As published recently by independentschoolparent.com
In these unprecedented times, six weeks into lockdown, my kitchen table is still the centre of my world. It’s just that the world now looks and sounds quite different. Consider the following diary entries:
“Such quarrels that the whole house thunders… everyone is angry with everyone else.”
“Today I have packed a suitcase with the most necessary things for an escape. But Mummy quite rightly says, “Where will you escape to?”
It’s the diary entries for April 27th and May 1st 1943, a historical record written by a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl, Anne Frank, locked down in a sealed -off back room of an office block in Amsterdam, in hiding from the Gestapo in unprecedented times during the Second World War. Yet these entries could have been written by my own daughter, April 27th and May 1st 2020; it sounds so familiar that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Six weeks ago, as we searched for a word to describe what this war on Coronavirus would become, I told myself that it was going to be at least as special as it was strange. Special opportunities abounded, from school and community and national initiatives. I could choose from special story downloads, special online Shakespeare performances, special drawing lessons and special fitness workouts. I’ve smiled at online videos of home lacrosse practice with loo rolls. I’ve been inspired when global school activities such as Model United Nations have gone ahead, undeterred. My daughter’s school rallied the troops and the airwaves have been humming with charity projects, zoomed musical concerts and poetry competitions, the bunting went up for VE day and a poignant assembly broadcast was a reminder that, 75 years ago, another wartime ended.
Enough is Enough
Now, though, I have to admit that I’ve had enough. I feel a bit like my own special sewing activity, the Coronavirus Quilt, whose number of squares hasn’t kept up with the number of days of home schooling as planned. I’ve run out of steam, and so has my daughter. The uncertainty of our times makes me feel lost, a bit like my iphone, who knows where with a flat battery, after it was commandeered for a Year 4 zoom chat three hours ago. I could look a bit harder for it, but my battery’s flat, too. I’ve even silenced Tracy Chapman, the faithful accompanist to my day.
However, if I give in to anxiety and frustration, I pass on my mood to my daughter. And as I look at her, working away with her head down and her hair falling over her cheek, I know that just won’t do. So here’s how I have been keeping myself in check.
My Covid-day Checklist
1. Nothing is normal – it’s a concept that no longer seems to exist. In seeking to define our lives by it, our anxieties escalate in pursuit of the unattainable. Rather, look at its antonyms: alongside batty, crackbrained and daft, I also found rare, fantastical and wild. Now that sounds more inspiring!
2. Take a break – a managed break isn’t a break at all, just another organised activity. So I make myself walk away whilst my daughter takes a break, I neither tell her what to do nor watch her do it. We still break up the day with sewing or baking and a walk, but we also gain from taking a break from each other.
3. Ubiquitous as it is, Zoom isn’t always the answer – because, for some, a Zoom catch up can feel like a weird and wistful variation of the real thing. A younger child of a friend announced recently that all his friends lived in the computer now. When I video call my best friend, I find myself edging ever closer to the screen, but I can’t get close enough to give her a hug. Granny’s broadband speed makes video links jumpy and intermittent and can produce as much disappointment as pleasure during the longed-for catch up call. So we invested in some stationary, wrote a letter and posted a postcard or two, and as we did so I was struck by how much of ourselves we find, and share, in our almost-forgotten handwriting style. As I explained to my daughter that the Royal Mail took a lot longer than email, I reflected on how this lockdown has shown us that we can live slower lives, that when we stop zooming around we can all breathe more easily.
4. Don’t stick to strict rules – we have internet safety rules for a reason, but it’s hard to stick to them in this unprecedented season. No devices in bedrooms is a strict adjunct in our household, but privacy is difficult to achieve without using more rooms than the open-plan main living space. Negotiating with other family members about whose classroom, conference call or webinar should take precedence is a minefield. And as I draw the line at taking a sensitive work call from under the kitchen table with a heavy blanket thrown over it, bedrooms are in, occasionally, for grown-ups only. On my checklist, this one comes under the heading of not being too hard on myself.
5. Keep a grip on reality in this world of virtual cares: do we have enough broadband speed to rehearse with the zoom orchestra; have we run up and down the stairs fast enough in the compulsory parents’ race at the virtual school sports day; have we created our own virtual zoom background with enough originality for it to be remembered for posterity as our family lockdown legend?
Have we kept enough sense of humour to see that we need to get over our virtual selves and hang on to the word special, whilst we still can?
The Onward Journey
No amount of talking sternly to myself keeps every moment of anxiety at bay. I still want to run away on occasion but, as we recognised earlier, there is nowhere to run to. And that’s why hopes for the staggered return to school are so welcome. What are school playgrounds for, if not to provide somewhere to run, to take a break, to enjoy real time friends once more? What is the school assembly for, if not to provide a few minutes of calm certainty, strong leadership, sense and sensibility towards the world around us? What praise is better than the few words delivered straight to you, when you’re a teen or tween with a constant need for self-affirmation from adults you respect? For me, the most important aspect of the return to school is the pastoral care that it affords. Particular year groups have, perhaps, suffered more than others: the transitional experiences of moving from Juniors to Seniors to Sixth Form are hugely important rites of passage; Leavers’ Assemblies include speeches that children want to repeat to their own children in years to come.
However, this re-opening of schools, with social distancing and covid-safe practices intact, may not be a return journey so much as an open-ended ticket to somewhere else. What will school activities look like? How will classrooms operate? My daughter’s main concern is what the longed-for break time in the playground will look like – games, from tag to netball tournaments, look questionable for some time to come. Will she enjoy this return to a school environment that is no longer the same? I just don’t know. As a parent, I have my own fears: how shall I brief my daughter about hygiene, should she wear a face covering? When I leave her at the new drop-off point, at a clear distance from the school gates, will she be as safe at school as I know she is at home? We are facing a future of financial uncertainty, too, which may point some of us towards school fees conversations with our bursars about adjusted payment plans and hardship funds.
So what do I want for my daughter, as the world inches out of lockdown towards the return to school? What rite of passage will this moment in her personal history prove to be, and how will it shape her future? All children grow up, and when she grows up, I want my daughter to be equipped to journey onward with resourcefulness, resilience and an open mind. When she returns to school, in this batty, crack-brained, daft, rare, fantastical and wild world in which we are living, she has the special opportunity to learn the lessons she will need to one day make that onward journey on her own.