I have to say, in all my apocalyptic visions (and I’ve had a lot) homeschool never factored in.
Having spent my childhood in full “duck and cover” mode, I am a student of apocalyptic visions in the absolute least-academic sense, and I’ve learned some good lessons, especially from movies. Make sure to have about thirty gas cans and always keep them full (“Mad Max”). Please, for heaven’s sakes, live near water so you can get away (“Children of Men”). It’s really, really helpful to be able to time travel (“Twelve Monkeys”). If you end up being a cyborg police officer, make sure you live in a town with a steel mill so you can repair yourself (“Robocop”). If you end up being CHASED by a cyborg, make sure you live in a town with a steel mill so you can throw the cyborg in to the molten metal and then do about a thousand pull-ups a day (“Terminator” and “Terminator 2”).
Lots of steel mills, but no homeschooling.
And books aren’t much better really, even the books that feature children. “The Road” is amazing, but Cormac McCarthy doesn’t mention fractions even once, as I recall. There are no Zoom classes in James Dashner’s “Maze Runner.” Nevil Shute was clever enough to make Peter Holmes’ child an infant in “On the Beach.” And Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games?” I mean, seriously, there’s no room for AR tests in Katniss’ world.
Nope, no homeschooling in apocalyptic literature either.
But we are looking for some sort of guidance, aren’t we, if the surging popularity of “Contagion” is any indication. I’ve had friends ask me about what they can read with their children that may help them understand this time of isolation, something to correlate with times of rationing, or missing friends, or being bored at home.
What I found has nothing to do with cyborgs or steel mills or even the Hunger Games. It’s nothing futuristic or nuclear or viral or anything like that. It’s about snow. Lots and lots of snow.
I love Laura Ingalls Wilder, I mean I LOVE Laura Ingalls Wilder. I know she’s come under fire of late, specifically because of how Native Americans are represented in her books, but I am of native heritage myself, and I am under no illusions about how we, or any minorities, were viewed in the 19th century. (If anything, Pa had more respect than most for Native Americans at that time). So when I went looking for just the right book, I didn’t hesitate. I knew the exact book that fits this moment.
The Long Winter
The fifth book is what is known as the “Little House” series, “The Long Winter” is by far my favorite. Even before we were all self-isolating, I would often go back and read this book, the same copy I’ve had since I was in second grade (there’s my very shaky cursive signature right on the frontispiece). The true (well, true but not COMPLETE — I’ve also read “Prairie Fires” by Caroline Fraser, and “Pioneer Girl,” edited by Pamela Smith Hill — both Ingalls’ biographies) story of Laura and her family as they struggle to survive during the winter of 1880-1881, what is considered to be the most severe winter the Dakota region ever faced.
The winter begins with an early season October blizzard that buried two story houses. Crops had not yet been harvested, grain hadn’t been milled, and there were no winter fuel supplies stored. By January, train services were suspended. There were no winter thaws. By February, when a nine-day blizzard hit, the only way to get around Laura’s town of De Smet, was to dig tunnels under the completely solid snow, which was so deep it drifted over the tops of buildings.
The blizzards came so often that more often than not, Laura, Mary, Carrie, and Grace were forced to stay home to do their studies.
Laura almost wailed, “Oh Ma! How can I ever teach school and help send Mary to college? How can I ever amount to anything when I can get only one day of school at a time?”
“Now Laura,” Ma said kindly, “You must not be so discouraged. A few blizzards more or less can make no great difference. We will hurry and get the work done, then you can study. There is enough figuring in your arithmetic to keep you busy for a good many days, and you can do as much of it as you want to. Nothing can keep you from learning.”
Oh, Ma. How I wish I had your patience.
But that was still before Christmas. On January 1, word came that the trains wouldn’t even attempt to get to De Smet anymore. No food, no fuel, no nothing would be coming in. There would be no more school.
Laura and her family were alone, even in town, they were alone and isolated, seeing only each other, fighting hunger, fighting cold, and yes, fighting boredom. Ma struggled to make them do their lessons every day, until at last, even she gave up.
There were no more lessons. There was nothing in the world but cold and dark and work and coarse brown bread and winds blowing. The storm was always there, outside the walls, waiting sometimes, then pouncing, shaking the house, roaring, snarling, and screaming in rage. The only hope was that someday winter would end. It had to. This winter will end too, it has to. And while we wait for it to end and do our parts to help that along, we can take comfort (and lessons) from “The Long Winter,” probably more so than “Terminator” or “The Hunger Games.”
Because at the end of the day, neither Sarah Connor nor Katniss Everdeen had to homeschool three children while trying to earn a paycheck. And at this moment, for me anyway, even a cyborg seems less daunting than fourth-grade math.
Juanita Giles, a Randolph-Macon Woman’s College graduate, is the executive director and co-founder of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival.