I have a quaint 19th Century book on my bedside table, titled From Kitchen To Garret: Hints for Young Householders. Published in 1877, it was a best-selling domestic handbook authored by Mrs. J.E. Panton, the Marie Kondo-slash-Cath Kidston of the Victorian era. As the corona pandemic gripped Britain (at the time of writing, we have over 28,000 tragically dead), and the government announced that our children would not return to school for the summer term, I turned to Mrs. Panton for guidance. After all, the Victorians were home-schooling pros, famously educating their daughters at home.
I have two girls, Ursula, 13 and Tess, 9. Ten days ago, exhausted after another day of cooking, tidying and worrying, I retired early to my bed and flung open the book at a detailed chapter entitled “The Schoolroom.” Mrs. Panton advised readers to situate a schoolroom on the first floor of their homes “in an upstairs sitting room” (oh, to have a spare upstairs sitting room!) or a former “day nursery.” The schoolroom should be charming, hung with pictures, have flower-filled window-boxes on the sills and be furnished with sturdy furniture. If this were done, she wrote, children shall ‘foster every nice taste and encourage every good habit possible.’
Admittedly I only managed to skim-read the first few pages before I fell sound asleep but by the next morning I felt I had gotten the gist. We are lucky to be isolating on our farm in the English countryside, and have a rarely-used playroom on the first floor of our house. But when I opened the door to prepare it, it became clear that just the task of reorganizing it was a monumental one. The floor was strewn with everything from books to coloring pencils, toy horses to Monopoly money, chipped china Beatrix Potter animals to odd chess pieces. Overwhelmed, I enlisted my children. I was amazed at their enthusiasm. They didn’t want any help from me (hooray), except for the provision of rubbish bags. The girls set to work one afternoon last week. In about four hours, the room was spotless. Mummy was only required to lug two trestle tables from the lambing barn up to the playroom, which were placed opposite each other. I put two 1940s upholstered Colefax and Fowler chairs in front of each table.
The girls each arranged their own school desk. Tess draped hers in a chocolate brown table cloth appliqued with white flowers, and arranged a Steiff fox at one end, her computer in the middle, and created bookends using a stuffed panda and soft brown teddy between which she propped the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials series. Ursula covered her desk in a white thread-work cloth, and filched the bejeweled pen pots from my office desk that we’d bought in India together a few years ago. She added a vase arranged with white narcissi and dark tulips, to fit with her black and white color scheme. With the addition of an berry-scented candle, her desk was ready.
This past Tuesday morning, the day school started, I felt rather smug. I was surely as well prepared as I could be: we had our beautiful schoolroom; we had already logged onto the school learning platform and tried it out; I had planned the week’s menus (a first) and spent the whole of Monday shopping and cooking, to make sure I had enough food for at least a few days of home-cooked lunches and yummy treats for break times. I had made a deal with my husband, Toby, that I would do the first two days of home-schooling, and after that he would take over. It was all very organized, and as anyone who knows me well will tell you, I like to be organized.
Here’s how it went:
Up by 7, I dressed in cream wide-legged jeans, a green floral blouse and green sparkly earrings, a homage to Mrs. Cawthorne, my most inspiring teacher, noted for her Elizabeth Taylor-inspired costume jewelry and orange lipstick. At breakfast Tess asked, “Mummy, where are my school books?”
I had no idea. Daddy had no idea. The dog didn’t have a clue. We all wondered if they had been left at school last term. Ursula sweetly ventured off on a house-wide search and soon reappeared with Tess’s math, history and French exercise books. They were found on a window ledge. The other seven subject books were M.I.A.
There was no time for more searching—Tess had to get to the schoolroom and start her math lesson. This required her to print out a worksheet. Her computer couldn’t find the printer, which was next to it. I couldn’t make the computer find the adjacent printer. Dad was summoned from his outside office. He clicked something and in a trice the math sheet was on Tess’ desk. (Daddy got an A+ for IT support.) I went to start preparing food for break time. Five minutes later, Tess was in the kitchen, sheet in hand.
“I can’t do the first question,” she said.
In front of me, the question: what is 50 percent of one hundred? I knew the answer was 50, but I had no idea how to write down the method to work this out, so I couldn’t explain to Tess why 50 is 50 percent of a hundred. I called Dad again. The minutes were ticking by and Tess’s math lesson would soon be over. She had to move on to the next one. Impatiently, I Face-Timed her math tutor. Just as she came on the line and started explaining the method to Tess, Dad appeared and said he could teach her. I said, "No, I’ve got the math tutor." He said, "But you called me to help." "I know!" I said. Understandably irritated, Dad retreated and the tutor carried on.
Meanwhile Ursula appeared, ready for her online French lesson. “Get onto Zoom,” I told her, “and wait for your lesson to start.” She asked how to get onto Zoom. I told her I had sent her the link on her gmail. She said she couldn’t get onto her gmail anymore. She didn’t have the password. “Ok reset the password,” I said, feeling strained.
Ursula reset the password. Gmail sent a verification code to a phone number ending in 62. “That’s not my phone number,” wailed Ursula. “It’s not my phone number either,” I said, followed by a swear word I won’t write down here. Turned out it was her father’s phone number. Ursula sprinted down to Dad’s office to get the code off his phone.
Meanwhile, Tess had a music lesson with no teacher. “Mum, can you play musical bingo with me?” she asked.
Yours truly, who clearly was not a very good math teacher, was not about to become an incompetent music teacher. “Er…” I said, non-committal. Just then, Ursula reappeared. Dad was on a conference call on his phone so she couldn’t get the verification code.
Strain turning to desperation, I gave in and set up Ursula’s Zoom meeting from my gmail. She managed to log into the meeting, and sat watching the screen waiting for it to start. I felt terrible when I saw that Tess seemed to be trying to play musical bingo on her own. Next, Ursula said the French teacher had not appeared on Zoom. I called the French tutor. “The lesson is not today,” he said cheerfully, “it’s tomorrow.”
How could I get so much so wrong in such a short space of time, despite the beautiful schoolroom? I felt pulled between children, computers, phones, printers, schedules and the oven—it was lunch time already! I was disappointed in myself: Pretty much the only thing my children had learned that morning was some new swear words. I vowed to be better that afternoon.
My stint as a school dinner lady soon began and I arranged the lunch of home-made quiche, crudités and salad in the kitchen. After everyone had helped themselves and taken their plates outside to eat, I concluded that a gin and tonic was required. I very rarely drink, even more rarely in the daytime or during the week, but I felt so incredibly stressed that there was nothing else for it. I would be a far better teacher that afternoon if I could relax, I told myself as I switched on the light in the pantry where the alcohol is kept.
No! The bottle of Hendricks in the pantry was empty. I was sure there was some gin somewhere, and I finally found some in the drawing room, a dribble left over from a party before Christmas. Thank god. I filled a tumbler with ice, tipped all that was left in the gin bottle into it (rather more than the “dribble” it had appeared to be) added tonic water, and squeezed half a lime into it. I then joined the family for lunch and polished off the G&T in seconds. I felt very giggly as I told Dad how stressful the morning had been. As someone who has spent many years involved in online education, he said, “the problem with remote learning is that at least half the time is spent dealing with IT glitches.” The home-schooling parents of the coronavirus era, he predicted, will find that they are not so much proxy teachers, as proxy IT support.
It started all over again at two o’clock. Ursula headed back upstairs for her online live math lesson, and Tess had a history project. I made sure they were all set up and wandered into my bedroom. I lay down for a few minutes, feeling somewhat on the tipsy side. And then, well, suddenly it was four o’clock! I must have fallen asleep. Oh god, oh god, please can no one know about this, I prayed as I leapt off my bed and dashed back into the schoolroom.
The room was empty. I smelled burning. The candle on Ursula’s desk had singed the tulip she had positioned right above the flame so that it was now little more than blackened ash. Tess was on my office floor, making a movie for her World War 2 history project. She had a map of 1939 Europe on the floor, and had a mouse from her Sylvanian family positioned in Germany. She had positioned another mouse in Poland. She moved the German mouse up to the other mouse and kicked it off the map, saying “I’m going to invade you! Because I want to boast! I want more land!”
I finally found Ursula sitting downstairs at the kitchen table, typing. “How was the math lesson?” I asked.
“It’s tomorrow,” she said.
Really? Really? No. Was this happening to me? I was the most organized person on the planet, wasn’t I?
Seeing the desperation on my face, she smiled kindly at me.
“Don’t worry mummy,” she reassured me. “I’m writing my novel.”
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Originally Appeared on Vogue