I’m a writer, which means I don’t have any money.
So I’m also a teaching assistant in a primary school in a trendy part of London. As bill-paying endeavours go, it’s not the easiest. Contrary to all of my prior beliefs, being a TA does not solely consist of helping developing brains figure out 3×2 and creating pretty displays about gravity. There’s a bit of that, but mostly I work one-to-one with children with a variety of additional needs. Sometimes, this involves being punched, kicked, or told to go and die. And other times, it’s the most rewarding, life-affirming experience I can imagine. Either way, it’s a job – like any other – that requires a degree of self-care.
And even more so, as you might expect, in the throes of a global health pandemic.
Last month, as the situation in the UK rapidly shape-shifted, school days started to become overshadowed by videos on proper handwashing techniques, assemblies on the virtues of coughing into one’s own elbow, and supervised trips to the school bathrooms for adults to oversee 20 seconds of soapy scrubbing – only to spot a worryingly large proportion of children digging into their nostrils and gobbling up the findings five minutes later. At every turn, I’d see kids high-fiving and fist-fighting with filthy mitts. Coughing and sneezing gleefully into open air. At times, it’s felt like a warzone, with the grownups trying desperately not to step on germ-laden mines.
The day after BoJo’s announcement that schools would be closing indefinitely was, by no exaggeration, one of the strangest of my life so far. I’m not convinced I’ll ever forget the sensation of Beckett-esque absurdism that washed over me as I watched a class of 8-year-olds recreate the original dance choreography to Oliver the Musical’s I’d Do Anything, while an infectious virus spread like wildfire outside.
It’s clear that the movement and music brings the kids a great deal of joy – but the most joy of all is saved for the class teacher. She tells me that years ago, when she first became a teacher, she cleared space in the timetable once a week just to sing, to move, to play. Now, she divulges, the timetable is so jam-packed, the pressure to fit everything in so immense, there’s simply no time. I can’t help but think how immensely fucking tragic it is that it takes a literal worldwide health crisis to free up some time in which these kids can be silly.
This is the thing: school is not just school for a huge number of children. For many, school is a guaranteed hot meal. School is a place to feel safe for six hours out of the day. It’s somewhere to feel validated, listened to, and respected. Sometimes, to feel loved. Whether or not this should be the case is another question altogether – but it’s a fact, and one that has become clearer now more than ever, with school remaining open for the children of key workers, and those most vulnerable.
Despite the difficulty, confusion, and general chaos, I can only applaud my school’s response to a situation that has quite literally no pre-written rules. To support those at home, education has taken on a new, virtual form. Children in isolation are accessing activities online, receiving comments on the work they’ve been doing, and emailing teachers life updates on their home environments (my personal favourites are photos of pets lounging supportively over keyboards and exercise books). In a global pandemic edition of knock-door-bunk, I’ve spent multiple afternoons delivering weighty envelopes of educational resources to front doors. Knock door, drop envelope, sprint away to a safe two metre distance. Watch as familiar small faces and their adult counterparts peer tentatively around front doors ajar, before retreating back indoors with weak smiles and warm thankyous.
More important, though, than futile attempts to stick rigidly to school timetables and placing pressure on parents and carers to mould the minds of tomorrow, is wellbeing. For those at home, this means weekly phone calls from teachers and their assistants to chat with children – how are you? What are you reading? Is there anything you’re finding tricky? And as for in school – populated now by just ten pupils ranging from nursery age to year five – job titles have become redundant. It’s all-hands-on-deck. I’m a childminder, a care worker, a teacher, a lunch lady, a sports coach. Most recently, I’ve been doing #JoeWicksPE with the children. Trust me when I say there’s nothing to boost morale quite like watching a 1-year-old attempt a push up. Being told by one child that I look “just like Joe Wicks”? Well, do with that what you will.
And what about the staff? Top priority, we’re told by one of the deputy heads, is to keep ourselves sane. An unexpected realisation for me has been that, actually, these kids (for the most-part) do a lot of my sane-keeping for me. On the last day of ‘normal’ school, I ran my usual after school drama club. I’m stunned when one seven-year-old who I perceive to hate school, hate drama club, and possibly even hate me personally, says he’s really sad about school closing. Why? Because he won’t get to see his friends and teachers every day. Another girl tells me she’ll miss me, before presenting me with a heartfelt and quite frankly terrifying portrait of me in what I can only assume I look like in drama facilitator mode.
It’s impossible to know how this will develop going forward. Nothing fails to surprise me. My plans to lead playwriting workshops swiftly fell through because of numbers dropping at breakneck speed. Now, I can only try to make those at home aware of online arts-based provisions that kids might want to get involved with. Cornwall-based children’s drama school Cinta Stage is offering drama sessions live via Facebook and Instagram. Sadler’s Wells has announced an array of digital delights, including the chance to view their fairy tale adaption of Rumpelstiltskin, and family-focussed dance workshops. Little Angel Theatre is offering tutorials that show kids how to make puppets at home. And – although I suspect it may not be to every parent’s tastes – Andrew Lloyd Webber is making a full-length, smash-hit musical available to watch for 48 hours every Friday on YouTube. Delightful.
We all nearly forgot about the Easter holidays due to days and weeks merging into one murky, Corona-shadowed nightmare. All school workers – and anyone – can do now, is take each day as it comes. I’m saddened that for some of the children I work with, the disruption in routine and eventual difficult return will mostly certainly be detrimental to their welfare. But for others, the thought of returning to school in a few months’ time may just keep happiness firmly in the palm of their clean, dry hands.