Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

First Day of School Gone Wrong

Tyra Johnson had been planning for the first day of school at home for weeks. She ordered workbooks and a sling book rack online. She transformed a 50-square-foot corner of her living room into a learning nook for her preschooler, Madison, and first-grader, Meegale.

Johnson, 30, had the tablet and password ready to log in for Meegale’s virtual schooling. The newborn, Mason, would sleep in a baby carrier she would wear all day while teaching the other two. Her 10-year-old niece would also be staying with her in her north St. Louis apartment.

“I have a first-grader,” she says with a laugh, as if she can hardly believe it. She points out that her son actually reads on a grade level higher than his age.

Both of the children have been out of school since mid-March, with their mom trying to find ways to keep their education on track despite the challenges of losing her job and living in a neighborhood with frequent gunfire. She doesn’t let her children go outside the apartment to play; they spend most nights at Johnson’s mom’s house across the river, because it feels safer to her.

I’ve been checking in with her since the spring, but the first time we met in person was in late August -- the day before the new school year was scheduled to start. Meegale was trying to put together a safe out of discarded cardboard boxes, and recruited me to help him. He searched on YouTube for how-to videos for his project, then looked outside his window. A few kids were hanging out on the street below.

“Those are hoodlum kids,” he said. What made him think so, I asked?

“Because they outside by themselves. Only grownups can protect kids. Kids can’t protect themselves,” he said.

There are bullet holes in the wall in Meegale’s room and in the short hallway outside the room.

The next day started rough. The kids stayed up too late and had trouble waking up. Both came downstairs cranky and tired.

Johnson was trying to get breakfast on the table, moving the stack of delivered groceries out of the way, feeding Mason and cleaning up a few spills. A knock on the back door meant it was time to take the trash out.

She was fixing Madison’s hair with one hand and trying to call Meegale’s school with the other.

For some reason, she couldn’t log him into his virtual class. She kept getting an error message on the tablet, and a busy signal or voicemail at the school.

This day was nothing like she had planned for weeks.

She pulled out the kids’ workbooks and told them to work on the matching exercises. Meegale lay down on the floor to rest. After a few minutes of teaching, the kids were upset and crying.

“By the fact that you didn’t go to sleep,” she said to Meegale, “and you didn’t go to sleep,” she said to Madison, “this is the aftereffect. That means, the next time I tell you to go to sleep, you go to sleep, OK?”

There was a day earlier that year when Meegale got to put on his school uniform: a navy shirt and pants. His mom had agreed to let him go back for in-person learning in St. Louis Public Schools. When she picked him up after his first day there, he talked about seeing his friends and teacher again.

But then Madison caught a cold, and Johnson had a sinus infection. Her fears about contracting COVID -- despite their months of isolation -- spiked again.

After three days of in-person school, she decided it was safer for him to stay home.

They were all sitting together in their living room last month when shots fired into her apartment again.

She and Meegale hit the ground.

They packed up some clothes and left that day for her mom’s, and haven’t been back since. She’s still paying rent at the apartment they fled. She’s now working two jobs, trying to find her family a permanent new home.

Meegale still talks about the safe we tried to build.