I’m not sure whether puppy tales (yes, that kind, not the ones that wag) from the Head’s desk are what the Highgate blogosphere wants and needs, but our re-introduction to canine ‘potty training’ has been a major feature of recent weeks in the Pettitt home. Human yelps have punctured the air of an otherwise studious and industrious household as we have gone about our business as purveyors or consumers of education.: ‘Alfi-eeee! Not again! Lou-iiiis – this is your dog! Why can’t he [insert relevant verb] out-side?’ ‘Well,’ comes the reasonable retort from the more dog-tolerant voices, ‘did anyone take him out-side after he had lunch?’
Alfie is the three-month old puppy who has joined Jack, our much-loved, fourteen-year-old Springer, and cats, Tom and Jerry, bringing much fun and mayhem with him. Jack is pretty grumpy about the turn of events, and rightly so: a grandpa by age and by right, he shouldn’t have to put up with Alfie’s pretty constant attempts to relieve his teething on Jack’s wobbly jowls, but he’s being stoical and moves with a sprightly dash to escape unwelcome attention. Tom keeps his distance, being a properly dignified feline with the sleek profile which communicates disdain for uninvited affection but Jerry, a haphazardly friendly, attention-seeking creature, has thrown his lot in with the parvenu pet and rolls over and over in tumbling playfights which he and Alfie adore and we find terrifying.
Alfie has learnt from Jerry that there’s a way into the house (the unimaginatively- and now inaccurately-named cat flap) even if he hasn’t worked out that he could leave the kitchen by the same route. Thus, if we wish to avoid ‘accidents’, our routines need to mirror his digestive system: an early-morning, pre-breakfast constitutional in the garden, a mid-morning stroll, a post-lunch canter to the pillar box and an evening flânerie along Highgate’s finest boulevards. Hitherto lethargic adolescents, zombied by neurones or screens, emerge at speed to don wellies, grabbing poo-bags as they head for the door, and off we go, in pairs or threes and sometimes all five of us plus Alfie, trotting ahead, imitating Jack as he leads his patient, weary way. We didn’t fall for Alfie – fear at our life with Jack coming to its natural end, a precursor to the ebbing away of that chapter of family life – because he would bring routine to and create structure in our lives, but that’s pretty much what his rumbustious, disruptive arrival has done.
When our forebears divided up a child’s school day with slots for reading, writing and arithmetic, for exercise spiritual and physical, for play and for study, they will no doubt have done so for the same pragmatic reasons our timetabling geniuses do so today: making sure that the timetable is fair and balanced, that there is more or less time for everyone and everything, and that includes time to play and time for a break. A happy by-product is certainty about what will happen (no lesson, however slowly the minute-hand appears to turn, ever actually fails to come to an end; no Friday evening ever fails to materialise), and a comforting structure that makes for energising contrast between busyness and relaxation, being productively focused and then productively free. We are all familiar with the impact of smart phones and email on these healthy divisions between work and play, between school and home, and the work we have to do to safeguard those precious differences, and are becoming all too well-versed in that new variable, being locked down.
I imagine many of you will have found the evening hosted by our Director of Wellbeing, Dr Emma Silver, all the more reassuring as she so carefully identified the challenges we are facing and spelled out a diagnosis of why the new familiar is so disruptive: the shift to virtual schooling isn’t only different because of the cauterising of face-to-face experienced friendships but because of the blurring of certainties which come with structures, be they in the way we shift gear during a day (sitting down, running around), or of calendar (mocks after Christmas or match days on Saturday). As a parent observing the pandemic play out in microcosm in our family and on the bigger scale across our children’s networks, I warmed both to the diagnosis and to the preventative measures: for all the substitutes we are finding for school life, we mustn’t miss out on the structures which children, which adults, need to navigate a time where the hands on the clock mean almost nothing anymore. In the absence of some long-term certainties, we can focus on what gives the next hour, the next day, the next week, sense and meaning. So, yes, whether it’s the puppy that wrenches us from the screen or not, we do well to insert those same structures we often rail at and so enjoy being released from on holiday back into our routines.
Thinking over the many moments of inertia I’ve experienced and failed to react to, I know I don’t always do this well. But Dr Silver had words of reassurance for us there, too: we shouldn’t expect to be perfect, and we should accept that this enforced but temporary new normal will not see our children learning as evenly or as quickly or as easily; they may leave a screen lesson not yet clear about, well, about what it’s all about. In all the media coverage of the long-lasting impact of this lockdown on our nation’s children, with the reporter’s aim of needling policy-makers into doing more than just cope with the now but planning for a better future which takes account of what was wrong before the pandemic hit us, it’s easy to assume we’re facing educational, even societal, meltdown and to move from fleeting fretfulness to contagious anxiety. Hearing Emma talk about the adult’s reaction to uncertainty was good, more than good, too: it spoke of the need to be compassionate not only to those we care for but to ourselves as well.
The take-away for me at least was seeing Emma’s expert advice as a recipe for being actively compassionate: understanding the big picture we’re part of; growing our capacity to deal with not knowing; working out what we can change; making those revivifying tweaks to a daily routine; allowing ourselves to be imperfect. From what I hear from your cheery, chatty, sparkling children, you are doing a brilliant job, for the most part without the additions to your pet-life: carry on, but be compassionate with yourselves as you do.