It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …(from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)
Down but not out in PR8: the idle thoughts of a teacher MIA
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” as Dickens reflected in his historical novel of 1859, A Tale of Two Cities.I know how he feels, don’t you?
Let’s go back a bit. Five weeks ago,life for me was fraught with insecurity and doubt not knowing quite what was going on. Then the coronavirus hit. No seriously, it was like an incident from my favourite Mr Men character, Mr Bump’s calamitous life; one minute he is walking along merrily minding his own business, the next he has fallen down a manhole. Life didn’t change as dramatically as that for most of us thankfully, but we certainly travelled through the gears rapidly, furrowing our brows and shaking our heads at more than regular intervals.An epoch of incredulity? Quite possibly. Cue then the first 5pm government news bulletin.Three grave looking men (no pun intended) leaning on wooden lecterns, words carefully weighted and framed, delivering the only news of the day: covid-19 had arrived on the shores of Britain. I don’t know about you, but for many years now I’ve kept track of the news daily via my phone; science and sport are my go-tos avoiding educational news stories at all costs.I’m joking, of course. But when a BREAKING NEWS notification popped up saying the Prime Minister was about to make a statement, my pulse quickened. I sat glued to the television for the entire 45-minute briefing with a growing concern for friends, family and loved ones at what was happening. It was unprecedented. The worst of times? Possibly. But life is never that simple, is it?
To explain. In the early stages before school closed and the severity of the pandemic was truly known or felt, there was an air of anticipation in classrooms and along corridors. Talk of the school closing was rarefied and fanciful, mischievous even – Alana in Year 11 went as far as banning talk of it at their friend’s lunchtime gatherings in E4. It was taboo. Besides, there were much more important things to discuss, such as GCSEs, revision and of course, the Summer Ball. In fact, the memory of this, which is exactly what it is now, a past event, part of the historical record, makes me feel both sad and thankful. Thankful for the memory of unencumbered chat, the best kind of loose talk during down time. Sad because such ephemeral things as chance encounters and passing conversations go unmarked as we consign them to the recycle bin part of our brain. That is until now of course as I write these words slouched on my settee at home. I miss that kind of normality.These moments were some of the best of times and I didn’t fully know it. Young people are brilliant, Christ the King people are brilliant.
As each day brought more news and a new tautology: “self-isolation,”I was reminded of a similar expression I’d heard some months before by Emma Watson. When asked who she was attending the Oscars with she replied by saying she was “self-partnering” herself to the Oscars, i.e. she was going on her own. It made me laugh at the time, but both these terms speak to me of some kind of disconnect from others, an abnormal state of being for a human. Meanwhile at school, industry as well as anxiety ebbed and flowed alongside each other in antagonistic harmony. Everyone contributed, everyone played a part. To use a Food & Technology metaphor: just as an unwatched saucepan of milk boils over so surely there was an eagle-eyed observer at Christ the King to lift it off the heat.As Kipling mused, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs” then there must be an abundance of people at Christ the King with the mentality and composure to get through difficult times such as these. Milk might have been spilled but it never boiled over thanks to the community that is Christ the King. Someone I will mention here is Ms Lee. What Carol Vorderman is to maths Ms Lee is to baking. Both solve problems: one with a calculator the other with a pair of oven gloves. I’m not saying Ms Lee isn’t good at maths, you understand, just that her skill and tenacity as a fundraiser could rival the likes of Bob Geldof. Toilet roll was like unobtanium and yet she still managed to snaffle a dozen rolls for the raffle!So when alien codes suddenly started appearing on registers and classrooms began to bulge with space as more and more students – and staff – self-isolated, it was colleagues like Ms Lee and many others in the background and foreground of life at Christ the King,who kept spirits up and enabled the school to brace for closure.Kipling’s epoch of belief.
Which brings me to where we are now. Like social distancing, remote learning has a conflicting message. Schools are a community where interaction is a catalyst to knowledge; there is nothing remote about the experience. It’s communal. And this is where I have struggled the most. As a creature of habit I miss the routine, bells n’ all, literally. Sure, the weather has been great, and no school run means less stress of a morning. But the purpose, the direction, the drive is what’s missing. What’s the cliché about wells and water? I miss the students, the annoying ones most. Why? Because they challenge and shape me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not immediately aware of how wonderful and profound these skirmishes are as my reptilian brain kicks in on point. But again, sat on my settee (yes, still here) writing this, I do feel a little lost and rudderless without school and my place within it.I’m sure there are many of us who feel this way, both staff and students alike, and I’m still adjusting to be honest. I was reminded of how much I take things for granted when we met virtually as a department only a couple of weeks ago. I was taken aback as to how much I missed everyone and for that brief amount when we were together my belief was suspended long enough for me to enjoy it as if we were in the same room together. The only downside? Virtual biscuits don’t taste as nice as real ones. But who cares, we were interacting, and it felt great.
So,what can I say I have learned from my experience of lockdown so far? Well, that I’m no Alan Titchmarsh for sure, more Tony Robinson; my patchwork quilt of a lawn can’t wait for me to return to work as my green fingered interventions make it look as if it’s suffering from alopecia. It’s become a kind of therapy for me(if not for the garden) between Google Classroom and Gmail. Another thing: normally, the overhanging firmament of day is the colour of strip light – artificial and “fake” as Donald Trump might refer to it as –so seeing so much uninterrupted blue has been a blessing. It’s Kipling’s “Spring of hope” I guess. Other notes to self? Well, ironically, I’m a better father to my children than I am teacher; that my parents’transition to WhatsApp and Skype has been nothing short of miraculous putting my technological prowess to shame by comparison; that resilience doesn’t come as naturally to some than to others; that in family and community are stored precious reserves of love, care, compassion and goodwill that if only we drew on them more readily in the good times,the actions themselves would seem as normal as saying good morning to a neighbour in the bad.And that’s one hell of a lesson (pun intended).
Our cultural challenge for today is to read about the history of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona which has taken almost 140 years so far to build: