The Secret Teacher: Young people suffer as school rites of passage disappear

It isn’t like a funeral but, on so many levels, it isn’t unlike one either

Everyone anticipates the rite of passage that is school-leaving, but how can our hearts be in it when physically we are forced to be so far apart? Photograph: iStock

Everyone anticipates the rite of passage that is school-leaving, but how can our hearts be in it when physically we are forced to be so far apart? Photograph: iStock

 

2020 BC (Before Coronavirus): Until 12th March it was just like any other school year and we were all in it together. Literally. Sandwiched into the classrooms like (or, so it now seems) sardines. We had the craic and got on each other’s nerves in pretty much equal measure. You may not hear much about the laughs we have in school, but most schools really are fun places to be.

Teachers are human too and can get the funny side of things – we can even make jokes. The schooldays which roll into weeks and then months have until now been fuelled by human contact and energy.

After Easter each year we start to trundle towards the finish-line, which brings with it summer tests and State exams. We all anticipate the notching up of another school year feeling both the fatigue of the months past and an unmistakable intimation of the onset of summer.

There’s a distinctive loveliness in the school air at this time of year

Bare limbs appear and start to bronze, and young and old alike whinge about the injustice of the sunshine when we have to study and correct. We are all exaggerating, and we know it, but there’s an implicit understanding of each other and how we are feeling. There’s a distinctive loveliness in the school air at this time of year.

Or there was. And we are all missing it.

2020 AD (After Distancing): schools are not re-opening – except they are. Leaving Cert students are now in their final half-term of secondary school, one which is brimful of activity. As always, it’s an amalgam of two entirely contrasting events: a celebration of what’s not quite over but will never be again (schooldays), and a final stage of preparation for what still claims the top spot for the most important exam they will ever take.

Graduation masses need planning and teacher vs student events take place in many schools as the lines in the teacher-student relationship start to blur ever so slightly. Everyone anticipates the rite of passage that is school-leaving, but how can our hearts be in it when physically we are forced to be so far apart?

Sixth class students in primary school should be heading back to get ready for their own gigantic leap forward. They should be enjoying their final weeks as the oldest and coolest in the school and looking forward to whatever it is their individual school does to mark the occasion. Where celebrated, there are Confirmation and First Communion events now suspended in the vast space that social distancing has created.

These are only two examples of the array of significant life events which are taking place – except they aren’t. Of course it isn’t like a funeral, but on so many levels it isn’t unlike one either. We all know this isn’t a time for a loved one to die, and the rituals surrounding death in Ireland are now taking place – except they aren’t.

Unlike first kiss, first job and so on, where young people might look to us for advice, what is happening now is our first time too

It is this simultaneous taking place and yet not happening that coronavirus has brought into all our lives and consciousnesses, and it applies to work, school, parties, weddings and funerals

Unlike first kiss, first love, first job, passing the driving test and so on, where our young people might look to us for tips and advice, what is happening now is our first time too. It may well present something of a crisis to us as adults, but we are better placed both in terms of emotional intelligence and life experience to understand why life cannot motor on as we had expected. This is inevitably a significantly bigger ask of youngsters.

For them the global impact is genuinely further away from their own immediate experience and priorities. Why their big event cannot take place, or has to take this strange form of both happening and not happening, is much harder for them to accept, let alone understand.

On a cognitive level, at some time in the future, some degree of understanding will come, but how they are feeling now about what they must forcibly miss out on will on some level forever remain.

And so we as adults stick to the script and continue to remind young people of why all the missing out is necessary: there simply isn’t any other option. We must admit that many of us are still also trying to comprehend what is happening, and that navigating even our own way is an enormous challenge.

And alongside that we need to pause and feel our way into those young hearts, and try our best to empathise, even though we cannot possibly comprehend their pain because it is a pain none of us ever knew. So, every little effort made by today’s young people, every step forward however small, must be celebrated and treated as a victory. What that effort costs we cannot know, but we can have no doubt that young people are suffering.

We never fail to feel for the toddler when the top of his ice cream cone falls to the ground – a scene we are all familiar with. All of a sudden a little world is shattered; disbelief and dismay are swiftly followed by heart-breaking cries as the poor confused child tries to make sense of the mess and mourns his lost ice-cream. What he’s left with isn’t enough, and certainly not what he had planned. That grief is real, and adults understand it. A whole new version of grief is real for many of our young people in 2020 AD.