With Andy having turned six a few months ago, he was eligible to go into first grade.
“What do you think?” Meg had asked, when we started talking about it, which had been off and on all summer long. Now, during the first week in September, we were still on the fence.
“I don’t know.” Which was the answer I’d been giving for months. Meg felt the same way. We’d moved up here to help keep our kids stay safe from the pandemic. Now we were vaccinated, our friends Jack and Linn and Arnie and Amber, though resistant at first, were all vaccinated. We wore our masks in public. We social distanced. We followed the science. And we’d all stayed healthy.
For the kid’s education, Meg and begun teaching Andy and Allie at home. That had begun in Minneapolis before we’d moved up here to the Northwoods. Since January, she’d continued their homeschooling, plus she’d taking in Sam and Willow, our friend’s kids. But now we were deep into the second year of the pandemic. The children were older, life was moving forward and the big question was this: Were we doing what was best for the kids. Especially, Andy.
Meg posed it this way: “If there was no pandemic, what would we do? Homeschool or send Andy to public school.”
I was raised in the public school system. So was Meg. I had no problem answering the question. “I’d vote for public school. Good teachers. A variety of subjects. And…” I held up one finger to make my point. “Socialization. I think it’s important for kids to be around other kids.”
“I agree,” Meg said. “Especially kids from different walks of life and cultures.”
In Minneapolis, the public schools were filled with children of different races and cultures, and both Meg and I agreed that it was a good thing for Andy and Allie to be exposed to a diverse of mix of kids. However, in Minneapolis as in throughout the state, all of the schools had been locked down for most of 2020 and the first half of 2021. Now, with the new school year approaching and vaccines being available, the restrictions had become less, shall we say, restricted, and schools were opening up again. Though not without some controversy I might add.
“So,” I asked Megan again, for what seemed like the hundredth time that summer. “What do you think?”
“Well…” she took a deep breath and let it out. “I think we should let him go. I think we should send Andy to school.”
“Yes,” she said. But then she added. “But I’d feel more comfortable if we could talk to his teacher.”
I agreed. “That’s a great idea.” We hugged each other. He was our first born and letting him go wasn’t going to be easy. But it was the best thing to do. Even under the specter of the pandemic.
The Park Rapids Elementary School was a single-story, light tan, brick building that housed students in classes one through five. It had been built in the fifties after the original building been torn down. We found this out when we talked with Mrs. Schaffhausen the week before classes were scheduled to begin.
“Yes, it’s a good old building,” she said that morning when met in her classroom. “It’s seen a lot, that’s for sure.”
She told us to call her by her first name, Rose. She seemed nice. She was in her fifth year of teaching first graders. She was in her late twenties and had graduated from college north of us at Bemidji State. Her husband was employed by the public works department in town. They were both from the area. And, most importantly, as far as Meg and I were concerned, she wore a mask.
“Oh, yes,” she said when we asked her about it. “Definitely I will be wearing a mask. The governor is requiring it, and I totally agree with the policy.”
Meg smiled behind her own mask. “That’s great to hear.”
“I’d wear it anyway,” she added. “It’s the right thing to do.”
I was itching to ask if she’d been vaccinated but caught a glance from Meg. The kind of ‘keep your mouth shut’ look she gave me so well. And so often.
Turns out I didn’t need to ask.
“If you’re wondering if I’ve had my shots, you can rest assured that I have,” she told us. “I want to do everything I can to be safe. Especially…” she waved her hand around, “with the kids.”
“Do all the teachers feel like you do?” I asked, looking at Meg. She nodded in agreement with my question.
“Oh, yes,” Rose answered. “Our principal, John Lipton, requires it.”
I looked at Meg. I could see her smiling. “That’s great,” she said. “And I’m assuming the kids wear masks, too.”
“Yes. Masks for the kids.” She pointed around the room. “I’ve got the desks spread out so we can social distance as much as we can. Same with lunchtime. And recess.”
The more she talked with us, the more comfortable we felt. This was going to work out pretty well.
We were getting ready to leave when Rose asked, “If I may, what has Andy been doing for learning in the last year?”
“I’ve been teaching him at home,” Meg said. She pointed north. “We live in Esker.”
“Yes. It’s been working out pretty well. I’ve had Andy and his sister. Allie turns four next month. Plus, two children of friends of ours.”
Rose gave Meg a serious look and asked, “Would you be willing to help out here in the classroom? We’re always looking for volunteers.”
Meg shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. I’ve also got a job. I’m an editor for an independent publishing company.”
I have to give it to Rose, she actually looked sad. “I’m so sorry to hear that.” But…” she brightened up, “At least you’ve got a job.”
Then she looked at me. “How about you? Would you be willing to volunteer?”
I glanced at Meg and she raised her eyebrows. I could her mind working: You? A teacher’s aide? In her mind I’m sure she was thinking that I wasn’t the most qualified for the position. I didn’t have a lot of disciplinary skills and tended to enjoy playing with the kids rather than teaching them anything. Still…I was interested.
“What would it require?” I asked.
“You just need be here with me. Help out. Make sure they’re working on their assignments. Monitor that they are social distancing. Read to them.”
I have to say, it sounding like something I could handle. I look at Meg. “What do you think?”
She grinned. I could tell she thought it was a good idea. “If you want, go for it.”
“How often do I need to be here?”
“As often as you want. But usually just one day a week.”
It was September. I still had wood to get in for the winter, which Jack and Arnie were going to help me with. I still worked at the gas station. But I could do it. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it. I could be with Andy. I could be part of helping everyone get through the pandemic. Yeah, this could work. I’d make it work.
“I’ll do it,” I told her.
She smiled. We bumped elbows. “Welcome aboard.”
After our meeting, Meg and I picked up some groceries and drove home. The kids were staying with Amber, and on our way there Meg turned from staring out the passenger’s window and said to me, “So, what do you think?”
“About Andy and school? I think it’s going to work out just fine. Rose seems nice. I think this’ll be a good thing for him.”
“Actually, I was thinking about you assisting. How’s that going to go?”
“I think good.” I glanced at her. “Why?” We had turned off the highway were heading down the first of many dirt roads on the way to Amber’s.
She shrugged her shoulders as the car bumped along. “I don’t know. You’ve always been a loner. You prefer you own company to that of other people. You’ll be around kids all day long. And they’ll be a lot of teachers around.” She looked at me and added, to make her point. “You know, they’ll be lots of people there.”
Well, she did have a point, but I did, too. I said, “You know, living up here has taught me a lot. I’ve learned to cut wood, plant a garden and can blueberries, among other things. I worked in lab by myself for ten years. Now, I’m working at a gas station waiting on people three days a week for five hours a day.”
“So, what are you getting at?”
“My point is that I’m different, Meg.” I took my eyes off the road and glanced at her. “I’m not the same as I used to be back in the city.” I turned to refocus on driving and steering around potholes. It wasn’t the best road. “Living up here, I feel that we are part of our little community, and I want to give something back. Helping out down at the school is the least I can do.” I turned to her and grinned. “I sound like I’m giving some kind of a speech for the chamber of commerce, don’t I?”
Meg leaned over and kissed me. “Yeah, you do, but that’s okay.” She paused and then said. “I only hope Andy doesn’t mind.”
We stopped at Amber’s and picked up the kids and headed home. Meg told Andy about Mrs. Schaffhausen and he was ecstatic.
“I get to be with other kids? Yippee!”
“And…” his mom said. “Your dad is going to help out one day a week. How do you feel about that?”
Andy looked at Meg. Then he looked at me. Then he said, “Awesome.”
I smiled. I had a feeling I’d made the right decision.
About the author
Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in nearly four hundred online and print publications. His collection of short stories Resilience was published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing. Additional stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
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