What My Kids Learned When They Weren’t in School

A young black boy wearing a mask raises his fist in front of a line of police officers using riot shields
Elijah Nouvelage / Getty

In mid-March, my two middle-school-aged daughters were sent home from school. They didn’t know that their school year was essentially at an end, or that they would not see some of their friends for a long time. They didn’t know that they wouldn’t sit in a classroom for at least six months. They didn’t know that their lives would be changed for even longer.

Their lessons continued online, but the quality fell. The girls found them uninteresting. They tired of staring at a screen. They went from dealing with zero emails a day to dealing with 50. They tried to learn how to organize their days like business executives at ages 11 and 14. Their math skills faltered. Their Spanish vocabulary dried up. Their knowledge of science devolved. Their eagerness for standardized tests was unchanged, so at least one thing remained the same.

My daughters’ public school is excellent, and their teachers have done their best with the situation, but nonetheless, if they go back in the fall, they will be at least a quarter behind on the curriculum. Some of their classmates may be worse off—a few students never logged on after their school moved online.

But lately, I have been trying to look on the bright side. After watching my daughters during these months at home, I am less worried about their missed classroom time. There are things they’ve learned since school was canceled—since life was canceled—that they couldn’t have learned any other way.

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One of the first things they learned was to appreciate friends. In school, they saw their friends every day. After the pandemic hit our city, friends became images or words on a screen. My daughters had begun to build a social world around themselves, and now that world is gone. They learned, as millions of kids across the world, in places less fortunate than ours, know: However bad going to school is, it’s better than having no school at all.

They learned that everything can change in an instant. They learned about viruses. They learned that when people are afraid, they lash out. They learned that, even during a global pandemic, people can be brave and kind. They learned to appreciate our library. They learned that going grocery shopping is a privilege. They learned that the world is fragile. They learned that in spite of that fragility, life goes on.

They learned that more than one crisis can happen at a time. The day after George Floyd was killed by a police officer, we drove to a rally at the site of his death, not far from our home in Minneapolis. The girls learned about racism in our city, in American history, and in American culture (and they already knew more than I did at their age). They learned that the area where we live was once designated “whites only,” and that in many ways it still is. They learned that the world can be a terrible, unfair, dangerous place. But they also learned that many of us want it to be better. The sign my 11-year-old brought to the rally, which she made herself, read: We Are Better Than This.

The next day, the wind blew smoke through our house, and they learned what it smells like when a city burns. When our post office was destroyed, they learned to appreciate getting mail. When protesters emptied the Target and the grocery store we shop at, they learned about looting. In those tense days, they learned what it feels like when things are spiraling out of control.

The day after our police station fell, we drove down to Lake Street to help clean up some of the businesses that had been damaged or destroyed. There, they learned what it feels like to see a place they know become unrecognizable overnight. All down the street were hundreds of people cleaning up broken glass and debris. They learned, as a wise man once said, to look for the helpers. They learned to be the helpers.

The next day, the city told us to remove anything flammable from our lawns, hide our trash cans, and pack a “to-go bag.” More than 7,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen were on their way to the city. Sitting in our living room, we watched neighbor after neighbor pack their car and leave town before the freeways closed and curfew began. The four of us—me, my wife, and our daughters—tried to decide if we should leave. Our youngest daughter went upstairs, curled up in her bed, and cried, because if we left, all her stuffed animals might burn. For the second time this year, the girls learned what it’s like to live in a world you could never have imagined the week before.

We stayed. That night, the girls learned what it sounds like to have helicopters and predator drones fly over your house. They learned to distinguish the sounds of gunshots and explosions in the distance. Patrolling our block at night with the others who stayed, I learned the names of neighbors I’d never met.

Over the next few days, things settled down. Fires were put out. Protests continued peacefully, spreading across the country and the world. Camera crews descended on the corner near our house where it all started. This time seemed different from protests that had come before. For once, it felt like minds had started to change and voices were finally being heard. My daughters learned that change is possible.

Life settled into a kind of rhythm again. But when we tried to return to our pandemic routine, it wasn’t easy. Something felt changed. We couldn’t put our finger on what it was. It didn’t feel like the end of the world anymore. Somehow, it felt like a beginning.

The last quarter of the school year wasn’t wasted time. When our girls return to school—when the pandemic is over—they will be behind academically. But they will also have learned things they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. They learned how to live through a crisis. They learned that in coming together, people can’t be ignored. When the next crisis comes, they will be far more prepared than they were before. And when they do go back to school, in many ways they will be far ahead.