Mom Talk: Choosing Third Grade

1:00 pm
02/26/21

The push and pull of trying to work from home while helping a child navigate distance learning is something 2020/2021 parents know all too well (and, often, all too painfully). In today’s essay, Albuquerque, New Mexico-based writer and mother Christina Socorro Yovovich shares her experience of putting work on the back burner (sometimes) and embracing the unique chance of being a fly on the wall during her third grader’s school day.  

My son’s school had a materials pick-up this week, the day before third grade resumed after winter break. Materials pick-ups are the only time we see the teachers in person this year. We drive up to school, masked, and the masked teachers walk over to us, chat briefly, and hand over a packet of paper materials that will be used in school for the next two weeks. Usually all three of us—myself, my son, and my husband—go in the car together. It is a chance to get out of the house, and to see my son’s teachers in person. But yesterday, my husband went alone. I was waiting for an important delivery, and my son was engrossed in building a Lego castle. Eric, my husband, said at first the teacher didn’t recognize him, but then it clicked and she said, “Oh! Of course, normally I only see you on the bike.” It took a couple beats before Eric realized she meant the exercise bike in our den. Some mornings, while our son is starting his school day at his desk, Eric is finishing up a ride on the exercise bike. Truly, online school can be weird.

We’ve been lucky, luckier than most I think. My husband’s job can be done entirely from home, and we have a third bedroom that he uses as his office. My son does online school at a desk in our den, and he’s taken to it fairly well. I hear of other kids who absolutely hate online school, who approach each day with dread, and I know we’re lucky that my son seems to enjoy it. He misses being with other kids, and having school in person, but he’s happy enough to attend third grade each day in front of his Chromebook. He likes his teachers, and he enjoys trying to be a good student who gets all his work done.  

He also enjoys being independent, and for the most part I don’t have to nag him to get his asynchronous work done. He doesn’t want me involved, and he has figured out the best way to keep me out of things is to be on top of them himself. In theory, I have the space and the time to write during his school days. In practice, I’ve been having trouble. 

My own desk is in our living room. The common spaces stretch in a long line the length of our house. First the living room, then the dining room and kitchen, and then the den, all open to each other in a way which I usually find pleasant. But now that both school and work happen at home, I find the openness distracting. I can hear every word of my son’s school day, his teachers’ voices traveling all through the common spaces of the house. How to write, when third grade is going on right here in my house? Instead of working on my memoir manuscript I write emails, putter at the desk, do laundry. I picked up a new hobby last month, and have found that embroidery goes well with eavesdropping on third grade happenings.

My son picked up on the fact that I’m not writing. Before winter break he brought it up, wanted to know how my book was going. I was honest, told him I hadn’t worked on it since he started school. “How about you take your computer upstairs to your bedroom?” he suggested. “You could close the door and write there.” I had to admit the thought had never occurred to me. Later, a friend suggested online that I look into noise cancelling head phones, another thing that had never occurred to me. It became clear that my not-writing all semester was partially because of circumstance, yes, but also partially because I’d made a choice. I’d chosen third grade over working on my own work.

I’ve always longed for more of a window into my son’s school life. From the time he started preschool, he was reticent about his days. He made it clear that school was his business, his private business, and I was to stay out. I had to content myself with the occasional anecdote from his teachers, periodic parent conferences, and whatever tidbits my son chose to throw my way. I remember vividly one day in preschool, asking if anything funny had happened in school that day. “Yes!” my son said, “Nelson came over and wanted to play with me so I kicked him!” And I found myself wondering if I was better off not knowing anything after all.

As time went on I volunteered periodically in his various classrooms, which gave me a chance to observe school life for myself. In kindergarten, it allowed me to see how much trouble he had focusing on his work. Other kids would be halfway through an assignment, and he’d still be writing his name at the top of the page. He’d write a couple letters, then get distracted and have to be redirected back to the page, then write a couple more letters, and repeat. In first grade I was able to see for myself how his focus issues had improved. He’d write his name on the top of a page no problem, and then get to work. But I still wished I knew more. 

This year it is like that wish of mine has been granted in the worst possible way. Instead of being in the school building all day living his secret life that I only get occasional peeks at, my son spends his day at a desk in our den, in front of his Chromebook, his teachers’ voices carrying all over the first floor. I can hear every word they say, every word he says, every word his classmates say. And for all of his first semester, instead of figuring out ways for me not to hear all of this, I listened.

At the time, I saw this listening as an unfortunate, unavoidable circumstance. But now I’m seeing that in part, this listening was a choice. Finally I had a chance to see what his entire school day was like, and I took advantage of it. And I learned a lot, mostly about my son’s increasing independence and new desire to see himself as a good student. He’s gone from that kindergarten kid who lost track of writing his own name and once told me he didn’t need to learn to read because orchestra conductors (his life goal at the time) only read music, to a third grader who focuses on his Google Meet classes all the way through, and makes sure he keeps up with his work.

And, finally, I’ve learned that I don’t need to be there for it all. Third grade may be broadcast all over the first floor of the house, but I will sometimes go upstairs to my bedroom and close the door, or put on some noise canceling headphones, or simply tune it out. I used to love writing in coffeeshops, in part because tuning out the buzz of voices around me helped me to focus. It has only recently occurred to me I can tune out the sounds of third grade in the same way. Because my son deserves a private life at school, and because I deserve a private life of the mind as well.

I’ve started to settle into a pattern. Each day as third grade begins in my den, I settle at my desk in the living room with my first cup of coffee of the day. My son’s school day always begins with a 15-minute morning meeting, where they review what will happen that day and talk about anything the kids want to talk about. Sipping my coffee, I shamelessly eavesdrop. His teacher’s voice is always cheerful and the kids have such interesting things to say. Several classmates have new pandemic puppies in their house, and I always enjoy hearing updates about them. But then when the meeting ends, and the class begins English Language Arts, I open the file of what I’m working on that morning, I tune out the chatter, and I write.

Christina’s poetry has appeared in journals such as the Blue Mesa Review and River Styx. Her nonfiction has appeared in Mutha Magazine, Cagibi, The Hunger, and others. She is working on a memoir of her mental illness and parenting. She can be found on Twitter @CYovovich.

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