Anna Dusseau | 14th October 2020
“Don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing / Do wap do wap do wap do wap do wap do wap do wap do wap.”
“Dad, wake up! There’s an arrow on the roof!” Thus began Saturday for my other half, who works nights and usually sleeps through to midday. Then there came, from down the hallway, the distinct sound of a scuffle and – sure enough – he emerged at a clip from the bedroom, being propelled forward by our eldest. One small hand was gesticulating wildly from about hip-height. “There’s…an…ARROW…on…the…ROOF!” They rounded the corner to where I was kneeling down, mopping the face of a disappointed boy, whose arrow had evidently not achieved the roof. Here, an exasperated face popped out from behind her dad’s back. “Mummy, will you tell him, please?” We exchanged a look. Middle boy was crumpled in my lap at this point, furiously attempting to snap his faulty arrow in two, while the “baby” (not a baby…) quietly rammed the kitchen door with the front wheel of his balance bike, creating a rhythmic thunk, thunk, thunk. In the garden, the stepladder stood dripping sadly in the rain. “My arms weren’t long enough,” I said simply. He nodded. And so began the day, with my husband in his underpants at the top of the stepladder, fumbling about on the roof while the children assisted from the doorway with cries of: “Up!” “Down!” “Not that way!” and “Daddy, why are you crying?” I should mention at this point, that we all went down with a head cold at the end of last week and, having been the last one to catch it, the Frenchman shivering in his boxers looked on this particular morning – for want of a better phrase – precisely like shit warmed up. I should mention, too, that the time was 9am. This is a blog post about getting through the dysfunctional days.
Coffee, I thought, and headed into the kitchen. 10 minutes later, we were all assembled; Teenwolf dripping like a wet dog in the corner, while the older two had a muffled punch-up on the sofa regarding ownership of the rooftop arrow. I smiled brightly and threw a towel over the counter. “Stand on this,” I said, helpfully. But, in fact, we both ended up sitting on top of the kitchen table cross-legged, while the children lapped us at high speed on various sets of wheels: skates, skateboard, balance bike. “Brum, brum, BRUMMMM!” the baby yelled, aggressively. The room vibrated with the kind of knife-edge energy reminiscent of NASCAR racing, or perhaps of closing time at the local nightclub, back in the days before the 10pm curfew when revelers were really tanked up. I took a steady sip of coffee. “At least he’s stopped ramming the door,” I observed. But then there was a grinding sound in the hallway. Eldest child, having graciously allowed her brother to win the arrow battle, was now rolling the helium canister from the cupboard through to the kitchen, muttering incoherently under her breath, for all the world as if this circumstance had been inflicted upon her. At the kitchen table, she stopped and straightened up. “Today, I’m going to achieve neutral buoyancy,” she revealed. I nodded. “Okay.” There was an audible drum roll of rain on the roof. The baby had lost interest in circuit training and was back to methodically taking the door off its hinges. “Daddy,” she said, rather ominously. “I’m going to need the stepladder.” Thunk, thunk, thunk.
The challenges of raising 3 unschooled children is quite at opposites from the stresses encountered through the schooling and, on days like this, I find myself genuinely questioning which option is preferable. Last week, I spent almost half an hour trying to understand the various phases of “formative feedback” that are currently being encouraged in the classroom and still found myself unable to decipher what the article was asking teachers – and students – to actually do. “Plan the lesson carefully so that only an ‘atom’ is being taught,” it began. Then, presumably upon checking through workbooks: “Create a list of common misconceptions of the ‘atom’ and encourage students to highlight in their work how this might connect to future ‘atoms’ of learning scheduled for later in the term.” Was this a science lesson, perhaps? No. It’s the new “drill” teaching (or, to use the more popular term, “recovery” teaching) method now recommended by school leaders to reinstate “proper” learning techniques for children who – we can only assume – have spent the past 6 months in wholly unsupervised contact with disorderly atoms. That was certainly the case in our house on Saturday. And, as I found myself at one point hanging perilously from the ceiling beam in an attempt to retrieve an uncooperative balloon, it did cross my mind that it might be significantly easier to hand them all back to school on Monday where, at the very least, they appear to have their “atoms” in order. “Would you like the stepladder?” asked the Frenchman, looking up. “Fuck off,” I said.
Of course, the pandemic stirs the pot for everyone at the moment, and places stress factors on families which previously didn’t exist. Our weekly schedule used to be full to the brim with friends, clubs, interesting visits and impromptu trips to the cinema, theater, or local live music events. Nowadays, such activities are thin on the ground and, with 40% of our household running a mild temperature, we have had to isolate again. By 5pm on Saturday afternoon, middle son was eating natural yoghurt off the floor with a teaspoon. “Are you sure that’s a great idea?” I asked him, cautiously. It had been a long day of tears and tantrums, as can be expected when several young children are simultaneously poorly. “Yep,” he replied, not looking up. At this, the baby’s head promptly slammed into my chin, and I set about gingerly checking the security of my teeth. Interestingly, having chosen to cope with his cold by regressing to newborn breastfeeding patterns, he appeared to have simultaneously made the bold decision to take up downhill skiing and we were, in this moment, sat in a tangle on the floor where scattered fusilli pasta acted as a clear warning for future culinary efforts to smuggle kale into the sauce. My daughter’s face appeared and a book on volcanoes was suddenly held about an inch from my eyes. I blinked. “Can you read this page and summarise it for me?” came the question. “Why?” I asked, going back to feeling my teeth. “I want to check your understanding.” And honestly, I only have myself to blame here, for all the nonsense homework tasks I frogmarched her through when she was at school, and for the various students she witnessed me tutoring over the years. You reap what you sow.
My kids are lovely really, and daily life isn’t defined by the caricature of a blog post. We all know that. But we know, too, that home education is a bit like Marmite: most days you love it, but then sometimes – randomly – it makes you physically wince. Saturday was that day for us. After the yoghurt and pasta was mopped up, though, and the balloon came down, and the loosened screws were fixed back into the kitchen door hinge, a calm descended on our snotty ranks that made everything feel worth it. Snuggled on the sofa, under duvets and boxes of tissues, the boys both leaned into their dad, pouring excitedly over the “Supercar Encyclopedia” we bought for middle one at the start of September. “Brum, brum, BRUMMMMM!” the baby enthused, at an intimidatingly high decibel. But then he settled down again, toes sticking out from beneath the duvet, and no teeth were broken this time. On the other end of the sofa, the eldest was finishing a Harry Potter movie and her attention flicked gently between the familiar antics of her favourite wizarding world, and the green balloon ethereally suspended in mid-air in front of her, with just the right amount of plasticine weighting it. Neutral buoyancy at last. And, for once, even bedtime wasn’t a drama, so that Teenwolf and I got a window of time together – just us – to google for the gazillionth time the effect of mixing wine and aspirin. Later that night, we crept through the dark house on our way to bed, when my foot collided with something heavy on the floor. “What the fuck?” I hissed. “Stepladder,” he replied. “I’ll sort it in the morning.” But the baby was already awake and, with a thud, the plastic helicopter he normally sleeps with was hurled out of bed. I glared steadily at my other half through the horror film uplighting of my phone screen. “You can do it now,” I said.