One exciting thing about being alive at this pivotal moment in history is that I’m constantly learning about strong opinions I didn’t previously know I had. Before mid-March 2020, if you’d asked me how I felt about videoconferencing, I’d have shrugged. It’s fine? Now I would have to amend that opinion slightly. It’s not fine. It’s horrible, a form of psychic torture, and I hate it so deeply that my hatred feels physical, like an allergic reaction.
This allergy isn’t caused by my adult professional experiences: I can force myself to participate in online panels and meetings and literary events (though I will not, I’m sorry, attend my extended family’s weekly Zoom happy hour). I can plan ahead and deal with the sucked-dry, brain-dead exhaustion that follows a Zoom-heavy day. My hatred comes, rather, from having coached my 5-year-old son Raffi through virtual schooling in the spring. And I’m dreading the fall, when his kindergarten class will be conducted at least partially, and possibly entirely, remotely. I’m eager to be proved wrong, but I suspect that for him and for my family, Zoom kindergarten might be worse than no school at all.
To say that virtual pre-K didn’t go well would be an understatement. On day one Raffi cried, screamed, hit his parents, hit his brother, broke things, and spat a cup of juice all over my laptop. The next day, my husband and I tried it again, and things went about the same way. But we kept trying, because we had no idea what else to do. School was a lifeline of normalcy that we were clinging to. Eventually, we scaled back to requiring that Raffi scrawl his name and a few letters and numbers before heading out to the park in the morning, and we sat down to the Zoom classes only if he seemed amenable. But they took so much out of him, out of all of us, even when they went okay. They seemed to use up all of his being-agreeable energy for the day, leaving us to deal with what remained.
After the school year ended, I could assess our failures from a slight distance. Our first mistake, I think, was expecting that Raffi would be as excited about online school as we were. We’d been so eager to see his wonderful teacher and his classmates that we hadn’t paused to think about how jarring it would be for Raffi, who had only recently learned that the people in the TV set weren’t tiny puppets. Previously, he’d experienced online interaction only via one-on-one FaceTime sessions with his patient, indulgent grandma and grandpa. So we had unrealistic expectations of Raffi’s ability to sit in front of a screen that wasn’t playing Wild Kratts.
Raffi had unrealistic expectations too: He was used to being able to talk to his classmates directly, to hug them and hold hands with them and fight with them. “X stepped on my hand on the playground on purpose,” he told us repeatedly that spring, not angrily but in the bemused tone of someone nurturing a grudge into full flower. This eventually became a tone of nostalgia: If only X would step on his hand again! He was used to being able to sing and speak in a chorus. He had no prior experience of muting himself. Arguably, this was a good time for him to learn that valuable skill. He would argue that it was not. He would argue, I’m pretty sure, about anything if he thought it might distract you from making him do something he didn’t want to do.
Raffi has matured somewhat since the spring—for instance, he has recently stopped making his little brother cry, because he understands that my husband and I will follow through on our threats of “If he cries, no Batman!” And I’m optimistic that, given a summer to prepare, rather than a handful of crisis-filled days, his teachers will have a better handle on what they’re hoping to achieve via video. For some kids, online education might be neutral or even good, and I know that teachers are giving their all to put these plans in place, despite the fact that it’s no one’s favorite way to teach or learn. I even think Raffi might be able to improve his digital etiquette—to get better at waiting his turn to speak without slamming the computer shut because he’s bored, to sit through a lesson without whining or screaming.
But is digital etiquette something I want Raffi to learn at age 5? He’ll have the rest of his life to figure out the niceties of interacting with people through a screen. I can’t accept that he should get acclimated to this form of school. I think about how drained and bad I feel after an online panel discussion, and I can’t help but extrapolate that to my kid’s malleable brain. I don’t think it’s going to cause him lasting damage—I know how adaptable kids are. I just hate to bear witness to his frustration and upset. I keep thinking there must be some solution I haven’t thought of yet.
When I imagine the worst-case scenario for Raffi and the fall, I see the kind of operatic tantrum that leaves the apartment trashed and everyone’s nerves shot, like what happened daily in the spring. When I imagine the best-case scenario, I see a kid who has fought and lost, who’s gritting his teeth through a required task because we’ve promised him fruit snacks—hardly horrifying, but definitely sad.
Even our worst-case scenario is a privileged one; a trashed apartment and frayed nerves are nothing in comparison with what other parents are about to undergo. My husband and I can work at home, and we can afford some assistance with child care. The huge number of parents who must work outside the home, parents who can’t afford any child care, and parents who don’t feel comfortable managing a sitter’s viral risk alongside their own are in a far worse situation. But no one’s situation is good. Kids like Raffi—who seem predisposed against online learning—are going to turn the fall into a battle. While I won’t go so far as to preemptively throw in the towel, I’m not sure how long or how hard I’m prepared to fight.