By Rabbi Amy Ross
“We should take pictures of all these and create an album to share,” my husband commented as we gingerly sidestepped more sidewalk chalk art during our daily walk around the neighborhood.
“Yeah, it’s inspirational.” I agreed distractedly. At that moment, it was hard to think about the scribblings of children on the sidewalk. I had just received the first set of emails, calls, texts, and posts from my children’s teachers, and was mentally cataloguing the overwhelming amount of tasks that needed to be accomplished. With two parents working full-time from home, two dogs who bark when the wind blows, spotty internet struggling to hang on through Zoom meetings, Microsoft Teams calls, YouTube Kids videos and FaceTime with family and friends, the thought of adding school to the mix almost broke me. And yet, isn’t the education and growth of my children the absolute most important thing on which to focus?
I tried giving myself a pep talk. How hard could this be? The teachers send lessons and I implement them. I can read. I can add, subtract, spell, and recount historical events. As a Rabbi Educator, I am certainly qualified. Yes, my children will be just fine. I can even throw in Jewish values, teach them chesed, kindness, and hakarat hatov, gratitude. They will learn and grow, not missing a beat, and return to school star pupils who are ready to skip two grades and join the honors program. I chuckled to myself and took a deep breath, drinking in the fresh air.
And then I started thinking logistics. Where will each kid work? With which device? When will I teach them how to click a mouse, navigate web pages, and find words in the dictionary? While they are showering? While I’m making breakfast? The days are so full already and the thought of adding one more thing (and no small thing!) brought me right back to stressed and overwhelmed. I sighed and looked down at the sidewalk.
IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY.
In bright, full, rainbow-colored, childlike letters were those words, “it’s going to be okay.” I stopped in my tracks. “You’re right,” I said to my husband. “We have to document this.” I took out my phone and snapped a picture.
That night after I put the kids to bed, cleaned the kitchen, and started the dishwasher for the millionth time that week, I began to look in earnest at my kids’ school assignments. They were just finishing a two-week spring break and this was not going to be an easy transition. My rule-following 8-year-old who thrives on structure would be working at home without her teacher and clear instructions. My 6-year-old knows something big is happening – people are getting sick and we have to stay home save walking the dogs – but doesn’t have any concrete understanding of the pandemic. She needs her parents’ attention and extra snuggles, not reading and spelling practice. How could I support my kids’ needs, and get them through homeschool while working full time and keeping house, much less help them grow into mensches, Jewish adults who are smart, resilient, and savvy?
Zeh yehiyeh b’seder. “It’s going to be okay.“
The words rang in my ears. I thought back to the days that had passed since the quarantine started. We cleaned our house – all four of us – and we made art projects for friends to hang in their homes. We drove around town, jamming to our favorite tunes, to drop Yemenite charoset, a Passover food, on the porches of several co-workers and friends and say a socially distanced hello to any who were available. We cooked dinner, began reading Harry Potter together, and sang our goodnight songs before bed each night. It is going to be okay, I realized. My children are learning home economics, art, music, Judaics, reading, and the value of supporting our community during hard times. Even without school assignments, we are teaching our kids – we are just teaching them different lessons.
I have been in education for over twenty years. The first rule teachers learn is “meet your students where they are.” Right now, where our students are is at home. Teachers know as well as we do that school is not the only place where children learn. Our students are at home – learning the values of shalom bayit, peace in the home, and kehillah kedoshah, holy community. They are learning how to entertain themselves, guide and manage their own learning, get along with and support siblings, take care of pets, video chat with friends, keep in touch with grandparents, and enjoy spending time with family, all while their little brains are working out what the world out there is like and why we can’t be in it.
Schoolwork is important. My children have done it on days they want to and not done it on some of the days they don’t. Are they progressing in the way they would be sitting in a classroom with their teachers and classmates? Of course not. But they are progressing. My younger daughter may not be mastering her spelling list, but she is learning the power of love and new ways to connect with family and friends. My older daughter may not be able to understand the directions of the science experiment, but she is learning how to help with household chores, and learning to navigate a world lacking the structure she craves. And, whenever it is that our children return to school, the teachers will do their jobs and meet them each where they are.
So, let’s keep living each day as it comes. Let’s keep pushing our children to do schoolwork when they can, be in virtual classrooms when they need to, and read for 30 minutes each day. Let’s keep snuggling and reassuring them, and remembering they are unique and each have their own needs. Let’s keep cooking with them, cleaning with them, playing with them, talking to them, and listening to them. And let’s keep teaching them what it means to support the community from afar. Let’s sit with them and make encouraging window signs, write letters and send homemade goodies and projects to friends and family, wave to neighbors on walks, and draw with our children on the sidewalk in bright, shining colors. Let’s keep teaching them life lessons and important values – our values – through our own examples and by taking just a bit of time each day to tell them how much we love them. And to remind them, and ourselves: Zeh yehiyeh b’seder. It’s going to be okay.
Rabbi Amy Ross, M.Ed., R.J.E. is the Director of Learning and Innovation at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, and on the national board of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators.