How We’re Coping in Rhode Island

Woman Around Town has writers and readers all over the U.S. We’ve asked them to check in on how they are coping now. Alexandra Fortin, running a program called “Indoor Recess,” writes from Rhode Island.

If you asked me a month ago whether I was willing to quit everything I was doing in New York City to return home, live with my parents in Rhode Island and become this sort of teaching clown to quarantined children over Zoom, I’d have thought you were whacked.

I would’ve said, “Absolutely not. How could I possibly do that? I have children to nanny, lines to learn and a play in which to act. I have to remind my autistic roommate to wipe the floor after his bath in order to maintain a free-rent exchange and I’m booked to take a dance lesson I can’t afford.”  I would’ve said all those things, then asked, “What’s actually wrong with you?”

Well, it’s a month later, and I haven’t left my home in the woods. I’m thankful to be with my parents and among the fortunate with shelter, food, and family. About a week in, with all the horror going on in the world, after watching too much news and fearing for my loved ones, mourning my need to kiss, hug, and smother every living creature around me; coping with not being able to comprehend that an entire elder community already isolated from society is now a direct target for this monster of a disease that has front-liners, nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, mailmen, doing the work of saints…

…after the children I usually nanny started their schooling online; after processing, adjusting, grieving, learning, finding joy in the simplest of things, waking up and doing it all again, there’s just one thing I was not willing to let go. It’s the same thing I believe none of us are willing to let go – connection. While we have to connect now in ways we may hate, in ways that make Wifi slow down, our backs hunch, and eyes squint, we’re all doing it.

I created Indoor Recess to have a weekly conversation with the children I nanny and their friends. This way I can remind children to stretch and drink water, and make them laugh. Most importantly, I can hear their Roses and Thorns. This is a game I like to play with everyone in my life: You share a good thing and a bad thing from your day or week. When my mother overheard the commotion going on in my childhood bedroom, she asked me to offer Indoor Recess to the children of the company for which she works, so now it’s become a full on, stay-at-home job I would have never imagined.

I keep multiple groups of four/five year olds, six/seven year olds, and eight/nine year olds. Each group meets once a week. We do things like read stories or make up our own and make crafts that only require around-the-house materials like roses out of newspaper. We also do Show and Tell. This way each child can bring something they’ve made and are proud of. I’m always surprised by how much they’re willing to express: “Oh, I have that Lego, too,” or “I’ve seen that, have you seen this?” I have one little, extra brave girl that’s going to show us what she recently learned on piano. Someone else showed up in a super hero costume. It was epic.

The challenges of entertaining kids online are obvious. Only a handful of children can be on at once or it gets too distracting and holding focus is hard. Keeping the sessions as simple as possible is key. I like to focus on one goal. Even the four year olds are thirsty for connection. I find just a smile, enthusiasm, and some sort of simple activity is enough to create success.

Getting to know a child over a screen breaks my heart in many ways. When I have a shy child and start to see his eyes fall down to the keyboard, or someone gets up to move away from the screen entirely, I feel helpless. Thankfully, parents often help redirect or offer extra encouragement.

Just the other day I was on a session with the four and five year olds during which we helped a little boy figure out what state he was from. He said, “I do not know where I am from… but I think I am from God.” I think that was the most beautiful, bizarre thing I’ve heard over Zoom so far. One little girl last week said, “I’ll miss you.” I get so much enjoyment when they share excitement about coming back, though I’d like to think the state of things is only temporary. For now, I go day by day and smile by smile. A lot of things don’t read over Zoom, but a smile does.

Occasionally I call upon friends and colleagues for ideas and to showcase their own talents. The children love having special guests. Hope Madden, a sixteen-year-old artist currently trying to learn honors chemistry at home, has shared brilliant craft ideas and showed us the fabrics she uses to make masks for family and front-liners. Sydney Zarlengo, who’s supposed to be living in a Mount Holyoke college dorm right now has come on to teach the children about autism, and to sing an original song.

A fellow actor, Kelly Robertson, usually performs Tea Ceremonies at a shop where she works. She taught us about “the way of tea” and made tea right in front of us! After that session, she and I talked about our fears for theater. “If there’s a way to live ‘In the way of Tea,’ what does ‘living in the way of Acting’ mean to you?” she asked me. My answer is discipline, storytelling, and above all, connection.

I’m not at the theater now, just as chefs can’t serve creations at restaurants, artists can’t exhibit at galleries, and teachers can’t be in the classroom. Kelly’s question helped me realize that today, we have an opportunity to “live in the way” of whatever we work so hard at and are missing now. Continuing to live in the way of an artist, or chef, actress or teacher, makes it about the process, not the product and finds me dancing in front of a screen and teaching myself how to make things.

I love my Zoom students. For now, this will have to do. It’s the way I connect. If things are the same in six months, I may have a different story…Perhaps you’ll find me in the woods trying to figure out how to create outdoor theater with social distancing, but for now, we Zoom.