I was really looking forward to House Athletics (more cynical pupils might say that’s because I don’t have to take part in it myself).
Along with the house vocal competition in September, it’s one of the highest profile events in the house calendar, which invites participation from a large number of pupils and around which a healthy sense of competition blooms. Over the last couple of years, the weather on the day has been glorious and the afternoon of the competition has had an almost festival atmosphere, with pupils making banners and trips to the ice cream van; just like at Glastonbury, face paint abounds on Parliament Hill. For Y13, the athletics competition is also their final opportunity to represent their House, which for many has been a much-valued part of their Highgate experience over the past five years.
As the reality of the school’s closing sank in, and I began to get to grips with the practicalities of remote learning, my thoughts turned to the competitions that won’t be taking place this summer, along with all the other, smaller scale but no less important, experiences that the house system provides. Pupils sometimes moan about the pastoral slots in their timetables – “can we have double break instead?” is a question that many tutors and Heads of House will have heard during their tenure – but that daily contact time with peers is a reliable and grounding anchor in a sometimes frenetic schedule, and lasting friendships born of proximity blossom during years of registration and tutor periods where the only obligation is simply to be together for a few minutes. Longer-standing Heads of House see this every year when the Y13s take their House yearbook photo: the heart-warming sense of camaraderie and shared identity displayed by pupils who, less than five years ago, gathered somewhat suspiciously for their first Y9 registration, wondering whether they’d have anything in common with the fourteen others with whom they’d been thrown together by geography and chance. Luckily, this year’s Y13 were able to take their photos before school closed, ensuring that this Highgate tradition didn’t fall victim to the virus.
But how to maintain this sense of togetherness and community when we’re physically far apart? This term, some of those pastoral slots will find their way back into the timetable; I’m already experimenting with Zoom backdrops for potential online house assemblies (currently tempted by a Tiger King montage). The house captains, who probably thought their tenure was at an end, will also have a significant role to play, helping to create a weekly house newsletter where jokes, photos and recommendations can be shared amongst the house. We may not be able to replicate exactly the in-school experience, where so many important connections are made in passing – a word of praise in the corridor, a wave from across the Quad – but I think the requirement to actively create these moments of togetherness; to commit to them by logging on and signalling one’s presence, will underline their value. And although house athletics might not have taken place on 22 April as planned, my daily run might have lead me to Parliament Hill, and my lap of the outside of the closed-off athletics track might count as an uncontested victory for Northgate…
Heather Isaksen has been a Classics teacher at Highgate since 2014, and Head of Northgate since 2016. Since September she has also been Senior Head of House, although sadly this hasn’t given Northgate the advantage in the Charley Cup she was anticipating. She enjoys whisky, yoga and mountains, although not usually in that order. Many pupils will recognise her prized Love Island water bottle, which she has now lost in almost every classroom in the school.