Tuesday, March 31, 2020

“The books are still at the school, right?” (Purnhagen)

My seven-year-old son wants to know when we're going to the school book fair. Gus has been asking about it for over two weeks now--17 days, to be exact. The event had been scheduled for a Monday earlier this month and Gus was extra excited because his class won a school-wide competition and would be receiving a gift certificate worth two dollars. He had big plans to buy a banana-scented pencil.
The book fair, of course, has been cancelled, a fact I've tried to explain but one Gus stubbornly refuses to accept. He doesn't understand that when he hopped off the bus on March 12 that he would not be getting back on for a long time. At first, I thought my kids would be off for a few days. Slowly, it became obvious that they would be out for the entire month of March. And now, they will be home until May and will likely not return at all.
They are home, four boys stretched out in the family room or inhaling snacks from the pantry. If it's nice outside, I make them spend time in the back yard. During the first unexpected school-free week, they uncovered an old beer cooler from the 1970s half-buried in the woods behind our house. It was empty except for a few inches of muddy rain water and soggy leaves, but the thrill of discovery was better than the slide at recess.
Classes are now online, with the teachers posting happy videos and interactive reading assignments. On screen, the principal reads chapters from a book while a content cocker spaniel sits in her lap. Attendance is taken by having the kids video record themselves answering a question. Today's query: What did you do over Spring Break?
There wasn't much to report: A few virtual field trips through empty aquariums. Playing UNO together at the kitchen table. Scribbling with chalk on the driveway. (My 10-year-old was proud of the pastel blue line he drew from one side to the other, declaring that it was a “virus border” to keep people back.)
Still, Gus questions me about the book fair. He has the paper flyer that was sent home last month, with his book choices carefully circled in black ink. “The books are still at the school, right?” he asks. “They’re just sitting there?” Honestly, I don’t know what happened to all the books. Maybe they’re occupying half the school library in their metal cases. Or maybe the administration realized that the entire stock needed to be returned, that even if the kids did come back to class, there wouldn’t be time for in-school shopping.
Our branch library locked its doors not long after the schools did, so we can’t browse the shelves there. And Fireside Bookstore, our local indie choice, also had to close. I offered to buy Gus a book online, but he wasn't interested. "It's not the same," he said.
I get it. I’ve been borrowing library books online and using an e-reader and I’m still getting used to it. I like holding an actual book in my hands. I like visiting the library and talking to people. The online experience, while amazing, can’t replace the real thing.  It’s not the same. 
Tomorrow we will get up and have breakfast and log into our personal computers. The kids will complete their assignments and play video games and hopefully get some time outside. Maybe Gus will ask me about the book fair tomorrow, but maybe he won't. Maybe the schools will open before summer, but it's likely they can't.  So we'll try to create something within these walls, something to look forward to, something that feels new and shiny and real-- because we should. 

Mara Purnhagen is the author of four young adult novels: Tagged, Past Midnight, One Hundred Candles, and Beyond the Grave, as well as two novellas and numerous short stories. She lives in Chagrin Falls with her husband, their four sons, and two cats.

March 31st, 2020