Virtual School

My Virtual School – bunting. 7.5.2020

7 May 2020. Bunting is appearing on houses and across streets ready for the 75th anniversary of VE Day tomorrow. One garden wall near us has been decorated with bunting drawn in chalk for its entire length. Must have taken ages. At least a day – wasn’t there when we walked the dog past there two nights ago.

Tonight was another Thursday Clap for Carers at 8pm evening. Here a single bell tolls to signal the start and continues throughout until it is the last sound. Can’t work out where it is coming from. All the churches are locked and entry for any activity is banned. I have been reading an impassioned Twitter argument between various organists all separated from their organs and unable to practice. Quite a bit of civil unrest brewing among the organ grinding community. One or two threatening to do it anyway!

In our street people pop their heads out of their front doors to see who else is there; spend time chatting nonchalantly in case they looked eager; wave a bit, and then, by mutual agreement, clap as loudly as possible. No saucepans, fireworks, bagpipes or heavy metal performances. But certainly a moment of solidarity.

Listening to my father-in-law on the radio today for the VE Day celebrations. He spoke of D-Day. At 19 he commanded a flotilla of landing craft. As he guided his little boats into Utah Beach he heard a strange noise behind him. It was the full complement of crew and soldiers on an American battleship cheering them on. Next day, his was the first Royal Navy ship back into Plymouth harbour and the same noise greeted him. The people of Plymouth lined up along the docks and the shoreline – cheering. He choked in the telling – ‘that was the most emotional moment of the war.’

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – awakenings. 5.5.2020

5 May 2020. I won an online photography competition last week. The winner sets the next challenge so I spent a while trying to think of a topic for these times. ‘Hope’ was set a few weeks ago, so that was out. Trying to decide on something upbeat? something meaningful? something totally unrelated to anything that’s happening? something that might be interpreted as dark? I wish now that I had pinched another friend’s # ‘Love in the time of coronavirus’. But I didn’t. Settled on ‘awakenings’ because that was a general feeling in the air. At least it was a few days ago. And open to multiple interpretations.

All this week BBC Radio Stoke are running a series of interviews with my father-in-law. At 96 he is reminiscing about his experiences in WW2 as part of their VE Day celebrations. First as a young teenager in London in the Blitz – ‘we were just worried it would all be over before we got a chance to join in’. Then into the Royal Navy at 18, serving on minesweepers in the Firth of Forth – ‘better than a gap year.’ On to commanding landing craft on D-Day and then the push through Europe.

His first response when told he and my mother-in-law must stay in lock-down for 12 weeks to avoid COVID-19 was that it can’t be as bad as D-Day – ‘at least nobody is shooting you.’ The two of them have sourced food delivery companies and are managing to walk their dog. Three other friends in their 90s have set up house together and are planning to take part in a quiz night via zoom. All of them remember bombings, rationing, an uncertain future and the deaths of many friends and family when they were children and teenagers. My own father’s family was bombed out five times. I saw a piece online about all that children are suffering now in lock-down – all the fears, anxieties, unanswered questions, the disruption to schooling, not seeing friends, not playing outside… it went on and on and finished with the claim that they are the real heroes of our time for putting up with it all. Maybe that should be an awakening.

At school, the Geology Dept have gone viral on Twitter for a lesson about earthquakes using a beer glass. Really imaginative teaching. And the climbing roses have come into full bloom.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – competitions. 3.5.2020

3 May 2020. The stags have been barking in the woods each night for a couple of weeks now. Scares the living daylights out of the dog. Afraid he might be mistaken for a willing doe. Tonight the deer could clearly see us, he was so close to the road. He stopped his mating call when we erupted from a side street with dog straining at the leash. Then started again, louder and more aggressive when it was clear we were not his competition.

All over the world there are reports of wildlife becoming less timid as there are fewer people around. We have had closer encounters than usual with muntjac and foxes on our walks. Two hedgehogs snuffling together near the roses. In Haifa the wild boar have been shepherding their piglets through the streets. Dolphins frolicking in the Bosphorus shipping lanes. And the mountain goats of Llandudno became celebrities a few weeks ago. Other animals are apparently missing people. An aquarium in Japan has been calling for video interactions for their pining eels, while a zoo in the US has been introducing land and water animals to each other – apparently dolphins and sloths get on really well.

At school we have our first virtual sports fixture – a triwizard rowing competition against Shiplake and Hampton over 3 days. Believe it involves quite a lot of running and very little water. Discussions about the physical return to school have been tackling the issue of sport – rugby is off limits, but cricket is past master of social distancing so may be our preferred sport if we are back in September.

The birdsong has been beautiful. Larks soaring above the empty golf course. I can’t help thinking that it’s wasted on the golfers.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – 40 days. 2.5.2020

2 May 2020. For the third week in a row there is a moratorium on work emails for the weekend. From Saturday lunch time until Monday morning, a blessed silence (almost). I hear that it is really welcomed by the whole school – time away from screens (theoretically) and from a sense of having to keep up with everything all the time.

I feel the relief myself, even while on furlough. Keeping in touch is encouraged but email-checking is an insidious background nag. A catchphrase of the time is ‘furlough-envy’: those who are trying to work from home whilst juggling children, pets, lock-down shopping, dodgy internet connections and so forth are apparently consumed with envy for those who are on an open-ended paid ‘holiday’. Free to read books, do jigsaws, watch entire box-sets on Netflix, bake endless cakes (with invisible flour), walk the dog in beautiful countryside for hours and then have the cheek to blog about it – and so forth. Those on furlough are consumed with envy for those who have a clearly defined occupation, whose work is valued enough by their employer to keep them working. And eaten by self-doubt about their own worth in the workplace and to their company. Even whether the work they have done in the past was worthwhile. More insidious, creeping nagging from the voice at the back of your mind.

So I was very encouraged today to receive a request to write a chapter for a book. Somebody out there rates my work! Thank God. Although it will be hard to get back into the swing after 40 days in lock-down.

40 days resonates – 40 days in the wilderness celebrated in Lent; 40 days fasting for Ramadan. On youtube today a superb recording of Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet to mark the occasion: Spem in alium – hope in any other. Another mighty piece of music written in a time of wilderness.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – Quality Street. 1.5.2020

1 May 2020. The doorbell rang this evening. So rare an event that we weren’t sure where the sound came from. A bag full of Quality Street on the doormat – ‘with love from no 14.’ One on every doorstep in the street. I’ve heard of spontaneous gifts of treats within neighbourhoods but this was our first experience. As we all stood on our doorsteps happily sharing this good deed, another neighbour said ‘it’s from Sue.’ Thank you, Sue. We only moved here in late January so haven’t met many neighbours at all – just observed them from the balcony, shared in the ‘Clap for carers’ but the dog has a number of fans. Someone else popped over to no 14 with a single pink rose, the first to flower in her garden, as a thank you. Sue was clearly very happy with her rose and the general good feeling her gift had given to lighten everybody’s mood on a wet day in lock-down.

It has been very wet for most of the day but even so it is May Day. Here that still means a medieval spring feast rather than any associations with workers’ rights. A day for singing madrigals from rooftops at dawn. The traditional May morning greeting from Magdalen College couldn’t happen this year. No crowds on Folly Bridge followed by early breakfast and punting. But ‘Now is the month of May’ rang out by zoom with the bells to finish.

A wet day to drift through youtube looking for the great performances that have been made available live: here the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch, there the Royal Shakespeare Company performing Twelfth Night, a lovely short piece by the Ballet Opera de Paris dancing to Prokofiev in their own homes – children, pets, baths and kitchens included. Everywhere a sense of carrying on.

But best of all, more of the competition between labradors Olive and Mabel, with an inimitable commentary by their owner, BBC sports commentator Andrew Cotter.

All such bright moments for a dark time.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – zooming. 30.4.2020

30 April 2020. The day started with an RAF flypast of a Spitfire and a Hurricane to honour Captain Tom’s 100th birthday. No one knows how much he has raised for NHS charities. Every time I look it has gone up by another million pounds – £32m three hours ago. A good comment from him on seeing the planes ‘I am one of the few who saw those flown in anger.’

The timetable for next week’s virtual school activities has just been sent around. The calendar that everyone worked on for most of last term has been (mostly) thrown out of the window, but some regular slots remain. Geology have a field trip planned for Monday. I wait to see how that will pan out. The Library are running their regular poetry session on Monday and the reading group ‘Books and biscuits’ has morphed into ‘Pets and biscuits with the occasional book’. Very popular. One of the boys has adapted the online fitness  sessions from the Sports team into a reading challenge – press-ups, star jumps etc each with an appropriate read. The cake-baking challenge in D Social is going very well.

Last week the A Social 6.2s had their Leavers’ Dinner. A bitter-sweet session as it remains a moot point whether that year group will return to school before the end of the academic year. For some colleagues it is a bitter-sweet time as well – planning for retirement in July this is the last time they will teach and the first time they will teach in this way. Both invigorating and frustrating. Others are in their first year as probationary teachers – barely had time to get to grips with the classroom and now rising to the challenge of juggling online sessions.

Downtime is vital for all. Quizzes have become the latest zoom craze. We’ve been invited to four this week. This evening we could have been on zoom sessions with different groups for at least five hours – some of them simultaneously. The sixth form have now set up invitation sessions to chat over a beer in the JCR – with a photo of the bar supplied to put up as background for added authenticity. And at home a session with friends this evening that included one having her breakfast in New Zealand.

I saw a good meme: we isolate now so when we gather again no one is missing. A good thought to end the day.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – rain with cuckoos. 29.4.2020

29 April 2020. My first invitation to record myself singing to be synced via Zoom for May Day madrigals. May keep the sound switched off. Or the camera. But still – part of the Zoom musical world! It’s great to get the full lock-down experience. I watched a friend, a professional sax player, performing a septet for trombone on his collection of saxes. Awesome. We have all got too much time on our hands.

At school, Zoom and Microsoft teams are enabling some innovative sessions beyond standard lessons. The Physics Dept have had boys dropping eggs for experiments. Some concern about not wasting eggs in these hard times, but one boy reported back that he has 30 chickens so should be OK. Another boy is sharing hidden camera footage of wildlife in his garden. One colleague has got his form cooking together. They are using Raymond Blanc’s cookbook – 4 15 year old boys and a teacher simultaneously cooking fish and then eating lunch together. Food seems to be the way to go for Geology as well – good thing everyone is baking. Drama and Music have got rehearsals for the school musical going – more of those videoed performances to be synced. And the 1.15 Wednesday lunchtime concerts are now on their second week. Yesterday a charity quiz-night for the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust – set up to provide support around depression in teenage boys.

I saw a question on Twitter whether independent schools would be back to full school life before the state sector. Clearly whoever asked that hasn’t been following. Post-Social Prayers drinks this evening and the general feeling was they might never get us back into the classroom. Apart from the eye-strain, back-ache, concentration levels…

Two days of rain has dampened everyone’s enthusiasm. But husband came back excited from a walk with the dog along the Thames Path: three cuckoos calling to each other – a shuttle of spring sound back and forth across the river.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – cruise ship crews. 27.4.2020

27 April 2020. The news has been full of the return of ‘the last cruise ship.’ It has sailed half-way around the world, denied access to ports everywhere, keeping its passengers and crew safe until it finally reached home. A heroic, epic story straight out of Homer.

Not the full story, of course. Nothing is. Because this is not ‘the last cruise ship.’ There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of them out there, stranded a long way from home, denied access to ports. All of them (probably) have managed to get their passengers repatriated, often under stringent quarantine conditions and after some deaths. But all have still got the crews on board. And not just the crews. Everyone who was not a paying passenger. All the entertainers, the lecturers, the tour guides. Still there on the ships.

A chat via messenger with my nephew. Tom is a musician, his band signed up as entertainment for a series of world cruises last year. The dream job.

Tom’s ship is in the Bahamas. No passengers, no work. Dream ticket to sit out the pandemic.

Except it is a nightmare. Crew and entertainers rate the innermost, smallest cabins with elementary hygiene facilities. When the ship went into quarantine lock-down (no cases, just quarantine imposed by all the ports), they were all confined to those cabins. Tom spent five days in a cabin with no window. Allowed out for 1 hour 3 times a day for meals. That’s 21 hours of cabin fever. In the Bahamas. I asked about exercise. Although there is a running track, a pool, a gym, all exercise has to be fitted into those 1 hour slots. Masks worn all the time outside the cabin. Contact? Occupations? Sanity? ‘It’s been a challenge.’ I bet it has!

After 5 days he was moved to an empty passenger cabin with a balcony. He made a fuss. Quarantine will be reviewed on 30 April. Just 3 more days to go. I hope the others have been moved as well. Remember that Odysseus made it home; but none of his crew saw Ithaca again.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – town centre. 26.4.2020

26 April 2020. A late night walk through the town centre. A place we never go in daylight now. Our geography has very clear borders – the street, the supermarket, the grounds at school and the river bank to walk the dog in the day, and five neighbouring streets which radiate from the house to make circular routes to walk him at night. Two miles in any direction at most. We travel the world by the internet every day.

The marketplace was absolutely still and deserted. So silent that we could hear every word of a conversation through an open window four storeys above us. One car drove past. A cyclist without lights. And a patrolling police car. I don’t know whether there are more police patrols or whether we are now sensitised to them. A constant parade of empty buses sweeping past, announcing their destinations – Oxford, the JR, Wantage – places over the border.

All the lights are on. Floodlights on the town hall and museum. Shop windows all lit up and advertising things that cannot be sold or bought. The art shop has an array of miniature easels. Estate agents have a few houses for sale or rent. A hairdressers with notices about social distancing. Many home-made banners saying thank you NHS. The stationers has crocheted bunting and signs dated 21 March about supporting local businesses. The bookshop has done sterling work with deliveries by bicycle and online book groups, storytimes for children, author talks – embracing the new way of doing local business.

The crescent moon and Venus together in the sky as they were when this all began over a month ago. The town centre has been like this every night since.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – playing in the street. 24.6.2020

24 April 2020. A family along the street have bought a ride-on pink and white unicorn. With purple saddle. Also a paddling pool. They have taken over a central communal garden plot for afternoon-long family playtime and picnics. The dog would love to join them but the smallest girl is about his height so he might end up on unicorn duty. He watches them from the sitting room balcony, tail wagging desperately. Another family have bagged the 6-7pm slot. Father plays football with his young son, the sound of the ball bouncing around the buildings, accompanied by a dad-style commentary on how to improve. Mother brings out a chair to sit and watch, while their little girl scoots up and down the street on her tricycle. It all has a Utopian air – ideal family street-life of the 1950s.

I saw a suggestion from some government official that because so many families with young children are out on the streets playing and riding bicycles, it might be a good thing to continue after lock-down ends. And so we should close many residential streets to cars. Better for the environment, safer for key-workers to get to work by bike. Generally pleasanter all round. Apart from the logistics and inconvenience he (or she) seemed oblivious to some crucial factors, viz, that no one is going anywhere because we’ve been asked not to; that everyone is taking full advantage of that hour’s exercise (which most seem never to have done before); and the weather is perfect for bikes. Try it in November. In the dark.

How grateful we should be for that exercise slot. A friend in South Africa was sighing over it yesterday. Total lock-down. No one allowed out for anything except absolute essentials. She has been shut in for three weeks with a toddler. Even walking the dog is forbidden. In Spain, although adults could go out, all the children have been in lock-down for six weeks. A friend in the US is ashamed of the protests going on there in the name of ‘liberty’. In Germany, Angela Merkel has said that this whole situation is a challenge to democracy.

But science is making progress. Human trials for a vaccine have started in Oxford. And today we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Beautiful photos of the birthplaces of stars. Both great international collaborations.

I have changed my music to some jazz violin by Grappelli. Definitely time for a lighter mood.

© Clare Sargent