Law and order is on the verge of breaking down — within the confines of my own house. My two kids, 11 and 13, aren’t just cooped up; they’re in full revolt. They have some homework assignments to do but no regular online classes to engage them. So my wife and I are taking shifts, almost like prison guards, imposing TV shutdowns and mandatory yard time.
Our parents — the kids’ grandparents — are also bottled up. My mom and stepdad are holed up in the Berkshires, on a lonely mountain. They barely ever see another person. The isolation is taking a toll, but it’s more than that. I think, on some level, they feel rather expendable. And who could blame them? The young keep telling one another: Things are OK; only the old people will die.
So my wife came up with an idea: Why don’t we connect these two generations? Her notion was to conscript the grandparents as teachers. We pooled a bunch of kids from our neighborhood and their grandparents and formed an online school. We called it Grandparents’ Academy. Had a nice ring to it. Yes, even in the face of the apocalypse, branding matters.
Setting the whole thing up was surprisingly simple. We did it in less than 24 hours. We created a Google calendar and asked the grandparents to pick time slots for weekly and bi-weekly classes. They could teach, well … anything they wanted. In no time, we had a schedule.
The grandparents offered classes on the Bill of Rights, game theory, number patterns, presidential history, anthropology, law and conversational Polish. Some were bona fide experts and others were just folks who’d read a lot of books. There was no screening of candidates. No syllabuses. No reading lists. Just: Can you start tomorrow?
I had my doubts.
We all know that moment when a grandparent offers some unsolicited advice — “Well, in my day …” — and almost instantly the kids’ eyes glaze over. When the first class started, on the Bill of Rights, I was kind of holding my breath.
The teacher, my father, began a discussion of Feiner vs. New York, the classic 1951 Supreme Court case involving freedom of speech. He laid out the facts. There was a guy, Feiner, who started making a speech on a street corner denouncing President Harry Truman. People got angry. A fight almost broke out. “So,” my dad said, “should this guy be allowed to make his speech, even if it provokes a violent reaction?”
There was a long, awkward pause — you know, that Zoom thing, when no one knows who is supposed to speak — and then, all at once, a spirited debate broke out. Everyone had an opinion.
The next class, on number patterns, went over just as well. Afterward, my kids told me excitedly, “For next class we need two different types of paper towels, so we can compare them for an experiment!” Truth be told, we have only one type of paper towel — which I really ought to be auctioning on eBay right now — but that was beside the point. The kids were into it. They were learning and, just as important, they were being reminded that Damn, Grandpa knows some stuff.
In one way, our “academy” is pretty high-tech; but in another way, this is the lowest-tech solution of all time. Once upon a time, it was understood that wisdom and knowledge resided among the elders. Young people gathered around a fire to hear grandparents speak. This ritual was a daily reminder of their value. We just rekindled that practice, with some laptops and a shared calendar.
In truth, we could have done this a long time ago. Grandpa has always “known some stuff.” We just stopped asking him questions. We’d gotten a little too used to asking Siri, or Alexa, or Google.
My father-in-law, Mirek, is teaching a class on game theory, but he has more to offer than that. He lived through martial law in Poland. He got polio as a kid and still managed to play soccer, do martial arts and bicycle for thousands of miles. In this time of fear and uncertainty, it’s powerful to be reminded of Grandpa’s steadfastness. Because he has been through stuff like this before. And he is not immobilized by fear. He is right there in front of you, asking you to focus — and start work on the next problem.
Jake Halpern is the author of the forthcoming “Welcome to the New World,” based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning series in The Times.