I will return to a few mornings of teaching after 80 days. To say that I am looking forward to it is an under-statement of some degree. I used to count the days to the end of term ‘Three more days of horror’ style. Now I am counting the days till we go back.
We cobbled together a pretty good virtual substitute I must say. A mixture of videos, suggested activities and live group and one to one Zoom chats managed to deliver some sort of provision that I think we can be proud of.
In the name of recording children's lessons and bored of babbling away to my own reflection when my laptop records, I took to talking to soft toys, my beloved says rather too enthusiastically for a woman of 55. But it’s not a sign of going doolally; each toy has a little character through which I can explore a mathematical or literacy idea. Among other things, Monkey and Penguin will argue if they don’t get exactly the same and Teddy can predict what will happen next in a story, can’t you Teddy. Teddy says ‘Yes I can Kate, I know what will happen next’.
It doesn’t replace the dynamic of a real classroom but the recorded pic-nics and pans of popcorn mimic humanity nearly as well as a real monkey’s tea party can. My beloved doesn't understand, does he Teddy? Teddy says 'No, he doesn't understand you Kate. But I do.' It’s Not Natural, Is It Teddy. To be locked up for so long without company. Teddy says, “We’re the lucky ones, we have company.’ When I nod and agree he says, ‘Outside is death. Inside with me is safe.’ But other people, all we know about the number of them is that it is very big, are not faring so well.
We are prepared for what is hopefully a temporary new normal. The school has been deep cleaned and we have altered the routines for staggered entry and additional hygiene. We have set up ‘bubbles’ for no more than 15 children, labelling their own chairs and loos and removing all things that are hard to wipe down. We have put away malleable toys like playdough as well as carpets, soft toys and cushions, as all schools have. Finding the space to set up all the bubbles and to store all the stuff we can’t use at the moment has been a challenge and I can’t help imagining thousands of soft toys clambering up a tower of all the risky cushions from British schools teetering up to the clouds. But that is because I don’t get out much.
Teddy is not happy. Not happy at all. It’s not just his deep resentment at being closely associated with soft furnishings. And while his mood has not been helped by Monkey’s constant references to stuffing, his main concern is deeper. He says it’s not safe to go outside. He says, '…this mess is so big and so deep and so tall, we can not pick it up. there is no way at all!' He likes to quote from books because he thinks it makes what he is saying more true.
Teddy is really staying very alert indeed. I have tried to explain how humans are social animals and the relationship between physical and mental health, but Teddy is actually very angry. Teddy says, ‘What about my mental health? What about the stress of being left with those idiots Penguin and Monkey all day long? What about my fear of you bringing death into our home on your ever so colour co-ordinated face masks?’
No amount of talk about R rates and infection curves can calm him. His fear is a fire that has been fed with the uncountable images of the recently departed and makeshift morgues on Wanstead flats. His fear cannot be doused with expertly calculated probabilities, the probable is what he is frightened about.
My hope is that, just as he got so used to this lockdown life in a matter of days, he will see me go and come back and cook the supper day after day and more images of people in hairdressers and on the bus so that in a few weeks his fear will die down as quickly as it flared.
The time may come when Teddy learns to trust me, and himself, again to exercise our judgement and make decisions on our owns. When we do that, regulations or no regulations, we will be free again. I will be keeping my views about freedom to myself with Teddy for a while. I brought it up last night and Teddy was fraught to say the least. It was hard to make out exactly what he was saying but I do remember, ‘How many people did your freedom kill before your symptoms showed Kate?’ Then he went quiet.
Still later, I hope that he can go back to nursery, and forgive himself for going a little bit barmy.
These are strange times and we all have had our odd days. I myself washed the front door and all the windows up to the second floor with bleach a few weeks ago, and I am usually very rational, aren’t I Teddy. Teddy knows I am writing about him and is not speaking to me at the moment.
Of course, I did not really start talking to inanimate objects. Playing with small children actually heightens one’s understanding of the difference between reality and imagination as it happens. And while my house is cleaner than it has ever been, and I have bought enough face masks for each member of The Household to wear two a day, I didn’t bleach my windows either. But I made a talking to Teddies joke as an aspect of my own psyche in an email a couple of weeks ago and thought it might work to explore the problems of lock-down a bit.
The three actual people in our home, currently known as The Household, can experience the spontaneous touch of a human being during a conversation and all sorts of sideways glances. So the bland full face screen time inside, and the fearful veering and queuing and every other person looking like they’re about to rob a bank that charecterises life outside is not as bad for us as it is for other people. We have each other, and tech, and can lose the weight when things change again. But there is still a great lack in our lives. I want to hug my sister.
It is in virtual, that is not quite, teaching where I feel the lack most obviously. I cannot do my job remotely. I won’t be able to do my job well from June the 1st; we are only to touch or hug a child if they initiate it, whether they need it or not.
We are social animals, and start off as mainly animal when we are born. My job as a teacher is to respect the animal but work on the social part of small people. I do that with looks, facial expressions, gestures, words and vocal sounds. I teach the ancient art of relationship building by pushing a hair off someones’s face the same way as their mum. I teach the concept of zero, which our entire species did not think to write down until the 9th century AD, by lying on the floor and pretending to be a crocodile. And narrative, narrative, narrative, that complex subtle and completely necessary skill set, begun before recorded time and still developing at this moment, needs hours and hours with other people pretending with fire-engines and dinosaurs, and dressing up, and plastic cupateas and stories, stories, stories.
Schools are like bridges from the small, known and comfortable private side of life to the wide wide, new and challenging world. Also, teachers have degrees and stuff, we know how to do teaching really well.
Fifteen minutes sitting in front of a static screen and suggesting that perhaps that cat would be more comfortable the other way up is a very poor substitute for all that. And teaching is just an extreme example, we all need to respect our animal part but focus on our social selves to be truly alive. We are social animals.
Believe me, I do not use the other n-word hardly at all, if learning these things had anything to do with the other n-word, it would not take years and years of practice with other human beings to learn them. But I have to use it now; this lockdown life we are all leading is just not natural.
We need other people, not in some literally sanitised, virtual, that is not quite, or distanced way. We need sideways glances, spontaneous touch and unconscious smell, hustle and bustle, and ‘Whoops sorry,’ on the street not said in a tone that intimates a horrible death. Almost ironically, it’s not just living in houses and caring about the health of little old ladies we don’t know that separates us from the beasts. It’s our natural need to be social.
Other people who want to end lock-down sooner rather than later tend to talk about two things apart from the Virus’ obvious decline. They speak of the ‘unrelated deaths’ numbers, which are shockingly large and only partly explained by mis-diagnoses and don’t-want-to-be-a-botheritus. When someone’s stress leads to a heart attack, no one will record that they died of loneliness, even though that may be what gave them the stress. Lonely is too wishy-washy for modern science. But we will, probably, never know who might have lived on, or died, if lock-down never happened.
I also see the couplet ‘economic damage’ a lot, together with the equally vague but true health risks associated with a lack of money. But we have been in the Don’t-Look-Down-Wiley-Cayote School of Economics since 1979 as far as I’m concerned. Thanks to layer
upon layer of invisible and almost limitless credit, if you just look ahead when you run off an economic cliff you don’t fall. We ran off the canyon edge years ago and Corona has simply made us look down. Let’s hope there’s a great big pile of spare soft-furnishings filling up the canyon.
We will, we must, reflect and analyse what happened to us all in the last 80 odd days, human beings find it hard not to learn and change unless actively discouraged.
When I had TB I finally got round to reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. So, like a lot of people I suspect, in March I read The Plague by Albert Camus. It was very useful indeed because it was an allegory of being in Occupied France during World-War-Two, where Camus was a real live Resistance Hero. Apart from being a very good read on the subject of heroism, the book is a reasonable and humane attempt to understand why different people fought or went along with the Nazis.
We are in a very different situation. Corona is more like a plague than Camus’ plague was; it is not a conscious Nazi.. Even the idiot politicians have acted in as good a faith as they can manage. But most of us are or, probably, will discover that we have all been a bit like Teddy and made plonkers of ourselves to various degrees, and lots and lots of people are still dead.
Camus was a queer fish with some odd ideas, but I totally appreciate the fact that, even when considering the Nazi Occupation of France, he did not do blame. Nor did he do forgetting or forgiveness. He just tried to record, understand and to move as far on as an existentialist can. I for one will try to be like Camus, and so many people I have seen over these strange weeks, reasonable and humane.
I’m not sure I can be as nice as Camus. I don’t blame Neil Ferguson for having a bonk under lock-down, I blame him for the truly terrible modelling he insisted was probable. And I blame the politicians, including the personally excusable Cummings, for forgetting the rubbish Ferguson had already said about badgers and using his models so very enthusiastically.
Then the politicians went and forced their stupid ‘nudging’ ideas to their logical conclusion to treat us as both incapable of learning and selfish animals. They did what they did on the pressumption that we don’t understand what probable means, can’t understand the difference between total numbers and rates of numbers, and that even if we did, we wouldn’t care about little old ladies we don’t know. Well hark whose talking, that’s what I say. The last 80 odd days have told me who is stupid and selfish, and it is not the general public.
But I had better go; Teddy says he has got a surprise for The Household. Planning is another thing that separates us from the beasts after all.
‘The other man, twisting his hat between his hands, gave him a hesitant look.
“Don’t hold it against me.”
“Certainly not. But at least,” Tarrou added with a smile, “try not to spread the microbe knowingly.”’
From 'The Plague' by Albert Camus, 1947