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Will our kindergartener remember pandemic ‘garage school’? I’ll never forget it

With students returning to in-person school, a mom wonders what impression remote learning with neighborhood pals left on her kid.

The garage school in the author’s backyard.
The garage school in the author’s backyard.From Janelle Nanos

I’m stuck on Zoom, feeling fused to my bedroom chair. But my discomfort suddenly subsides when I hear the shrieks of laughter outside my window. It must be the 11 o’clock lunch break, I think and grin. Sure enough, I can see a foursome of 5-year-olds running laps through my backyard and digging up my garden beds to make their potions.

A year ago, when the world closed in on us, my husband and I hunkered down with our two kids and held on for the ride. We weathered the first weeks of “virtual school” with my then-4-year-old by succumbing to his demands for screen time, and watched in awe as my 1-year-old did her damndest to tear our house apart.

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But as we slowly settled into the newfound cadence of the pandemic and its risks, we found ourselves bonded to our neighbors in the modern-day equivalent of a blood pact — we formed a pod. Between us, we were two single moms; a couple with a dad between jobs; and my husband and I, two working parents working overtime. Together we held out hope that, somehow, we’d be able to send our kids to kindergarten in the fall. That didn’t happen.

What happened instead was me asking my husband if he thought we could convert our two-car garage into a one-room schoolhouse. Saying it out loud sounded absurd: The metal structure, seemingly out of a Sears catalog, was now rusted inside and out. Its windows had been smashed and graffiti artists had tagged the inside. And yet — here was a 20-by-20 space with 8-foot ceilings. It was absurd. But what wasn’t at this point?

The project started in late summer, and for the next few weeks we painted floors, dug trenches, and brought in contractors to help us frame walls, hang windows, and run electrical wire. We installed a heater and a fan for circulating air. It was a costly and arduous project, one that got our neighborhood talking.

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That chatter led to help. Neighbors and friends shared their architectural and design tips. One lent us his truck for multiple runs to the lumber yard. We got help with tools and painting the walls. Donations of books and toys. A couple walked a massive chalkboard across the street. In a time of isolation and separation, they sought us out to share in a little bit of our hope.

We started the school year with the quartet of kindergarteners logging on to three different Zoom classes from a two-bedroom condo. Our fellow pod-dad had stepped in as proctor, helping each kid navigate the workload. But they were bouncing off the walls in the tight space. Finally, in the last warm days of fall, it was time: Garage school was in session.

In the ensuing months, a new routine emerged. I packed my son a lunch and walked him into our backyard, where he’d join his kindergarten crew. They’d plug in their headphones and punch in their passwords and log on to school. At 11, they’d take their lunch break and wreak havoc on my backyard, giggling wildly in snow piles or mucking through the mud that used to be my lawn.

Sometimes, I’d wander outside to glimpse them wiggling to their dance teacher’s instruction in the backyard, or using a whiteboard to practice their letters. I knew these tiny moments were borne of tremendous privilege, a confluence of circumstances that enabled many parts of a broken system to fit together in a new way.

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It wasn’t perfect. The floor still flooded. The Internet was spotty. A COVID diagnosis collapsed the whole precarious setup like a house of cards for two weeks. But as we emerged, we were reminded just how lucky we were to have some structure in place at all — the physical one, and the social structure, too.

Now, as my son resumes in-person school, I’m unexpectedly torn. This is the moment we’d hoped for last summer, and there is so much more to be hopeful about. But I will miss the laughter in my backyard. And I wonder, when he thinks back to kindergarten, if he’ll remember.


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Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.