I never thought that writing a blog which, when I first started one a decade or so ago, felt pretty avant garde, would seem familiar territory compared to the ‘new normal’: recording messages for staff briefings, narrating lessons for home-based learning and delivering iPad assemblies from my study. But we’re getting so used to being locked down that what I describe will have become familiar to all of us!
As I type, smells of experimental baking are wafting through the hallway, and noises off compete to distract me from work which must be done: the floor shudders rhythmically as someone works out to a SpEx strength and conditioning session; the Minute Waltz never quite makes it past the thirty-second point as someone sticks to their laudable determination to learn a waltz a week; the culinary exploits become a vlog with braying, laughing overlays. I put up post-it notes to warn would-be office burglars from breaking into the now-pristine, now-orderly study to purloin stationery essentials while I’m recording (and, it seems, saying ‘um’ every ten seconds, the middle-aged equivalent of ‘like’?).
But a school office is not much quieter: the rattle of laboratory stools as pupils get up to start experiments in the first floor physics classroom above me; the chatter of sixth formers working, or not, in the Science Quad; the Chaplain’s cheery greeting as he bounds into the Common Room to grab a mid-morning coffee before chapel calls; and, on a summer’s day, a saxophone swinging up and down its scales as the Music Department windows open to catch a cooling breeze. But what has changed is that a school is – temporarily – no longer the collection of buildings and the community they house, but that community dispersed and yet connected by the extraordinary wonders of technology. Schools have become communities of people rather than the places those people meet in, work in, make friends in.
With the news that Denmark is re-opening its primary schools and Germany is contemplating much the same, I’m looking at this lock-down from our school perspective, conscious that this is a phase, albeit one administering huge shocks to economy and society, and wanting to be sure we do more than ‘weather the storm’ – of course, we must keep pupils learning and learning really well, but what does this unique circumstance tell me? And what I’ve been left with is how much I have taken for granted: through over-familiarity with the ostensibly uninterruptible cycle of school terms, I failed to appreciate so much – the keenly anticipated end of term and the start of holidays; the return to work with topped-up energy; the opportunity for chatter in a school’s endless queuing for this or that; moments of communal silence – that peace-in-togetherness which nothing else can replicate. The diversity of laughter. On-tap socialising. The opportunity to start a happily heated debate, without any organisation needed!
But curiously, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, I have re-discovered much of this in the phone and screen calls; in fact, I’ve been speaking to friends and relations I have neglected (taken for granted …) and am beginning to realise that I’ll have to up the ante if I am to make the most of the quarantine and make contact with everyone who has mattered to me. Surrounded by family photos of loved ones who have moved on a generation ago, I wonder if I took too much for granted at home. I suppose the dreadful virus is teaching us many lessons which we will take months, if not years, to absorb but one of these may well be how we look after and nurture our connectedness and belonging.
Highgate has always said that it wants to be a reflective community, so one which reflects on what it means to be a community, and the price (by which I’ve always meant the degree of commitment and selflessness) for the individual to benefit from membership of that community. If taking precious things for granted comes from over-familiarity, perhaps unfamiliarity will be the key to unlocking new opportunity and potential in what really matters, in unmasking the human in the humdrum, and cherishing it carefully, consciously, communally. Of course, it goes without saying that I can’t wait to be back with you all but I feel, for the moment, that our necessary isolation is forcing us to learn what it means to be together and what it would mean if we really took that togetherness for granted.
Keep well, keep safe, keep connected.