“Guess what animal I am?!?!” Lucia asks from the bathtub, wriggling her shoulders and maintaining eye contact.
“Does it live on land?” I ask.
“Does it live in the ocean?”
“Nooooooo,” she answers, her voice lifting, “It flies! And has a horn and cat paws.”
‘I’m a cat!” She giggles and throws her little body back in the tub. Water, finger toys, cups, soap, bubbles,splashing around. My daughter is six weeks away from turning 5. Nicknamed Red Bull by a friend, she has bright copper hair that now curls down her back. She is my irreverent tugboat, pulling me along.
I’m a public middle school teacher in Brooklyn. I teach English as a new language to migrant kids. My students are from more than seven countries, from Uzbekistan to Venezuela. English is their third, fourth, sometimes fifth language. They all speak Fortnight and tik tok and know the lyrics to Baby Shark. At the time of writing this, all public middle and high schools here are closed indefinitely.
At 8:30am I put on my headphones to start the school day. I teach online five days a week. I ask a screen of initials in primary coloured circles to turn on their cameras for a “wellness check.” Twenty faces appear with tired smiles, in pyjamas. “I am back in my country!” 12-year-old Damirjon shouts, “It is night here! This is my hedgehog!”
Remote learning is a challenge. It's like playing tennis on a space station. Weightless, you keep your eye on the ball and gracefully miss your target 90% of time, or not so gracefully, which leads to endless somersaults, tumbling with earth and stars as a backdrop. Most of the time it feels like an impossible task. Some of my students are taking care of their younger siblings. My student Firuza, aged 13, logs in from the back of her mom’s candy factory job. Bundled in coats and a mask, she sits in front of industrial refrigerator doors. Muhammadyusuf, aged 14, logs in from under blankets. When Heera, aged 14, hits unmute I hear a tidal wave of people talking, pans smashing, and babies crying. Khilola, aged 13, is taking Vitamin D supplements to make up for sunshine. Uriel, aged 12, goes outside once a week to shop. Gulnora, aged 12, drops her little sister and brother at primary school. Edwin, aged 13, has twelve other people living in his apartment and a school provided iPad that he shares with one of his brothers.
I’m teaching my students about sequence. We’re learning words like first, then, after, in addition, and then… how to use finally to introduce the culminating step. Covid has limited our sequences. The examples I use to identify how the phrases work seem archaic: "In the morning, first I have breakfast. Next, I brush my teeth. After that, I put clothes and shoes on. Finally, I walk to school." All of the kids miss in-person school. They miss wearing shoes and walking down the street. They miss seeing friends and enemies, raising their hand in class, getting in trouble and everything in between. They used to sneak peeks at their phone, now they are glued to screens. Covid has limited their routines. "First, I wake up. Next, I turn on my computer. After that, I go back to bed. Then..." All of our sequences are now structured between walls with a virus outside. Last March seems like one hundred years ago, and I’m an adult. I wonder how it must feel for an adolescent for whom a week can be a month, a month a year, a forty-two-minute class a lifetime.
My Red Bull goes to preschool two to three days a week. She wears a mask featuring unicorns jumping over clouds, and stands six feet apart from the five other kids. On days when she is home, she starts her curriculum on construction paper-scissors-glue-puffballs art, playing hide and seek, climbing, cooking with ‘the Werewolf’ (her father, Miguel). Half the week, we have a full house with my twelve-year-old stepson, Oliver. Oliver is half Puerto Rican, as is Lucia, and half Korean. He is a stunner of a kid with long lanky legs and equally cool black lanky hair that falls over his eyes. He is my key into American middle school culture. From Oliver I learn what's basic, what's corny, which anime is the coolest and that kids are still scared of clowns. Lucia is really into being "a little sister" and will announce proudly to friends, family, and the guy behind the bodega counter, "I have a big brother and I love to steal his stuff!" When she was a year old she enjoyed pulling his hair and sticking her fingers in his ears. "Ow!" he'd cry, which coined him his nickname "Owie!"
At about 1pm, my Red Bull wants company. She calls me on her pretend phone while bouncing on the bed behind me. “Hello Poopy mommy.” I always pick up. “Hello Squirrel Buttsss.” I pretend she’s in college “How’s college Lucia? Do you like your classes? Can I come visit you?”
At 2:20pm, my workday is done. I spin my chair around to check what’s transpired in the apartment. The mess is outstanding. There’s a line of stuffed animals, all some variant of unicorn and dressed in baby clothes.There are cereal boxes and bowls on the ground. There is yogurt and food dye. A plastic bear-shaped honey container lies on its side begging for mercy. The mess is breathtaking. Frozen January wind crackles empty branches outside. The cat bounces up and down, scratching at the light reflected on the white wooden dresser.
We race into a quick bundling of sweaters and jackets, boots and gloves, and mask-up. Some afternoons, I drive and pick up laptops, computers, iPads and tablets that my neighbors in Park Slope have donated or purchased, and take them to my school in Kensington, Brooklyn. My school, built in the 1960s, is made of brick and is the size of a city block. Teachers use long poles with hooks at the end to open the tall windows, like masts of a ship. Because it is a Title 1 school, meaning the majority of the student body qualify as low-income, my school receives extra funding to provide free meals for all students. Even while closed, the school serves around 900 meals a day to students and their families. To enrol in public school, families only need to show proof that their child has had childhood vaccinations. They do not need to show legal immigration status or ID. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is not allowed to enter public school buildings, and teachers and administrators are not mandated to report a students' immigration or legal status. So, when a student tells they're scared of getting deported, I can assure them that they are safe at school. I’m not going to tell anyone but let me know if your family needs help, I say.
By 5pm we are home for sunset. Wine is opened, either Miguel or I cook, or finish what the other started. In keeping to a routine formed during peak covid, I go to the roof to have quick Zoom calls with friends. I have a view of Manhattan from the rooftop and Prospect Park on the other side. I hear a hawk call from the park. I hear ambulance sirens rushing to the Methodist Hospital. I see friends' faces appear in boxes and call out “heyyyyyy.”
Frozen fingers, frozen toes, frozen cheeks, I step back inside to chat with Miguel. We bring up, and then skirt, serious subjects before they can land and create suction, whirlpooling him and I into our favourite state of intense discussion. I have trouble balancing talking and interrupting. It’s a thing. Keep it light, keep it tight.
At 8:30pm, Red Bull is contained in her room and readying her horses, stuffies and dolls for bed. Oliver is making Anime collages or shout-laughing with friends on Fortnight, and Werewolf cleans the kitchen and living room.
A light switches off, a lamp turns on. She lies down next to me in her little bed. I assure Lucia’s small face that monsters aren’t real, that witches are good, that we’re safe from the virus. She closes her eyes, and I close mine. We are nose to nose. I wish her good dreams.
VANESSA SPARLING lives in Brooklyn, NY. She currently works for the New York City Department of Education as a middle school ENL (English as a New Language) teacher. Before now, Vanessa worked for over 15 years in downtown theatre and got to cry and laugh with some really great people. She used to be the General Manager at SITI Company and the Associate Producer at the Ohio Theatre. She is currently on the Board of the New Ohio Theatre and The Super Geographics. She is originally from the Monterey Bay in California and dreams often of sea lions and cold summer fog.
(Image credit: 'Simpatía', by Remedios Varo, 1995. Image courtesy of WikiArt, all rights reserved.)