Róisín Ingle: The girls are going back to school. And we just took away their phones

They were given the devices as a temporary measure. You can imagine the mourning

‘In the weeks coming up to last Christmas, I bought phones for the girls. I did it against all my instincts.’ File photograph: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

‘In the weeks coming up to last Christmas, I bought phones for the girls. I did it against all my instincts.’ File photograph: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

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I’ve been reading about a deeply religious 14th-century woman called Julian of Norwich who had a near-death experience during which she apparently got a message from Jesus, who told her that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

It’s the day before the children go back to school. I am thinking about Julian of Norwich while putting labels on everything.

Due to new Covid regulations, all items must be clearly labelled with the child’s name . . .

I wish I had one of those fancy label-making machines, but unfortunately I am not my partner’s scarily efficient Protestant sister. I only have those regular sticky white labels and a black marker. I stick labels on their pencil cases. On their schoolbags. Their maths sets.

When I am sticking a label on a maths set, a familiar-looking oblong tin, I take a peek inside. I haven’t seen one of these in years. The sight of all that geometry, the protractor, the compass, gives me hives.

I spent years never quite managing to learn how to use them properly. I won’t tell the children that. They have already decided, age 11, they are useless at maths, which is sad and not even accurate.

Back when I ran one of the worst home schools in the country, they taught me how to do long division. I’ve forgotten how now of course, but I finally knew how to do it for one bright lockdown day last April.

It was like that night before Leaving Cert maths when in a few hours my older sister Rachael taught me just enough maths so as not to fail the exam. It worked. She’s an actuary now. Sitting in a room in her garden thinking about the kind of numbers and protractions that would make your head spin.

I will not reveal my fear of the maths set. I will fondly reminisce about protracting and compassing. They will come to see those pieces of plastic and metal as instruments not of torture but of pleasure. It’s the least I can do.

Crucial purchase

I stick a label on their lunchbox. I got the lunchbox in one of those shops where nothing costs more than a few euro. It was a crucial purchase. It had to be deep enough and wide enough for every conceivable lunch possibility.

I have two daughters who are deeply invested in meals and lately their school lunches. They’ve been planning them for weeks. My friend introduced them to the joys of the Asian Market and rice paper rolls, so they are on the list. They want sushi on Wednesdays. (We have a very good Japanese takeaway across the road called Okayu here in inner-city Dublin so it’s not actually too far from California rolls they were reared.)

Sometimes I think about the first time they ate solid food. I had prepared, according to the strict instructions of a popular weaning book, some mashed-up sweet potato. I wondered if they’d take to it, but the girls got one whiff of the orangey gloop and inhaled the contents of the spoon. It has been that way ever since. I’d list food as one of their hobbies, perhaps even higher on the list than TikTok.

Children are going to school, leaving behind their secure homes, their unsafe direct provision centres, their flats

Ah, TikTok. In the weeks coming up to last Christmas, I bought phones for the girls. I did it against all my instincts. They were only 10 and in fifth class. I’d always said they’d get phones in first year in secondary school. But for once I wanted, instead of being the mother who said no to everything, to be the mother who said yes.

On Christmas Eve I came to my senses. The phones, which they had no inkling of, were hidden away in a cupboard. It was way too soon, we decided.

Temporary measures

Then six months ago Leo Varadkar spoke to us from some steps in Washington, DC, and the girls were separated from their friends who were now chatting away on WhatsApp groups about homework and TikTok.

So in the midst of relentless bad news my daughters got what they said was the best news of their lives. They were to be given phones as a temporary lockdown measure.

On Wednesday they’ll have school lunch sushi.

A temporary measure.

On Friday we bought them brand new bikes to cycle to school.

Temporary.

On Sunday we took away their phones.

You can only imagine the mourning in this house. My daughters are not just going back to school after lockdown. They are also starting a new school and going back into fifth class again. After the strangest six months of their lives, we know all of this is the best thing for them, but they don’t quite see it that way.

Never mind global pandemics, the phone snatch, the new school and being held back a year is a lot to take. In the past few days they’ve said the kinds of things to me I thought I’d only hear when they were hormonal and spotty.

I can’t even blame them. I feel their pain.

All over the country, children are going to school, leaving behind their secure homes, their unsafe direct provision centres, their flats, their apartments. They are leaving behind the familiar uncertainty of locked-down life for a new, uncertain school normal.

Due to new Covid regulations, all items must be clearly labelled with the child’s name . . .

I stick a label on their bikes. On their bicycle locks. On their bottles of hand sanitiser.

Perhaps if we label everything, all shall be well.

And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.

roisin@irishtimes.com