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Christmas ’20: I Bought Presents for the First Time in a Decade

As someone that lives in the privilege of not actually had to experience Coronavirus (to my knowledge), I have spent a good portion of last year on the sidelines. Losing my auntie during my undergrad in January 2017, and then my cousin Steve at the start of 2020 (some of you may know him as the owner of Kettering Road’s Driver), I think many would agree with me when I say ‘grief makes you humble.’ In typical Caribbean fashion, Steve’s wake made me remember the importance of community and togetherness. He ran Drivers Menswear in Northampton and if you blinked you wouldn’t know it was there, a shop that had been there since the 1980s. With its closure in 2020, that marked the end of an era, and I will now have to find somewhere else to buy jeans!

Growing up here, many of the people I know in the community and work with have actually known me for years. And in some cases, have known me for all my life (basically), very much including staples of the West Indian community like at Inspiration FM

Some time after Steve’s funeral, we were thrust into Lockdown 1.0 by the Government and it was in those months between March and June that I saw that power of community again. Albeit a symbolic gesture, clapping for the National Health Service on Thursdays in some cases was the one thing keeping some people going. It was a recurrence that kept their mind at bay in the chaos of the pandemic. I ran events online too, and people were grateful. In that same breath, it is evident to see the number of people grassing up their neighbours for flouting the rules, or attacking people for criticising the police’s £10,000 fines for those that break the rules. Last year, I also watched a number of films, including a rewatch of Goodfellas. Even in a health crisis where people have broken the rules, Robert DeNiro’s voice as Jimmy Conway is in my head telling me “to never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” When in doubt, listen to Scorsese!

These people may be rule-breakers but I know if it comes to the wire, these are also the same people (not government) that would put people ahead of profit. Fellow blogger @drkukustr8talk wrote a Facebook post saying “If anything, Corona taught us____” and I commented “There is more of a community than I thought there was”, to which he replied “NOW, dear Tre, THAT is a LOT coming from you.” Yes, I’m sure @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou will attest to that too, seeing from our number of conversations since meeting them in September 2019. Cynicism and realism are two sides of the same coin and I grew up in The Commmunity. However, not like I have seen this past year. My work as an educator engaging with people inside and outside Northamptonshire’s borders tied, with the Murder of George Floyd/the protests and the pandemic, it’s left me thinking that when I gave humanity chance, locally, humanity actually delivered.

November came and I was awarded ‘Northampton’s Male Role Model of the Year.’ That was humbling. It wasn’t the award that really got to me. It’s the love and respect of your neighbours, and that’s not something one can articulate in words. I thought about this feeling again when I found myself watching the 1970 adaptation of The Railway Children. Albert Perks has always been my favourite character, very much a man of his generation. Not taking charity but also respects his community. You do right to others, they do right to you. That sort of mentality. This is a character I came across at twelve years old and I have not been the same since. The award is second to the number of people that voted for me, and I will take that to my grave.

Bernard Cribbins plays Albert Perks in The Railway Children (1970)

December came, and I bought Christmas presents. I am as surprised as you. For years, I have famously been a humbug inside and outside of my family. Forever anti-Christmas on the basis it was “a super-spreader of consumerism” (Ventour, 2010). My mother makes jokes about it, recalling to when I was kid walking around Abington Street in a hat with bah humbug on the side. The pandemic tied with BLM and meeting all the wonderful people at Amplified NN allowed me to break my “life rules.” Grief makes you humble. With the addition of Coronavirus, you could say it has made me soft (not that I was an awful person before). If the COVID pandemic and lockdowns have taught us anything, it’s that so many of us were living life on incompatible frequencies and were trying to make the parts fit. We also saw how kindness was a shock to the system, since in the words Tennessee Williams so few have ever “depended on the kindness of strangers.”

I bought presents for the first time in ten years; I have the love and respect of my neighbours and I started a Masters in September. I don’t spend my days waving at ‘kind old gentlemen’ on the trains going by, but I think in fifty years that there may be three children that may think of me as that old gentleman (but not that old of course), or by the time I’m forty-one… I’m not too different to Albert Perks and there is power in that.

A Lockdown Moan

As the second lockdown has come to an end, I find myself reflecting on my own lockdown experiences quite a lot. My overall sense is that of gratitude, in that I have been fortunate enough to maintain and be offered new employment during this difficult time.   

During the first lockdown I was a key worker and travelled to and from work on public transport whilst everyone else was ordered to ‘stay safe, and stay at home’. At times this was frustrating, and although I generally had faith in humanity my views on this were tested. During, lockdown 1.0 I witnessed people being much more aggressive to key workers. I worked in a place where I did not expect people to be nice to me, but even on my route to and from work I found that I was subjected to the odd remark.  

One morning at 6am whilst in the city center I was even called ‘a rapist’ because I did not have any change to give to a homeless person, he then sort of offered to fight me. Of course, I wouldn’t ever fight anyone, and he would have been completely unaware that I had just finished a night shift so I would not prove to be a worthy opponent in any sense. I also remember sitting on the bus one night whilst a man, who appeared mentally unwell, persisted to cough all over me (mask free) before exiting at his stop. 

I didn’t take any of these experiences personally, and thankfully I didn’t get Covid. It was clear that these people had many of their own problems – many of which may have been exacerbated due to Covid. The lack of understanding of Covid for some people also highlights a key issue i.e., that mainstream concerns are not being communicated to wider population within our society.  

I did find myself frustrated by the general population who in my experience, did not appear as positive and kind as the media seemed to suggest. I experienced many incidents of people being selfish, such as people snapping and venting their frustrations at others who are simply just trying to do their jobs (with shocking pay and poor contracts might I add). On top of this was the notion of visiting a supermarket after a 12 hour night shift whilst people scramble for the last scraps of essentials whilst you are walking around like a zombie. With bare shelves, rude people and long queues….what more could key workers ask for? For Christ sake, someone even tried to steal a tin of beans out of my shopping trolley on one occasion!  

During lockdown 2.0 I have been very privileged indeed, as I am able to work from home. Staying in this bubble of mine has also made me feel much less frustrated. But I do still wonder, why is it that we feel that those who provide a ‘service’ to us are not people themselves? People with their own problems, thoughts and feelings. Do we think that people are robots? Is this why some people think that it is ok to vent their frustrations at others? I am sure that other people have had more positive experiences than this, but I can’t understand why people aren’t being more kind and understanding of each other. There is a difference between being a service provider and being a servant…people seem to forget this sometimes.  

Home educating in a pandemic

Give the children love, more love and still more love - and the common sense will come by itself” - Astrid Lindgren

My children are aged 5 and 7 and they have never been to school. We home educate and though ‘home’ is in the title, we are rarely there. Our days are usually filled with visits to museums and galleries, meet-ups with friends, workshops in lego, drama and science and endless hours at the park. We’ve never done a maths lesson: sometimes they will do workbooks, but mostly they like to count their money, follow a recipe, add up scores in a game, share out sweets… I am not their teacher but an enthusiastic facilitator – I provide interesting ideas and materials and see what meaning they can take and make from them. Children know their own minds and learning is what they are built for.

If there was ever a time to throw away the rulebook it’s when the rules have all changed. Put ‘home’ at the centre of your homeschooling efforts. Make it a safe and happy place to be. Fill it with soft, warm and beautiful things. Take your time. 

All this to say that what children need most is your love and attention. This is so far from an ideal situation for anyone – so cut yourselves some slack and enjoy your time together. You don’t need to model your home like a school. Share stories and poems, cuddle, build dens, howl at the moon, play games, look for shapes in clouds and stars, do experiments round your kitchen table, bake cakes, make art, explore your gardens and outside spaces and look for nature everywhere. This is the stuff that memories are made of.

As adults we don’t continue to categorise our learning by subjects – we see the way things are interconnected across disciplines, sometimes finding parallels in unlikely places. When we allow children to pursue their own interests we give them the tools and the freedom to make their own connections.

What’s important is their happiness, their kindness, their ability to love and be loved in return. They are curious, they are ready made learning machines and they seek out the knowledge they need when they need it.

It’s an interesting time to be a home educator – more children than ever are currently out of school and the spotlight is on ‘homeschooling’. I prefer the term ‘home educator’ because for me and my family it isn’t about replicating the school environment at home and perhaps it shouldn’t be for you either. 

Treat it as an extended holiday and do fun stuff together but also let them be bored.

Never fear…. Spring is almost here

David Hockney (2011) The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, 2011
https://shop.royalacademy.org.uk/david-hockney-arrival-of-spring-poster

There is no doubt, we are living in a time of crisis. Everywhere we look there are signs of disorder, disruption and chaos, impinging on our real and virtual lives. You can see it in the faces of family, friends, colleagues, the old and the young from children to pensioners, and everyone in between. There is nothing else on anyone’s lips beyond what they’ve heard, what they’ve seen, how they’ve prepared, or haven’t for this human disaster. Scientific words like Covid-19, Coronavirus, criminological words such as isolation, criminalisation and newly minted words; social distancing are being pushed into conversations. These appear alongside the more prosaic questions, which shops have bread? toilet rolls? milk? eggs? Is this open, is that open, can I get there, am I allowed to go out?

Over the past week I have seen this fear develop, evolve and spread. It threatens to swallow us all up in our panic. Many people, myself included, are desperately trying to maintain the everyday, the mundane, some routine, some semblance of normality. My institution is trying to be supportive, lots of extra email, how to move your teaching online, what advice to give students, how to look after your mental and physical health and that of others, at a time like this. All of this advice is well-intentioned and aims to alleviate fear, after all scientia potentia est, or so we are told.

The problem with trying to recreate our real lives in a virtual environment is far more profound than simply changing our modes of operation. When people are worried, frightened and saddened, no amount of pretending that it is “business as usual” will distract them from the everyday lived experience. We can pretend, but when you are worried about your own health, that of your family, when you don’t know where you are going to be able to get the basics of life from, and for many, how on earth you will be able to pay for it with limited or no income, everything else pales into insignificance.

So far we have seen so much evidence of privilege: those that aren’t worried because they’re healthy, those that stockpile food and other essential products, because they can afford to and those that isolate themselves in the lap of luxury, because they have access to money, property and contacts. All of which feeds the fear by the second, minute and hour. Competing with this negativity are the stories around kindness, the narratives from the NHS, the police, carers, shop workers, the list goes on showing that the human spirit is still burning strong, that we have a choice about our behaviour, our thoughts and our feelings. That we can make a difference, if only we want to.

This week has felt like a nightmare, so dark, so stressed, the walls are closing in on all of us, forcing us into confinement. We look out of the window and nobody is moving outside. It has all the ingredients of my favourite genre, dystopic fiction, but this time we’re all fully immersed and we have no idea how the novel ends. How many will die, how many will find their finances, relationships, employment, education disrupted and/or destroyed?

That changed for me yesterday, when I stumbled upon a message from the artist David Hockney. The message was incredibly simple ‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring’. I should declare in advance, I am a little biased, he’s one of my favourite artists, but with Hockney’s simple statement he touched on a profound truth. We are humans, infinitely resourceful, extremely adaptable, incredibly social.

Look after yourselves and each other, if not face to face, then virtually. Check in, touch base and create a life line for each other. But also remember to take some time away from the screens, look out of the window and remember the world is still a beautiful place, filled with many wonders, including humankind.

David Hockney, (2020), Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/a-message-from-david-hockney-do-remember-they-can-t-cancel-the-spring?fbclid=IwAR2iA8FWDHFu3fBQ067A7Hwm187IRfGVHcZf18p3hQzXJI8od_GGKQbUsQU
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