Schenectady

Schenectady mother, son grow closer as they remake home life for school amid COVID-19 shutdown

Mom of ninth-grader keeps son organized and focused on school
Mekeel High School student Khayr Barkley, 15, does his school work with his mother, Tayika Barkley, in Schenectady Friday
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Mekeel High School student Khayr Barkley, 15, does his school work with his mother, Tayika Barkley, in Schenectady Friday

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SCHENECTADY — After Tayika Barkley realized schools would be closed and her ninth-grade son would be learning from home, she stocked up on supplies.

On her way home from work as a teacher’s aide at Woodlawn Elementary School in Schenectady after the school’s last open day, Barkley stopped at Walmart, not with toilet paper and food on her mind, but with her son’s locker on her mind.

“When I went to Walmart, I was in classroom mode,” Barkley said in a recent phone interview. “What can I do so he can be successful in this?”

Barkley, who said her son Khayr often struggles staying on task, knew that he would need help getting organized. She knew working from the dining room table wouldn’t work, so she set up a desk she had been planning to trash in front a of a large window in their apartment, where they live in Schenectady.

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During her Walmart stop, she purchased large black crates – one for his books and one for his binders – and a new collection of whiteboards to house daily schedules and “to-do” lists. She stocked up on pens and other basic supplies.

“I got a bunch of different stuff so I could make a workspace,” she said.

Tayika keeps an eye on her son’s schedule and class assignments, keeping a running tally of all he has to do posted in multiple spots by his desk. She keeps a close eye on him as he spends the day working through classwork, communicating with teachers and tuning in for remote class sessions. She can’t help her son work through his algebraic equations, but she can make sure he signs on, does his work and asks his teachers for help as needed.

“I knew he would need a schedule, we literally write [down] what he needs to do,” she said. “There is that time when he is off track, and I can say look at your board.”

Khayr is a ninth-grader at Mekeel Christian Academy in Scotia, which closed last month along with all schools in the state and quickly shifted to remote education. Khayr, who started at Mekeel in the fall, said he missed seeing his friends in person but that he felt he and his mom were coming closer together as a result of their shared isolation.

“It’s kind of hard but it’s also kind of good,” he said. “I miss all my friends and it’s just hard because I won’t be able to see anyone for a while, but it’s also pretty good, because it gives me an opportunity to spend more time with my mom.”

Last week, Khayr celebrated his 15th birthday like others have over the last few weeks: on Zoom. Friends dropped into the Zoom session to say hi and wish him a happy birthday. He said he had one of the better conversations he has had with his dad in a long time; his dad lives in New Jersey.

“It was kind of weird, but I understand that this is for real and this could happen for a while now,” he said of the need for social distancing and isolation.

Khayr admitted that learning from home has been a challenge. He said the computer presents an endless stream of potential distractions – all just one click a way.

“There is so much out there. In one click you can be on something you’re not supposed to be,” he said. “To be honest, I’m kind of struggling with that.”

But he thinks he is getting better with his online impulse control as well as his organizational skills – at least in part thanks to his mom. Khayr said he hopes he will be a better organized and more mature students when he returns to school.

“It was just hard trying to get used to it,” he said. “You are home everyday, but you still have to go to do schoolwork, it feels normal but it’s not.”

When it comes to remote learning, what is optional for other students isn’t optional for Khayr, his mom said. Khayr’s algebra teacher schedules video conference meetings twice a week, telling students attendance was not mandatory.

“When she said not mandatory, I said it was mandatory. I put it on his calendar,” Tayika said. “He knows he is going to have a Zoom with his teacher and whoever else shows up.”

Khayr had gone to Union College for weekly algebra tutoring. In recent weeks, he has logged on for remote tutoring from the Union student, who is working from home.

“She’s not even here,” Tayika said of the Union student who has left Schenectady since the college shut campus. “That is real dedication.”

Tayika said her son is on the autism spectrum and struggles staying focused and taking the kinds of social cues that come naturally for others. Khayr, who plays the drums and wants to get into the music industry, for instance, will sometimes spend his time watching drum videos on YouTube. With a quick glance and motherly reminder, she can get him back on track. He said their have been disagreements at home but no serious fights. 

“I don’t help with the work. …  I’m the person there to help him be organized,” Tayika said. “When you are supposed to be doing algebra and you are watching drum covers, that’s not helping you.”

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But when Khayr is done with school for the day, she moves aside his work for the evening and gives him a little more freedom. 

“I don’t want him to come into the living room and feel like he’s always going to have to work or something.”

And Khayr said he uses the promise of free time as a motivator to get through his work, so he can take a walk to get fresh air, listen to music or play his drums. He said he recognized that the virus is serious and understands why it’s necessary to work from home. And he’s glad the experience has brought him closer to his mom; he said he has even started to confide things to he has never told anyone. “She’s my go to,” he said of his mom.

“It’s bringing us a lot closer, and I think that we need to spend more time with our families,” Khayr said. “At some point, something can happen, something can go wrong and we will never see them again, so it’s important.”

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