DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley teaches students remotely surrounded by her kids

This Is Not a Referendum

I cannot do 5th grade math.

I’m not saying this to be dramatic. I simply don’t understand it. I never have, so the role of helping Claire with her math homework fell to my dad when he was here. But now that he’s gone, she just has me. And now that school has been cancelled, I’m her teacher as well as her mom.

You’d think I would do okay with this new role. I mean, I am a teacher, so home school should be easy for me, right?


First of all, I don’t teach elementary school and I never have. So my content knowledge of things like 3rd grade science and kindergarten phonics is seriously lacking. But at least I know how to run a day of school, right? Nope. My strategy right now is that I make everyone sit at the counter while I yell at them to be quiet and do their worksheets, so I can have a bit of time to do my own work. But maybe I’m better at all of this because I’m used to being around kids all day, every day? Again, no. I’m used to being around other people’s kids all day every day, and my high school students don’t ever whine to me about the color of their lunch or the itchiness of their socks.

On top of all of this, I have to actually teach my own AP government classes. My first online lesson last week was such a disaster that I basically quit after 20 minutes. Tommy put on his blinking halloween mask and Claire kept typing comments/emojis in the “chat” sidebar to my students. Austin stood in the background and only later did I see that he had videoed pieces of it. The whole thing was actually pretty funny to most of my students, who didn’t learn anything about autonomy and capacity in developing countries, but did learn that Claire knows all about unicorn emojis.

But that night, when I went to try and pull together a new syllabus for my students, I started to wonder how I was really going to do this. How much TV did my kids need to watch so that I could do my job? How much of their own work did they need to do in order to not forget everything they’d learned in school thus far? How was I going to do it all without any extra help?

And I thought, “well, I simply cannot do this.”

So I emailed the kids’ teachers, and I explained that while I wanted my kids to keep learning, I wasn’t going to be able to teach them all day long. I had to also teach my own students, make meals, procure groceries, check on my older family members, and wash everyone’s hands like 50 times a day. I told them I’d do my best, but that we weren’t going to be able to do everything.

They were supportive, thank goodness. I also sent my department chair an email laying out what I was going to be able to do (and not do) for my students. But here’s the thing: I know imposing these limits – both for my kids and for myself – isn’t something everyone can do. I have a job that I’m not going to lose. I have resources and am not truly worried about providing for my family. I am a goddamn teacher, for chrissakes, so I have some knowledge about what is and isn’t important in the realm of education.

It made me think about all of the people out there who don’t have these things that I have, and are facing the same daunting task of home schooling their children while also trying to work or find work. While also trying to pay the bills. While also trying to maintain their sanity when no one can really leave their houses.

It’s nuts what we are expecting of everyone right now, but especially of parents and especially of single parents.

So here’s a little story that I’m going to tell you, dear readers, in the hopes that it will help you reorient your thinking when you have a bad day. About two years ago, I went back to work after taking a few months off after Shawn’s death. I was really nervous about facing my students. My friend Julie, a fellow teacher, wrote me the night before and said this:

“All you gotta do is show up tomorrow, give it what you’ve got for that particular day and then take care of yourself with the help of people who love you.  This is not a referendum on the teacher you’ll be or the way you’ll feel forever.  It’s just about one day.”

So I’m going to steal her words, and say them to all of you who are trying to figure out how to home school your kids and also work (or find work), and maybe also doing it as a single parent.

This is not a referendum.

The next few weeks or months are not a referendum on who you are as a parent or a person. I have faith that most people are just doing the best they possibly can, and feeling like a total failure most of the time, especially if they have to home school their kids for the first time ever. I know I am feeling pretty bad about my efforts at the end of every day. But I refuse to believe that we are actually all failing. I think just showing up, each day, and doing our best is a small act of heroism. Especially if you’re a single parent who is doing it alone.

My kids may not grasp everything (or maybe anything!) about the location of the planets or the life cycle of a frog, but they will learn about resilience, mental toughness, and how to wash their hands properly. I think your kids will, too. And that may be one of the lasting things they remember about their young lives: how we imperfectly guided them through this global pandemic. How we did it, even with the restrictions we faced. How we looked each day in the eye and said, “I’m just going to do what I can. And that is the best I can do.”

So say it with me: This is not a referendum.


  • Andrea

    Thank you for this. I think a lot of us needed to hear that today, or yesterday, or will tomorrow or next week. Over here, we’re trying to manage while planning for separation and divorce–the timing couldn’t possibly be worse and we haven’t told the boys yet, but it’s all so fraught and difficult. It certainly does feel like I’m failing at everything, but you’re right: I’m doing the best I can under terrible circumstances.

    So much love to you and your family.

    • Marjorie

      That’s right – we are all hanging in there. And my heart is with you, my friend. Thinking of you.

  • Marlene

    You are so right Marjorie. I think the whole planet is now learning something we learned when our husbands died…..that just putting one foot in front of the other and doing the best you can in the circumstances, is cause for self-congratulation. Stay well. ❤

  • Amy

    Not sure how to feel after spending every minute now alone and inside when I see my neighbour and friend and talk freely to his wife and himself and he says that I’m obsessive about the virus. I have a sister on the front lines who is 65, her husband 75, a sister-in-law working in a hospital in England which is on the verge of an explosion of patients, she already had a breakdown before, and then her and John’s parents who are 85 and 86 and completely shut in not really enjoying life so much after losing their son. I can’t bear the thought of losing them. Yet he asked, with an innocent smile on his face, if John had ever said I was obsessive? What is the answer to that? I started down the road of I’m alone and would have found it easier to be with my husband and best friend but that just feeds into that stereotype that I’m somehow a damaged woman. I wanted to punch him but at the same time I like him.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, I understand. This time period is so unique and I think it’s hard for us all. I think this makes for a lot of “I want to punch him” feelings, even when we love the people around us. But you are doing what you need to do for YOU, and that’s super important. Hang in there!