March 14th: two hundred cases within the county and counting, and the world holds its breath behind closed doors. Saturday morning: I make it to my shift at the coding studio, and find it virtually empty.
“No one’s arrived for our Junior class,” Ann, my boss, tells me. “But some of the older kids are in the other room.” The desks there, typically arranged side-by-side, are now six feet apart and sparsely occupied. As I drift between them to check up on students, I share an uneasy glance with my coworker, Nat. The future hangs over us like a tenuously suspended sword.
I’m not sure who I expect to see when the bell over our door rings, but it’s definitely not Mila, one of our Juniors, making a beeline for our usual classroom. Inside, I find her singing Happy Birthday under her breath while applying a coat of hand sanitizer.
Two choruses later, she looks up at us expectantly. Nat and I blink at her, then at each other. “Um —”
“Hi, Mila!” Ann takes a seat, saving us from making up an agenda on the spot. She has a knack for endearing kids to her — “They’re way more fun than adults!” — and sure enough, Mila breaks out into a grin.
“I don’t have school this week,” she informs us, “and I’m getting ice cream later! My favorite’s Rocky Road, but Mommy wants vanilla.” As we agree that Rocky Road is obviously better and avoid examining why she doesn’t have school, Ann sets down a flat box she’d brought in. On its cover is a turtle with a laser strapped to its shell, gaping at a gemstone. “ROBOT TURTLES: The Game for Little Programmers” is emblazoned across the top. Nat and I blink at each other again.
“Robot Turtles!” announces Ann, taking out the game board and some cards. The goal, she explains, is to lead the turtles to their gems using — “Algorithms!” interrupts Mila — to guide them. Ann lines up a few cards, each marked with an arrow. “They go where you tell them to!”
An unfamiliar silence surrounds us as we arrange our sequences. Normally, the room is laced with the quiet murmur of students, assembling snap circuits or wondering what a for-loop is. But not today. At home, their parents are likely explaining how a virus spreads, or reading their district’s plans for online learning. Wondering what happens next.
After Mila reads out her finished instructions and her turtle claims its gem, we shuffle the tiles and keep playing. Round after round, the world narrows down to the four walls of the classroom and the four of us inside.
When Ann finally says it’s time to go and passes around the hand sanitizer, we join in when Mila starts singing. She wraps me up in a hug, and some weight heavy with finality settles in my stomach. I’m not supposed to play favorites, but there isn’t much of a choice today.
Mila skips out the door, one hand holding her mother’s and another clutching a fortune cookie from the stash on our front desk. Hours later, after Ann says she’ll see us soon and we try not to think about what soon means, I grab one for myself.
Eventually, a wrinkled strip of paper lies amidst the crumbs on my palms. In navy text, it reads: Have faith in tomorrow, even in hard times.
I don’t know what tomorrow holds, or when I’ll see Mila again. But I hope she gets her Rocky Road ice cream, and I hope it’s delicious.