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):

8 Things I am missing during lockdown

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How many times have I wished for time off where I could stay at home and sleep! Despite not sleeping too much during lockdown due to my permanent state of angst, not uncommon I believe, there are a few things that would have made it bearable:

  1. Books

I am a touch-it-turn-it kinda reading gal. The libraries closed for lockdown too quickly for me to stock up, even though the seven books they allow you would have been finished in the first week anyway. And of course I couldn’t have used Shannon and Michael’s cards as usual because there are fines on them (again). Yes, the shame! I don’t learn. And it’s not that I don’t read fast enough; I just don’t get around to returning them, despite ‘holiday’ stamps and amnesties.

I love the comfort of holding a book, and being able to page back to check on facts or reread lyrical passages. And since I could never afford to buy all the books I read, the library is my place. Mind you, some of them do reek of old ladies’ cigarettes and there a few unidentifiable (thank goodness) food stains on them from time to time. But then to be honest, I have probably been guilty of dropping a teeny bit of avo from my pizza onto an Elizabeth George novel on occasion.

Once I had finished Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (enjoyable, even though he pooh- poohed the idea that it was actually Marlowe who wrote all the great works, or the sonnets at least) and Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (gripping with a powerful anti-colonial, anti-war message, and part of my ongoing love affair with modern African literature), I had nothing. Unless I wanted to lose myself in The Maestro’s tomes on Liszt (I didn’t), I had to do as my girls had insisted and try online.

Well. That’s been a disaster. First of all, our wifi is about as inconsistent as an adolescent love affair and the adverts… really they could make a maiden blush! I have started two books both by Harlan Coben, another favourite of mine, but I keep losing internet, which freezes the narrative at a critical moment; then the page refreshes to forty pages before where I actually am, and I have to wade back through it all so much that I need to splint my wrist from all the swiping. And I do not need to be looking at penile extensions more than once a day thank you (who does that to themselves anyway?!).

The girls say I am using the wrong sites. Andrew says he’ll pay for me to download better versions, but honestly, I baulk at paying for books.

2. Sunday Lunch

Sunday lunch is a tradition in our home even more important than Friday pizzas. Now don’t be mistaken we’re not being starved of our sabbath prandials (far from it – the fair Caitlin, our resident Masterchef, has stuffed us like willing Christmas turkeys with so many delectable vittles that the family scale has signed a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ form.) But Sunday lunch at our house usually involves all the special people in our family who don’t live in the Mad House with us, arriving in a cacophony of hellos and hugs and we all catch up.

It’s when the children’s other mother, my sister Brigid, debates with The Maestro about which news channel in the US is more biased, whether capitalism is better than communism (every Sunday); she admonishes the young people about the dangers of jumping stop streets, walking alone, locking doors, and taking Sandown Road late at night. She warns Liam that Nellie is not getting enough exercise and that I work too hard. I miss her nagging love. And she always brings those scrumptious tiny Doughnuts from Woolworths.

It’s when Michael and Gabby, and Lizzy and Dylan sail in when they can and the love gets louder. Sometimes we Facetime Sean and Jordan and before he left fot the UK, Mika’s dry humour also graced our table occasionally, especially if there was lamb.

I miss my other family. My people. I miss the noise. (Ok not the noise – there’s still plenty of that.)

3. Cappuccino, Hot Chocolate and Haircuts

Okay so I might as well get my middle-class entitlement out of the way, but I really do miss popping into The Mugg for a cup of chatting and only News Café can make Hot Chocolate that special way – they use cream of course. And Aruna the Lion Mane-Tamer is much missed.

4. Zara

While smokers and drinkers are venting about draconian shopping rules, spare a thought for the other addicts – the shopaholics among us. I know we can shop for clothes now, but you can’t try on in most places and what’s a girl to do if she’s not sure?!

Also, I bought two darling little suits before lockdown and now I feel like a jilted bride with nowhere to wear them. Never mind the fact that I probably can’t fit into them anymore (thanks to the fair Caitlin’s culinary excellence) and will stumble around like a nerd on a first date in my high heels.

I miss dressing up.

I know I’m shallow.

But not entirely:

5. Live Mass

I miss going to mass and being physically present to worship with my community. The online thing just doesn’t do it for me. It’s like watching a film and playing church-church when we were little. I hope I don’t sound blasphemous, by saying that, but I want to be in God’s house with my family of believers.

It’s tough being on time for church now because Fr Carlo can’t see you race to your laptop to join in (or not) and the guilt of being late for mass is greatly reduced. As any good Catholic can testify to, we are a guilt-driven bunch. It also doesn’t seem quite right to be in your pyjamas in front of the Lord. (I know I know, God doesn’t mind, but still it feels unseemly). And the temptation to boil the kettle for a cuppa during the sermon quickly is quite strong…

6. Choice

I’m not crazy about exercising, as my pristine gym outfits, shiny white cross trainers and the exercise bike, formerly-known-as-the-clothes-horse can attest to, but I do like to go for a stroll on the weekends. Mostly if I walk at all though (when it is an azure, wind-free day that Cape Town is renowned for)  I amble along the beachfront path anyway: I avoid walking on the beach itself. But being told I am not allowed to put my tootsies in the icy water of Table Bay, makes the thought of being on the beach all the more alluring.

It’s the forbidden fruit syndrome I suppose.

I like being able to just pop into the shop quickly on my way home. Now I have to be home by a certain time, and the shops are closed after a particular hour. I miss the whole concept of flexi.

Normally I’d love to be told I have to work from home. Now I am bristling at not being able to go into school. I want the choice.

Mind you I am such a goodie-two-shoes I would never dream of disobeying the law. I’m blaming it on my convent upbringing combined with my rebellious Celtish forebears for making me so conflicted. I hope their inherited genes are just as warlike in antibody production when it counts.

7. Guilt-free Rest

We’ve essentially been working every day since lockdown and have missed out on the April school holidays in the race to ready schools to morph into online institutions overnight. Don’t get me wrong, there has been some down time (especially because I haven’t had frequent interruptions – you know those – ‘Have you just got a sec?’ inserts that tend to catch you mid-email or profound thought, and result in multiple open Windows in your brain crashing into early onset dementia, never mind the software ones which make your laptop slower than morning traffic on the N1 (pre-lockdown of course).) But I cannot seem to shake this permanent state of anxiety. I think it’s guilt (blame the Catholic in me again) that I should be in my office, or with my children, or working harder, or watching a ministerial update, or doing something I’ve forgotten… like going to work.

8. Hugs

Much has been written about how hard it is for affectionate people to social-distance. How we are going to avoid dishing out such love to our school children is going to be a real challenge. But it is really hard, even for us. I touched a colleague’s arm in thanks today and felt as if I’d committed attempted murder. (I had just sanitized my hands, but the guilt was huge.) And to avoid natural gestures for a tactile person is tough.  

I suppose we’ll get used to social distancing. I mean we do that don’t-come-in-my-space dance in the shop with strangers, but it is more difficult with those we love and haven’t seen for a while.

I also noticed a weird (in a good way) phenomenon on the road driving home today: cars are keeping better following distances – it’s as if we have grown accustomed to keeping an eye on the spaces between us in queues and we have extrapolated that into traffic. Long may that last!

But I miss a good hug though.

All this missing things shows that I’d have made a terrible citizen in wartime, and I have to remind myself that eventually we shall have all these things again. This is a war though and we simply MUST. So others CAN. Altruism may be in short supply, but now is the time that those of us who are leaders should be modelling it.

There is something unique to humans, even those of us who may be champing at the bit: we can and do adapt to change. And remarkably quickly too. (The Maestro did the washing today so evolution is real). Darwin would be proud of us.

The rest is just weather. It too shall pass.