School traditions in the time of COVID

Opinion: Columns

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Jeanne Martinez

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'I am super-duper-DUPER excited," my 5-year-old granddaughter, Ava, told me the evening before her first "day" of kindergarten. This milestone day would be so different from the one I had with her mother 30 years ago in our same town. Then I had walked my oldest daughter down the block to her school the week before the first day. 

When we stood in front of the door, I read the school's name on the building aloud to her: Horace Mann School. 

"Man school?" she had asked me, indignantly. "What about the girls?" 

So we had a lesson about who Horace Mann was, and why a school would be named for him. 

"Well, she's definitely your daughter," my husband said, laughing when I told him the story. That day, that year, are wonderful memories for our family. I knew much of what to expect, and could prepare my daughter. We would share the experience with other children, parents, teachers, school staff, many of them also neighbors — a community. I did not have the same worries my daughter and son-in-law had over the summer about what school would look like — if there would even be school, when it would start, how would they manage. 

The day before her first day of this unique start of a school year, Ava shared her preparations with me. Her mother had helped her choose clothes to wear. She showed me a new backpack, which would remain empty for now. However, my daughter had put together a special box instead to hold the school supplies they had shopped for, that would remain at home. 

"I can only use these for school work," Ava explained solemnly. She took out a new box of markers to show me close up, but carefully returned them back to their place in the box. They would soon be placed on a desk my daughter had just refurbished that would also hold Ava's school-issued iPad, enabling her to "attend" her kindergarten classes in a way neither her mother nor I could possibly have imagined just six months ago. Ava told me she would have math, art, music and Spanish classes. 

"Miss Meredith is my real teacher, but I will have different teachers for some classes," she told me. "Well," I asked her, "are you sure you didn't skip kindergarten, and just started going to college? This sounds like college!" We both laughed. 

On my way home, I thought about how my daughter had adapted the traditions she experienced when she started school — preparing Ava with excited anticipation, letting her choose clothes to wear, shopping for school supplies, much as she had done with me. At the end of the next day, I received a photo of Ava "attending" school in front of a screen on her new desk in the basement, wearing the clothes she had selected. My daughter sent another photo of Ava in front of the actual school building, holding a chalkboard that identified her as a Lincoln kindergarten student. They had gone together to visit the empty school building, too, just as I had with my 5-year-old, those many years ago. 

I phoned the new kindergarten student and her mother before dinner to get the first day report. My daughter told me that it was a wonderful day, beyond her expectations. Ms. Meredith seemed able to connect with the class on the screen. The on-line format was very organized and easy to follow, and kept Ava engaged. 

"In fact," my daughter said, "I had a hard time getting Ava outside at lunch time. She didn't want to miss any part of class." Ava got on the phone, "I loved it, Grandma!" she said. "I have a lot of classes. There are some friends in my class from pre-school, too." 

Ava reported her favorite part of school was "all of it." Later, I told my daughter that she was the one who had made this experience a special joy for Ava, in the way she prepared her for this most unusual start of a school year. She had successfully adapted some of the traditions she had remembered from when she was a child. 

The school district prepared well, too. We know that this experience has not gone so well for many students and schools though. No one can know what the ultimate outcomes of this experience will be on these children. We talked about that, wishing the very best for every child and for every family that has to keep figuring out how to adapt, and hoping it is the right thing.

Jeanne Martinez is an Oak Park resident.

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