He is a bright boy, articulate and creative. He has a natural curiosity and a variety of interests. He loves to learn new things, but not in the traditional school setting. There he feels anxious and inadequate. In the classroom his attention wanes, his mind filled with worried about his ability to do a task before it has even been explained. He counts the days until Friday and on Sunday evenings his belly hurts. He wonders aloud if he’ll be well enough to go to school the next day. Negotiating and bargaining his school attendance are a part of his bedtime routine.
He is eight and a half and doesn’t care for school, I can’t say he ever has. Having his parents and his Nonna act as his teachers during this pandemic has only made him dislike school more. Online learning has proven challenging to say the least. As soon as the screen displays the list of the day’s assignments he panics, “It’s too much. I can’t do it.”
He is my grandson and I am a retired educator. I spend time breaking it down for him, explaining that we’ll do it chunks and he can take breaks when he needs them. I have experienced my share of students like him, kids who feel unsuccessful in school, or as he says, “I’m not smart like the other kids Nonna. Everyone is smarter than me.”
I tell him all the ways he is smart and he tells me all the ways he is not. We make a deal. He is not allowed to say bad things about himself. He goes silent. While he isn’t as difficult with me as he is with his mom, teaching him is still quite a challenge. Frustrated he is teary-eyed and cries, “I don’t get it!”
And I ask him, because I really want to know, “Do you cry at school when you don’t understand your teacher?”
His response surprises me, “Yes. But I cry into my hand so nobody can see me.”
He puts his head down and pulls in his shoulders. Making himself small he cups his hand over his eyes and demonstrates the way in which he hides his emotions. I want to cry, but I don’t. “I’m so sorry pal.“
He swallows hard and gives a little nod, relieved to have his feelings validated. I put my arms around him and we start again. I think to myself, that was a hard secret to tell. Took me until middle age to be that brave, that vulnerable.
Step by step, day by day, we work together. He reluctantly completes the work, and I give him the latitude to demonstrate his learning in less conventional ways. He absorbs the lessons and his confidence improves. He smiles now and then at his success and even expresses pride. I’m not naive, still I want to believe that our time together will prepare him for a successful return to the school setting. I want him to love school, to feel safe and happy there. I want this for all kids. It’s why I became an educator. The hard lesson of those twenty years in education was that I didn’t have that kind of power, no one does. It may be the reason I left that career. I had given it my whole heart and often felt like I failed the very kids I had hoped to save. And now I try to save my grandson.
Admittedly it is sometimes difficult to keep my patience in check as I work through morning lessons with him. Still I love our time together and consider myself fortunate to help him and to hopefully ease the stress on his family.
Tomorrow I’ll be sitting with my little guy at my dining room table, my laptop open to google classroom. He will fidget and squirm. He’ll ask me when we will be finished before we even begin. I’ll make my best guess, take a deep breath and we’ll do the hard work together. I’ll be thinking of all the parents doing the same thing, perhaps while trying to work from home, or manage a toddler and siblings in multiple grade levels, or support a child with learning disabilities. You are not alone.
Remember this . . . your relationship with your child is more important than any school lesson. Protect it. Even if it means putting the work aside, taking a breath and showing your children that their well-being comes first.