owever the current tussle between government, unions and teachers concludes, realistically there will be little or no “real” school before September, and none for my lads who, at 16 and 18, were supposed to be finishing exams and enjoying some kind of “legendary summer” (weeks in a dimly lit basement playing video games, sunburn at a festival and some kind of boring low-paid job, realistically).
This isn’t me having a controversial opinion about schools going back: I really don’t; it’s an impossible situation. I’m just desperately sad that we are where we are. It doesn’t inconvenience me personally, really. I barely see my boys for huge stretches of the day and I’m happy when I do. They’re lovely company, though the nine-meals-a-day regime is a drain on wallet and kitchen and I reflexively flinch now when I hear the words “What’s for lunch?” What makes me sad is that we are such a poor, inadequate substitute for what young people want and need: each other, the opportunity to do stupid stuff far from the parental gaze, and other adults.
A lot of those who are desperate for kids to get back to school aren’t just worried about their own livelihoods (or sanity, and with younger children this is much more of a consideration, I know). Parents know how valuable and how precious external influences can be; how skilled teachers are at giving young people the space and the tools to become who they want to be. Of course, this is doubly true for children for whom home isn’t particularly healthy or safe, but it holds for all kids. My elder son’s teachers in particular have got him excited about the future and his abilities in a way I could never have begun to do, because I’m just his mum.
Think back to your own teenage years and who shaped them. My parents felt like barely more than walk-ons in the drama of my life for much of that time. The people who mattered were my peers, my teachers and anyone who made me feel like I was an interesting and independent human being: Mrs Ainscough who made 1917 feel like it was happening in the room next door; Andrew, who took me to gigs and asked my opinion about music, or Jack, my mum’s first husband, who gave me books, bought me lunch and shared his love of beautiful things. They showed me different lives and fresh possibilities. Other adults – and most often that means teachers – bring oxygen into the sometimes airless atmosphere of even the most loving families.
Parents are simply not enough: we’ve always been told it takes a village to raise a child, but now the village is surrounded with hazard tape. But we’re all there is for now and we’ll manage as best we can. For anyone else contemplating a long, empty summer here’s what we have tried as a family so far, with varying degrees of success.
Games: we are not a collective fun family, but boredom has forced us to devise our own entertainment. We’ve tried “who does the dog like best” (my husband, unfairly), and the occasional round of “rat or bird” when the feeder in the yard starts moving. My sons prefer it to be rat, to my horror. “Leave him alone,” they say as I start to chase my nemesis away with a broom. “He’s just vibing!” But the best and most successful has been “Men’s Health spot the difference”. In this game, the 18-year-old walks slowly towards us holding two copies of Men’s Health magazine and the first person to correctly identify if the topless muscle-bound cover stars are the same man or different wins. It’s surprisingly difficult.
Life-skill sessions: my sons’ school is offering life skills sessions – basic cooking, budgeting and nutrition, but we have devised an alternative curriculum of further study. Modules so far include “Drawers: shutting them and crumb prevention” and multiple practicals in carpet-stain removal (this house came with distressingly pale ones). Possibly their least favourite module is called “Yes, every day”. In it, we introduce them to the tedious reality of adult life: yes, we fill the dishwasher every day, yes, the bin gets full every day. It’s awful, but necessary.
Finally, I have a secret weapon when they get despondent. And they do. I wasn’t always happy as a teenager, but the future shimmered with unknowable, thrilling possibility. For them, the future is definitely unknowable, but it’s an ominous set of weather fronts: pandemic, climate catastrophe, vicious recession. It’s no wonder they have bad days. When they do, I allow them to mansplain something to me. “There must be something in homeopathy,” I say, innocently. Or “I just don’t get viral load.” This weekend I showed them a picture of my mate’s frog bread – the latest corona craze – and let them tell me it was “more like a bull toad,” which is “evolutionarily the superior form of amphibian”. There’s frustratingly little I can offer them right now, but correcting your parents’ stupidity is the gift that keeps giving.
One more thing…
My ‘unprecedented times’ unsolicited emailers are an odd bunch. Anyone mentioning ‘lockdown style’, exhorting me to ‘make bermudas cool again’ or asking if I’m ready for ‘glowing, sculpted legs’ is binned instantly. I look like a haunted laundry basket these days. I’m baffled by the PR company trying to interest me in techniques to clean engagement rings: who cleans jewellery? I only clean my kitchen under extreme duress. But the top of the futile-yet-indefatigable-emailing pops is the company that seems to believe now is the ideal time to start a commemorative coin collection, tempting me in with such unmissable offers as ‘Discover Golden Ducats now!’ I haven’t unsubscribed yet, because I’m hoping they’ll offer me a Covid-19 commemorative coin eventually. But what would it look like? A coronavirus particle for tails, obviously, an anonymous masked face for heads, perhaps and ‘This is shit’ in Latin round the edge.
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling