Author Angela Garbes On The Intersection Of Mothering & Virtual Learning

Author Angela Garbes is sharing how virtual learning has been for her kindergartner, and for herself.

This post was originally featured on the blog of writer and author, Angela Garbes. You can purchase her phenomenal book, Like a Mother, wherever books are sold. And you can sign up for her newsletter (which we highly recommend) here

In the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, I found myself absentmindedly singing the word "kindergarten" in a low baritone growl, stretching it into a dramatic, wannabe operatic, eight syllables: "kii-iiiiin-kin-der-gaa-aaaa-ar-ten." It surfaced from some long forgotten memory deep in my brain, and I kept asking Will, "Do you know this song? Tell me you know this song. I think it came out when we were in high school." He had no idea what I was talking about. 

A little while ago, it came to me:"Kindergarten" by Faith No More. (From, Google tells me, the album Angel Dust,released in 1992.) I am certain it was put on a mix tape made by my high school boyfriend Jeff Phillips, though the tape (which I probably played 1000x) is long gone. I just listened to the song for the first time in almost 30 years and I'm kind of into it? There's a lot of aggressive guitar and Mike Patton (he has the range) scream-speak-quasi-rapping the opening lyrics, which gave me my first deep laugh in a while: Return to my own vomit like a dog. My feelings exactly!

Virtual kindergarten is.....a journey. Some days it feels sweet and important, other days absurd and possibly pointless. I'm grateful to Noli's teacher, whose enthusiasm is downright heroic—enough to be felt through the public school-issued iPad and heard in multiple rooms of the house. I try to stay positive (while trying to work three feet away). There are a lot of breaks, including a daily morning one (okay technically it is independent learning and recess, back-to-back) that lasts close to two hours. 

On Wednesdays (early dismissal), she is done with all synchronous/live group learning at 9:40 a.m. Sorry to make this about me, but so far the one constant of virtual kindergarten is that I am unable to do anything for longer than 30 minutes at a time, or whenever the next synchronous session is done, whichever comes first.

Yesterday morning, I was trolled by my Inbox. I get a daily newsletter from The Creative Independent, and this one, titled "On how to cultivate focus," was an interview with novelist Lillian Li. When asked how she deals with online distractions such as social media and email (no mention of kindergarten), she responded:

I heard that to get into focus, it takes about 15 minutes for you to access that space, and then less than a second to get out of it. Once I got that ratio into my mind—this idea that it takes a really long time to cultivate the kind of focus that’s necessary to dig deep into a creative work, and you can send it all tumbling within a second...

I'll stop there, because that's when I stopped reading. You get the idea.

To be sure, Noli is learning. (At our first family conference with her teacher, she said her goal this year is to become a better reader!) But at this point there is not a lot of independence going on. For solo literacy time, her teacher suggests twenty minutes of reading, ten minutes by herself and ten minutes with a grownup. This is all great in theory, but when you can't tell time yet (and sincerely perceive five minutes to be foreeeeeeeeever), someone's gotta be in the room with you. 

I'm considered getting her a little kitchen timer, which she'll figure out easily, just as she's figured out muting and unmuting herself on Microsoft Teams. Surely it's only a matter of time before she masters the iPad; the SeeSaw app; the virtual Art, S.T.E.A.M., and Music classrooms with endless YouTube links, then fully fuses with her device the way I must seem to be fused with my phone, return to my own vomit like a dog.

Naturally, all this schooling/living/working/eating/recreating together under one roof has brought us physically closer. For Noli, who on the regular whispers things into my ear that indicate she would return to my uterus if I let her—"I wish I could sleep on top of you every night" is a recent one—this is fine, but for me it is exasperating. 

Today, as I made us frozen dumplings on our 45-minute lunch break, she came over and said, "And after we eat, maybe you want to read some Baby-Sitters Club with me before Math?" Over lunch, I calmly explained that while she is always welcome to ask me to do things with her, I am already giving her a lot of my time, and I may not always have the energy or desire to give more. It is not a great feeling to say this to your child, but the alternative feels worse. (To write this, I had to tell her point blank that I was choosing time for myself over time with her. She seemed fine, though I did promise to read with her tomorrow morning.)

I do love reading with her, though—the way her voice lights up confidently for certain words, the slow sounding of vowels and consonants, the ways she stretches one- and two-syllable words into crude music and poetry, "wu-aaaaah-teh-errrrrrr," "beh-he-cauuuuuu-sssss-EH." Sometimes I think I can hear little fireworks going off in her brain. 

Already she likes to put on a headlamp and crawl under the stairs with her book, spread her long tan legs out, cross her big feet, and read. I can see that when she really gets going on her own we will lose her for hours at a time like this. I can't wait. 


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