First grade, pandemic style

By Susan Estrich
Posted3/17/2021 1:00 AM

My dearest friend has grandchildren. We are giving her daughter a day off, which is to say, a day to work nonstop at only one job.

School starts at 9 a.m.: fourth grade at the dining room table, first grade upstairs with me.


I'm a pro. I took on 140 testosterone-fueled first-year law students when I was literally three years older than them. I've taught six screens at once. I expect I'll be able to keep up with today's lesson and maybe write a Supreme Court brief or something at the same time.

There are 10 6-year-olds, a teacher and an aide, with faces coming on and off camera.

I start to write something. This. Yesterday.

Break. It can't be break yet, because it isn't; it's sister's break.

We are at my house, which has the huge and almost unprecedented advantage of two different places for two different children to work in the same house.

But it only has one kitchen, which is where the juice and chips are, where there are choices to be made, with a clock ticking that will call time with only minutes to spare before another break upstairs.

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Leave 6-year-old; join 10-year-old. Controlling these kids is harder. Their skills are all over the map. No signs of grown-ups. "Turn on your camera" -- these 10-year-olds understand this system better than I do.

And you can't give the teachers control of the cameras without raising a host of privacy and constitutional issues.

I've talked to blank screens for much of my life in television, but at least you could pretend someone was there.

The 10-year-olds could break my back any day. Back to the 6-year-olds.

The teacher has one-on-one time with the 6-year-old. There were issues with her dad. Is that why? It's a strange conversation to watch if you've seen any of the riveting documentary on Woody Allen. The teacher asks where her mother and father are from, and I think of how different those questions are when asked here and now. El Salvador and Guatemala, the 6-year-old replies, and even though I know Joe Biden is president, I can't help whispering that she was born in the USA. And what languages does she speak, and who does she speak them with? I have to remind myself that Merrick Garland is U.S. attorney general and her mother has a master's degree in public health, and the heck with a bad dad.

But it's hard not to think of all the harried mothers out there with two kids side by side in front of computers, talking to each other, talking to the class, talking to no one, taking a break, looking for something, going to the bathroom, hearing the phone ring, with the teacher asking them a question, with them asking whether it's time for lunch or the next break. I used to jokingly call myself the chairman of the negligent mothers' club, because I keep a lot of balls in the air and some fell, but I was protected by layers of privilege and power from the sorts of attacks that we imperfect humans fear and these times invite.


I salute the men and women who have spent the last year trying, against all odds, to not only control classrooms of rambunctious, bored, hyperactive kids but actually teach them something. ... It may have been a lost year in test scores. As for life lessons, that remains to be seen.

And even more, I salute the mothers and fathers who have desperately tried to do right by their kids and do the impossible: keep the kids glued there; keep themselves glued somewhere else; put aside the overwhelming and horrifying terrors surrounding us to focus on the more mundane problems of endless food and endless clutter and endless noise. All of which we will someday miss. Isn't that the killer.

© 2021, Creators

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