Faith Gong: Looking backward, moving onward

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the afternoon cleaning out the basement. Our basement is unfinished, cement floors and exposed beams, and it has become a repository of everything that we want out of sight. 

We keep the off-season holiday decorations in the basement. Some toys that aren’t currently being played with but that may rotate back upstairs when our youngest child is older. Many bins of clothes that are either off-season or waiting for various children to grow into them. A couple of survivalist shelves filled with nonperishable food and medications; a reminder of our COVID days. Our cat’s food, litter box, and bed are in the basement. And, until a couple of weeks ago, there were piles of files. 

These files were filled with school books and papers dating back to 2016, when our oldest daughter was 8, our youngest daughter was two, and our son was not yet born. In 2016 we began homeschooling our children while on sabbatical in California, and we kept homeschooling after we returned to Vermont: first two children, then three, then four. 

In 2021 we began to stop homeschooling our children: first two children, then three, and after this school year there will be none. 

But I kept those files of work. I had to save them each year to compile a portfolio for the state. I kept them in case the state came knocking. And then I kept them for the reason most mothers keep their children’s memorabilia: for sentimental reasons, so that one day I could hand them the files and boxes and say, “Here, these are yours! Keep what you want and get rid of the rest!” 

I envisioned these handoffs happening when my children moved out, but those files took up a lot of space. So, as our homeschooling era drew to a close and it became unlikely that the state would inquire, I began sorting the academic wheat from the chaff. 

What amazed me was how much we accomplished during those eight years. While we homeschooled, we also moved into a new house; established gardens; acquired various chickens, ducks, a dog, and a cat; adopted a newborn boy; my husband got tenure and I wrote this column twice a month; we navigated the COVID-19 pandemic; a tornado destroyed our neighbors’ house and they moved in with us for several months; and three of our children entered their teen years. But when I opened those files, I was reminded that my children had also learned to read and write beautifully, they produced gorgeous art, they performed in plays and musical recitals, we explored the scope of history around the world from ancient to modern times, we’d read hundreds of excellent books, and we’d traveled around Vermont and across the country together. Those years were packed, but amidst numerous challenges we’d created a family culture of learning. 

Often you don’t notice what’s happening until you look back.

Of eight years’ worth of papers, journals, and workbooks, I was most intrigued by 22 pages, written at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. At the end of that year — the last year in which all four of my school-aged children were at home — I’d given them a final assignment: Write about what you’ve learned this year.

I’d forgotten how resilient they were. 

“How We Didn’t Go Insane. (Mostly.)” is the title of my second child’s essay, which sets the scene thus: “[W]e stayed home, and watched shows and had to speak politely to grown-ups and include sisters, with short tempers on both sides and secretly wanting to DESTROY everybody. WHILE getting three hours of sleep, and only seeing the same people, day after day, after day. And parents wonder why Generation Z is so depressed. Sheesh.” 

This same child concludes: “2020 and 2021 were hard years for learning, but if I think about it, I learned so much. Without going insane! I AM ready for summer, though. Also, for COVID to be over. And a puppy. I am DEFINITELY ready for a puppy!” (A puppy came two years later.)

Gong Child #3 describes Spring 2021 with horror embedded in the mundane: “I had my birthday and got my ears pierced…and then it was April and then we celebrated Easter and then a tornado destroyed our neighbors’ house and then it was May and we basically wrapped up school and the Eastern Hemisphere with Antarctica and Australia and Oceania.”

My eldest, who turned 13 with a “Zoom party” and was becoming painfully aware of growing anti-Asian sentiment and violence, concludes her essay:

People kill you for your race, people come up with the craziest theories and ignore hard, scientific facts and actual evidence, people persecute you for your religion, strange viruses kill thousands of people, tornadoes destroy homes, people fight wars and innocent citizens die.

But people also are just being kind, people choose to be hurt for a second and think about more than themselves, people smile at you and people show you where to go when you’re lost, and people walk with you when you’re too tired to keep running, and people bake you a loaf of bread, and people cheer you on and run beside you.

These are all things that have happened to me this year. One thing I noticed, the other day at the lake, was that I used to be terrified of going in the deep water. Now, I want to swim as far as I can go. I’m not afraid anymore.

Do all my children now live their day-to-day lives without fear? Of course not. But the reminder of how they processed a difficult time gives me hope for their futures. 

We are still seeing the impacts of the COVID pandemic unfold in the lives of the young people who experienced quarantine, masking, and online school. “The kids have changed,” I keep hearing from educators and counselors and librarians who work with the kids. But I’ve yet to hear a clear description of exactly how the kids have changed, or certainty about what’s caused that change (COVID and the proliferation of smartphones and social media are all mixed up in this generation.) 

And a part of me thinks, Of course the kids have changed! The older I get, the more I see life as a continuous process of change. Once upon a time, changes felt like distinct events that shook up life’s usual stability; now, change is the air that surrounds me, the ocean in which I swim. 

Simply recognizing the constancy of change doesn’t mean that I always like it. Change is hard – one of the most overused and most true platitudes. It’s hard, and it’s constant, and if the past few years have taught me anything it’s that change will come whether I resist it or not, but it’s better for me and everyone around me if I make some peace with it. There are good changes and bad changes, of course. Like anybody, I prefer the good changes. 

Our family has some big changes coming up this year. These changes will inevitably lead to more changes. We hope that they will be good changes. 

This year, we will have five children in five different schools. Two of those children will be starting new schools. Three of those children will be heading to the Burlington area every day for school. And so will I: With no more children to homeschool, I have taken a job teaching 4th grade literacy and science at the school one of my children will attend. I’m thrilled to be back in a classroom after many years away; years that taught me that my vocation really is teaching.

What will happen to this column? I figure that it’s not a bad thing for a literacy teacher to also be an active writer; I plan to keep it up, scaling back to publishing once a month. 

So there will be changes, but as my third child concluded in her essay, “Two things that have never, ever changed are my eyes and my smile. They will always stay the same.” Some things don’t change. May you, too, find your own still points in our ever-turning world. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and two quirky dogs. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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