I’m staring at a grid of tiny faces. I click and I click and I click and highlight the boy speaking, Arlis. Arlis tells the class his mother is asleep on the couch. Then he picks up his pad and moves it around the room and sure enough, there’s a lump of mother on the couch. I recognize the frantic hair bun and the tight fetal position, half hanging off the edge of the sofa.
Arlis, says, see, right there. There she is. The mass does not move. One child is mooing. He’s been mooing for an hour. I keep muting him, but he unmutes himself over and over and mooooooo.
Cypress says her mother is working and shhh…don’t tell anyone, but I’m home alone.
These are first graders. I know Cypress’s father is out of the picture, out of the home.
Well, I’m not alone alone, Cypress says. Buggy, my dog is here. She picks up what looks like a dachshund; it’s hard to tell. The creature squirms, but the girl holds the dog tight, fits its face with hers into the screen.
Okay, class, I say. Let’s move on to math.
A cacophony of yays and sighs and snippets of off-key songs emit from my little speaker. I’m in the kitchen and it still smells like burnt coffee. My sophomore daughter is upstairs on her bed tuning into her class. My son is six and last I saw he was building a LEGO spaceship in the bathtub.
Your dog is ugly, comes a voice. I think it’s Sam, but it’s hard to tell. Could be Eli or Harry or Prince.
That’s not nice, I tell the screen.
It is, I tell no lies, he says. I squint to try to see whose mouth is moving to correspond with the words but there are some delays. Choppy six-year-old faces, like a series of surrealist paintings. I see a few screens click to black with the children’s initials in the middle. Video off.
Cypress, your dog is very cute, I say. Now, let’s move on to number bonds.
Why’s your mom not there? Sara asks.
I pin Cypress and see she realizes she made a mistake. I don’t know if I should report this. I know her mother works at the hospital. I know they live in a studio apartment. I know Cypress and her mother make videos late at night about what we are learning. Together they take turns telling stories using the vocabulary words I’ve assigned. Cypress illustrates the stories with what can only be seen as a prodigious artistic talent. I can see Cypress’s mother carries baggage – so much baggage under her eyes. She has no one to help carry it. I understand.
The two film themselves reading the stories and sharing the drawings and they upload it to the app we use to communicate. I get them every other night without fail.
Only a handful of hours after that upload, I know, Cypress’s mom leaves for work and shortly thereafter, Cypress logs in with a smile and her dog and all her work completed.
The mooing has stopped. It is a small blessing.
read a few sentences about number bonds. I draw three circles and connect them with lines and I fill in two of the circles with numbers. I ask them what the missing one is. Four! Sixteen! Negative three! Six. Six. Six. Six. Six. Sam is repeating the answer. He does this. And so then others join the chant. Six. Six. Six. Six. Six.
That’s right. It’s six. I write a six in the bubble on my screen.
This is a new math, one I had to relearn when I decided to become a teacher. It’s all new. It feels all new anyway.
I say I’m going to play a video. Hoots all around. I mute them in a single flash and pull up a snappy music video about number bonds.
I ensure my screen is being shared and click play. I watch the squares. Several kids get up from their seats and dance to the music. Arlis goes to check on his mother. Shake, shake, shake, she waves her hand behind her body, telling him to leave her alone. He shrugs, goes to a cabinet, pulls something out and goes off frame.
Cypress dances with her dog. Prince is counting numbers on his fingers. Eli is eating cheese puffs from a single serve bag. Tasha is showing her little sister the screen.
A parent dances across the screen. I want to dance. The notification icon pops up for the chat. Shit. I open. A thousand and four emojis and most are the poop one. A few vomit faces.
But there is some text in there.
An parade of emojis.
Missssses tomsin help
My heart stops. The insipid song about number bonds is almost over.
More emojis. It is Aleah who needs help.
Is your mother there? I type. Aleah is able to read well already.
Is your grandma there? She lives with her mom and grandmother.
Who is there with you Aleah?
Who is Drew?
The song is ending.
I click over to Aleah’s face. Such a sweet face, tight dark brown curls and mile long eyelashes, always telling jokes – ones that make sense, which for six and seven-year-olds isn’t easy.
I only see her face in profile on screen. Her mouth is moving. She’s muted.
I don’t know what to do. The song is in its final lines. It repeats number bonds number bonds number bonds, and then it’s over. Aleah gets up from her seat and is out of frame.
I can see that on deck is a video about shakes you drink to lose weight. I click to ensure the next video doesn’t auto-play.
Ok, children. Was that fun? My eyes frantically search for Aleah in the grid of faces. I know she would only be in the one, but that doesn’t keep me from looking.
I quick type, Aleah?
Then the kids unmute themselves.
Mrs. Thompson, I danced the whole time.
Mrs. Thompson, I’m sorry I said the dog was ugly.
I want a dog.
I have a puppy.
I love dogs.
I have a cat.
I have a new bracelet that’s just like a Princess wears.
Princesses are stupid.
I am a princess.
Bad stuff happens to princesses too, you know.
It would be comical, in another circumstance. But what would that circumstance be?
Arlis’s mother sleeps. Aleah is offscreen and scared. Cypress is alone. And there are twenty more in my class.
I start talking to the class. I say, we are going to switch gears now. Have you ever felt alone? I say? I see heads nodding.
An interruption: One time, I woke up at night and –
Okay, Parker, I would love to hear it, but I am talking now. I am going to mute you, but please tell us the story later. I mute Parker. I mute them all. I continue to talk about loneliness and how hard this time is and how people are getting sick and does that make you scared? No one answers. A few looked stunned. Some look nonplussed. Some stare at me. Some at their hands. Others are black voids, video turned off.
I see some heads turn, kids are still eating, playing with something in their hands. A few get out of their seats. Several of the dark screens are back. An adult shows up and starts tapping the screen.
I am near tears and I hear my son blowing up his LEGO space station. My daughter squeals with laughter from upstairs. I am wearing my pajama bottoms. Beyond my computer are the remnants of breakfast, some spilled coffee I didn’t have time to wipe up. It drip, drip, drips ever so slowly onto the floor. It’s been like that for two hours. It feels like an experiment. How long until the mess completely moves locations? Will it ever or will it just be a bigger mess? A mess in both places?
A yellow hand icon pops up.
This is a horrible time. I continue to tell the grid of children. I have nothing eloquent or age appropriate to say. I wish I could do more, but I can’t. My hands are tied, see? I hold up my arms in an X; they are not tied.
I’m rambling. A few more adult faces on screen. Aleah is still not in her square. All I see is an empty chair – those kinds they have in cafes in Paris.
It’s okay to be scared, children. I know I am. You will get through it. But it will probably be hard. Really hard. I’m sorry I can’t be there with you right now.
I see several mini yellow hands light up. I unmute them all in one fell swoop, a tap.
Mrs. Thompson, you’re muted.
I chuckle and sigh, relieved. Can you hear me now? I ask.
The ones present nod their heads, say yeah.
I continue the class. Read a story. Give them four new vocabulary words: Terrify, tug, glide, collapse.
I click the leave meeting button. Turn the screen off. Look up at the lightbulb in my kitchen light, the bulb that is still working, dare it to burn my eyes like I’m looking into the sun. The other bulb is burnt out; I’ll have to fix that. It’s silent for a moment. Outside a lawnmower, a screech from a Steller’s jay, a garbage truck rumbling a street over.