Margo Sullivan painting planters in the backyard.

Kristen and Margo took a stab at going green with an herb garden last year. Margo painted a pretty floral scene on the front of our new planter and they tended to it dutifully. It was a worthy quarantine hobby and we enjoyed clipping our own basil, rosemary, thyme and mint for cooking. But the sun and rain gradually wore the planter down. It buckled and ultimately collapsed under the weight of the soil. We salvaged the painted panel but our foray into sustainability proved unsustainable.

Sometimes I feel like that planter was a metaphor for our school situation. The year of virtual learning has left us a bit wobbly. The kids are questioning everything, particularly when the nearest adult moderator is woefully unqualified.

Margo: Why do we even have to learn this? Do adults ever stand around talking about mitochondria?

Me: Oh sure. We talk about it all the time.

Margo: Do you even know what mitochondria is?

Me: Of course. It’s like, teeny-tiny chondria, right…?

Margo: (eyeroll)

A degree of skepticism is always expected but this prolonged arrangement has tested all sorts of boundaries. I’m reminded of my freshman year in college where every class presented a test of newfound free will. The early morning history of architecture lecture seemed particularly optional when my roommate kept me up playing Steely Dan CD’s until 4 a.m. Intro to philosophy or afternoon wiffle ball on the quad? That hardly seems a fair decision to present to an 18-year-old. So, I understand the burden of perceived choice when in fact, there should be no choosing. I just wish my kids had to wait at least until college to develop these bad habits.

Elliott finally resumed some in-person learning this month. It’s a welcome change after a year of waking at 8:58 for a 9 a.m. start to a day of staring at his laptop and couch surfing through breaks. It is only half day, two days a week and three of his four “in-person” teachers are still virtual, but just the walk to school and seeing some old friends seems worth it. Yesterday we got an unprecedented email from his ELA teacher praising his participation in class. We mentioned it and he shrugged: “It’s so boring – I can’t look at my phone or anything so there is nothing else to do but my work!” Uh huh.

He has grown roughly three feet this past year and his hair has gotten curlier. His voice changed and he has braces now. He kicks my butt in driveway basketball while wearing my t-shirts. I figured Elliott’s classmates would be surprised when they saw him, but he says a lot of kids shot up while stuck at home this past year. At least subconsciously, eighth graders must be realizing that for a year where everything was cancelled, a lot has happened.

Margo resumed in-person school in late January – just the mornings, then home for lunch and back online for afternoon classes. Complaining about the protocols of the new arrangement seems to be her favorite pastime. We relented and offered her St. Patrick’s Day off to bake Irish Soda Bread and relax but once her bluff was called, she decided to go anyway. I’m really proud of both of them. This hasn’t been easy for anyone.

Kristen and I see value in getting back in the classroom versus the slow spiral of virtual school but a measure of mental anguish accompanies EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Talk about unsustainable. This final stretch is still daunting but hopefully, we can hit the reset button this summer. We did buy a new cedar planter though. Margo is painting a mountain scene on the front panel and we’ll seal the wood this time for more durability. Our compost bin is ready to deliver what Margo calls “special soil” and worms. It feels like a new beginning – maybe even some tomatoes! But I don’t want to jinx anything.

Tim Sullivan grew up in a large family in the Northeast and now lives with his small family in Oakhurst. He can be reached at

Tim Sullivan

Tim Sullivan is an award-winning columnist who writes about family life and thinks everything is at least a little funny.