Importance of In-Person Interaction

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Matt Geiger

Our daughter’s desk collapsed on her the other day, pinning her to the ground in a pile of rubble consisting mostly of magic markers, erasers and books of a most considerable heft. 

We had had to fashion an office for her, when it became clear there would not be in-person classes. Desks, my wife informed me, were sold out everywhere. So, after a little thought and a lot of rummaging, we repurposed an old piece of furniture whose provenance and initial intent is a mystery to me. It looks kind of like an inebriated table, an emaciated desk or a postmodern bureau. 

We set it in Hadley’s old playroom, which was primarily being used as a kind of purgatory for household items that would later make their way into the garage, and then–probably many years later–the dump. My wife, who is aesthetically inclined, spent several weekend days fixing up the room, cleaning the carpet, painting furniture, neatly organizing schoolbooks and writing utensils, repositioning old lamps for optimal lighting, in an effort to make virtual school fun. 

Online school is, for a six-year-old child, an interesting idea. I do not know if, with years of preparation and considerable enthusiasm on the part of the child, it could be wonderful. My guess is, in some ways at least, it could be. Our daughter, who used to love school so much I considered demanding a DNA test to make sure she’s actually related to me, loathes it. We have been told by educators to frame it in a positive light, to explain that it’s needed, and it’s an opportunity to learn in a way that is safe. But all that has really done is make our daughter trust us less, because it is clear we are being dishonest with her when we say everything is fine. 

But the desk, at least, was great. It was beautiful and useful, mixing art and utilitarian function. It was one way we could try to make online school fun. Then, as I was downstairs trying to find a quiet spot where someone could yell at me on the phone for work, I heard–and felt–a thunderous crash upstairs. Next came a terrible pause, mere milliseconds but nearly eternal; a moment so pregnant it might soon have given birth to triplets, when I waited to hear if the crash is followed by wailing. All parents know this moment. 

It was. 

I bounded up the stairs, stepping on a sleeping dog and twisting my ankle, just for good measure. When I entered the room, I recoiled at the amount of carnage a small, desk-type thing had caused. There was stuff everywhere. I had no idea we owned so many school supplies, from the stony, hardcover books to the rocks–actual rocks–she had been counting for math. There were so many coins strewn about, it looked like Scrooge McDuck’s vault. They were, I later realized, another math prop. 

“Owwwww! Help! Help!” cried a voice drenched in wet panic. As I dug through the piles, I uncovered my daughter, wearing tears, snot and fear on her abnormally red face. I lifted the desk, giving it a kick for good measure, then hoisted Hadley into my arms. After five or 10 minutes of crying and screaming, she calmed down. It was then I noticed the “class” she had been taking was still going on. The instructional video, which was pre-recorded, was still yammering on about something vaguely first grade-ish. It was so clear, in that moment, that it was merely images on a screen. It could not have helped her, even if it wanted to. 

If a large piece of furniture attacked my daughter at school, it would be a good experience. Not the initial physical and mental pain, obviously, but the part that always comes next. The part where a teacher came to her side and made her feel better. The part where a friend, or maybe even a classmate she didn’t play with much, extended a kind little hand or a kind little word. The thing about real life–not Internet life–is that people are usually there for you. They are there, and I know this is a cliché, to lift you up when you fall, to brush a few pebbles out of a skinned knee, to lift a desk off of your injured body. In real life, people are there for you, and hopefully you are there for them. You can fix a flat tire, or lend someone money for a sandwich, or whatever. But the most important part is being there. 

While we adults have worked hard to create the illusion that people are there for young kids in the absence of in-person school, the desk incident was a pointed reminder to our daughter that, in fact, when you are online, no one is really there. No one is there at all. It is merely an illusion, like when she talks to a screen on which a grainy image of her grandmother talks back to her. Just a recording on a school-issued Chromebook that droned on and on, unconcerned, as she screamed out for help. 

Of course, I was there, but she doesn’t really need further proof that her mother and I love her. She is six, which is old enough to know we always have, and always will. But we won’t always be here. Someday, much sooner than I would like, she will head out into the world, and I will be the one who isn’t there. I will be the one she Facetimes with or talks to on whatever silly new technology exists in a few more years. What she needs to know, now, is not that we are here for her. Even at her weakest, she knows I will run up a thousand flights of stairs, wrench my ankle on a thousand sleeping dogs, and lift a thousand fallen desks off of her chest. What I hope she knows, someday, is that other people will be there, too. 

I have no idea if or when things will get back to normal. I think the human species will be fine. We’ve endured much worse than this. But I do wonder what a generation without hugs or help from people outside their respective bubbles will be like. We all grew up experiencing kindness and look how hard it is for us to get along. Society is hanging by a thread as it is, and we had the benefit of hugs, and the help of a hand up when we fell down. 

Who knows what comes next? Not me, certainly. But I hope that someday, all of the small, young, bright-eyed people to whom we will leave everything in this world, will remember, or even learn for the first time, what it’s like to experience kindness out and about in the scary, daunting world where it actually does exist.

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