Last spring when I did my homeschool planning for the coming year, I realized I’d hit a wall teaching math. I loved teaching my children math during elementary and middle school. The subject had come easily to me throughout my school years. As a teacher, I discovered patterns, logic and predictability I’d never seen as a student. Math’s very nature appealed to my personality; no wonder I’d enjoyed it so much as a child. But as middle school math ramped up into Algebra, I noticed that I couldn’t remember how to work many of the problems. Something had faded in the 23 years since I’d last sat in a math classroom.
So, in our first ever division of homeschool labor, I asked Rob to teach our oldest two children Algebra when we began school again in the fall. We mapped out when he could meet (early mornings before work started) and how we’d manage grading homework (my responsibility). Our son and daughter were excited to have Dad as a teacher for the first time, and Rob was excited too. He loved Algebra and looked forward to this focused time with each of them.
It goes without saying that in the fall we had to make other plans. I signed our two oldest up for online Algebra courses and set them off on their own for the first time — their first experience of totally self-directed education. I told myself that this was an important developmental moment, a precursor to their college years when I wouldn’t be there to hang over their shoulders or give them extra help. These things were true, of course. But the development came at such a cost.
Eventually, I relaxed as I saw they both fared well. Already independent learners, they adapted easily to the content; and their high scores reassured me I’d made the best choice I could at the time. As our son and daughter logged in each morning, I wondered if they thought of Rob like I did. If they longed for what could have, should have, been. The grief dance with teenagers is a delicate one; in this instance, I chose not to ask.
At our recent weekly schoolwork check-in, I was pleased to see both will complete this year’s math coursework ahead of schedule. Earnest students that they are, they doubled up on easy lessons, skipped ahead when they already knew the content, and determined their success by how they scored on the unit tests. Their adaptability wowed me, and I told them so. Effusive praise goes a long way when you’re an adolescent.
As I consider my children’s growth over the past half of the school year, I am reminded of this passage a friend sent to me from David Cristofano’s novel The Girl She Used to Be:
“There is an algebraic term for the technique for distributing two binomials, called the FOIL method. It stands for first, outer; inner, last. And that is exactly how I have learned to repair myself time after time: from the outside in.”David Cristofano, The Girl She Used to Be
Every day I see my children grieve in this way, from the outside in. Through art and music. Through sports. Through relationships. Through schoolwork. They adapt to new circumstances, and their external resilience fosters internal repair. They find outside success, and their wins encourage new inner confidence. Like the mathematical order of operations I taught them years ago, they also grieve from the inside out, starting from the most inward part. My children know that a math lesson is less important than an open conversation. Tears shed together are more valuable than a completed assignment. If we are to develop resilience, they know we must come at it from all directions.
When I see my son and daughter log into their Algebra courses each morning, I miss Rob. I’m sure they do too. I remind them of how much Rob wanted to teach them this year and how proud he’d be of their success. I tell them to do their best and not worry about the results. I may not be able help them with their math assignments anymore, but I will teach them everything I know about resilience. Grief is the most challenging schooling my children have ever encountered. I count it an honor to stand beside them as they show up to its class every day.