Isolation. This had always been a word I associated with punishment, or a self-imposed exile.
It conveyed a sense of being ‘cut off’, ‘separated’ or indeed ‘distanced’ from other people. With the rapid escalation from normality to ‘self-isolation’ just over 5 weeks ago, it was funny how quickly words like ‘quarantine’ (which I merely associated with my Year 7 history lessons) were absorbed into everyday conversations. ‘Isolation’ certainly delivers on its negative connotations in some ways. Regular walks to school were soon replaced with infrequent and cherished supermarket trips, the necessity of my school bag replaced by a bottle of hand sanitiser. The removal of this routine has felt like I’ve replaced Bill Murray in a personal remake of Groundhog Day (that said – a lot more boring, with only one set and the cast consisting of my immediate family).
The announcement of the cancellation of exams, for me, was an experience comparable to being told I didn’t need braces – bypassing a teenage rite of passage I had anticipated but never really looked forward to. The uneasiness that followed, mixed with a sense of relief and anti-climax gave way to an emerging recognition of the amount of time that had just been given back to me. Suddenly the Gap year I had planned, to take next year as a ‘break’ from the intensity of work, seemed a little unnecessary – instead I was presented with endless possibilities for self-edification in the coming months, time previously allocated solely to revision. This was obviously the consensus, as my Instagram feed was soon congested with adverts of masterclasses I MUST attend and workout schemes I should enrol in. This bombardment instilled an overwhelming sense of the need for productivity. The messages seemed repetitive, an intensified encouragement to try a new skill, only now with a deadline, a best before date, as ‘this is time you will never get back’ and which therefore should be invested wisely. Perhaps I could pick up the cello again after a 5-year break, resurrect the GCSE passion for French or get around to clearing away the collection of biology past papers hidden at the back of my wardrobe. The common message is simple – to invest the time into bettering oneself.
At the time, it was easy to be enticed by these advertisements for a radical lifestyle change, with an aim to become incredibly self-driven, encouraged by the promise of profound personal fulfilment. However, in the reality of lockdown the more rewarding experiences have been those shared with others. Small things are appreciated. Phone calls with relatives or exchanging baked or craft goods with friends (while maintaining an appropriate distance) have established a new rhythm and restored some degree of regularity. Events of ‘ordinary greatness’ seem to hold the greatest resonance. Nationally there has been admiration for Captain Tom Moore walking 100 laps of his garden (not a small feat for a 100 year old), while closer to home it’s the friends I know volunteering for the NHS, being on duty for up to 24 hours at a time to ensure patients get their prescriptive medication, daily food shop or have a friendly voice at the end of the line in times of extreme solitude.
Quarantine has been a time of self-reflection and appreciation, a break from the constant and overwhelming speed of life beforehand. Time is not something I have been short of. While this new-found time easily lends itself to reminiscing about the small intricacies and interactions of daily life that now seem so far away – it has also allowed for connecting with those I love, miss and care for. While I may not leave quarantine fluent in French with a new PB for 5km (and I’m sure this would be a disappointment to my 5-week earlier self), investing the time into other activities has proved equally enriching.
Orla McMenamin has been at Highgate for 6 years after leaving briefly whilst living in Bermuda, followed by a prompt return at the beginning of GCSEs. She is hoping to study History and Politics at University and can still identify the members of every Year 7 class from when she was 12.