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Column: Here’s how my family handled the first week of no school. Hint: There were some slammed doors

Coronavirus home-schooling white board
Down came a painting, up went a white dry-erase board on the columnist’s living room wall outlining what home schooling in the time of coronavirus was supposed to look like. Things quickly fell apart.
(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

I started the week determined to become the perfect home-schooling parent. What could possibly go wrong? My great-niece, who lives with me, would work on her laptop. I would work on mine. We would break for lunch, then resume our work until 3 or so.

In preparation, because I am on top of this thing, I rearranged the living room to make it look more like a classroom. Down came a favorite painting. Up went a big, white dry-erase board. Here, on this blank slate, I would create the perfect home-school schedule.

“Your New Classroom,” I wrote in blue ink.

Under that, I wrote, “Read 20 minutes X 2.”

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Math Antics.”

“Social Studies.”

“Art + creative time.”

“TV, but only educational.”

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“Beach?” (Gotta have P.E.)

I keenly felt my responsibility to oversee the academic development of this child who moved in with me 14 months ago, lest she fall behind and become the kind of fifth-grader who hangs around the alley smoking, doesn’t get into the “right” middle school and is consigned to a life of minimum-wage work.

She had attended four schools in two years, so she needs stability. I will not allow this disruption to throw her off track. Getting her through fourth grade with flying colors will be my victory garden, my Rosie the Riveter moment, my Rocky on the steps.

What I forgot to factor in was that I am used to working alone, that she likes to sing at the top of her lungs while studying, and that I would have to do my best to keep her away from her 91-year-old great-grandfather, my father, who lives by himself a few steps from our apartment and pops in several times a day.

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My dad, who was once warned by the FBI to stop illegally downloading movies on the Pirate Bay, has been having some trouble remembering the finer points of the technology he had once mastered. I am his on-call IT person, which can be a bit stressful as I am hardly a techie.

Adding to our household’s natural tension, my father first reacted to the concept of social distancing as if had been foisted on him by terrorists rather than an insidious new virus.

“I’m not going to let this change the way I live my life!” he told me angrily when I handed him a big container of Clorox disinfecting wipes and begged him to stay away from Costco, his happy place.

A day later, he appeared on my doorstep, a convert to the new reality.

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“Don’t worry,” he said, handing me the newspaper. “I already wiped it down.”

“Don’t let him in!” shrieked the fourth-grader, who was lying on the couch with her Chromebook.

“Honey,” I told her, “we are protecting him from you, not the other way around.”

She seemed deflated, then went back to her laptop, where she was not watching “Math Antics,” or anything else remotely educational, but a YouTube series called “Toy School.” It’s nothing but a long commercial in a cutesy disguise. Every once in a while, she puts down her laptop and runs over to her birthday wish list to jot down another toy.

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Talk about insidious viruses.

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The Los Angeles Unified School District, second in size only to New York City’s, has about 734,000 students. Every single one of them is out of school right now.

I feel for all the parents whose jobs have suddenly disappeared, who are unable to help their children with homework, who may not have the electronic devices that allow us to stay connected through this dismal isolation.

Our household’s stress is relatively minor, a tiny drop of emotion in an ocean of inconvenience and peril for so many. I never forget how lucky we are. But that doesn’t mean things are easy.

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On the last day of school, Friday, March 13, my niece came home with a math workbook, a math packet, a social studies packet and an “independent study” packet.

Of course, I was immediately overwhelmed. I don’t remember how to add mixed fractions!

We communicate with my niece’s teacher every day, using the free app ClassDojo and Google Classroom. Ms. Johnson gives assignments and feedback. She posts videos, urges calm and is always there for us.

And L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner has robocalled us regularly with updates on school closures and the “grab-and-go” sites the district has set up around the city to provide two meals a day to the thousands of children who depend on their schools to feed them. Likewise, our principal calls with updates.

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The problem in our house — and I suspect we are not alone in this — is that I am not by nature a teacher, despite the fact that both of my parents were. My father taught American literature at Cal State Northridge; my mother was an itinerant teacher for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids in L.A. Unified. Both were wonderful with students.

Me? Well, I love my niece to pieces, but my two favorite times of day are school drop-off and bedtime.

Over the last week, we have had rip-roaring fights about how she spends her time. My perfect home-schooling schedule has fallen apart, as my work deadlines take precedence.

“Please don’t interrupt me until after I have filed my column,” I tell her.

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“I just need a toasted bagel with whipped cream cheese,” she says.

“We only have regular cream cheese,” I say.

“Well, could you please whip some?” she asks.

I feel the top of my head about to explode. Maybe “Toy School” is not so bad. Any school is better than no school, right?

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Like our perfect schedule, my longtime mantra, “love and patience,” has become a joke. Now, I silently repeat, “We will get through this. We must get through this.”

Two days ago, after a fight that ended with a house-rattling slammed door, my niece and I were talking, appropriately enough given current events, about heaven and hell.

I told her I don’t believe in either one.

She was scandalized.

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“Tell you what,” I said. “Why don’t you look up ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ on your Chromebook and write a few paragraphs about what you find?”

She took her laptop into the bedroom, and emerged an hour later, with two fat paragraphs. Well, with two long run-on sentences that I helped her break up.

“l think heaven is a wonderful place to go when you die, but I am not saying you will die soon,” she wrote. “I am just saying it would be a good place to go to.”

Hell, on the other hand, “is not beautiful. Let’s just say it is a very bad place. When you go to hell it feels like you’re dying again. It is like a death trap. … And hell is very dark.”

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So maybe I do have a little bit of the teacher gene after all.

But even if I don’t, I’m going to do my best to keep us out of the dark place. I’m going to relax, take a deep breath and cool it on the perfect school stuff.

Staying happy and healthy is more important than mastering mixed fractions. At least for now, and probably for always.


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