In the column Inside Story, parents share the books they are reading with their children to get through these times.
About fifteen years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I taught middle school, sixth and seventh grade English. It was a trip. I knew nothing about anything, let alone the thematic depth of The Red Badge of Courage or all the things a noun can be (person, place, idea, emotion, name, et cetera). I spent my first year, as I imagine many novice teachers do, just trying not to drown. Mostly, I was terrified that my students would find out I barely knew what I was teaching them. I’d stay up late the night before, read a few chapters ahead, and then put together a weekly assignment sheet that suggested an authority I did not have. The next day, we’d go over their homework, and I’d stand at the front of the class sweating through my blazer and praying my voice wouldn’t break. Then I’d preview the coming unit as if I really knew the future, feigning confidence, meaning to reassure them. I could see the path ahead absolutely, could see it all the way to its glorious end in June.
When the lockdown began in Oregon, when it became clear that my five-year-old daughter would not be returning to school for the year, I thought back to those early teaching experiences. It seemed I was again in the same boat: unprepared, ill-equipped, drowning in my own ineptitude. My only option was to do as I had done before, to try as hard as possible. For a while, I really did. I made a schedule that transitioned her, every thirty minutes, from “educational” iPad games, to some kind of art-making, to free play, to basic math, and so on. That lasted one week. My own work piled up (I’m fortunate to be an instructor at a university, and my teaching, like everyone else’s, has gone remote). I decided very quickly to scale back, to ask one thing of her a day. I decided we would try, for the first time, to read a chapter book together.
We didn’t choose Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for any other reason than it was already in our house. A friend had gifted my daughter the complete series for Christmas. My daughter can sound out words fairly well. The struggle is, of course, with patience, with seeing a new and unfamiliar term and not allowing its length and phonetic combinations to overwhelm her. The work is slow, and I remember from teaching middle school that I must marshal my own patience before I can help with hers.
Together, we attempt a chapter a day, often less. I ask her to read or sound out only four sentences during each session. If she does this, she earns a piece of sugarless gum as her prize, which she loves because she desperately wants to figure out how to blow bubbles. She can’t always sit still while I read, so she wanders about the room, touching scattered stuffed animals, rearranging LEGO sets, putting her model horses in a row and making them eat hay. I sometimes quiz her to see if she’s following along. She always is. She recalls everything without effort, and it startles me, the dynamism of her memory:
“Who’s Charles Wallace?” I ask.
“Meg’s little brother,” she replies.
“What does Meg’s mother do for a living?”
“She’s a scientist.”
“Where is their father?”
Rescuing the disappeared Mr. Murry is, ostensibly, the great aim of Meg and Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time. Yet it is not the most palpable conflict in the novel. In fact, the father is found rather easily. The children, along with their friend Calvin, are sent—by the supernatural Mrs. What, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which—to Camazotz, the planet on which he is being held hostage. And when the time comes, Meg has only to don Mrs. Who’s glasses to see and reach her father, to pull him from the mysterious column in which he is imprisoned.
The joy of his emancipation is short-lived. Mr. Murry doesn’t realize that the villain of the story, IT, has taken control of Charles Wallace. He doesn’t understand how two of his children have traveled to this strange planet. He has no idea who the three Mmes. W’s are. He fails to comprehend all that Meg tries to explain, so his confusion—beautifully, dishearteningly—echoes all the other instances in the novel when the characters struggle to communicate: Mr. Jenkins, the principal at the children’s school, makes “snide remarks about Father” instead of empathizing with Meg. Charles Wallace and “the man with the red eyes” spar with memorized language, with nursery rhymes and multiplication tables. Even the children’s guides, the powerful Mmes. W’s, “find it difficult to verbalize.” Mrs. Who converses only in quotes from literature and Mrs. Which talks at a snail’s pace. The great tragedy of A Wrinkle in Time proves not to be the splintered family or even the Black Thing, but the difficulty of children and adults speaking to one another.
While reading the novel with my daughter, I’ve often wanted to cry out at the grown-ups, who are at times taciturn, at times simply inarticulate. But their struggle is my own as a parent, the seeming impossibility of explaining the world to my child. It seems fitting that the immortal Mmes. W’s bring Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace to the Happy Medium, a woman in a mauve turban with a crystal ball. She will show them their father on Camazotz, their mother at home, the Black Thing, and one or two secrets of the universe. She will show because the Mmes. W’s cannot tell.
This is something I and my former partner, my daughter’s mother, have been doing for the last year and a half. We separated at the end of 2018, and since then we have been, as mindfully as possible, trying to show our daughter how she will continue to love and be loved. We were fortunate to stay in the same city for the first months after the break, and this past year we managed to live only two hours apart, her mother in Portland, myself in Eugene. With daily check-ins on FaceTime and routine stays at both houses, we have shown her, I think, that our separation does not mean our disappearance.
This fall we will not be so lucky. I’ve taken a job in North Carolina, and her mother has accepted a position in California. It’s a circumstance we’ve been expecting, one we’ve been planning for. But now that the future is set, now that the geography of our separation has crystallized, the coming relocation looms like the shadow Meg describes in the novel, “dark and dreadful.” The next year will be difficult. When she is with one of us, it might feel as though the other lives on a different planet. I will be sometimes the sun, sometimes the satellite.
We have shown her, on Google Maps, where everyone is going. We have looked for houses together on Zillow. We have made lists of all the fun things to do in California, all the exciting places to visit in North Carolina. But I know the shadow is not just a shadow—it is a Black Thing, which is to say, it requires its own language. I know this because last August, when we all first arrived in Oregon, my former partner and I could feel our daughter’s sadness. Then she showed us an anger she could not explain, an anger she had no words for because we’d not given her any. So, at last, we used the word: divorce.
It’s hard, even now, to grasp how scared I was that the term for our personal calamity would itself prove calamitous. But as in L’Engle’s novel, the children are strongest when they use the language they’ve been given. When first shown the Darkness, Meg wonders to herself, “Was this meant to comfort them?” Later, though, when she and her father confront IT, he implores her to yell aloud the periodic table of elements. He screams, “Say it!”, and her words keep the shadow at bay. As our daughter said, over and over again, divorce, a kind of calm followed. The Black Thing had an edge, a boundary, a border one could trace.
This private disorder happens in the midst of a global one, and I’m certain that many people, for good reasons, would love to borrow from the futuristic science of A Wrinkle in Time. I imagine they would happily tesser—bend the universe—in order to find themselves suddenly beyond the lockdowns, the virus, all the uncertainty. But I am in a strange place, numbed slightly to the chaos, my heart already concussed. I have already been, over the past year and a half, alone in a way I have not been for ten years. I have already been speaking to my child of how her world is changing, how it will continue to change. I have already struggled to put into words a thing that feels much larger than my own narrow experience.
My daughter and I have three chapters left in A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t read the quintet when I was young, so I don’t know how it ends. The last line we read together was terrifying: “She was lost in an agony of pain that finally dissolved into the darkness of complete unconsciousness.” But there are fifty pages still, and as I write this, she is with her mother, up in Portland for the week. I have a break in our time together. I can, if I want to, read ahead. I won’t, though. I will wait, and I will sound out the words alongside my daughter. Together, we will find out what happens.
Derek Palacio is the author of the novella How to Shake the Other Man and the novel The Mortifications.