The last thing I thought I’d be when I grew up was a prison warden.
I knew the shutdowns were coming. My inbox was littered with “cancel,” “cancelled,” “will have to regretfully cancel.” Performances, practices, swim meets, festivals, parties, conferences: one after the other were dropping off my calendar like the rug had been pulled out from under our lives. No ballet, track, spring football, and the USA Swimming state meet for which The Golden Boy had been practicing 15 hours a week, suddenly didn’t exist. I wouldn’t be basking in the sun with a mango freeze at Jazz Fest. I wouldn’t add another Foo Fighters notch to my concert belt, and that dinner my husband and I had been planning at our favorite little french bistro wouldn’t happen either.
All of it kidnapped and the ransom: “Stay your ass home.”
So, it should have come as no surprise when that infamous email came from school -- the letter -- the one that shut it down for an entire flipping month, the one that stole the last, lingering crumb of normalcy, and the one that would make me a prison warden.
My mind quickly went to that “oh shit” place where it chases every crappy, annoying, and certain scenario. We’d have to share computers. I’d have to fix the printer. They’d ask me questions...so many questions. And I got really bummed because I had started the day so optimistic. I’d dropped my kids off at school with the advice to be the positive one in their class, to think about cancellations as postponements, and to daydream of all the fun we could fill our weekends with in spite of postponements. I was like Mrs. Freaking Rogers in the neighborhood, beaming with positivity. Then they cancelled school.
Screw positivity. Screw Mr. Rogers!
“Didja hear?” The Girl was exuberant when she waltzed home that afternoon. “School’s cancelled for a whole month!” Her eyes were wild with possibility.
“No, school has been moved home,” I corrected her. The words tasted like antifreeze. Not that I’ve ever consumed antifreeze, but I can imagine the taste is as constricting as the effect.
Middle-Man, who never fails to see the silver lining, collapsed on the couch and droned, “Ugh. We’re gonna have to teach Mom Math.”
I bobbed my head. The inevitability was factual and imminent.
The Golden Boy was more in line with The Girl. He strode in with his chest puffed out like he’d just won a prize fight.
“Woo-hoo! Let’s go!”
He starts swapping plans with his little bro about which game they’ll binge each day. His phone blows up with texts from his friends. The kid is grinning from ear to ear. Christmas had come early by way of a month of bullshittery with his buddies.
“Dude, you’ve still got school,” I said.
“Yeah, I know,” his eyes glued to his screen.
I said each word slowly, as if it were its own sentence.
“Yeah and as soon as I’m done...” he revved up. “Let’s GOOOOO!”
The kid was planning some big frat fest in my living room. I could see the potato chip bags and empty cups now. Within minutes he’d gone from Olympic athlete wannabe to a wannabe Fortnite record holder. His eyes would be glossy from hours of quick animation. He’d have a gut. His teeth would yellow. He’d need glasses and his thumbs, physical therapy.
Oh hell no!
“Wait!” I stopped his fantasy short. “Meaning....you will have a real school day. You will wake up. You will do work. You will read. You will do more work. And again, more work. You will not veg on my couch like some 13-year-old junkie, looking for his Fortnite tap.”
“Aw, c’mon, Mom.”
I gave the eyes, the stare that ends the conversation.
He stormed off upstairs, muttering something about prison. Prison came up again Sunday night when I didn’t extend their bedtime, and again on Monday morning when I woke them up early. I was their warden, apparently, but not so much feared as loathed. So there was no attempt to get on my good side. You know that song from Chicago, “When You’re Good to Mama, Mama’s Good to You?” It didn’t apply to this situation. However, when you’re bad to Mama on her first day of government-mandated homeschooling, apparently Mama’s a complete bitch, a lunatic, and a mad woman, making Mrs. Hannigan appear functional. At least she had the laundry done.
By 8:30 a.m., I contemplated the airport rules of ‘It’s totally okay to drink a beer at 9:00 a.m.’ But, I passed for a third cup of coffee. If their teachers could teach twenty-five, I could manage three.
By 9:30 a.m., I ordered gift cards for their teachers.
By 10:30 a.m., I sent a case of champagne and chocolates to their teachers’ houses.
And by 11:30 a.m., I submitted their teachers’ names to the Pope for sainthood.
Dear God! So many questions.
“Mom, how do you change the ‘n’ on the keyboard to a Spanish ‘n’?”
“Mom, what are we doing for P.E?”
What? I have to come up with that?
So much, “Mom, the internet is laggy!”
You know what’s laggy? It’s almost noon and I haven’t even started my work, the work that buys the shitty internet!
And so. Much. Math.
Why, God? What did I do to you? I wasn’t supposed to need Math. That’s precisely why I was a liberal arts major.
And then, they asked for lunch.
It hadn’t even occurred to me they’d need lunch.
“I’ve got lunchables in the fridge,” I muttered, not looking up from my laptop, which I’d just taken back from The Girl’s desk.
All three sets of eyebrows knitted as if on cue. I could sense them forming into one singular, manipulative eyebrow.
“We were kind of hoping you’d make us something.”
The Girl had volunteered as tribute, pressured to speak up probably because she’s little and when I’m not her teacher, cute.
At one o’clock, after I’d warmed up red beans and rice and chicken noodle soup and ordered them outside for a combo lunch and recess, I finally found a work rhythm. It didn’t last.
The Girl tiptoed in. She stared at me from across my desk. I tried to make her disappear, but she just stood there.
Finally she said, “I’m ready, Mommy.”
“Ready for what?”
“For my creative activity.”
Her eyes were round, and shiny, like that those cute little fuzzy creatures in Madagascar.
I let out a slow, defeated sigh.
When I’m not writing this blog or hustling this work, I’m a marketing consultant for a handful of local businesses. Four of them are restaurants, desperate to remain open during a pandemic. I was up to my strained eyeballs in limited menus, ads, new hours, and delivery resources. If they failed, the laggy internet would be our best problem.
“I don’t know, kid. Make a menu for a restaurant,” I waved her off in a tortured tone.
I mean, that’s where my mind was at. Just do whatever.
Yes, we had to hunker down, as meteorologists call it when a hurricane’s coming. Yes, we had to stop the spread of the virus. Yes, my mom, who lives with us, is vulnerable and I was relieved that mandates might spare her. It isn’t the flu or a cold. We were already overburdening the abilities of our hospitals. New Orleans became a hotspot overnight. There was a killer out there and all the social distancing was necessary.
But was homeschooling my kids going to be what killed me? It was only the first day and already I’d gone from Mommy to Mommy Dearest!
My mother wouldn’t have. Her friends wouldn’t have either. The mandate would have been a major disruption to her day, but she wouldn’t have interpreted the letter from school about distance learning as a demand she suddenly become Mary Freaking Poppins. We would have gone home with a stack of worksheets and a list of assignments. She would have put that stack on my desk and said, “Do your work.” She wouldn’t have put the pressure on herself to dream up creative activities, and I wouldn’t have dared to ask. I’d have pulled out my paints and painted a damn picture. After a lunch of what would likely have been a bologna sandwich and kool-aid, I’d have gone outside and made my own damn P.E. I would have known full well that it would be best for both of us to let her get through her day of mom stuff and soap operas before I asked for anything more than an explanation of the Magna Carta, to which her response would have been, “Look it up.” And I’d have marched my happy ass over to the dusty old encyclopedias in the family room and looked it up. My teachers wouldn’t have expected anything more either.
And you know what? Neither do our kids’ teachers today. Honestly, they don’t.
Turn off Pinterest, Mamas, if that’s not your thing. Read the letter from school again. Nowhere does it say that you have to study advanced math by night and lead your offspring pupils in a Monet inspired watercolor project by day. Nowhere does it say that you have to draw four squares on your driveway and lead your kids in a hearty game of foursquares for P.E. All of the lesson plans have been made for your kids, not you. In fact, the only mention of you is in regard to your questions and how to make it easier for you.
Homeschool moms, thank God for you, because the moms who are eating this up as an opportunity to embrace out-of-the-box quality time with their kids need your ideas. And good for them. The world needs jolliness. The rest of us moms, those of us who are desperately trying to juggle jobs with their kids’ papers and printouts littering our desks, obstructing us from our work, and those who aren’t working but have no desire whatsoever to win Homeschool Mom of the Year, need the pressure taken off. Our kids will be fine if their day doesn’t follow a strict, Super Nanny approved schedule. They will survive if recess involves sitting in a tree eating a lunchable. It would do them good to dream up their own creative activities. It would do us good to realize that they can do more for themselves than we give them credit for. My mom did and I still think she’s a better mother than I’ll ever be.
I know enough to know that my children will remember this time the way other generations remember World War II, 9/11, and the way folks in the South remember Hurricane Katrina. In every crisis, there are helpers. Mr. Rogers, who several paragraphs up I flipped off, famously said to look for the helpers. In looking, our kids feel safe. I’m not a doctor, or a nurse, or an EMT. I can’t sew masks for hospitals because the two times Mom tried to teach me to sew, I didn’t pay attention and her limit was two tries, not three. But I can help keep small businesses afloat, and I can help my children remember this bizarre month (or months) at home with strange nostalgia.
“Remember that month Mom was in charge of school and she lost her shit and called us all stupid?” they might say years from now on some family vacation just before they all leave the nest forever.
“Yeah, that was a great month,” another might say.
And I might ask, “Why?”
And you know how they will probably respond?
“Because Mom was exactly who she always was and Mom was exactly what we needed.”
Thirty minutes after I hit my low point, Fiona returned with a menu for the Cat Café. The chef’s special was catnip gumbo with a cold Corona beer. On the Kids’ Menu were kitty lunchables.
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