A Tale of Two Students
A Mother and Daughter Embrace Lessons
in Love and Learning
It was just a few days after we celebrated my daughter Leila’s eighth birthday in March 2020 – the last time my family would be together for a long while, although we didn’t have a clear grasp of what that meant at the time. Leila awoke in the middle of the night with a fever on its way past 105 degrees.
“Oh no,” I thought.
As a third-year journalism major at Stony Brook University, the topic of the coronavirus had already infiltrated my mind because of the many reporting and writing assignments about it.
“This can’t be happening.”
It was three o’clock in the morning. The hospital seemed my only option. I was unsure of what to expect. But I got Leila dressed and carried my lethargic 50-pound daughter to the car to drive sleepily to the emergency room at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. New protocols had just been put in place and it was in the hospital that my little girl wore a mask to protect her from a deadly virus for the first time.
It was so early in the pandemic that what we consider “normal” today wasn’t even what you’d call “a thing” back then. There were no COVID tests. I wasn’t required to wear a mask. And Leila’s symptoms didn’t check off enough warning boxes to be considered anything to be afraid of. Just a kid with a fever. So we were sent home without any quarantine rules to follow.
Although Leila stayed home – on what we didn’t know would be her last few days of in-person schooling – my life as a single mom and full-time college student didn’t stop. Her father, a New York City police officer, didn’t live with us anymore and we decided it was best to minimize his twice-a-week visits because of the climbing virus numbers.
I was in the midst of the most demanding semester of my journalism major and didn’t think I could miss a class. I saw no choice but to bring my sick child with me to school.
I moaned to myself because I couldn’t take a day off from being a student or a mommy. What I didn’t know was that these few days would be the last time I’d be in a classroom as a college student.
The following week was spring break, and I got a slight reprieve as Leila began to feel better. Her school district announced that students would have two weeks off while the nation awaited guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then a message from Stony Brook University popped up on my cell phone.
“I moaned to myself because I couldn’t take a day off from being a student or a mommy. What I didn’t know was that these few days would be the last time I’d be in a classroom as a college student.”– Stephanie Melo
“Leila!” I shouted. “Guess who has an extra week of spring break?” It felt like I’d won a free vacation.
Pre-COVID, my morning routine went like this: wake up; walk across the hall to Leila’s room; wake up the soundest sleeper you could imagine in an eight-year-old body; make a quick breakfast – vanilla Greek yogurt is her favorite – while Leila brushed her teeth, some more wiggly than others; get dressed; fix the still-warm beds my alarm had pulled us away from as Leila brushed her dark brown hair, which was in desperate need of a trim that would now have to wait; and walk out the door – some days earlier than others depending on whether or not Leila was riding the bus to school.
After our everyday kiss-on-the-cheek-goodbye and my “have a good day,” Leila jumped out of the car – mask free – and I’d turn in the direction of the Stony Brook campus.
Combining the few days she was off from school because of her mysterious illness and the temporary school shutdown, Leila hadn’t attended her second-grade class for about three weeks. Our new morning routine wasn’t much of a routine and it certainly lacked the urgency that had once marked the start of our days.
April arrived with the official notice that Leila’s school would be closed for another four weeks. The difference now was that Leila would be a distance learner – at least for a while. Around the same time, Stony Brook University announced its plans – the rest of the spring semester would be online.
At first, Leila was excited. Using my five-year-old laptop – the only one we had – playing with our cat and lounging around in her pajama bottoms under a blanket so her classmates wouldn’t see the unicorns and rainbows on her nightwear. These were perks to her, especially because she did them while she was in class.
Of course, now her classroom was really our comfy brown couch.
If it wasn’t my turn to use the laptop for a Zoom class, I’d begin the day by asking Leila what she wanted for breakfast – Greek yogurt or muenster cheese were usually on the menu but chocolate chip Eggo waffles and Cocoa Pebbles were also top choices. I’d watch her set up her day from the corner of my eye while casually drinking the almost-cold cup of coffee I had forgotten I’d made for myself.
Our shared 13-inch MacBook Air computer. Check.
Her lavender Jansport backpack patterned with bubbles. Check.
Her still beloved baby blanket – pink with white polka dots on one side and pale green on the other, affectionately known as Blankie. Check.
Leila absorbed the sounds coming from the laptop. Her teacher logged onto Google Classroom and greeted each student in each square on the screen. There were bursts of noise at all times because seven- and eight-year-olds hadn’t mastered the act of muting themselves. Dogs barked, younger siblings shouted and parents worked remotely in the background.
There was hardly any structure – it was second grade, after all. Leila spent about half an hour a day listening to her teacher – “How many times does two go into eight?” I heard her ask. But usually the topic of the day was anything but schoolwork.
Instead, Leila’s classmates showed off their pets on screen – our tuxedo cat, Goose, made an appearance. They had conversations with one another, dying for any kind of social interaction and vying for the teacher’s attention. But it was hard for Leila – the glare from the blackboard prevented her from seeing whatever the teacher was showing and the chat function was turned off. Her teacher assigned due dates for the ending of each week, giving Leila a loose schedule to complete homework ranging from science to gym – usually a yoga video or an ABC workout for kids.
During the virtual meets, her teacher read from a book the class voted on. Leila cozied up with her favorite snack, a Chobani S’mores yogurt, and listened to the chapter of the day.
Then, it was my turn to start my school day. I brushed my brown hair into a messy-bun – the most “getting ready” I’d done in weeks – and lowered the brightness on my laptop screen to spare my already sensitive-to-light green eyes. I told Leila to play a game or watch television to limit the number of distractions taunting me from behind the computer screen I was staring at.
Several hours later and I couldn’t handle any more screen time. In between my professors’ lectures and feedback on my assignments as well as peer critiques from my classmates, my attention drifted in and out as I rubbed my eyes, dry from the light of the computer screen glaring back at me.
Leila practicing cartwheels in the dining room with Fuller House, her favorite television show, on full volume was amusing but distracting. And my patience could no longer handle any more of the “MOMMY”s I heard during most of my journalism classes.
“Mommy, how much longer till you’re done.”
“Mommy, what can I have to eat?”
“Mommy, look what Goose is doing.”
“Mommy, what are we going to do when your class is over?”
As an older, non-traditional student, virtual schooling was still foreign territory to me. I love my iPhone 10 XS but I’m not a digital native – I didn’t get my first computer until I was 18. That was 11 years ago. Attending Zoom class while also trying to keep on top of my school email inbox as well as Blackboard for submitting assignments was tricky business. School used to be an outlet for me, the time between classes was when I could have conversations with grownups.
For those of us who have children – and there are many of us – the pandemic turned us into classroom teachers as we needed to assist our kids with remote learning. Approximately 40 student parents responded to a survey last year by the Students with Children club at Stony Brook. And nationally, 26 percent of all undergraduate students – that’s 4.8 million students – are raising dependent children, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Women, of course, are more likely to be balancing college and parenthood, many without the support of a spouse or partner. About 71 percent of student parents are women – and roughly two million of them, or 43 percent of the total student parent population, are single mothers.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone.
For all parents, our homes – our safe havens – were instantly transformed into classrooms. In my case, I was suddenly mommy-college student-grade school teacher. Online school – Zoom for me, Google Classroom for my daughter – seemed relentless. I was in a state of constant worry. I hoped that my WIFI connection didn’t falter, that my headphones picked up every important word of a professor’s lecture and that my daughter – and life’s little emergencies – respected my class time.
Days turned into weeks. Leila’s teacher finally made a schedule for submitting assignments. Aside from the daily read-alouds on Google Meets, I took matters into my own hands for her sake and my sanity. I compiled a list of what was due and made her choose two subjects to complete daily so neither of us would be overwhelmed on Fridays, when everything was due. With the decision to go remote made at the last minute, her schoolwork consisted mostly of busy work – lots of videos and reading on Raz-Kids and interactive math games.
My classes reached an end-of-the-school-year crescendo while Leila began to feel the walls of our home closing in on her. We’d moved into our single-story two-bedroom house just a year before the pandemic forced us inside. Now, we finally, happily decorated Leila’s room as she wanted it – turning the walls into a gallery for all the paintings she was creating during our quarantine. My little girl, who once was mesmerized by unboxing videos, now studied YouTube tutorials to learn how to paint hazy sunsets.
“Once I finish with my schoolwork, it’s hard to sit inside,’ Leila told me one day, “especially since it’s getting nicer out.” I knew what she meant. “And I know a lot of things are happening around the world,” she added, “but I do feel lucky that I get to stay home and be with my mom all the time.”
In that moment, lockdown didn’t seem so awful. I didn’t think it was possible, but Leila and I grew even closer. We struggled together, we adventured together, and we learned together.
I watched my sweet girl suffer without social interaction with her friends and cousins, texting on her iPad and reaching out on Facebook’s Messenger Kids app – and waiting to see who would respond.
I watched her frustrations build when she didn’t understand a homework assignment.
“Mommy,” she called out one day. “I don’t get my math homework.”
I got off the cozy couch that doubles as our school chairs and walked over to Leila sitting at the kitchen table. My eyes widened as I realized what I was looking at.
“Did your teacher go over division with you at any point when you were in school?” I asked, fingers crossed.
How on earth was I going to teach division?
“It’s the opposite of multiplication,” I started. She looked scared. We shared the same defeated feeling – Leila’s from not understanding my explanation and mine from not knowing how else I could help her.
I tried again – and again. Eventually, we worked it out. And in the year of the pandemic, Leila did indeed catch on to division. She also learned how to tell time on an analog clock and figured out the value of coins.
But day after day, I watched her lose enthusiasm because she already knew what was ahead of us. Another day in the house, sitting on our brown couch, staring at our laptop, trying to ignore the outside panic but also wishing for the world outside to somehow go back to normal.
One day I plopped on the couch and logged onto my computer for yet another day in Zoom School. And I noticed a tab open on a Google search: “Is there a cure for coronavirus?”
My eight year old searched this.
Down the hall from our living room/classroom, Leila sat in her bedroom, under glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling and surrounded by pictures of her cousins and other relatives she’d clipped onto string lights over her bed. Toys from Christmases and birthdays past were scattered about. She admitted she’s afraid life will never go back to the way it was and worries that she won’t have a chance to visit anyone in our family if they get sick.
I sat in the pillow fort she created and decided that despite the stress of handling a global pandemic as a single mom, I would appreciate the bonuses it brought. Outside there were rules to be followed – social distancing and wearing masks and such – but inside my home, I was in charge.
Though it felt like the world had lost its bearings and all semblance of normalcy, it was now my duty to keep some things the same, for the both of us. My first decision – weekends were not be overrun with schoolwork or talk of school. It was a sacrifice I had to make even if I regretted it when Monday rolled around.
If it was nice outside, that’s where we would spend some time together – not cooped up in the house in front of computer or TV screens. After all, we live in a quiet neighborhood where trees and the greenery of the surrounding landscape provide beauty and a feeling of serenity.
Public places with large groups of people were a no-go but venturing outdoors, just the two of us, was still an option. A walk on a wooded trail became a literal and figurative breath of fresh air.
After that first spring of lockdown, summer vacation came and went but the pandemic didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Aside from a remote independent study project I was committed to, I had every intention of spending my summer blissfully unplugged, which I did.
I purchased a bike rack for the car with some leftover Mother’s Day gift cards, which allowed us to take our bikes and venture beyond our neighborhood. We visited the beach and pretended we were on a different island than the one where we live.
With precaution and boundaries, we began to visit some of the relatives we hadn’t seen in months. It felt surreal to hug my 78-year-old grandma and my mom. I felt nervous as I watched Leila hug her family. But my worry faded with Leila’s smiles as she glowed from the attention of the people who love her and whom she loves.
The only intrusions came from Stony Brook University in the form of emails announcing another all-online semester. But Leila was getting a reprieve. She would begin her transition back to in-person schooling two days a week.
Welcome to third grade.
As for me, I was entering my fourth year of college.
Welcome to senior year.
In the middle of it all, I decided to redecorate my house as a way to cope with quarantine.
The couch that I swore was morphing into the shape of Leila’s body was now on the other side of the room. The whiteboard where we kept track of her weekly schedule – now smudged and almost impossible to read – was propped up on a new bookshelf that stood against the cream-colored walls of the dining room. Leila’s brand-new Chromebook laptop sat on the brand-new desk in the living room, handmade by my boyfriend. Two huge additions that would make the months to come more bearable.
This time around, things flowed more smoothly and I knew what to expect to minimize freakouts from both mother and daughter. Under the best of circumstances, juggling your home life and school life is difficult. Doing it as a single mother ups the pressure. Doing it during a global pandemic makes it seem impossible. But the silver lining was that I got to live through it with my little girl.
Leila turned nine on March 6, 2021. This year there was no birthday party but of course there were presents to celebrate her – purple-and-pink-speckled roller blades, a 40-inch longboard and a bicycle with gears and 20-inch wheels – and to celebrate having survived the past months. Life was beginning to feel slightly more normal. If you didn’t think about it too much.
Before the pandemic, I was a single mom – but somehow it was during the pandemic that I feel like I truly grew as a mother. And I thrived as a student. I made it through all my Zoom classes and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Stony Brook University.
Leila was in the stands at Kenneth LaValle Stadium to watch me graduate – in person. We both wore Stony Brook-red caps and gowns. From the beginning, I told her that she was going to college with me. I figured she deserved regalia of her own. We both made sacrifices and worked hard to reach graduation day.
“If you could say anything to explain this past year, what would it be?” I asked Leila.
“We did it!” she replied.