Drew Himmelstein's kids Harvey (left) and Nate occupied by author-artist Mo Willems. (DREW HIMMELSTEIN)
Drew Himmelstein's kids Harvey (left) and Nate occupied by author-artist Mo Willems. (DREW HIMMELSTEIN)

Staying at home with two young boys, live streamed drawing time is my savior

Two weeks ago — I believe this timeline is accurate, though time has now lost all meaning — when I went to pick my oldest son up from school, he was wearing a plastic orange firefighter’s hat and immediately wanted to tell me about his day. He tends to be private, so when he’s eager to share, it must be something special.

That day, March 10, was the second grade’s annual “City Workers Day” at his elementary school in Brooklyn, New York. Nate got to meet a firefighter, a judge, a librarian, a police officer and a police dog.

The students walked around the auditorium and asked the city employees questions, and in return, they got loot, which my 7-year-old unloaded as soon as we got home: coloring books and activity books about their jobs, the fire hat, and an unfortunate whistle that Nate has proceeded to blast loudly and shrilly despite our pleas for mercy.

Now Nate’s sweet neighborhood elementary school — with its traditions and celebrations and nurturing teachers and crossing guards who know every child’s name — seems like a place that exists only in memory.

Today Nate saw his teachers and classmates through a Zoom video conference, and he raised his hand to ask a question: “How long are we going to be talking on Facetime like this?” he asked. And his teacher became misty. “I don’t know,” she said.

It’s been stunning how quickly our mental states have changed over the last weeks as the threat of COVID-19 has rapidly increased.

Never before have I lived through a time in which my understanding of the world and my belief about what was the right thing to do has shifted so radically in such short amounts of time.

On March 13, I brought Nate and our 4-year-old, Harvey, to the playground to play.

By March 14, such an action seemed unwise.

On the morning of the next day, a Sunday, I figured my children would go to school on Monday. By the afternoon, my husband and I had decided that keeping them home was the only ethical thing to do to slow the rate of infection. By that night, school had been canceled anyway.

Since then, my two kids haven’t played in a playground or with their friends. I marked out a distance of 6 feet on our kitchen floor with tape to show them how far away they have to stay from those outside of our immediate family when we take them outside for exercise.

They’re cooperative with our strict hand-washing regimen, and they understand that we’re doing all this to protect others because the virus doesn’t usually make kids very sick.

New York schools officially have been canceled until at least April 20, but at this point I’m assuming it’s going to be the rest of the school year.

When I first faced down the prospect of even five weeks with my whole family homebound, I was overwhelmed.

Not only do I have to keep my kids occupied and nondestructive all day, every day, while rarely leaving the house, my home now doubles as an office for me and my husband, a school for my children, and a diner for the many, many, many meals that we all now eat together every day. (Eating three meals a day together has been an unexpectedly nice part of this situation; the dishes, however, are crushing.)

During the first week that school was canceled, artists and musicians and children’s book authors flooded Facebook and Instagram offering free streaming art classes and book readings and music classes for the hundreds of thousands of children stuck at home. Emmy Award winner Debbie Allen (of “Fame” and “Grey’s Anatomy” fame) holds weekly Instagram Live dance classes; the Cincinnati Zoo started a daily “Home Safari” show on Facebook Live.

The best one is “Lunch Doodles,” a daily video series hosted by Mo Willems, the author of the wildly popular “Elephant and Piggie” series, who is also the Kennedy Center’s education artist-in-residence.

For 20 minutes or so, Willems doodles, teaches kids to draw his famous characters, gives them creative challenges, shows them around his home studio in Massachusetts and answers questions that children have sent in. Most of all, he talks to the kids in a soothing voice, acknowledges that things have changed in their lives, but encourages them to experiment and draw on their inner creativity.

Every afternoon in my house, I spread out the art supplies on the table, turn on Mo and let my kids get swept away in art and his comforting presence. As far as I’m concerned, Mo Willems is this generation’s Mister Rogers, a balm for children and parents alike.

I was moved by the flood of online resources made available for kids that first week. It made me feel that we could get through this, that we were in it together.

This week, remote learning started, and our time online became dominated by Google Classroom and Zoom.

That has been a challenging transition in itself, but it didn’t really hit me until Nate’s after-school program released a schedule of virtual classes. Nate used to take soccer and art after school; now we can sign him up for streaming yoga or dance.

But I can’t get excited about virtual after-school classes the way I do about Mo Willems’ “Lunch Doodles.” Willems is bringing us together as a nation, but online group-enrichment classes from the school that hosted live, in-person “City Workers Day” just a couple of weeks ago feels sad. It depresses me that our children will understand this to be business as usual.

What does brighten my outlook is seeing the ways that people are creative about connecting in the real world.

I’ve heard of drive-by birthday parties, where friends drive by and cheer and hold signs for the birthday kid. A preschool classmate left my 4-year-old a message in chalk outside our front door. And my 7-year-old, on the first day school was canceled, reminded us that it was his best friend’s birthday. He made him a card, and we walked it over to his house and dropped it on his porch.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.