Before I start typing, on this crisp Corona-filled April morning, I need to draw some warmth into my hands. And so, I get down on the floor and do my sit-ups and push-ups. I do them in the style I believe will help me to start the energy flowing – that is, in the style of Rocky’s intense training, which, if you remember well, Bill Conti did a superb job to enhance with those bright uplifting brass tones. In some countries – North Korea for example – factory workers begin their day with an exercise routine accompanied by the national anthem. I suppose everyone needs their anthem. When I’m done, I go into the kitchen and wash the breakfast dishes in very hot suds-filled water, thinking of how Glenn Gould used to immerse his hands and forearms in hot water before one of his performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s true, you have to find ways to make up for poor blood circulation. I can only do so many push-ups. Just to be on the safe side, I stop by the espresso machine and prepare one last cappuccino. That perfect buzz can’t do any harm, I think. Inside the fridge there’s no sign of the cake I baked just three days ago. Did I finish it off so fast? Coming back to the living-room, I take one last look at my tablet, which is connected to the stereo system, and decide to swipe to my favourite jazz album these days, the new one from that Norwegian piano trio. Since my brief workout, the air has gone slightly stale in here, so I open the door leading to the narrow winter garden. As soon as I get a whiff of loam and dust, it occurs to me that I’ve been neglecting the plants for too long. They can’t like that, I’m sure. By the door on the floor is the plant sprayer; I pick it up and begin to moisturize the palm leaves, generating that fine misty rain-forest atmosphere until I think they’re satisfied. The direct sun won’t reach this side of the apartment until mid-afternoon, so I don’t have to worry about scorch marks on the unsuspecting leaves. I put my fingers in all the pots to see which ones need water. It turns out they all do. April has been strangely devoid of its proverbial showers. Which has, on more than one occasion, led me to play Al Jolson’s timeless classic on the stereo. But the song can’t compensate for the lack of humidity. It is dry streaks like this one where you have to be careful or else your plants won’t even make it to the summer. At least not flourishing the way they can.
Sitting down on the wobbly wooden chair (it’s wobbly because I’ve been rocking back and forth on it – the way your teachers always ordered you to stop for fear you might lose your balance and crack your skull on the floor), I finally turn on the computer and contemplate the screen before me. Just then the phone rings. As is apt to happen in these times of seclusion. It’s my daughter. I completely forgot our arrangement. I’m supposed to help her with her French vocabulary. How could I forget? Yesterday I made her write down the verbs: faire,avoir,être, and conjugate them for all the personal pronouns, singular as well as plural. I told her to learn that for today. I told her you can’t learn phrases like “Marie et Pierre font de la musique ensemble” if you don’t first become fluent with all the conjugated forms of faire. So, I check how much she has learned. Going to school in Germany means that French is her third language. But I grew up with French and so I sometimes get a little impatient with her, unfairly so. My daughter, I would say, has actually benefitted from homeschooling these past weeks. Her teachers have all noted how easily she gets distracted in class. Her mother works during the week, which means she is alone at home, so of course there’s no guarantee she will focus solely on the tasks she has been assigned. But she’s aware that once she’s done with the tasks, she can catch up with her friends on the smartphone. Until then I believe she does her best to concentrate, to home in on what she has to do.
I have to admit I’m probably to blame for this deficiency of hers. I think it’s in our lineage. I mean, my side of the family. Like me, my mother was a teacher. Back in Montréal. And this is how things worked with my mother: in her classes, she knew exactly what to do and how to do it; outside of her classes – say, at home – she had to reconstitute the same atmosphere of the class to be effective – or at least to feel that she was being effective – otherwise she would tend to lose her sense of purpose. This is what always made me feel a little nervous inside the house. But today, in this lockdown situation, with the schools closed and the only contact we have with students is through email, I can somehow understand how it was for her. And I can understand my daughter too, although she is on the other side. That is, I see that when my daughter is in a class full of jittery classmates, she tends to lose focus because she needs to feel accepted in the group and, for that to happen, she needs to see what everyone is up to. When my mother and I are alone in a room, where for some reason everything – all the objects and stuff – becomes jittery, wetend to lose focus because no one is there to direct our attention to and apply our expertise on. Another thing, of course, is simply the difference between the generations. The kids today being more comfortable – holding their own, so to speak – in their own company than we were in ours. For me, this thing about dealing only with yourself and the things you do or have to do to keep the self-going – this is sometimes more daunting than getting through a day full of lessons. As teachers we are perhaps more like orchestra conductors, in the sense that we try to create an engaging enough environment so that everyone can contribute to the overall piece and learn something from it at the same time. Without live musicians, a conductor can’t make music for everyone to hear. Which is probably why in these times I need to have the jazz and the Bach going around me— without the unpredictable input from my students, the best substitute seems to be music with contrapuntal structure, improvised phrases, a little bit of dissonance. As for the kids, the music they want to hear and can relate to so easily is everywhere and ever-present, what with their smartphones and other digital media, and all those virtual worlds, flowing in and out of each other like currents in an ocean.
Anyway, my daughter and I chat for a while about the rest of her day. She tells me about the movie she watched with her mother last night. I tell her about my plants and the cake I polished off in record time. Then I test her one last time: “I do therefore I am”. She hesitates: “uh uh… je f…”. Then the tumblers fall into place: “I know I know… je fais donc je suis!” I praise her, then we hang up so that she can go on with her other homework. And now here I am again, before the computer screen, waiting for something inspiring to rain down on me like an April shower. And hoping it happens before I go off looking for something else to do.
FRANCIS FERNANDES grew up in Montréal. He has a degree in Mathematics from Concordia. He currently lives in Germany, where he writes and teaches. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in What Rough Beast, 3rdWednesday, (Ex)cite, Poetry Potion.