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It Takes a Village: What It’s Really Like to Do a Learning Pod (with My Parents as the Teachers)
Name and occupation: Shannan Rouss, Los Angeles editor at Red Tricycle
My partner’s occupation: TV producer and director
City: Los Angeles
Age of kid(s): 4-year-old son
School set-up in 2020: Although my son’s preschool reopened with numerous safety guidelines in place, my husband and I opted not to send him for now. We knew that every sniffle, every rash or stomachache or cough would be a cause for concern. And we also knew that sending him would mean we could no longer safely be in a “bubble” with my family. We would be giving up the the in-person, regular and constant support of my parents and my siblings and their families (all of whom live nearby) for my son to attend school.
So instead he’s attending “Mimi’s School,” a mini learning pod run by mother, a former preschool teacher and award-winning children’s author with years of experience, and my dad, grandpa extraordinaire and now, also, P.E. teacher/creator of DIY obstacle courses (see below).
There are two other students at Mimi’s School—my nieces, ages 4 and 6. The three kids are together four days a week, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. It provides some semblance of normalcy for them, and gives me just enough time to get my work done.
But here’s the catch: My parents live about an hour from LA (longer if there’s traffic) in Oxnard, which means I’ve got quite the commute. To avoid daily back-and-forth trips, my son and I drive out to my parents on Monday mornings, sleep over, then drive back home Tuesdays after school. Wednesdays are off, and then it’s back to school on Thursdays, sleep over, and drive home on Fridays. It’s a lot, but I know I’m lucky to have my family close enough to even provide this option for us.
The morning commute: I give us a good hour to get ready (eat breakfast, brush teeth, put on shoes, say good bye to Daddy), and it’s still a mad dash to make it out of the house on time. Because we’re trying to make the experience as much like regular school as possible, my son has a new backpack and brings his own lunch each day. That means in addition to packing lunch (plus our overnight bags), I also have to bring enough food to cover lunch for the following day.
We usually get into the car closer to 8:30 than 8, which means we’ll arrive a little late for school (but luckily the teachers are forgiving). During the hour drive, I mentally run through a litany of things I’ve forgotten: my son’s iPad, his sweatshirt, his big blankie, his sleeping bag.
Sometimes the commute is peaceful. Sometimes I have to be a robot or an alien (or an alien-robot) the whole way. My son likes this game. I speak like a robot and he explains things on earth to me. He points out the telephone wires, and asks me if we have cars on my planet.
And then there are the mornings when he asks “Are we there yet?” before we’ve even gotten on the freeway. “How about now?” he continues. “How much longer?” On these mornings, the drive can feel interminable for both of us.
The drop-off: When we finally arrive, we enter Mimi’s School quietly because my older niece, a first grader, has already started her Zoom lesson. (She’ll join the younger ones when her distance learning is done.) My son makes his way to the guest room-turned-classroom for free play. Thanks to her years of teaching plus the three grandkids that preceded these younger ones, my mom has a surplus of toys, books and games in her home. While the kids are preoccupied, either my mom or dad usually tries to shoo me out of the house, but I insist on saying a proper good bye to my son. (Yes, I’m that parent.)
His school day/my work day: Because I can’t work at my parent’s house (my son would never leave me alone), and I can’t go to a cafe and plug-in (because, Covid), I drive to my brother and sister-in-law’s home in nearby Ventura. Here, my office is one end of a very long dining room table.
Meanwhile, at my parent’s house, my mom calls on her years of teaching experience to give her grandkids a a close approximation of preschool. They have morning circle with all that entails: singing songs, reviewing the the days of the week and the weather, reading a book, meeting a puppet named Shofar (they’re currently learning about the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah).
In the kitchen, they do cooking projects, making their own challah on Fridays, or banana bread on other days. And in the semi-finished garage, they do arts and crafts and other larger projects, like building a city out of assorted cardboard boxes or creating a “robot” from recycled materials.
Overcoming obstacles, literally: Grandpa has put himself in charge of P.E. What began as simple four square in the alley has evolved into full-on American Ninja Warrior-style obstacle courses, all made using items sourced from the garage. There’s a 2×4 balance beam, a folding stepladder, tunnels made from oversized boxes and more. Is it any wonder my son’s worn out by the end of his school day?
Rest and relaxation: My mom tells me that with younger kids, all the learning happens in the first part of the day. After lunch, little ones need rest and play. TV’s okay at this point too, but only PBS Kids (because it’s mostly educational), according to my parents and I can hardly argue with that.
All three kids get picked up at 2:30 p.m. Some days when I arrive, my son’s curled on the couch and watching Dinosaur Train. Some days, he’s too engaged with his cousins to even notice I’m there. His older cousin is teaching him to “read” using her sight words books. He proudly “reads” me the one he has memorized and my heart swells because he’s so pleased with himself.
Mom duty begins: If it’s a Tuesday or Friday, my parents gently hurry us out, so that they can enjoy their own rest and relaxation. On days when we sleepover, I try to give them space—spending time with my son in the playroom or heading out with him for a walk—giving my parents a much-deserved break. While Mimi’s school was my mom and dad’s idea, I still worry about overburdening them, or them simply burning out.
But I probably don’t need to. Because when my little guy has a meltdown over his iPad not working and there’s nothing I can do to soothe him, it’s Mimi who brings out a puppet and is able to stop his tears. No matter what, my parents never stop being grandparents; they wouldn’t want to. Or maybe they can’t help it. Taking care of their family seems hardwired into them. At the end of a long day, my mom still makes dinner in the evening and insists on cleaning up afterward, while I go upstairs to bathe my son and put him to bed.
A very early bedtime: Although my son and I share a room, I’ve convinced him to at least sleep on the air mattress and not in the bed with me, which is just too much of a slippery slope (as in, then he’ll want to sleep in bed with Mommy every night). I usually lie down in the room with him to keep him company until he falls asleep, which means that plenty of nights, I end up falling asleep too—even if it’s shy of 8p.m. I text my husband to say good night, just in case this happens, and let him know we’ll talk in the morning.
I’m not sure how long we can keep up this routine. I’m immensely grateful to my parents, but still, I’m not sure Mimi’s School is the best thing for our family, long term. My husband and I have talked about maybe renting a place closer to my parents. But the commute is only one drawback of our current situation. It feels selfish to admit, but I miss the comfort of my routine, of being able to get stuff done around the house while my son’s at school, and then putting him to bed in his own room, so I can plop down on the couch next to my husband.
More important than that though is what my son misses. Because as much as he loves his grandparents and his cousins, he still reminisces about what he calls “real school” and the friends he’d made there. Right after he started Mimi’s School, he tearfully told me he’s going to be so old by the time the germs are gone and he can return to his “real school.” He doesn’t know that his “real school” is open now. I don’t think he’d understand why we’re not sending him. We’re still signed up. Still paying to hold our spot. Just in case we ever get to a place where the risks of sending him no longer outweigh the drawbacks of not sending him.