Meredith C. Carroll: The thing they don’t tell parents
For a couple of decades I’ve had a recurring nightmare in which I’m days away from graduating college only to realize I forgot to attend all classes for the previous four years. I also have zero academic textbooks, I don’t know what courses I registered for or where any of the classrooms are located, and my dorm room has all the charm and ambience of a coffin.
Some form of that bad dream has been keeping me up in recent months, only instead of me and college, it’s my younger daughter and the fourth grade. She finishes elementary school in a couple of weeks and thanks to COVID-19, I have neither stepped foot into her classroom a single time this year nor have I been allowed past the school’s front doors. I don’t know what her desk looks like (other than messy, because I’m her mom and I know things) and I definitely couldn’t pick more than half of her classmates out of a lineup. Up until yesterday I’d met her teacher in person just once, and that was back in late August or early September, which in pandemic time is basically three years ago.
Of all the advice gifted to me when my older daughter was born nearly 13 years ago, only one friend suggested I think about carving out space in my life to volunteer in my children’s elementary school classes. (Another one suggested that I strongly consider private school if only because many of them discourage or specifically prohibit parental involvement on campus.)
After having my girls largely at home with me until they started kindergarten, I expected that I’d seen quite enough of them when their academic education began in earnest. Except I ended up volunteering to help my older daughter’s beloved kindergarten teacher for an hour every week with such tasks as quizzing small children with sticky faces and short attention spans on the spelling of high frequency words, and alphabetizing 11,496 worksheets into Friday folders (every week). It was an hour every week that brought me the kind of joy that I imagine grandparents get from seeing their grandchildren giggly and smelling of baby powder — and then get to pass them back to someone else as the mood and odors start souring.
I caught on early that being in a room where my kids are when I’m not the one in charge is among the secret delights of parenting. As soon as the school bell rings, the power dynamic shifts. I’m a fly on the wall who also sharpens pencils while my kids vie for their teacher’s attention and advocate for themselves among their peers, asserting independence not as my offspring but as their own human beings. I watch as they take a lot of what they’ve learned and picked up on at home and spin it through their own personalities. And sometimes I get the added bonus of seeing them scan the room, an extra twinkle of pride and exhilaration in their eyes when they land on me.
Then COVID-19 struck and it was immediately obvious to all of us that I am not the same as their teachers and they bear no resemblance to students or people when their classroom is located in their bedrooms upstairs at home. Neither nature nor nurture could have prepared me either for so much consecutive togetherness or having to prepare so many snacks. The pandemic stole so much, including the luxury of being a bystander and not a constant first responder in my children’s lives.
It’s why I begged and cajoled my fourth grader’s teacher into letting me be the parent chaperone for yesterday’s class bicycle rodeo. It was a largely ordinary ride from school to the park at the end of the trail by where I live: a few kids walked their bikes up the steeper hills, someone (everyone) cut the line, and while no one fell, one kid scratched their eye in an unfortunate encounter with a tree branch.
But what was utterly remarkable was that for the first time in 15 months, I got to see my youngest child among her teacher and classmates for the first time since she’s in fourth grade and the last time that she’s in elementary school. I’d been so worried that she didn’t finish third grade last year (thanks, COVID-19) and now in a few months she’s heading off to middle school. As it turns out, she grew up more at school this year than she’d let on at home.
The bike rodeo and picnic only lasted a few hours, but it nourished a piece of my parenting soul that I’ve been missing terribly. My daughter didn’t seek me out to play with her and her friends (which was fine by me because I prefer soccer games with actual rules), but her smile was genuine when I’d walk by to snap a photo or hold out my hand to provide a receptacle for her trash. She even looked over at me and winked when one of her friends named my presence as among the best parts of the day, which, of course, ended up being mine, too.
More at MeredithCarroll.com and on Twitter @MCCarroll.
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I find myself feeling overly tired these days, which I don’t think it’s simply a consequence of nearing the beginning of my seventh decade of existence on this planet.