In many ways September always seems like a fresh start to me. The new school term, with feral, summer-riotous children now tamed into uniformed-meekness, heralds the long-awaited regime of orderly structure. Parents, released from the burden of acting as cook, cleaner and court-entertainer, can breathe a sigh of relief and hand over their off-spring to the professionals. Even those of us with lower-maintenance adolescents welcome the return of the timetable that dictates that 3am is not a sensible hour to be going to sleep and that homework should once again take precedence over the PlayStation.
And this year, hope runs particularly high. Could we actually make it through to Christmas on face-to-face teaching? Might we avoid those ‘bubbles’ that inevitably pop, bursting our dreams and our work plans? Do we dare to believe that zoom-free classes and home-educating are a thing of the past? Not if Scotland is our example to follow… Since mid-August, an unprecedented number of Covid cases has been recorded there, fuelled by the reopening of schools.
Grunting Teen is not impressed. He was counting on a mask-free arrival in Sixth Form. But his first day there involves no teaching, just testing instead – of the viral rather than the academic variety. On the plus side, at least it gives him an extra twenty-four hours to complete the ‘bridging work’ he’s avoided all summer. He is expected to take two tests and then… who knows? Each letter home always contains the caveat – ‘The current government guidance is unclear.’
Still, he takes the tonsil swabbing in his stride. ‘Used to it now, mum,’ he says. ‘Do it twice a week for work, innit?’ It’s not the procedure that makes him worried but rather the huge amounts of plastic that goes unrecycled in the process. In fact, the pandemic is far lower down on his list than the climate crisis. You see he’s already had his first vaccination. And so far, no extra head has grown, although an extra brain could definitely come in handy. The thought of falling ill rarely crosses his mind these days, unlike in 2020 when footage filmed in intensive care units caused him to have sleepless nights.
Sadly, nowadays, doing your PCR is as important as learning your ABC. But if it stops outbreaks escalating, that’s surely a good thing. If nothing else, Grunting Teen has become an expert at administering the test. He can add that skill to his CV, along with his summer of pot-washing. Indeed, like all youngsters, he’s experienced a lot during this pandemic.
And he’s one of the luckier ones. His house is only falling apart due to the cleaner-in-charge’s dislike of domestic duties rather than a dodgy landlord. His homelife is reassuringly stable, as his parents politely ignore each other and leave his upbringing to the Internet. No turbulent atmosphere for him as a result of a shared bedroom with siblings, or job losses due to Covid.
Any anxiety he has is of the normal teenaged variety, spiced up by his laissez-faire attitude to studying that makes last-minute deadlines the norm. But for others the pandemic has heightened their disconnect. According to the charity Mind, there has been a huge rise in numbers of young people contacting mental health services since March 2020.
Whilst the Nearly-Beloved is of the ‘pull yourself together’ mindset, Grunting Teen is from a different generation. He and his friends are more likely to start a conversation about underlying worries than brush them under the carpet and focus on the latest football scores. That in itself is refreshing.
What’s needed now is to acknowledge that the last seventeen months have taken their toll on all of us. Some have coped better than others. Affluence versus poverty has had only one winner. The north-south divide has also come into play. There’s been a call for walk-in centres for people to access help before their problems escalate and they fall into crisis. If only funding was made available so that we could focus on prevention rather than cure. That would be a truly fresh start now, wouldn’t it?