Response to an Op-Ed

This blog post will be responding to an essay written by Deb Perelman on July 2nd for the New York Times. You can find it here.

High Expectations; Low Reality

It is hard to discredit what Deb Perelman gives as the problems of summer going into fall as a parent. For many however, the difficulty lies in the combination of the expectations of parenthood while also performing at work.

Only recently have we been given over to the helicopter parenting that we feel is required (and sometimes is) in order for our child to get ahead in the 21st century. One wonders if during the Blitz in World War II if those children were given any of the same “attention”? No. In our history of the industrial era, children either worked laboriously at some job that put them in jeopardy, or they were left to wander the streets with their friends, or if they were old enough, they had duties at home.

Perelman’s operating under the pretense that certain things just have to get done. We seem to be under the impression during the coronavirus that all must be maintained, even as she decries the fact that people expect all to be maintained. Does that make sense? It was hard enough to maintain reality without a crisis like this, but now that it is here, the expectation is to provide a world class education at a distance, to cook expensive and healthy meals despite logistical problems in food supplies, to continue our soaring productivity despite surges in unemployment, and to not get sick.

We’ve been carrying on the notion that coronavirus is like a war, and there’s a certain truth to that. We have an “enemy,” and in that fight we have been told to perform certain actions in order to stave off failure and win the day. Wear masks, wash your hands, socially distance. But in World War II, for example, the enemy was a cognitive planner, an Axis power that required our involvement, and when we went there was left plenty of open positions in manufacturing that women began to fill. We responded to the task at hand.

But this virus is not a cognitive planner. The virus is not interested in whether you support democracy or not. The virus does not care if you have children or if you have a job. It is indifferent to whether you stay at home or whether you go out. It only knows how to infect bodies.

Getting Back to Normal

Perelman is standing up for the family, because they need a “getting back to normal” but there has been no normal and there likely will not be one for a longer time than we think. In March as I taught at a distance, I was waiting for the pedal to let up. “We’ll go back at the end of the month,” I said.

And then April came and went.

And then May came and went.

Now it is early July and things do not seem better, they seem worse. I have long stopped predicting when the coronavirus pandemic will let up: the numbers are high and there is still a huge uninfected population just waiting to get it. They can go still higher.

To speak on Perelman’s desire here, she wants help for families from a local or national government, but she will not be getting one. If the past several months have made that clear, many of the efforts creatively or otherwise has been a genuine fear of economic stagnation, rather than the coronavirus. Little to no help is coming. So if you’re reading this, and you’re wondering what they will do, Congress may enact another stimulus payment, they may not. And they may wait until October or November to do this in order to literally cash in on your good graces when the voting booths open up.

It’s time to get creative. Abnormal situations require abnormal solutions.

Social distancing was that abnormal solution for a while, but instead of riding it out people got impatient and we ruined months of hard work.

So we need to think of other things. High School students teaching and being caretakers is not out of the question. Local communities will need to assess who has older and responsible kids as they babysit younger ones. To counter Perelman’s argument about day care, this keeps groups small while they can socially distance themselves and perhaps learn from older role models.

I’m sure there are plenty of caveats. High school students can be assholes, to be sure. They can be unreliable as well, though truth be told I see many high school students as a much better generation than I was or the ones before me. And there is plenty of evidence suggesting that they drink, do drugs, and have sex less than we did at their age.

But there are boons as well. Cut the kid a deal that offers far less money to him or her than day care would be (which has been notoriously high), but offer them also enough money to make the time highly worthwhile, in a way that would keep them working some minimum wage service level position. We won’t be able to claim that we are all winning, but this is all hardly a loss.

Is this the best solution? No. But it’s a buffer, a stop-gap, a way of thinking that gives us one of a handful of options for taking care of one another.

Kids Will Be Behind

This constant desire for things to be normal has taken such a deep bite out of us because we keep viewing some timeline of things that could have been. Perelman is worried about her children’s educational outcomes, as we all are, because of the lack of time spent in school.

And she is right about a great many of the families who suffer most. These are urban centers, or poorer districts, and those with starving children.

But I would caution people who believe that school is the place where wondrous education happens. It’s not. Compare our country to a country like Finland, who spends less time at the school itself, and have less homework, yet still have far greater educational outcomes. The only reason it seems that school is successful here is because it is moderately better than home.

As a teacher, I am going to say something that is pretty transgressive: school is not as great as people think. It could be better, and much of my demoralization with the practice has been seeing the ideal of what school could be and having to live the almost traumatizing reality. School works for all the things it doesn’t explicitly claim to provide. One of those is social time with peers. Another is self-actualization in extracurriculars like sports and arts. But it is hardly the paragon of learning that people think it is.

Perelman’s Op-Ed seems to think that we need to get students back into classrooms so they can get those moderately better outcomes and so parents can go back to work, which does not sound all too different than what local government entities and our national government is saying.

“Even those who found a short-term solution because they had the luxury to hit the pause button on their projects and careers this spring to manage the effects of the pandemic — predicated on the assumption that the fall would bring a return to school and child care — may now have no choice but to leave the work force. A friend just applied for a job and tells me she cannot even imagine how she would be able to take it if her children aren’t truly back in school.”

Perelman fluctuates between believing that school is a magic place where students receive some gold nugget of learning that they cannot get elsewhere, and “glorified babysitting” as fellow teachers lament.

It has been a travesty in this country’s history that we have convinced ourselves that much of school involves teaching concepts that we somehow could not learn on our own.

And in the past 150 years, we have deadened ourselves to the thrill of learning.

Frederick Douglass, a hero of American history, shocked people with his articulate speech. After Douglass was barred from further tutoring sessions, he took it upon himself as a young adult to teach himself to read from observing white children in the neighborhood.

Our nation’s history is full of stories about self-educated leaders.

This coronavirus reminds us that we need to give the power to learn back to people, and convince them of how dire this moment is. They will have to learn or die.

I have been teaching for eight years, and yet I am still shocked by the reticence of young people to read, and read deeply. It has been so well documented that reading is the closest thing we have to a magic bullet in education, you would think that parents would be buying Kindles and e-readers as fast as they can press the button on their Amazon app.

But adults do not read either.

It is the cheapest method by far for taking in information (and it is the most effective). Public libraries have taken remarkable steps during this time to have clean facilities. And they are free, provided by public taxpayer money.

Give your kid a library card and take away his Xbox. He’ll thank you later.

The Economic Hot Potato

“Allowing workplaces to reopen while schools, camps and day cares remain closed tells a generation of working parents that it’s fine if they lose their jobs, insurance and livelihoods in the process. It’s outrageous, and I fear if we don’t make the loudest amount of noise possible over this, we will be erased from the economy.”

Perelman’s final lines do address some deeply rooted questions about our country that have yet to be answered appropriately. The most pressing one being: who is the economy supposed to be for? The obvious answer we hope people say is, “the happiness of all mankind” but that is not quite true, is it?

The country has taken measures to let working families ride on the coattails of a dying middle class on the way up the elevator, and then the country threw them off as soon as it got ugly.

And she is right about the wealthy. Many (including the school I used to work for) are taking this opportunity to individualize risk. My charter school has given parents the right to choose whether to put their kid in school or not. It effectively wipes their hands of being the ones who kept childcare away from their families, while also blaming parents for bringing their children into a COVID-19 cesspool. It is easy to imagine every single parent bringing their kid to school, either thinking that they have no choice if they want to continue working, or on the blind hope that other parents wont make that choice and they can rely on a better education with fewer students. The rich students will excel in this environment, and the poor will have no real choice at all.

And if that every student comes back in August, and they mingle for eight hours each day, they will give the virus to each other. If we’re learning anything about this outbreak in June and July, it is that young people have no awareness of their risky behavior. They go to bars, or frat houses, or restaurants, and they give the virus to family members.

Do we really think that even younger students will be any better?

And do you plan on quarantining your son or daughter when they come home? If not, plan on getting the virus.

Our county in Texas has 75% of their beds used right now and zero in-person schooling has taken place. I am horrified of what hospitals will look like should we all go back.

So, everyone is passing a hot potato, and we’re wondering who will be stuck with it. Parents want to send their kids to school despite how disastrous it would be for virus spread. Teachers and health experts want better distance for personal and public safety. Local officials want businesses to open up in fear of economic meltdown, despite virus concerns.

As long as we continue to view this time as a step away from normal, this will feel like a continuous failure. We need to think a little bigger, while also accepting some facts. What are the essentials for parenting right now, and what can be dropped? How can I arrange childcare in a way that I am comfortable with and makes me solvent? Who is the economy for and how do we bring that back to the working parents? What is a valuable education and how do I provide that on the cheap?

I applaud Deb Perelman for her emotive outcry, but it is time to give up on our hopes for government intervention and perform the duties of society ourselves. And that starts with coming up with creative solutions that our representatives have been unable to pull off.

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