Zooming Out

Notes From 3rd Grade

by Tilda Wilson

This morning, after 20 minutes on hold, I spoke to a woman in the Cornell financial aid office named Karen. Had she used a different name, our conversation would not have felt so much like a foregone conclusion. A ‘Susan’ or even a ‘Sharon’ might have lulled me into wistful imaginings of the kind of old lady who just wants me to get a good education and has power over Cornell’s grant allocations.

“I just got my financial aid decision, and it’s for less than half what it was during my last two years of school…” I said, allowing my words to trail off and hoping to be interrupted with a hasty explanation of how it was all a grand mistake / hilarious prank / “well, yeah, obviously, because you won 200 million dollars in the lottery over the summer, did you not know that?”

There was a long silence. 

Eventually, Karen looked up my account, and confirmed my previous statement. “I’m in a hotel in Nebraska on the drive to Ithaca right now,” I told her, as if this fact would somehow shift the algorithms that got us here. “I don’t know, should I just turn around and go home?” 

“Well…”

“I want to speak to your manager!” I thought about yelling into the phone. I decided against it. It’s been a tough year for Karens.

~~~

I’m moving to Portland now. I need to figure out this financial aid stuff, and Mom’s friend knows a family looking to hire someone to help their kid with online school. I’m not sure how much I can help, given my lackluster arithmetic skills and inability to get myself to pay attention in online school, but it seems like the obvious job to be doing at the moment.

~~~

This morning I went to meet Finn, the 3rd grader I’ll be helping with school for the next couple months. He seemed completely disinterested in me. He sat on the couch holding a giant wriggling hornworm caterpillar and singing “caterpillar caterpillar caterpillar.” 

When we talked on the phone last week, Finn’s mom informed me that her son is very smart, but has some behavioral problems related to schoolwork and socialization. He’s at a new school this year for the kids who scored highest on a placement test, so his mom is worried about him catching up to and interacting with the kids who have been there for longer. Mostly, Finn seems to exist in his own world, which, from what I could tell from the hour I’ve been around him so far, seems populated with catepillars, facts about natural disasters, and no other people.

~~~

School for Finn consists of two half hour long classes in Google Meet in the morning, then another half hour class later in the day with a smaller group of kids. In between those he’s supposed to work on assignments that the teacher gives him in a program called Seesaw. 

Half of the kids are clearly playing games on other websites during their meetings, and some of them just leave their computers behind completely so that we just get a live feed of a random room in their house. The teacher, Mr. Reed, ends up spending most of class time trying to show the kids how to get to and do the assignments he put in Seesaw. Yesterday, he asked “does anyone know how to open a blank document?” and the class turned into a pandemonium of kids unmuting themselves to say things like “what’s a document?” or “I already know how to use excel” or “my mom uses google documents her name is Carrie her birthday is on Tuesday.”  At one point he said, perhaps to nobody in particular, “I actually majored in journalism in college. I wanted to be a reporter.”

~~~

Finn abruptly left the room ten minutes into class this morning. I thought about trying to stop him and get him to sit back down, but he left with such purpose that I could tell he had something to do. A minute later, he returned with a fitted sheet. 

Carefully, he placed his computer on the floor, and then wrapped the sheet around himself and the computer and lay down on the floor. I honestly couldn’t tell whether this was more comfortable for him or if he just wanted to go back to sleep, but it was certainly resourceful, so I let him be. 

~~~

After class today, Finn wanted to go outside to catch moths in his bug net. I had to tell him we couldn’t because the wildfires are making the air quality so bad. I just checked again and it’s up to 546 – which is particularly concerning because according to Google the AQI is on a scale from 0-500. I guess I made the right call.

~~~

Everyone in Finn’s class was told to watch the presidential debate yesterday, as part of project about the election where they’re creating an imaginary political party. I couldn’t stomach the debate myself, but Mr. Reed must have attempted the viewing in solidarity with his army of 8-year-olds. He seemed reluctant to bring it up.

“What did everyone think of the debate last night?” he finally asked this morning, after the word of the day. 

Raven was the first to respond, not even waiting for the teacher to call on her. “It was just two people screaming at each other!” 

“You’re right,” Mr. Reed nodded. I could tell he was choosing his words carefully, not wanting to appear partisan. “I don’t think it was a good example of how debates usually go.”   

In an attempt to get Finn to engage with the class discussion, I asked him if he’d watched the debate with his family. He was underneath his desk, fixated on a tiny calculator and pressing seemingly random buttons. “Um… no,” he responded, a full 30 seconds after I’d asked. I let him keep the playing with the calculator – I think he’s better off. 

~~~

It’s impossible to tell whether Finn is paying attention during class. Sometimes he’ll be in the far corner of the room absentmindedly singing to his caterpillars, and then abruptly get up and give a succinct answer about how “video game allocation is nice and all, but I think our class political party should be focused on climate change, which poses an extreme threat to our future.”

Today, Finn sat perfectly still in front of his computer for the first ten minutes of class. Then, just when I was starting to think of myself as a miracle tutor, he turned to me and said: “Do you want to know which bug is most likely to survive a nuclear bomb?” The cockroach, apparently.

~~~

When I arrived this morning, Finn had already carefully chosen and lined up 5 of his caterpillars next to his computer. It felt like a sign that he wasn’t going to be interested in listening or participating today, so I was a little apprehensive when Mr. Reed announced that he was going to go around the room and ask everyone what their favorite food is. My worry was mistaken – Finn was very prepared to answer. 

When it was his turn, Finn pressed his face right up to his computer camera and said “It’s-a-me-a-mario and also I don’t have a favorite food and I don’t even play Mario”. Then he leaned back, muted himself again, and turned to where I was sitting. “Did I do that right?” he asked. Two thumbs up.

~~~

Today the librarian took over one of Finn’s classes to teach the kids how to check out books online. She asked all the kids to introduce themselves with their names and pronouns – a very good thing to do, but a chaotic move when asking of a group of kids who don’t know what the word “pronoun” means. Most of them said that they didn’t have pronouns, perhaps assuming this was yet another thing their parents had forgotten to buy them for school. Dave informed us that his pronouns are “The best chess player ever!!!!!”. 

The librarian smiled, said “nice to meet you Dave,” and then moved on to the next kid. It also hadn’t acquired pronouns.

~~~

Today was Finn’s last day of class before Halloween. It has been a disappointment for him, not only because he doesn’t get to dress up for school, but because all the adults around him only seem to want to think and talk about the election. None of his classmates are wearing Halloween costumes.

Mr. Reed started class with a lengthy explanation of how important it is for young people to vote. An admirable cause, to be sure, but of questionable effectiveness when directed at a group of nine-year-olds. 

Ten minutes in Finn left the room in a rush. I assumed he was going to the bathroom, so I let him leave. When he returned, he walked directly to his chair and sat back down in the computer as if nothing had changed – except for the fact that he was now in a full werewolf costume, including a mask. Nobody in the class even made a comment, despite the fact that Finn’s wolf form participated significantly more than his human counterpart. 

At the end of class, it was time for everyone to cast their ballots in the student election they were having for the candidates that each of the classes in the 3rd grade made up. Finn was terrified of voting. “I just don’t feel comfortable voting,” the werewolf informed his classmates. “I don’t even know who the candidates are.”

“Well,” said Mr. Reed, “You created one of them, remember? You helped us make her a platform about climate change.”

Finn shook his head and said, “I just don’t feel comfortable.” Werewolves are such a difficult demographic to reach.

~~~

It’s election day. In celebration/general apprehension, Mr. Reed had the kids do an online activity together about the election and where to look for well sourced information. There was a quiz at the end, and one of the questions asked whether “the associated press, a biased news website, or social media” would be the best place to find the results of the election. A bunch of kids raised their hand and said social media because they didn’t know what the associated press was. Finn got very frustrated because the teacher wouldn’t call on him and he knew it was the wrong answer. He turned to me and said, “How could they even think that? They’re so obviously wrong!”

Finn remained frustrated for the rest of the day. At one point, his mom walked by and he ran up to her and told her about the question. “So many of them said social media! How did they even get that idea? I can’t believe it!” he kept saying. His mom and I locked eyes, and I could tell we were both thinking “get used to it kid.”

~~~

I have things figured out so I can go back to Cornell in the Spring. It’s melancholy, knowing that I’ll be leaving Finn and his caterpillars and online classmates behind so soon. 

About 40 minutes into class today, Jack raised his hand and asked, “Do we have school today?” Perhaps he was hoping Mr. Reed would pause, think about it, and say “you know what? No. Everybody leave.”

That isn’t what happened, but there was a noticeable pause. I imagine if I could’ve replayed the scene, the “What am I doing right now? Does this actually count as school?” crisis would have been visible in his eyes. 

“Yes!” he said, finally. “That’s what this is, right now.”

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