I Don’t Know How To Convince My Daughter To Care About School Right Now
My daughter’s psychiatrist starts every session with the same question.
“How are you feeling?”
She directs the question to my daughter, but invariably glances at me.
I’m not sure why I’m required to be present at these appointments. I assume it’s so I can weigh in on my daughter’s mental health. Most of the time I am completely silent. I sit helplessly beside my struggling teenager while she explains that getting out of bed isn’t as excruciatingly difficult as it was a month ago.
“I don’t think about dying anymore,” my daughter replies. Her smooth brow furrows. “Sometimes I wonder what the point of getting out of bed is though.”
A thousand invisible daggers stab me in the heart as I watch the top three quarters of the psychologist’s face react to this bit of information.
A thought skitters across my exhausted brain, “Why hasn’t she figured out how to center her camera yet?”
I like this woman. She is kind and measured and clearly enamoured with my daughter. Perhaps she doesn’t want to show her entire face. I can’t blame her. I hate seeing my aging, puffy visage on video calls.
“What you’re feeling is completely understandable,” the psychiatrist tells my daughter. “None of what’s happening is normal. This pandemic is a once-in-a-century occurrence and it’s hitting teenagers the hardest.”
She’s not wrong.
As teachers, parents, and school districts across the US grapple with the dilemma of what school should look right now, teenagers are disappearing — into their bedrooms, behind their screens, and into the depths of their own minds.
Last November, the CDC reported that mental health visits to emergency rooms increased by 31% for kids between the ages of 12 to 17.
My daughter contributed to this statistic. She had a mental health crisis in July that landed her in the ER.
Her crisis was the result of a perfect storm of anxiety and depression combined with several external factors. Mix them together, add a pandemic, and you have a kid in crisis.
After that harrowing day in the ER, she was admitted to a partial hospitalization program. This is how she spent the final month of summer “vacation.” She met with other teens (masked and socially distanced) in a therapeutic environment.
The program taught her coping skills. It pulled her from the abyss of deep depression. I truly believe it saved her life. She is so much better now. But she still struggles. The crisis isn’t over. She remains cut off from what she needs most — her peers.
“She should be pulling away from you, Mom,” the psychiatrist says when I admit that I’ve been hovering too much. She always calls me Mom. I wonder if she knows my name.
“I know,” I respond. “I’ll try to do better.”
I think about my daughter’s weekdays — how one runs into the next and into the next. How the laptop sits squarely in the center of everything, a smooth grey rectangle.
Zoom school is a mishmash of screens and disconnected voices. From my office, I hear the drone of her teachers reviewing assignments or giving instructions or telling the kids to do one more thing.
When Zoom school starts I get up from my desk and poke my head into my daughter’s room.
Typically, I find her curled up in bed, the laptop an open clamshell beside her pillow. Her eyes are closed or they are trained on her cell phone or they are fixed on her cat who is draped across her legs, claiming ownership.
“Coffee?” I ask.
“Yes, please,” she replies.
I make the coffee with lots of sugar and a little vanilla and far too much cream. I bring it to her. If she’s made the effort to sit up and focus on the screen, I’m happy.
The screen is passive. It’s detached. It’s expectant.
The screen is filled with bright, endless movement or it’s dark. Zoom school is unpredictable. Classes end early or start early or don’t start at all. From her bed, where she spends eighty percent of her time, my daughter pets her cat. She waits for the next class. She sips her coffee.
It’s like this every day, every week, every month.
I don’t think she’s learning a damn thing.
My daughter spent the last four months of tenth grade attending classes virtually as the world unspooled into chaos.
She watched American life come apart in sixty second video montages on TikTok and Instagram.
While the then-President denied the existence or severity (or both) of the virus, she saw George Floyd suffocate beneath the knee of a police officer, his death replayed again and again and again.
She saw peaceful BLM protestors beaten, shot, gaslit and largely ignored by people with the power to hold Floyd’s murderer accountable.
She saw this. They all saw this.
She logged into Zoom school while the adults around her tried to balance our fear, uncertainty, and panic in the midst of this national unraveling. She watched us wipe our groceries down and disinfect our mail. She watched as the money dried up and people she knew got sick.
Summer came and went in near total isolation. It seemed to drag on forever, but somehow also went by too soon.
My daughter started her junior year of high school in a good place. The school remained 100% virtual. They’d ironed out some of the rough patches. She was getting out of bed and attending school in my office for most of September.
It didn’t last. School went hybrid and she chose to stay completely virtual, afraid of getting me or my husband sick.
She hung in there as chaos continued to dominate the news cycle. She watched California burn, donating money from her paltry allowance to help people who had lost everything.
Three thousand miles away in our corner of New York State, the horizon turned hazy with smoke.
Here was another issue not being addressed — climate crisis — a problem that falls squarely on the shoulders of my daughter’s generation.
By mid-October, she was back to attending school from bed.
She watched Trump fortify his big lie in the weeks leading up to the election, then buckle down on authoritarianism when he lost.
She watched him mobilize an army of hatred that was relentless and ever-present, all of it in full display on her TikTok feed.
The holidays brought more isolation. The second wave of Covid hit, a result of three million people ignoring the pleas of healthcare professionals and choosing to travel for Thanksgiving.
In January, my daughter watched white insurrectionists walk into the US Capitol, unchallenged, and carry away bits and pieces of our democracy.
The virus got more virulent. The days came and went from within the cocoon of her childhood bedroom.
She logged into Microsoft Teams like a champ. She grew more anxious and isolated. Each morning she was confronted with notifications from half a dozen teachers, with tasks and alerts and endless assignments.
Her motivation ebbed. Her grades slid. She switched to an easier math class, and managed to pass all her classes for a second quarter. It took everything she had.
“Lots of kids are failing,” she told me. “Some of them don’t even bother logging in anymore.”
President Biden addressed Covid with a determination and honesty his predecessor lacked. But I’m afraid it’s too late. We cannot get vaccines. She remains isolated, overwhelmed, and hopeless.
Can you blame her for checking out?
I don’t know what matters anymore, but it seems to me that College Algebra and Honors English and virtual PE should be the least of my daughter’s worries.
There is finally an end in sight. Logically, I know this, but I also know it probably won’t manifest until the end of the summer when we’re all vaccinated.
I want my daughter to go back to regular, in-person school. I want her to spend her senior year in a real classroom.
But she’s already lost so much time. What will this mean for her future?
By the time she’s a senior, she will have spent half of high school in her bedroom, staring at that immovable grid. Her grades will have been decimated from the experience of trying to stay engaged with the terrible, relentless screen.
She’ll be playing catch up, scrambling to take the tests and fill out the forms she needs to move to the next phase of her life.
Or perhaps not.
When my daughter graduates in 2022, the world will be a very different place than it was when she started high school in 2018.
That was the year after her sister died, a year that marked the ending of many childhood friendships and the beginning of what was supposed to be a fresh start.
My daughter’s world has come undone more than once.
As I sit and worry and try not to hover, I recall more of the psychiatrist’s words.
“Teenagers, developmentally, need socialization right now,” she’d said. “They need to break away from their parents and start building their independence.”
But they are caged. They are stilted. They must wait a little longer to pick up the developmental reigns of their lives.
So, no, I don’t know how to convince my daughter to care about school right now.
My instinct, quite frankly, is to say fuck it. Get through the next few months any way you can. Drop a class. Fail a class. Skip the standardized tests. Let the catastrophe end and the smoke clear before you try to move forward.
Hold onto me as tightly as you need to. We’ll figure this shit out once we’re on solid ground again.