Raising Potential

By Bennett Nemser

Wow, what a difference a year makes? About a year ago, I was writing about my daughter’s first day of first grade and what clothes she’d wear and lunch to pack. Now, whether to get out of pajamas is a regular decision for her (and me). Due to preexisting health issues in the family, we’ve kept my daughter home full-time for virtual education. The daily drama surrounds the all-important Wifi connection.  A dropped connection results in instant anxiety and eventual tears. But, she’s now a wiz on the computer, learned to pay attention even when no one’s watching, and of course keeps up with 2nd grade silliness amongst friends from a distance.

As parents, we have our own complications with maintaining safe social contact in this new reality. I feel like I’m in my twenties again…Umm, would you like to go outside sometime for a family get-together? Are you looking for a monogamous pod or want to see other pods? How many pods have you been seeing lately? Last time you saw this other pod, did you wear protection? Since getting tested, have you been seeing your ex-pod?

In general, my wife and I were pretty-well prepared (i.e. lucky) for a pandemic with a 2nd grader. I’m an epidemiologist and she was a 3rd grade teacher. We only have one child, so impromptu homeschooling is manageable – I certainly feel for the parents with more kids, those with learning challenges, or parents working outside the home. As parents, we are always thinking about what’s best for our child now and potentially in the future. A child’s potential can be detoured (or even derailed) by a host of things – a bad teacher, a bully, a family move, a parents’ divorce, high school partying, or even a first love. Most of us were not planning on a pandemic. Virtual learning (which could last for more than a year) is certainly suboptimal, so it’s hard not to wonder how it will impact my daughter’s potential. Actually, it reminds me a bit of my own childhood.

In the late-80s, my parents abruptly moved us – me and my two older sisters – to another country, where few people spoke English and I only knew about 10 words of the local language. I was in 4th grade, my sisters in 7th and 9th. We were all placed in public school. I took all of my classes in an unknown language, where math was the only comprehensible subject. Most hours in school I just stared at the board making it look like I was paying attention – a skill that has come in handy during a few dull college lectures or maintaining a happy marriage. To supplement this marginal school-based education, my parents homeschooled me at night. As you can guess, 9-year-olds are not keen on double school each day, so I wasn’t an ideal night student. After a year abroad, we were about to move back home to the US, but my dad got transferred to Canada. Fortunately, school was in English, but still a different curriculum than the US, so some topics I received twice and others I missed entirely…and I certainly never learned my state capitols. After three years away, we finally moved back to the US for my 7th grade year. I would estimate that I lost about 1.5 years of traditional education and I was academically behind many of the US friends that I knew from before. It took me about 3 years to catch back up as I slowly added more difficult classes. My middle sister did the same in high school, while my older sister just skipped her senior year and went straight from Canada into college.

In short, my sisters and I had years of suboptimal education in various grades. Did it hurt our potential?  Probably. Did we adapt? Certainly. We learned new languages; survived challenging, incredible, and frustrating experiences; got closer as a family; and learned how to endure some bitterly cold Canadian winters.

So, will the pandemic hurt my daughter’s academic potential? Probably. (Maybe she’ll have to skip that high school partying or first love detour to make up for it.) Will she adapt? She already has and I expect even more. Will we get closer as a family? We’ve spent every day together, so can’t get much closer than that. Will I lose the 10 pounds I gained in quarantine? Oh wait, that’s a different blog. As long as we survive, there is always a chance to thrive in the future. Tomorrow is promised to no one.