About fifteen years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I taught middle school, sixth and seventh grade English. It was a trip. I knew nothing about anything, let alone the thematic depth of The Red Badge of Courage or all the things a noun can be (person, place, idea, emotion, name, et cetera). I spent my first year, as I imagine many novice teachers do, just trying not to drown. Mostly, I was terrified that my students would find out I barely knew what I was teaching them. I’d stay up late the night before, read a few chapters ahead, and then put together a weekly assignment sheet that suggested an authority I did not have. The next day, we’d go over their homework, and I’d stand at the front of the class sweating through my blazer and praying my voice wouldn’t break. Then I’d preview the coming unit as if I really knew the future, feigning confidence, meaning to reassure them. I could see the path ahead absolutely, could see it all the way to its glorious end in June.
When the lockdown began in Oregon, when it became clear that my five-year-old daughter would not be returning to school for the year, I thought back to those early teaching experiences. It seemed I was again in the same boat: unprepared, ill-equipped, drowning in my own ineptitude. My only option was to do as I had done before, to try as hard as possible. For a while, I really did. I made a schedule that transitioned her, every thirty minutes, from “educational” iPad games, to some kind of art-making, to free play, to basic math, and so on. That lasted one week. My own work piled up (I’m fortunate to be an instructor at a university, and my teaching, like everyone else’s, has gone remote). I decided very quickly to scale back, to ask one thing of her a day. I decided we would try, for the first time, to read a chapter book together.
We didn’t choose Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for any other reason than it was already in our house. A friend had gifted my daughter the complete series for Christmas. My daughter can sound out words fairly well. The struggle is, of course, with patience, with seeing a new and unfamiliar term and not allowing its length and phonetic combinations to overwhelm her. The work is slow, and I remember from teaching middle school that I must marshal my own patience before I can help with hers.
Together, we attempt a chapter a day, often less. I ask her to read or sound out only four sentences during each session. If she does this, she earns a piece of sugarless gum as her prize, which she loves because she desperately wants to figure out how to blow bubbles. She can’t always sit still while I read, so she wanders about the room, touching scattered stuffed animals, rearranging LEGO sets, putting her model horses in a row and making them eat hay. I sometimes quiz her to see if she’s following along. She always is. She recalls everything without effort, and it startles me, the dynamism of her memory:
“Who’s Charles Wallace?” I ask.
“Meg’s little brother,” she replies.
“What does Meg’s mother do for a living?”
“She’s a scientist.”
“Where is their father?”
Link to the rest at The Paris Review