The students are returning, blinking in the sunlight, trussed in what have become uncomfortable zips and buttons. Each of them, regardless of age, has a first-day-in-Year-7 vibe: a bit pale, very subdued, looking around helplessly.
Rather than being given cosy welcome sessions, they are met with sanitiser, arrows, rules.
I’m worried about them. We had instilled in them a respect for authority: a confidence in older, wiser adults making the right choices on their behalf. We taught them to respect the hallowed British institutions and to express their views. To think for themselves, to speak out against injustice – so long as the injustice doesn’t involve them and their mates being given an undeserved detention.
And then. And then. Their world shifted.
Indecision and U-turns
They watched a terrifying lack of action in the face of climate change. They have Greta. We have Clarkson. They protested, marched, yelled and were largely told to get back to school, because their education is vital – it can’t be interrupted. Except when it was.
We told them we’d give them fair results and they wouldn’t suffer. We taught them to go to police officers if they needed help.
But they watched the news. A police officer could kill you. While you pleaded to breathe.
We told them we should follow the science, and they got that. After all, they make a Play-Doh model of a cell every year of their school careers. They are all over the science and independent variables.
But then the science changed, again. And again.
Finally, we sent them home, feeding them the daily death graphs. They were told not to leave the house. They wanted a birthday cake, but there was no flour, and the conciliatory Haribo were mainlined on the way home by their parents. No jolly day trips for them, whatever their eyes were doing.
Pupils need us to be better
And now they’re back. Changed. Instead of teachers greeting them at the door, welcoming them into the classroom, the children wait for their teacher to sprint across the campus, open rucksack spilling pens and Berocca, arriving flustered.
While I struggle with the HDMI cable, I sense something different. Where there was once the affectionate patience usually reserved for a hard-of-hearing grandparent at Christmas, now I sense a tightening. A tension. They need us to be better.
I brightly announce that we are doing some lovely poetry. A hand goes up. A pupil tells me he heard poetry had been removed from the syllabus. Not this poetry, I tell him. I’ve checked. Is there a note of desperation in my voice? I need him to believe me. But why would he?
He asks if his exams will happen this year. I look him in the eye. “I hope so,” is the best I can manage. “I don’t know for sure.”
He looks away. He needs me to know, to be sure. They all do.
An energy growing
But, then, something happens. The lessons begin in earnest. The pupils still forget their homework. They don’t have their book, even though they haven’t left the same classroom in a week. "How is this possible?" I think. They lean back on their chairs; they’re whispering and they are definitely comparing Fantasy Football teams rather than the writer’s use of descriptive techniques.
We begin to breathe. The air is hot, smelly, heavy, but there’s an energy growing. I remember how much I love being in a classroom, bouncing the learning and humour and ideas around the room. They accept the rules: the distancing, the narrowing and tightening that stifled them, a tightening cord of fear smothering them, and they pull it just a little away from their collars, creating a tiny space.
We settle into a rhythm. I learn to link to every interactive board in the school; they learn to contribute from a distance. They submit work online, and muddle along with their partner allocated by accident of surname.
Hands shoot up to answer questions and we shrug off the weight of anxiety. Form time becomes more important than ever: a chance to chat, catch up, ask questions and check where lunch is, what time, which room today.
The school day feels familiar. Not the same but similar enough, and the pupils talk more, opening up. It has become acceptable to admit it’s tough. They’re tired all the time; they have gaps in their learning, and they know we will listen and we will help, with kindness and without judgement.
School feels really important for these students. It offers them a routine, a sense of shared experience and contact with adults whose job it is to look after them and challenge them and cheer for them.
The news changes. More restrictions are being introduced, cases are rising. We try to drown out the noise, making lessons faster, louder, whizzier, but the insidious whispering of fear creeps under doorways and through windows. We grow increasingly animated, laugh a little too loudly, too keenly.
Rumours begin to spread of temperatures, isolating, quarantine. We know that, if these students are sent home again, it will be very disorientating for them. They don’t want to be in the history books. This is their present.
Today, in my form time, two boys put up umbrellas, just for a laugh. We’ll make our own luck, the spinning webs seem to sing.
Alexandra Quinn is a senior professional mentor and professional coach at Warwick School