Should they stay[at home] or should they go [to school]

At long last we’ll be welcoming back our matrics and Grade 7s to school on Monday, after 73 days in Lockdown!

And for our Grade 12s, matric will suddenly get real!

Be prepared for increased levels of schoolwork stress in your children. That is to be expected. As each grade phases in, it is likely that certain other fears will be experienced, especially concern about contracting the virus or anxiety over little things, like: ‘Will I “pass” the screening?’ ‘How will the new systems operate?’ and ‘Could I infect someone?’ ‘Will my friends still play with me, or want to speak to me?’

‘Am I behind in my work or not grasping key concepts enough to cope with my final examinations?’ as well as thoughts such as ‘’Will I be accepted into my chosen field of study next year?’ which are usual worries at this time of year, may be uppermost in the minds of our seniors.

We are ready to deal with all sorts of trepidation in both our staff and learners as we navigate the new way of doing things. Our counsellors and School Based Support Teams are on alert, because, as a school with an ethos of looking after the body, mind and spirit of our children, we are so aware we need to nurture them emotionally through this period also. (We are also aware that you, their parents, are also anxious about sending your children back into the world. We understand because we are parents too.)

Our school is fortunate in that we can offer a hybrid form of learning whereby students who cannot return yet or whose parents want to keep them at home for a while longer, can live stream the day at home.

Even learners tuning in from home may not be immune (if you pardon the pun) to some anxiety, however. They may suffer from FOMO and parents of such children should also watch out for what psychologists are referring to as the ‘Lonely Children Effect’ which according to Maria Loades, a clinical psychologist from the University of Bath, UK, interviewed on Cape Talk today, says ‘can manifest itself for years’.  

Social interaction is critical for the intellectual and social development of young people, so do factor in some additional data costs, for your youngsters at home to spend a bit more time talking to their friends. Yes, I am actually telling you to let them spend a bit more time online; you have not misread. It’s how they socialise. For example, gamers shooting things with their friends is not necessarily the worst activity for them, because if they are playing online, they are also bonding, which at this time is really important. Unless that’s all they are doing, or you need them to take out the garbage, in which case turn off the router (or just threaten to, if you are in need of some entertainment at their expense, as one does when one is an evil parent like me.)

You may think your children can’t be lonely because they have you or their siblings to spend time with, but Loades says that peer play is what is important, not only DMCing with the ‘parentals.’

The other thing that will add to their stress is the fact that once more there will be change in their lives. Remember that resistance to change is a form of grief. Our staff and children will go through all of these processes as they come to terms with the next new normal. It will be both your job and ours to help them to reach acceptance and acclimatize themselves to the new protocols. Mourners can go through 5 stages of grief, not necessarily experiencing all of these or even moving in this order:

  1. shock and denial
  2. anger
  3. bargaining
  4. depression
  5. acceptance

And when there is organisational change, people can go through similar phases:

[For the record psychologists don’t all agree with this model, and dispute the progression of ‘stages’ concept, because folk don’t necessarily experience all these emotions or have them all in this order, but it certainly has some relevance anecdotally, and you may well recognize these in your children.]

Identify them either to yourself or with your child and help them through the hard stages. Because, eventually, we can get used to anything. Humans are clever that way. Knowing what you are dealing with, should empower you to make the tough calls, (especially if you encounter some ‘school’refusal’ but it should help you also to love them through the shock and denial stages. Good luck with the bargaining stage if you have a wannabe lawyer or lobbyist in the house though!

We cannot wait to meet our masked warriors of the New Age of Hybrid Education and welcome them home, as well as meeting some in your homes on our live streams. If you are lucky enough to be able to work from home still, think of us in this brave new world while you lounge in your pjs. I just hope I can fit into that darling little suit I bought before lockdown…

“I was a little excited but mostly blorft. “Blorft” is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

― Tina Fey, Bossypants

‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’

– William Shakespeare

Remember Y2K and all the fears that the world’s telecommunications and banking systems would come crashing down at the stroke of midnight? I can measure the passage of time and world events around which of my babies I was pregnant with or feeding at the time.

I watched the start of 2000 from Baby Shannon’s rocking chair in her beautiful nursery, in our home on a hill in Johannesburg, with a spectacular view across to the fireworks in Sandton City. Besides all the conspiracy theories and apocalypse predictions, it was an exciting time to be alive, with much anticipation about the dawn of a new era, even if there was much disagreement about whether 2000 was the end of the millennium or the beginning of the 21st century (it’s the former fyi).

I was nursing my newborn daughter when the night sky was illuminated by the magnificent display of pyrotechnics. It was as if the heavens were celebrating her birth, this tiny princess who was already a celebrity in the house with her delicate features and easy nature (well then, anyway.)

We had measured record rainfall that summer (the highest in over 20 year), so much so that Shannon was nicknamed ‘Mapula’ which means ‘rain’ in Setswana, but on that night the sky’s curtains opened on a perfect evening and the vison of those fireworks remains imprinted in my memory, like a happy portent that the 21st century would be better than the previous one. I was overwhelmed with the pleasure of my life.

Of course, I was relieved to have shed the swollen ankles that went with carrying a baby through a hot, muggy summer on the Reef. My misery was topped only by a mother at the older children’s school who was carrying twins. When we bumped (literally!) into each other at the year-end school concert, I was chastened at the sight of her, for feeling grumpy over my own discomfort: by then she had abandoned any attempt at haute couture and waddled into the auditorium in a tent dress and her husband’s bulky size 10 running shoes.

“I was full of self-pity in this heat, until I saw you,’ I whispered, ‘but now I just feel so sorry for you.’

She didn’t even bother to be poised about it and, beyond dignified denials, merely hissed, ‘Yes! You should be!’

My mother used to say that you can always find someone better off and someone worse off than yourself in this world, and on that evening, I realized the truth of it. And a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve 1999, I felt my life could not get any better.

I had no idea of course what the future would hold, and how my world would come crashing down around me just over a year later. Who could have foretold that I would lose it all: house on the hill, imported 4×4, husband, and even my birthplace.  

Perhaps it’s better we can never see into the future – we’d wouldn’t be able to face the harrowing days if we could see them coming and I think we wouldn’t appreciate the good times either, if we were living in dread of what was to come.

I didn’t lose what was most precious to me though. Even though, I was heading into a time of dark despair and incredible loss. I just didn’t know it. I also didn’t know that I would one day experience the unbounded joy of both another child and new love.

But in that moment, on the edge of the era, as the lights from outside flickered over my sleeping baby, I was content.

Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on.

Hal Borland

Sometimes God doesn’t give you what you want; He gives you your deepest desire.

37 Famous Feminists - Inspiring Women of the Feminist Movement

Since I’ve already written reflections around the birth of each of my sons, I should reference the girls’ births, lest I be accused of favouritism, or horror of horrors, gender prejudice.

The story of Caitlin’s imminent arrival does involve prejudice against women though, but it’s also a story of triumph over that, in one of life’s delightful ironies.

It was Christmas 1993. We had been transferred to Johannesburg “for one year, I promise” (We were there for seven.) and I had just been offered an English teaching post at a private boys’ school, in what would become Gauteng in a few months with the dawn of New South African Republic.

My sister arrived to spend Christmas with us and while we were sunning ourselves on Christmas Eve, the phone rang. (Remember when phones used to ring somewhere in the distance and you had to go inside to answer them?!) I came out stunned. I was pregnant. Not part of the immediate plans, but a blessing nonetheless.

After the celebrations and announcements were over, I realized the tricky situation I was in. I was due to start at the college in the January, with a matric class, and the baby was due in August – mid-prelims. With some trepidation, I called the head of the school to inform him, and stupidly admitted I wouldn’t blame him if he fired me. He promptly did. Of course, he couched it in terms which probably sounded kind to him:  ‘We…eell, we would prefer then that yah didn’t start at all,’ he said in his lilting Irish voice. And that was that. There was no contract to dispute. The legal advice given to me was that I’d opened the door by saying I wouldn’t blame him. So, I was out.

This was a time in education when schools were not only racially segregated, but women also had an unequal deal as employees. When I started teaching I earned R900. My male counterparts with the same qualifications and experience were gifted R1 100 per month. I lost my permanent post in a state school when I got married and no longer qualified for a housing subsidy. And here I was being screwed over by an independent school too.

At the time, I shrugged my shoulders, sold my little blue Suzuki Jeep (Okay I cried about that) and realized that I didn’t want to be a part of a system raising boys to think like that anyway and a few months later found the perfect post at Holy Family College in Parktown, an institution which housed the best head I ever worked under, Alastair Smurthwaite, who later promoted me to my first HOD position. He was a person of compassion and believed in giving his leadership team the room to grow.

I am a firm believer that when we don’t get what we want out of life, we often find our hideen, deepest desire. This is a lesson that I have learned over and over in my life.

HFC was a significant place of learning for me. I had a fabulous subterranean classroom, which must have been part of the old convent building. It was massive and airy and even though it was situated beneath the front stairs, it had a lot of light that came in from windows at the top which looked onto a carpark and enabled us to listen unseen to all the parents gossiping outside. It had huge hooks that we made up ghost stories about, and I rummaged around in unused rooms of the rambling building, braving the odd lurking aged nun, and discovered an old carpet and footstools which we put cushions on and used as a comfy corner for reading setworks and chatting.

The school was also a place where I was witness to great suffering among young people who travelled for miles on public transport, some being victims of unspeakable violence.

I will never forget a young man named Nokwanto whose growth was stunted because of his kidney disease, that forced him to undergo two transplants. His body rejected the second transplant; yet with every day that drew him closer to death, he lived life with a joi de vivre that would shame the most truculent adolescent. My last image of him before I left the school eventually was of him standing arms akimbo, laughing delightedly as soft snow fell on one of those rare Johannesburg days when the sleet is in fact snow.

Then there was the young woman who was gang-raped on her way home because she ‘had airs and graces because she attended a fancy school,’ who gave up her plans to become a lawyer and chose social work instead. And the tall, thin, tortured Nkululeko who postured aggressively in class and drew tormenting demons in his diary, and who slipped one of the most beautiful thank you notes I have ever received under my office door, in which he reflected that I had loved him just as he was. The social worker at the school voiced prophetic words when I left: “This is the letter which will bring you back to teaching.’ And years later when I did return to the classroom, I remembered. I still wonder what became of him.

The school was a fascinating combination of new and old, and the energy of the young people was contagious. The staff was largely female; strong women who were clearly leaders, at least one of whom went on to become a principal in her own right. The Science teacher, a heavy smoker and nearing retirement, was the first female engineer to graduate from Wits University, so there was no shortage of great female role models.

It was a place of healing for me when I lost my mother, and I am still in touch with a student who was delighted to hear that Caitlin was born on her birthday. Caitlin herself has grown up to be a woman of deep compassion and generosity of spirit, and is embarking on her career as a chartered accountant. She rescued me from becoming mired in a school whose male leadership would have crushed me, and enabled me to find one where I was liberated. It is fitting that the child who was born during my time there is forging ahead in what is still a rather male-dominated field, despite have been seen as an inconvenience by a school when she was still in the womb.

Thank you, Caitlin for being God’s instrument in leading me to profound happiness and setting me on my own path towards leadership.

“When they go low, we go high.”

Michelle Obama

Angels who walk the halls in hospitals

angels in the rafters

I had to have a COVID-19 test on Friday. It really made me contemplate my own mortality and the angels who care for the ill.

In the first 24 hours in which I self-isolated even from my family, I realised a couple of things:

  1. I’m quite boring company, but that won’t come as much of a surprise to most people.
  2. I would hate to be in hospital alone and away from my family.

My thoughts of being potentially abandoned in a hospital ICU (Yes, I am bit of a drama queen) reminded me of a time I was forced to do that to one of my children.

Michael, now 23, was four days old when he was re-admitted to hospital and stayed in the neonatal intensive care for another three weeks.

He was born on the Monday before the Easter weekend in 1997, a sweet little brown-haired baby boy who surprised us all after two redheads.  I think all the gynaecologists in the province were planning to enjoy the long weekend and so were inducing their mothers on the Thursday which is when My wee bairn was waiting in the nursery to be taken through for a little procedure (yes… that one!). As a result, I hardly saw him on that day, and until early the next day, when we were discharged.

I couldn’t believe how good this little boy was being as we introduced him to his big sister and brother: he slept through it all. He just kept on sleeping…all day and I was having to wake him to feed. In fact, when I look back, I realize he was pretty much comatose.

Fortunately, he was not my first child, or he might have died (just remember that when you’re choosing my old age home, Michael!) but I knew something was wrong, so in the middle of the night, we called in our babysitter and did some low-level flying back to the hospital to meet the paediatrician.

He was clearly trying to soothe my postpartum hysteria, as he patiently explained he was going to do a lumbar puncture (spinal tap, for my US readers), but gestured to me that I should wait outside. So, my poor baby had a massive needle inserted 0.5 cm into his back in order to withdraw spinal fluid, and I wasn’t there.

The diagnosis: bacterial meningitis! The funny thing about the types of meningitis is this, the viral kind can’t be cured by drugs (bloody viruses!), but the bacterial kind, while it can be treated with strong antibiotics, it can be fatal, especially for a neonate. Dr Greef’s grave tone informed us that he was ‘pretty sure’ he’d survive, and ‘cautiously optimistic’ there’d be no brain damage. I’d have said, ‘well that’s just swell!’ but the horror was that my tiny baby was suffering from a gargantuan headache caused by inflammation of the meninges, the membranes which protect the brain and spinal cord, so ‘swell’ it was most certainly was, but the irony was too awful to joke about!

Michael was admitted into the neonatal intensive care unit at the clinic and spent the next three weeks there. I spent that time commuting between my children at home, who cried when I left and my newborn in ICU who, when I left did not, because he was so desperately ill. I cried both ways in the car, aware that wherever I was, I was abandoning someone. In fact, if you look at photographs of me at that time, you can barely see my puffy eyes from all the weeping.

One outrageous moment of our time there was the soap opera eGoli‘s casting director asking us to allow him to be used as a prop for an episode. you can guess what my answer was, cheeky thespians! (So sorry, Mikey, you could have been famous.)

When I am think of that little mite, abandoned to an incubator, in an isolation ward each night, I reflect now of how dreadfully lonely and frightening it must be for serious COVID-19 patients, to be attached to machines and surrounded by the starkness of a hospital, and how impossibly sad it is that so many people are dying alone, without their families beside them.

To be fair, the intensive care nursing staff was phenomenal with Baby Michael. I still remember one named Andre, who took it upon himself to call me regularly when he was on duty with running commentaries of how Michael had decorated his incubator, necessitating regular changes, much to Andre’s amusement. I often think of that young man and wish I could thank him again.

We speak a great deal about the courage and dedication of health care workers during this pandemic, and it’s worth pausing to comment on the fact that besides their medical duties, these heroes are deathbed comforters too, as well as motivators and cheerleaders of recovery.

Back in 1997, it was an annus horribilis for us as a family (mind you there was worse to come, if only I had known). We’d been private patients and had not anticipated the need for such expensive, specialist post-natal care. I can remember how upset I felt upon receiving the credit control calls, before we managed to pay off the account. It was made known to us much later, that a similar case had preceded ours, in which the child of an attorney also contracted this hospital bug. His legal team apparently closed down the operating theatre and found the bacterial cause. The clinic settled out of court. We were not so fortunate. (Just as an aside, let me tell you, it is intriguing how the medical profession closes ranks against patients when one asks questions of liability…)

But it didn’t matter. I am eternally grateful that Michael survived, healthy with no lasting damage. When I think of how bland life would be without his droll humour, casting hilarious shade at everyone at the dinner table or his writing talent which entertains millions every day; and let’s not forget he was a fair footballer in his day (having recently retired to semi-sloth at age 23). When we have our midnight chats as the only two night owls in the family, I sometimes reflect on those late nights and how I longed to bring him home, as I pictured his tiny form alone in the hospital.

Of course, when I did finally carry him home triumphantly like Simba in The Lion King, I fed him so much in the next few months that he could have won a baby sumo competition, sporting jowls that would have impressed even Winston Churchill.

Tonight, I pray for COVID-19 patients in their solitary suffering and wish that they will also have an Angel Andre to bring healing to their bodies and spirits, and who will find the time to console their mothers.

Oh, my test was negative btw – I’m too wicked to die just yet.

The end of the beginning

On the eighteenth birthday of my youngest child.

Original Abstract Painting by Haelyn Y | Abstract Expressionism ...
Haelyn Y (after Leonardo da Vinci)

Today my youngest child turns 18.

That means (gulp) that I am the mother of 5 adults. Yikes!

But it seems like just a few short years ago that he was born. His eldest brother was half his present age then, with the others various ages in between (decently spaced I assure, you, gentle reader – I wasn’t that Catholic!)

In fact, I actually thought he might fall out in those last few days, but he was so small that my doctor wanted him to stay in until 40 weeks (Let’s just get it straight: human gestation is 10 months – do not listen to the misogynistic propaganda that it is 9 months! I think that idea was first promulgated by men centuries ago, while trying to hide the fact that there’d been some nooky before the nuptials). However generally doctors who are doing a caesarean section (yeah like disection – section) will take out the wee bairns at about 38 weeks to ensure there is no premature labour, especially if the mother and baby’s health would be affected by early labour, as in our case.)

He didn’t of course (fall out I mean) and on a dark autumn morning, my sister fetched me; and I kissed the other sprogs goodbye for a few days, leaving them with Lego that ‘the baby bought for them’ (How much we lie to our children!) and their grandparents, who supervised them until Brigid returned to spend the next few nights.

At the Milnerton Medi-clinic, it was business as usual for me – I had of course done it all four times already, but Brigid marvelled at each stage (and naturally told me from time to time to keep my voice down.) To hear her tell the story of Liam’s birth it’s hard to remember that I was there at all, because she was so wrapped up in the glory of seeing that new life emerge from his cocoon, all swamp-thing and goo, only to hear him cry lustily (as he has done everything in his entire life since) and be placed next to us all clean and sweet.

I say it all with no disrespect because I loved it that she was there to see him and while she tells it as if I were merely a part of the operating theatre machines, in reality, she was checking up on me every few seconds with regular: “are you alright?’

‘Well of course, I’m only having my innards sliced open (‘sectioned’ remember) and I can even feel all the pulling in a kind of rubbery way – just peachy, Brig!’ (I can understand why she’s blanked me out of her story.)

Liam was such a bonny baby, always smiling and so easy. His siblings all had gastro while we were in the clinic and poor Brigid was repaid for her kindness in babysitting them during this time by being vomited on and having to comb the detritus out of both her and Caitlin’s hair. Sean was the only one who didn’t catch the bug, and gleefully announced that he would be the only one able to hold their new brother. Fortunately I disappointed him by rushing the newborn to his beautiful wicker crib and closing the door on all the children, because no sooner had Brigid departed to be ill herself in blissful peace in her own apartment, than Sean became violently ill himself. So Liam’s first night home, I spent cleaning up after my little big boy, as well as feeding his baby brother.

On the Sunday, Brigid came to fetch the children for mass and left Liam and me behind. I took that opportunity to change the outside light bulb by climbing up on a chair on the patio (I was a bit of a bangbroek and didn’t want it to be creepy outside when I was alone with the children.) Of course, having climbed up on the chair, I realised that I still had to get down again – a bit tricky on a Caesar wound. I didn’t dare tell Big Sister Brigid about this when I needed to go back into hospital with Liam overnight with a bladder infection, because she’d have told me that was why and had no sympathy. At least we had a porch light when I returned 24 hours later and could finally enjoy my beloved five children. And hold them and cherish them.

And now I am amazed that it is 18 years later! I’d say it’s safe to finally stop living in dread that something would happen to them but that’s not true – it did, many times including nearly losing Liam to an attempted kidnapping two years ago. I’d like to say that I can stop worrying now that they are all grown up. But the truth is I don’t think you ever stop breathing in fear for your children with every breath you take. Or ever stop exhaling fire with every escapade they entangle themselves in.

These last eighteen years have been eventful to say the least. I do hope the next will be slightly more peaceful. I plan now to live long enough to be a real problem to them all.

 It seems that won’t be too hard. They already speak about me in troubled tones, as if I am not present in the room…. So perhaps they’ll put me in a home soon and bring me cute babies to play with on Sundays.  Either way I relish the anticipation of the next chapter of the motherhood book.

 I may have given them life, but really they gave me the reason to live mine.

The ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’…and coming soon to a school near you: ‘The Redemption, through Resumption of the Class of 2020.

A reflection on change and what we face in our return from lockdown, like paroled prisoners

The Change Ralph Rumney, 1957

Aunty Angie has finally made the announcement: it’s back to school we go.

This is an appropriate season for us to be facing the uncertainty of re-integrating our learners into the wild, that’s for sure. It’s around this time that, as you dress for work, you contemplate ‘open toe? or closed toe?’ (Well if the weather is warm and your summer peep-toes are all worn out or packed away, you can’t buy more, just remember.) It’s also the time you get caught out sans umbrella, or a warm jacket for the late afternoon’s chilly breeze or downpours.

In many homes, parents will be contemplating how to return their wildlings to their natural school habitats and weaning them off the home environment.

So much of our return is uncertain. We still don’t know how other grades will be phased in and for our students it’s going to be hard to acclimatize themselves to new regimens of health checking and social distancing. And for our matrics, the added trepidation that comes with firstly being in matric and facing the unknown future of their tertiary studies and adventures, is exacerbated by the fact that now matric is almost as variable as the Cape weather, and as hard to predict.

Wearing masks all day will take some getting used to, because they are hot on your face and fog up glasses so there can be no heavy sighing. Different break time routines and washing procedures will become part of the fabric of the autumn time.

The Keats ode to the season of change, ponders the sliding transition as Summer slowly draws to a close and autumn sets in. Our youngsters will find themselves in this chilly term in socially distanced classrooms, and the jerky teenage hug-athon that usually presages the return from a holiday, will not be allowed. (The Pres did say the time for kissing and hugging is over). Pity these poor teens trying to get a date now too! But the warmth of the social embrace will be missing for them and we must be prepared for their reaction to the starkness of it all.

It will be up to us to make this new normal (I hate that expression already) as painless and as natural a process as possible, like the turn of the seasons. And fun – we must have fun too, just as Keats suggest autumn brings her own beauty.

The ode reflects on the fact though that Autumn’s music is just different from Summer’s and yet it has its own lyrical voice and cadence. I hope that when we return we shall have a new appreciation for our learners and they of their teachers. We shall still be playing music; it will merely have a different sound.

On my brief forages into the shops, I have noticed that wearing masks draws your eyes to other people’s eyes and this masked season in our schools may give us a new look at each other – I am hoping we shall see our children more clearly even though we shall have less of their faces to see (and we know of course that there will many a bearded young man hiding his lack of a razor behind his mask). Perhaps this will be a time of closer contact soul-window to soul-window, as we need to peer more intently at one another. Lord knows, we shall need to watch closely for signs of trauma.

Some of the sound of our return may be more groan than song however. Change of any kind brings with it attendant traumas, and these children may well not have been outside the confines of their homes, even to exercise, for 65 days by then, especially if they are the couch potato type, because, other than the hours to exercise, children have not had a chance to go to the shops like their parents.

When prisoners are released back into society, there are psychological adjustments to be made to adapt to their newfound freedom. (In the case of schoolchildren returning, some comics may say they will have swopped one prison for another, of course) but the fact remains that the elements present in the body and mind’s response to change will be reflected in our returning parolees.

Learners with pent-up emotions within the confines of the homes, like prisoners who bottle up their feelings and present bland exteriors in prison for the sake of keeping the peace, may well be prone to greater quarrelsomeness as their emotions have a little more space to be vented; ‘pecking orders’ will have changed (no matter whether the home or school is the more egalitarian) the rules will be different and learners will discover themselves on a different side of the heap than at home;  some will have been able to avoid facing up to the reality of impending matric exams (as well as the likelihood that feelings of dread,both real and imagined, may abound around how little they may have worked ) and will now have to confront matric, in the same way that an ex-con has to face what he has done when he sees his family again.

And, of course, not one child’s experience of the changed environment will be the same, nor will their responses be timed to make things easier. And we may well have days when we have the perfect storm of them all acting out differently on the same day.  And like all prisoners they will regard the teachers (and their parents) as jailers, and rebel accordingly, playing us off against each other.  

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-47.png

Some will struggle with leaving their comfortable prisons where they have been cossetted. The challenge of trying to teach teens who have become accustomed to beginning their studies after 9:00 in their pyjamas, with hot chocolate or coffee on tap, is going to take some counting to 10. They are going to be grumpy. In some homes, there may have been little oversight and so educators may suddenly be seen as the abusive prison guards.

It is not going to be as smooth a transition of seasons as Keats describes in his poem, but I am comforted by this reality: the human spirit has the most wonderful power to adapt to changing circumstances, and I am sure that soon the new way of doing things will become as commonplace as wildlife in our towns these days and our resilient learners will flourish once again.

But… forget about autumn and mellow fruitfulness, …winter is coming…. the next grades have to return … and we shall start this rollercoaster again…. and again…. until we are all back.

Traces of change by Magdalena Morey

And learning to be comfortable with change, we need to be fluid, like water. As that great philosopher, Bruce Lee says:

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
― Bruce Lee

Of Schools and Screens and Lockdown, and Socialising Scenes

There was a young man walking past outside my window as I was dressing this morning, and I had already opened my curtains. If he had looked up he would have had quite an eyeful (and needed some years of therapy too, I imagine), but fortunately for my modesty and his medical aid savings account, he was so engrossed in his cellphone  (never mind that since it was during the exercise hours of lockdown, and he should have been jogging) that he did not notice the matron in her knickers in the house across the road from his morning constitutional.

But as I streaked (literally) into the bathroom, I contemplated what I had seen: a pedestrian on this glorious morning, face in his phone, not noticing the colourful dawn (or even where he was going). Much has been said about the zombie apocalypse of technology at our fingertips and I don’t want to comment on that, but I worry about our children in these times when all they are doing is on their devices – even school now.

The socialization of young people is being significantly affected the longer we stay in lockdown, in that they are not spending time in the same spaces as one another, because physical presence is so important for appreciating the nuance of meaning via body language, tone and pitch, as well as social development within groups. This is something that homeschoolers recognise and ensure that they take their children out of the home to places and activities where their children can mix and mingle.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for social development above health and safety from the virus, but I am saying that this is an area to consider when it is time to return to school. Pre-school age children are particularly likely to show social lags if they do not return to school with their mates after lockdown. Of course, some children are physically vulnerable, because of pre-existing conditions, and one can appreciate the need to protect their health above all else, but none is immune to poor socialization following long periods of isolation, so parents who choose to wait some months before ‘re-introducing their young into the wild’ should consider finding ways to do ‘virtual play dates’ or ensuring they spend time in unstructured play in the same space (with their siblings at least).

Children in lockdown are missing out on collaboration that is a very real part of the creative process and of 21st century education. Peer learning is vital for childhood development. Studies show that children with better social skills in pre-school, perform better academically in Grade R (Kindergarten) and are better adjusted to Foundation Phase, are better able to regulate their emotions and maintain more positive friendships in later years.

Long term social isolation leads to loneliness and can affect brain development, and mental and physical health. I am sure that parents are tired of their youngsters underfoot already, but more and more I am reading about children really missing their friends and weeping from the sheer stress of being stuck indoors with the same people, no matter how loving we may be. We are starting to see really increased stress levels in children and must beware of depressions, especially in teens.

I have a son in matric this year. This was supposed to be the year he played his last season of hockey for the school; he was cast as the Mad Hatter (why am I not surprised?!) in Alice in Wonderland and was looking forward to his matric dance. Now most if not all of the magic of matric has been stripped away from the Class of 2020 and they have been left in a ‘winter of discontent,’ a barren year of stress and study.

That is really hard for them emotionally but there is a vicious cycle happening here as well: their social isolation at a time when they most need to have some belly laughs, a quick game of football at break, or a round table on the latest gossip, has been taken away. And I am not sure that a nightly game of whatever murdering adventure is popular in the gaming microcosm of their network counts as true socializing, with its attendant eyeballing of mates and endorphin release. You definitely cannot be socializing properly over the ‘gram or WhatsApp because we all know what happens to tone and context in those virtual worlds. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations abound.

Without the release found in the fun part of matric, students’ stress levels are likely to rise considerably and they now have only the parentals at home who are putting additional stress on them because we are stressed for them and the looming examinations sans class time.. 

This will inevitably lead to inability to concentrate and process information. My high school has added a free social session on Microsoft Teams for a kind of virtual break, so that the teens can interact, but of course some are still keeping their videos off (because – ‘pyjamas and bed-hair- duh!’) so they are still not receiving important social cues such as body language and tone, nuances that are so important for maturing social intercourse.

As much as educators allow for some fun and chatting in online classes, you either have lethargy and apathy from your audience or giddiness with junior school learners which is draining for an educator to control and far more difficult than when they are all in the same room:

With prep school children who are having great fun waving their virtual hands and commenting online, to the chagrin of the odd parent who happens to peer over a shoulder, it’s tricky to ensure they are focusing on the content delivery.  But that’s also an elementary school child mindset. We need to let them have fun. We all learn when we are having fun. But it’s also why too much live online work can impede learning. Having said that, online etiquette has certainly improved as the weeks have passed, as we’ve navigated the remote learning space and children are co-operating with correct online decorum.

With high school learners’ videos and mics off (to save data) who knows whether the blighters have gone back to bed even?! It’s tough enough getting signs of life out of teenagers on a Monday morning at the best of times, but now a question such as ‘’You all with me?’ which in class is easy to observe, even if all the responses you get are adolescent grunts, is really hard for a teacher to measure when faced with a blank video wall of cute profile pics.

The moment when a teacher does this sort of informal class benchmarking, is when some of the best learning happens – when an individual ‘fesses up to not having a clue; there is some laughter and everyone refocuses and learns after additional assistance. There is a clinical nature to online ‘live’ teaching that cannot replace the human relationship element so vital for teaching. After all, we teach children, not subjects.  School teaching is not lecturing. We need group work and personal interactions to bring lessons to life. So, it’s not just the peer relationships that are being missed out on, it’s the mentor-learner ones too. I salute teachers who have abandoned their human form and overnight out-transformed Optimus Prime, and who are still ensuring that they nurture their relationships with their charges despite the challenges they face. (Can we clap at about 23:00 for them, when they finish their workday?)

Even the second-year university student in my house, who is a true introvert, is missing the subtle social interactions that happen mid-lecture, which aid learning and build the kind of connectivity that can never come from MTN or Vodacom.

So, as much as I know that we can continue with remote learning for as long as it takes (well at least at my privileged school we can) I look forward to the day we can teach flesh and blood human children, not their screen avatars.

In the meantime, parents, I beg you: send them outside to play and exercise, but if they cannot see other youngsters in the flesh, be a little more lenient with screen time. Facetime and Zoom calls are better than nothing. It may be the only social interaction they are getting.

And tell them we miss them.

Or just show them this:

Or this:


Perhaps we should give in. Who needs great rhetoric or literature. Move over Cicero and Demosthenes. Sit down Marlowe and Plath. We’ve gone back to hieroglyphics:

I just hope we don’t go back to this:

At least there’s one for me (the specs are Versace):