Since this quarantine began, my five-year-old daughter has been asking me questions about practically everything in the universe. Why don’t fish have eyelids? Why did the Pharaoh survive the Red Sea? How are babies born? How do people die? Why is G-d invisible? Why do the letters Kof and Kuf make the same “K” sound? Why is “e” silent in the word “make”? Are tooth fairies real?
Considering the stress of balancing parenting, maintaining shalom bayis, working from home, and school at home, the barrage of questions can seem tiring. In normal times, I’ve heard parents tell their children to stop, cutting them off from asking such deep questions. My grandparents and parents never left a question unanswered. If they did not have an answer, I was told to go to the library and find it in a book.
The first week of quarantine involved questions relating to the quarantine. I was not sure if my daughter could understand how a microscopic spiky killerball has the ability to shut down public life across the globe. Recognizing that this situation is not going to improve for a long time, I offered a cop-out. “The world has changed. We cannot host Bracha Leah anymore, but we can FaceTime and drive by her porch.” Rachel was not satisfied with the world changing. “We do not know who is infected. Could be you, or me, or Yehuda Aryeh, Rachmana litzlan. Some people have signs of the illness. They’re coughing and having trouble breathing and are hospitalized, and we do not know if we have it.”
The second week, we were informed of playgrounds being shut and we feared a category five temper tantrum from our two children. Rachel’s sense of logic connected the concept of a changed world and a dangerous microbe to the playground’s closing. Likewise, our three-year-old Zachariah did not bawl but instead muttered “playground closed” when we drove by our favorite park.
The third week, the sky was less noisy with fewer airplanes flying, and the streets and traffic had entirely dissipated. This made the sirens of ambulances more pronounced and questions arose on the extent of the death toll. Rachel already had a keen understanding of death, as she was born without grandfathers and last year my mother and an uncle died within two months of each other. She has performed the mitzvah of bikur cholim for individuals whose homes subsequently hosted shiva minyanim.
“Do old people die?” To which I answered that some people die at 60 and others at 90. The Dayan Ha’Emes wants us to live, and we should take care of ourselves. But Hashem still has the power to take away our lives when He feels the time has come. The subject of death was also addressed in our Pesach lessons when Rachel asked why Pharaoh wanted to kill our firstborn, and consequently the Tenth Plague and drowning of the Egyptian army at Yam Suf.
The week of Pesach brought a reprieve to the questions, as the excitement of the Seder permeated our daily discourse. The biggest question of that week was why we did not have a Seder every night, particularly the last two which are observed as a Yom Tov. The departure of Pesach meant a return to the daily grind of Zoom classes for the children, online work for the parents, and brief hikes in the woods of Cunningham Park and Forest Park.
Last week, Rachel resumed her quest for worldly knowledge with questions on whether bees have fur, my tefilin, planets, comets, and satellites. The 2,000-page Random House Encyclopedia serves her well, especially on Shabbos when electronic resources are unavailable. She also asked why some Jews eat treif and walk around bareheaded. “It is their choice, and we choose to observe mitzvos,” I replied. “We follow the instructions of the Torah.”
I am not under an illusion that our daughter is on a path towards academic brilliance. She plays with her dolls, assists her mother with cooking, but is hesitant to clean after herself. She picks on her brother but also conspires with him in plotting against the parents in pursuit of a toy and defends him from being punished. If she earns her place on an honor roll, it would be an affirmation of her innate interest in knowledge.
At the least, having answers to most of her questions provides a measure of certainty in a time when so much is unknown. It may also safeguard her respect for parents and our way of life. Too often I’ve read narratives of individuals who left the faith as a result of parents and teachers who failed to nurture critical thinking. In the absence of a physical learning environment, parents have taken on the role of teachers and rabbis.
Then there is the question of whether the knowledge acquired by our children during quarantine can be quantified by a grade. When Rachel completes an assignment, she turns her page towards the screen. “Morah, I’m finished!” But the morah has more than a dozen other faces on her screen who each have assignments to share. So the morah does not reply right away. To prevent Rachel from becoming distracted, I sit by her side to bolster her attention in the class. “You have the correct answer but your morah must check everyone else as well.”
It is a small adjustment compared to one student’s case, which was shared by Brooklyn Councilman Mark Treyger. “We have a senior in our HS and before pandemic his GPA was a 3.6,” Treyger tweeted, quoting an unnamed parent. “But now, at home, his GPA is a 2.1. That’s because he has several people living in only two rooms, anxiety, insufficient tech access, and there is no quiet space for him to study.” Treyger is the chairman of the City Council’s education committee and a former public high school teacher.
Recognizing the difficulty of learning at home with the same amount of coursework, Treyger also noted economic disparities, where some students have better technology and internet access than others, and the privacy of additional bedrooms and floors that give residents of houses an advantage over those in apartments. My initial reaction was that we’ve already given up so much during the quarantine. How can we think of giving up our children’s academic potential and raise a “silent” generation of under-educated post-millennials?
We are now in the seventh week of schooling at home and families that appeared confident in March are now at their breaking point. When our children are not crying about lollipops and Laffy Taffy, they offer us signs of hope. Rachel no longer has interest in Peppa Pig and PJ Masks. During Pesach she asked me about chess and made five moves before getting bored. The next day, she made ten moves on the chessboard and learned to arrange dominoes.
Our son has also grown weary of exercising control over his parents. His tantrums have lost their energy and he now expresses excitement when his teacher appears on the screen. He may not always respond to her flashcards and verbal cues, but he knows the words and images. They both look forward to the Friday afternoon virtual oneg by the Yeshiva of Central Queens and another one by our shul, Young Israel of Queens Valley.
I do not know how the educational landscape will appear when schools reopen, how our children will interact with their peers, and the long-term impact of the quarantine on their lives, but as long as we can encourage them to ask questions, search for answers, and trust their parents, they will have the foundation for a successful future.
By Sergey Kadinsky