My nine-year-old daughter, Nancy, was brought up short this morning by the actions of her namesake, Nancy Blackett and company from Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. She was listening to one of the novels, Winter Holiday, on audio, a story she knows well.
Mum, you know when Peggy runs after the doctor’s car and makes him stop to give him a note for Nancy…?
Yep…? (I know the story in similar depths to my daughter: Nancy Blackett is quarantined with mumps and Peggy, her sister, is what we might now describe as self-isolating with another family, although that wasn’t a verb in Ransome’s 1930s dictionary).
Well, I found myself thinking that Peggy shouldn’t be getting close enough to the doctor to pass him a note – and then I remembered that it was OK to get close to people, before Coronavirus.
Children are infinitely adaptable. It’s what makes them more resilient than their grown-up counterparts. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that our children’s world has already moved on from what we once identified as normal social behaviour into a new code of conduct in personal interaction? Their very adaptability means that our kids are OK, they are coping with the new regime of home schooling and friends are on screen, and because we want our children to be sociable and engaged they are cashing in with glee on more screen time than was previously allowed. I admit to my own glee, ramped up by a liberating feeling of naughtiness, when I learnt that Zoom’s virtual backgrounds meant that I no longer had to do the breakfast dishes before I could safely video call my Mum from my kitchen table.
Old and New
If parents are struggling to adapt to the new normal, grandparents are hit harder. I don’t know when I will be able to see my Mum again, as driving 350 miles to visit family is currently banned and we are told that the over 70s will remain vulnerable for some time to come. Whilst Nancy shows off her virtual background skills, some of which she has succeeded in teaching to me, Granny and Grandpa look confused. Sad. Old. Their lexicon is comfortable with the Swinging Sixties, the economic downturn of the late 70s, the new capitalism of Thatcher’s 80s, the comfort of final scheme pensions and a beloved caravan that is parked up indefinitely whilst their retirement is stopped in its tracks. They don’t have words to describe what is happening in this first year of the 2020s.
Twenty twenty vision as we look into the near future, even as far forward as next month, is sadly lacking, from the highest in government downwards, and watching the blind leading the blind seems a more fitting description to apply to our perception of our current national and international situation.
If those at the top don’t know what to do, perhaps we should apply assumption reversal to societal norms. I wonder what would happen if we turn the notion of who is at the top and bottom of the pile on its head, and learn from our kids during this period of school at home.
If I had told my daughter, at the beginning of the year, that in the Summer Term I was cancelling her climbing club and drama club, that the school had cancelled the much-hyped residential trip and the lower school play, that our sailing trip to Menorca at half term was postponed and that she wouldn’t be seeing Granny and Grandpa either, I think she would have been horrified. Surely, flat and broken, like a dropped egg on the kitchen floor, Nancy would have been a serious mess that required a lot of soulful parenting to clear up. As it is, despite the same list of woes, she has hit the floor and bounced up again, not as a broken egg but as a netball – which she now bounces alone rather than hopes to catch from another child any time soon.
Mum, why haven’t you got the bread-making stuff out, it’s Tuesday? Because I have been adapting the washing line to match the height of a volleyball net. Or a Badminton net. If I can find a shuttlecock. Because I’m worried that you have given up on netball with just Mum on your team whilst you, apparently, have accepted the new routine and have begun to confidently assemble the bread-making kit whilst I wrestle ineffectively with sailing knots on the washing line. It is my own lack of resilience, not Nancy’s, that threatens to pull me down.
Just as our kids are resilient, they are also resourceful, when we give them the freedom to show us what they are made of. For such a time as this, maybe that special freedom found in children’s fiction, where grown-ups are never the ones in charge, might just become possible, just for now. What did Nancy Blackett do when she was quarantined? She used semaphore, of course, spelling out the alphabet in a flurry of flag waving from her bedroom window to her socially-distanced friends in the garden below. And at night, in the dark, when flags couldn’t be seen, she used flashes from her torch in Morse signals. Perhaps, even today, resourcefulness doesn’t immediately imply a scary level of personal up-skilling in IT.
Perhaps, sometimes, we need to listen with respect to what our kids are telling us. If we are sometimes prepared to learn from them, we may find that they have more respect for us than any amount of panic-stricken parental intervention conjures up. Maybe the kids are the ones teaching us the three R’s at the moment – Resilience, Resourceful and Respect.
The beautiful plait of bread – Nancy’s new design – has proved itself worthy of the oven and I look round for her. She is improvising a flag with a tea towel and a wooden spoon.
Mum, there are twenty six girls in my year, if we all learn one letter of the alphabet in semaphore, then we could…
I love your style, Nancy. What will you do next?
My friend Thelma is less keen on Swallows and Amazons. But she says Morse might do the trick, as she already knows the dotdotdot – dashdashdash – dotdotdot for SOS. Her personal challenge is to learn just a few more letters, to get to SOS.NEED.TEA.