Column: The pandemic made me repeat fourth grade. Trust me, it was the weirdest school year ever
I finished fourth grade on Friday.
I hadn’t meant to attend elementary school. I mean, I already graduated from fourth grade about a billion years ago, when I was a kid in Northridge.
But for the past three months, like a lot of other parents and guardians across America, I’ve been sharing my workspace with a student. That has meant that when her 90-minute Zoom class began every weekday at 8:30 a.m., like it or not, I’ve been back in school.
The fourth-grade class taught by Andrea Johnson at Westminster Elementary School in Venice has 21 students, and every day during the Zoom era, at least 15 of them would show up for class. Mine attended every day via her laptop, although sometimes I would look up and see her surreptitiously holding the iPad in her lap, watching TikTok videos.
I am not going to name any of the children here because I was technically eavesdropping. But it was such a privilege to be a fly on the wall of a Los Angeles public school fourth-grade classroom with an excellent teacher, even during a moment of maximum disruption and stress. At this age, kids are on the cusp of adolescence but not so self-conscious that they can’t be themselves. I was getting a glimpse of a delightful, frustrating and strange new world.
It all seemed daunting at first. Days after schools closed in mid-March, Ms. Johnson had to master a new technology. The children had to get used to seeing her only onscreen, and to turning in their work by photographing it and posting it on Class Dojo, the app she used to communicate with students and parents. Parents had to find a way not to lose their minds.
Almost every morning began as a herding exercise:
Ms. Johnson: “Please stop that! Please stop that! This is a classroom. You can’t just get up and walk away. When I call on you, you need to be there. Unmute yourself! Do not leave the class. Do. Not. Leave. The. Class.”
Student: “Ms. Johnson, I can barely hear you because someone in the background is unmuted and their parents are talking!”
Most kids soon realized they could change their screen names. One called himself “Midas the Gucci Touch.” My child was “Wolf Queen.”
“Who is Chicken McNuggets?” Ms. Johnson asked one day.
The class wise guy changed his name to “Connecting…”
“Oh my God,” said Ms. Johnson one day in exasperation, “am I losing my mind?”
I learned a lot of things eavesdropping on the fourth grade this spring.
“Ms. Johnson, did you know there’s a jellyfish that’s immortal?” asked one very science-minded boy. “Seriously.” (Yes, there really is. Or at least pretty close to it.)
I learned that a Lincoln penny weighs 2.5 grams and that a kilogram is about six apples.
We studied the Gold Rush, the history of African-Americans in the United States, and shoguns and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
One Friday morning, kids dressed as Gold Rush characters. One was a miner called Billy Bob. Mine was Aunt Arabella, a character in “By the Great Horn Spoon,” a novel they’d been reading. Ms. Johnson, in a stovepipe hat, was Sam Brannan, California’s first gold rush millionaire (and scoundrel). She had enlisted her colleagues as special guests.
One teacher, Chris Heltai, who is also an actor, played Pitch Pine Billy, a miner crossed by Brannan, who sold him defective picks and shovels: “You ain’t nothing but a smooth-talkin’ cur, taking advantage of poor folk. You’re a crook, nothing but!”
They finished the morning with a chorus of “Oh, My Darling Clementine.”
Another morning, the class watched a video of a Japanese-American man who had been interned at Manzanar with his parents when he was 9. He was interviewed by a 9-year-old Japanese-American boy. It dawns on the child that the internment was an example of racism when the older man says that no German-Americans were interned, even though the country was at war with Germany too. (In fact, some German nationals and German-Americans were detained during the war and some were interned. But it was a small number compared to the large scale of the Japanese-American internment.)
“My parents were very angry,” the man said. “We lost our business, our home, the car.”
“Did they ever apologize?” asked the boy.
“They did. President Reagan signed a bill. They gave everyone $20,000.”
“Could it happen again?”
“Yes,” the man replied. “Have you heard about what’s happening with Muslims?”
“I’m speechless,” said the boy.
One morning in early May, just before class began, a boy asked, “Ms. Johnson, did you see that guy that died when the cop had his leg on his neck? What if that was me?”
“It was awful,” she replied. “The whole thing was awful. Did you know he was handcuffed?”
“I would have grabbed that gun and gone pop, pop, pop, pop,” said the boy. “Pop, pop, pop.”
Ms. Johnson shared a story about her grandfather, Wade Jones, the principal of a Black high school in Navasota, Texas. He was a community leader who urged his fellow Black citizens to vote.
“The white people told him, ‘Jones, you’re not going to vote.’ They told him they were going to come and get him. He had to sit on his porch with his rifle and wait for them. Then a white guy came and sat on the porch with him. Things like that were normal.”
The three-month distance learning experiment had mixed results.
“It wasn’t perfect, frankly, but I think it was more successful than I thought it would be,” Ms. Johnson said.
Though she was only asked to teach an hour a day, she decided to increase the class time to 90 minutes. “I would have gone longer,” she said, “but I was losing them. I only have so much control.”
Some kids virtually dropped out, and some did better than she expected, said Ms. Johnson, because they were intrinsically motivated and/or their parents really pushed them. She reached out continually to some parents, pleading with them to encourage their kids to come to class. I could tell she was anguished about the missing kids; she even asked students to contact peers who weren’t showing up.
“It’s odd, ending this way,” said Ms. Johnson, 64, who holds an MBA and is retiring after 16 years of teaching. “I will really miss the kids. I would have wished for closure.”
On Friday, for an end-of-year treat, the kids got to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s great animated film “Spirited Away.”
My 10-year-old took her headphones off at the end, and I listened as the children signed off for whatever warped version of summer awaits them.
It was just like the end of “Charlotte’s Web,” when all the baby spiders float away on a warm spring wind.
“Goodbye!” the children called in their little kid voices. “Goodbye!” “Goodbye!”
Fifth grade awaits.
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