunity. And I ran with it.
Last year my son was a chronic nail-biter who needed another year of preschool in the hopes he’d finally start using a pencil in class. Exactly one year later he’ll be finished his kindergarten curriculum. He’s reading, writing, and completing basic arithmetic problems with zeal. He’s cultivated wonderful relationships with his Occupational Therapist and his favorite teacher on Outschool. He’s also gone from ignoring his baby brother after a long, over-stimulating day in school to calling him his best friend. And he’s looking forward to meeting older children in our local nature school’s homeschool program, something he can join early because he’s completed his kindergarten studies ahead of schedule.
As it turns out, I’m the one who was able to “get things out” of my son that others could not. Within weeks of homeschooling my son was drawing, writing and using scissors. “You know I’m not a fan of homeschooling,” his OT remarked, “but what I’ve seen you two accomplish in such a short period of time has been great. This is clearly working for your son.”
It’s clearly working for all of us. Homeschooling has brought peace to our household. We’re no longer carrying the stresses brought on by trying to force my oldest son into a mold that clearly wasn’t designed for him. Our relationships with each other have grown stronger and our home has become a center for learning and growth, not just eating and sleeping between busy days. As it turns out my son did need the “gift of time”—time learning at home.