Parenting He’s Starting School at Home, But I’m Just Happy He’s Here
Nothing in my son’s life has gone according to plan. Why would school be any different?
Yesterday was my son’s first day of preschool. He dressed up in his favorite power outfit—a unicorn hoodie—and reluctantly posed for his first-day photo, squirming and excited. Then, finally, the big moment: meeting his classmates. “Fire truck!” he shouted, reaching toward the classmate holding the truck. But his fingers touched only glass. His class, of course, is virtual.
My son is used to touching glass when he reaches for other people. He spent the first nine weeks of his life in the hospital, first in an incubator and then in an open plastic box. His tiny translucent fingers would stretch toward me and I’d press my fingers against the plastic, hoping against reason they would connect. He was born ten weeks early, and he had open-heart surgery when he weighed only ten pounds. His birth didn’t go as planned, and neither did his toddlerhood; he spent his early years visiting specialists.
It wasn’t what I expected, but I reminded myself over and over again: I’m just happy he’s here . When I felt helpless or overwhelmed, I would close my eyes and imagine the future: my husband and I, spread out on tousled summertime picnic blankets, watching our baby taking unsteady steps in golden sunlight. The way he would look at me one day and whisper I love you back to me. And the first day of preschool, all of us full of frenetic energy and excitement and more than a little anxiety, reluctantly posing for photos on the front stoop before heading off to school.
This image held a particular charm for me because I never got a first day like that. I was homeschooled for almost my entire education. I did go to school for one year—eleventh grade—but if anyone in my family remembered to take a photo, it’s lost now. Much of my childhood was a little wild, running through the woods and fields with my eight siblings or nestling in the crooks of tree branches to read books. But the idea of attending class, of having structure and playtime and friends outside of my family, was wistfully appealing even then. I would balance on the swing in our backyard and pretend we were at recess, and soon I’d have homework to do. When all of your work is at home, the idea of homework is particularly funny.
Now, many years later, I would imagine scenes of classrooms and playtimes again, but this time my son would be in the center. To help me picture it, I would ask my husband and friends endless questions about their school experiences. What was your first day like? How did you know what to do? Were you scared? Bored? What was it like to make new friends?
In January of this year, I spent days researching and visiting preschools. It seems like another world, now, to think of tromping through classrooms where children were finishing up snacks and reading stories. I was looking for a school that would allow my son to have as much outside time as possible. I suppose I wanted, in some small way, to give him what I loved of my youth—the wildness, the freedom—while also giving him what I had craved—the structure, the excitement of the unknown, the friends and adventures not yet encountered.
I scoffed at schools that boasted of engaging kids in the “literary studies of Eric Carle,” but some part of me thrilled in it, too. I wanted my boy to luxuriate in normalcy as much as he could—even more so because neither he nor I had had much of a normal life so far. I saw school as a chance for him to move to the next level, beyond his identity as our fragile fighter. I was eager for him to be known by his name and his interests, not as the miracle baby. I chose a free-flowing school on a farm, where the children spent hours outdoors and the administration didn’t spend a lot of time on paperwork and rules.
I knew I couldn’t live through my son, but I was eager to watch him in this world of which I had never been a part. I couldn’t wait to see him thriving in an environment outside the close womb of our home and our little family.
You know where this story is going. None of this went according to plan, either.
I couldn’t wait to see him thriving in an environment outside the close womb of our home and our little family.
Even back in January, as I optimistically visited preschools, I was closely watching news out of China: A mystery virus that seemed to hit hard and fast, moving like wildfire. I had other concerns, though. The day the novel coronavirus was sequenced, on January 12, I was lying on a hospital bed, curled like a parenthesis around my son. He burned with a fever; he shook with a cough that sounded like cement mixed in his lungs; his oxygen levels dipped sporadically, inexplicably. A nasal swab was positive for RSV, a virus that can be deadly in young babies. My son, at nearly three, should have been beyond the danger zone, but his prematurity and preexisting conditions seemed to make his case more complicated. (Even now, I wonder: Could it have been both RSV and Covid-19? Would that explain why he was hit so hard, for so long?)
The episode was sobering. It took days for the doctors to release my son from the hospital, and weeks more until he was fully recovered. My husband and I realized that we weren’t out of the woods yet; we still needed to take extra-special care of our little boy. If a fairly common virus like this could lay him flat, what else was lurking around the next corner?
I kept watching for news from China, my unease growing as the Trump administration shifted blame and responsibility. We know now that the virus was here, likely killing people even back in January , but the delays in decisive action (or any effective action at all) allowed it to take root and flourish throughout the country. By the end of February, I knew my husband and I had to take measures on our own to protect our boy. We pulled him from daycare and went into strict lockdown, with my husband and I lucky enough to work from home. It was only for a few weeks, we said. Just until all of this was under control.
We read picture books over and over, trying to fill the days with a raucous young child who had been shaken from his routine. “The walls became the world all around,” we would read in Where the Wild Things Are , a sentence we began to understand in a new way. He would stand at our kitchen window and press his fingers against the glass, reaching out to distant, masked visitors. “I miss you!” he would shout, his little voice muffled by the barrier. I checked him for fevers. I scrubbed his hands. I thought, I’m just happy he’s here. Every measure we took was worth it—more than worth it—to keep him safe.
All parents worry about what will happen to their children, but our early experiences taught us to be on the safe side. We knew how hard it can be to sit by a hospital bedside with nothing but hope in our hearts. We knew that medical emergencies can and do happen even when you thought you were prepared. We didn’t want to take anything for granted.
As the months crept by, our inner world remained the same, like a time capsule, while the outside world morphed into something we couldn’t quite believe. Yet our lockdown life felt strangely familiar. I knew how to live my entire life at home, to conduct friendships and daily work at a distance; it was exactly like being homeschooled. I knew how to make my family my whole world, even if I’d never planned on doing it again.
As September neared, I tracked the ways the virus affects children and what that meant for school , and my dreams shrank bit by bit. Maybe he would have to enroll later than planned. Maybe he would have to go to a school with smaller classes. But the hard truth became clear: It was not yet safe for him to go to in-person classes. We don’t know when it will be safe. Even though rates of infection were falling in our community, we still didn’t know how the virus might affect our little preemie.
I made plans to homeschool; at least, I joked to myself, I knew how to do that. But when my son’s cousins started Zoom school, he writhed with jealousy. “I want Zoom school!” he said. I felt for him. I, too, was heartbroken that he wasn’t starting preschool as I’d dreamed, as we’d planned. It felt like a particularly jarring sacrifice in a year full of loss. What was this doing to him, locked up for so long with just his family? He deserves a bigger world, to touch what lies beyond the glass.
He deserves a bigger world, to touch what lies beyond the glass.
I walked by the hippie farm school I’d visited so many months before. The children played together outside, many of them with their masks pulled down or out of sight entirely. They did not offer any virtual lessons. I made a few hasty calls and interviewed the rule-abiding administrators I’d eschewed before, looking for a school erring on the safe side that would remain virtual as long as our county reported new cases of the virus.
Four days later, my son had his first lesson. And here’s the strange, sad, but rather comforting part: He has no idea that this isn’t normal. He doesn’t know that some kids go to school in person. Kids go to school via Zoom, he thinks; that’s how his cousins do it, and that’s how he wanted to do it, as well. His first day was exciting, no matter how it was conducted. I set him up in front of my laptop. We sat at a table in our backyard, wrapped in September green. I looked up at the sky. At least he was going to school outside, even if it wasn’t the way I’d planned. None of this has gone according to plan—but isn’t that the first lesson of being a parent?
The old reminder from his early days came back to mind, powering me forward. I’m just happy he’s here.