Our statistics aren’t feeling well

The boys have been back to in-person schooling for more than a month now, and the world hasn’t ended. To hear them complain about having to change out of their pajamas in the morning, you might think it has, but not really.

They’ve had some kids in their classes test positive for COVID. The affected kids stay out for a week or so, then come back, and life goes on. It seems like a normal school year, except that all the students look like they’re about to rob a train.

With everything going along so near normal, you might be surprised to learn that our schools have suffered multiple outbreaks of COVID. That’s because, up until last week, our state defined an outbreak as two positive cases.

Little did I know that my family has been suffering outbreaks of all sorts of childhood diseases for the past 10 years. I always thought of it as just a couple of kids with the pukes, but according to the state health department, it was an outbreak of vomit. It was probably even newsworthy, had I known to call the papers.

There’s probably a vomit heat map buried within the health department web site, with a big, red circle centered over my house.

“There’s puke everywhere!”

I’m tempted to write a biological thriller, titled Outbreak, in which a total of two people come down with a mysterious illness. I haven’t settled on the catalyst for this spine-tingling plot, but I’m leaning toward the sharing of an expired carton of potato salad.

Now, the state has announced a change in this criterion of an outbreak to three positive cases. I give them credit for reducing the ridiculousness of their definition by a whopping 50%. That kind of swift improvement is difficult to achieve in government work.

The reasons for this change are murky, but the obvious conclusion is that outbreaks have become less politically useful to the state than they used to be. In the US, COVID statistics have become an interstate competition. Perhaps, our outbreak totals began to look awkward in comparison to our competitor states, until someone at the big meeting raised his hand and said, “Maybe we should find a way to have fewer outbreaks.” Give that man a raise.

So now we’ll have fewer school outbreaks. As a parent, that’s a huge relief to me. I’m proud to live in a state that is taking such strong measures to defeat this pandemic.

But as I was saying, the kids are back at school. The younger ones complain, but I think there is a secret part inside them that is happy to be back among their friends, despite the school lunches, which are reported to have taken a turn for the worse.

The older one doesn’t complain. He’s in 8th grade now, and girls are starting to become important. And as every schoolboy (who has spent a year of schooling online) knows, girls are much more intriguing in person than they are on Zoom.

Don’t be a Puzzled Penguin

In the past six months, I’ve learned more about being a first grader than I have since I was a first grader. Part of each of my days is spent in first grade, learning to read and do addition and subtraction. Part of each day is spent in third grade as well, learning to read a little better and do multiplication and division.

There are a lot more parents, like me, in first grade this year than there were in the 1973-74 academic year. As I recall, it used to be mostly little kids, but now parents are having to figure out how to use all the many online tools that make the remote learning elementary school go. Fortunately, we all have a six or seven-year-old nearby to help us.

It’s kind of a vicious cycle, but in order that we don’t get too frustrated, we call it a symbiotic relationship: Big Man wants help with his homework; before I can begin to help him, he must teach me how to use the online platform that jealously guards this day’s homework inside its electronic labyrinth.

It can be taxing, but we’re getting through it together. Our two heads combined are enough to graduate one of us from first grade. I just hope it’s the one still full of potential.

Along the way, we’ve have had some adventures and met some characters. One of the noteworthy entities I’ve met in electronic first grade is the Puzzled Penguin. The Puzzled Penguin shows up occasionally on one of the arithmetic applications.

I first met the Puzzled Penguin when Big Man and I encountered a math problem that went something like this:

                The Puzzled Penguin thinks 7 + 5 = 10 + 3. Is he correct?

Before I had even finished reading the problem, Big Man announced with certainty: “Nope, he’s wrong!”

I was amazed at the speed of his calculation. “Wow! How’d you do that addition so fast?”

“I didn’t add anything.”

“Then how do you know he’s wrong.”

“Easy. The Puzzled Penguin’s always wrong.”

“But why is he wrong?”

Big Man shrugged. “Because he’s dumb?”

“I mean why is he wrong in this case?”

“Because he’s still dumb?”

I put the screen squarely in front of him. “Okay. Do the math and tell me why he’s wrong.”

He gave me an exasperated look. “I already told you the answer. Because the Puzzled Penguin is always wrong.”

As he was speaking, Buster entered the room. “Oh, the Puzzled Penguin,” Buster mused. “I remember him. That dumb bird is always wrong.”

The only thing we learned about arithmetic that day is that penguins are consistent.

Believe me, we’ve tried to help him.

What’s your superpower

Our two elementary school boys are going through a Superhero phase. Big Man often asks me, usually when I am working, what superpower I wish I had. He wonders about the ability to fly or to turn invisible, but tops on my superpower wish list is the ability to make children turn silent when I am working. I will never attain this power fully, but there are times when I have come close, through my secret weapon of the computer tablet, loaded with video games.

Even the good guys need to use their powers for a touch of evil when they need to catch a break.

Big Man, being a normal Superhero of six, sometimes falls asleep watching TV. These occasions make me wish I had the superpower to be 20 years younger, when I could carry a heavy sack of potatoes up the stairs without wheezing.

One morning, after he had been carried, unconscious, from the couch to his bed, Big Man announced that he had teleported from living room to bedroom during the night. This was concrete evidence he was a genuine Superhero. Teleportation is a bona fide superpower, and people possessing superpowers must be Superheroes. This is especially true of children. It’s all in the Superhero employee handbook.

Way back when Superheroes knew how to play outside, some of them even teleported into their beds from the baseball diamond.

This is his superpower now: he can teleport, with certain caveats. The first caveat is that he can only do it when asleep. Caveat 2 is that he has no control over the destination of his teleportations, except that they most often end in his bed.

Caveat 3, which he has not yet encountered, is the weight limit on teleported matter, and the age limit on the fathers of those who may use this superpower. When he gains a few more pounds, or his father gains a few more years, whichever comes first, his teleporting days are over. Until then, he is free to teleport in ignorant bliss whenever he falls asleep in an inconvenient spot. In the coming years, he will have to wake up and climb the stairs himself, unless he chooses to meet the new day in the same awkward position he left the old one.

Perhaps his true superpower is being a sound sleeper. Even when I have to tussle his body into a totable position, he is not roused from his teleportation. The more I think about it, the more I think being a sound sleeper would be an excellent superpower. With all the miniature Superheroes fighting crime, peace, and quiet in my home, I think I’ll choose this as the new superpower I wish I had.

Stale socks and missing presidents

I’m not sure if my boys are getting too wise for me or just have too many wisecracks for me.

This morning I told Buster he had to change socks. “Remember last time, when your socks smelled so bad because of your stinky feet?” I asked. “I don’t want the stinky sock alarm to go off in school. Then everybody will have to evacuate the building because of you.”

He gave me that long, thoughtful, 2nd grade look. “Why does everybody say the alarm goes off, instead of the alarm goes on?”

I gave him that long, thoughtful, grad school dropout look. “I don’t know. It’s just what they say.” I pushed a pair of clean socks into his hand and ran away.

It’s Big Man’s sharing day. This is the modern way of saying he should take something for Show and Tell. In our Kindergarten, sharing is done by letter. The kids bring something to share that begins with the letter they are studying that week.

This week’s letter is L. We had hoped Big Man could take our Abraham Lincoln PEZ dispenser, but Lincoln recently went missing from our PEZ collection. As we sorted through our PEZ dispensers, I loudly asked the universe, “Where’s Mr. Lincoln?”

From the next room, came the universe’s terse reply, wrapped in Buster’s childish voice: “He’s dead.”

Big Man got an idea. “I think I might know where Mr. Lincoln is,” he told me, leading me toward the hall closet. “I think he’s in a blue or green bag. A teal bag.” At first, I didn’t understand his last description, so unready was I to hear a Kindergartner describe a color as teal. He rooted around in the closet and pulled out a bag that was plainly teal, to my limited understanding of blended hues.

Mr. Lincoln was not inside. The teal bag was a dead end.

We ran out of time before we located Mr. Lincoln, and if he’s hitching rides in colorful over-the-shoulder totes, we may never find him. In his place we sent PEZ Andrew Johnson. We rehearsed our story so Big Man could explain why he was bringing a J to L sharing. It boils down to this: “Mr. Johnson is here to announce the sad news that we’ve lost Mr. Lincoln.”

For all we know, he belongs to the ages now.

“I have very sad news about PEZ Lincoln.”