At the Kitchen Table: A Reflection on Living in the Time of COVID-19


Abby Gallagher, Class of 2014

HHS alum Abby Gallagher works for the software company ServiceNow, but she was sent home two weeks ago, well ahead of other companies. Although she currently lives in the Boston area, she moved back to her parents' house in Hingham during the shelter in place. Her new "home office" is pictured here. A lucky alternative for many people who can now work from home (WFH).

Deirdre Koenen, HHS Class of 2010, former Harborlight Staffer and Photo by Abby Gallagher, HHS Class of 2014

I was homeschooled from first to eighth grade along with my siblings. When they learned this piece of information about my family, most of my high school peers inevitably asked if that entailed sleeping in and wearing pajamas to school. That image could have been true, but it doesn’t rightly capture what the experience was for me or my siblings.

Our mother held us to high expectations, and we internalized those expectations. We woke up early, often racing to see who would arrive downstairs first. We got to work right away, taking turns to meet with our mother and go over our lessons and take assessments. She did not let us stay in pajamas all day, even though she very well could have; and looking back now, I see the worth in changing clothes for our school day despite the fact that we remained at home during class time. Of course there was the occasional planned rendezvous in the playroom or a snack break when our mother wasn’t in the room, but the most prominent image I have to illustrate my memory of homeschool is of a long kitchen table around which heads bending over school books and a mother presiding at the head.

Being in all different grade levels, we each had individual work assigned by the curriculum through which we worked. Our mother used that curriculum to communicate our responsibilities and assess our progress. As a child, I believed she just knew everything in those textbooks naturally. As a teacher myself now, I realize the amount of work and learning she had to do herself to adequately be an educator to her children as they advanced from the first to the eighth grade. She served as our primary educator, but we also had to assume a level of independence that we probably would have lacked had we been enrolled in the public schools. She relayed our work to us and clarified when we needed help, but she expected us to complete these tasks and learn on our own. And we rose to that expectation.

The same table we sat around all those years ago still holds court in our kitchen. It stands in a new place and has undergone sanding and coating, but its heart is the same if a table can have a heart. It has seen each of the nine Koenen siblings come and go, sit to work or to eat and leave. It has been crowded and empty, and now it is crowded.

Eight of us are home now as we listen to Charlie Baker announce a two-week advisory to stay at home. My sister, home from Holy Cross, is already taking notes for a virtual class that is live on her laptop. She has even changed her clothes for the occasion. Across from her, I have just logged out of a meeting with the other faculty in my school. Another sister sits next to me as she works on a presentation for her thesis. It reminds me of the days we homeschooled. Heads bent over work as we sit around the table. Now we must hold ourselves accountable more than ever.

This situation, as scary and serious as it is, has brought us home. I’m blessed with having many siblings for company throughout my life, both in homeschool and now; and in these two different chapters of my life, I am immensely grateful for this blessing. It’s not easy or fun, but we have each other right now.

In this trying time, I’ve seen lines out the door at our local Trader Joe’s. I’ve seen couples walking about ten feet apart rather than side by side. I’ve passed people in the street or in the park who ignore my greetings, whether out of fear or detachment I don’t know. I’ve seen formerly busy streets become nearly empty, shelves that look raided at the grocery store, and endless social media posts about toilet paper and the lack thereof. I’ve heard a couple dramatic voices proclaiming this is the end.

But I also have seen so much good. I’ve seen my family and many other families spending more time together. The stay at home advisory sort of eliminates any other option, but this time at home doesn’t have to be imprisonment or isolation. It can be time for togetherness and being. For those who don’t live with an abundance of other kin as I do right now, I’ve seen people using technology to be with others. I’ve often complained about the many ways in which social media serves as a distraction from real and personal communication, but in our current times I have seen my siblings and friends using social media more and more to connect rather than to distract.

I’ve found time to withdraw as well, to be on my own and work on my own pursuits. I’ve seen my siblings doing likewise. We’ve spent time walking in small groups or alone, experimenting with different mediums or art, reading, running, etc. With the need to participate in a consumerist lifestyle and the option to go out eliminated, so much time has been gifted to us for these personal practices. The fast-paced life that defines so much of our culture has been put on pause for a bit.

That’s not to say we don’t retain the responsibilities that existed before the virus put us indoors. As we did when we were homeschooled, my siblings and I each have agendas to accomplish, and working remotely raises special difficulties that we are unused to facing. Technology definitely alleviates some of that hardship, but we cannot deny that online education does not serve in the same way that the classroom environment does. Also, not everyone’s agenda is confined to the safety of home. My brother in the army and my sister, a nurse, both return to work as usual and face dramatically harder situations in the workplace than they did before the spread of the virus.

Whether we work from home now or are called back into our workspaces, we face challenges that call us to be brave, hold ourselves accountable, and be present to ourselves and to others. Being brave isn’t just about doing something grand; it involves embracing discomfort and fear and turning them into something familiar, something with which we can live. It may look like a nurse returning to the hospital, a postman maintaining his route, or a teacher spending extra hours adjusting a course schedule and revising assignments. It may look like a mother trying to work from home and look after her home-bound children at the same time. It may look like a student deciding to wake up early every day and put in the same, if not more, effort to his or her schoolwork so as not to let this situation hinder learning. It may be a friend calling for company, advice, guidance in this scary time.

This crisis has created fear and paranoia, difficulty and change, but it has also given us the opportunity to be more, to be brave, and to be present. I am grateful for that.