It was a year ago this week that we were told to stay at home, and everything changed.
Well, let’s not exaggerate – not everything, and not for everybody. I carried on living in the same place, doing the same job, with the same people; I shopped in the same shop, for the same things in order to cook the same meals, which were then eaten/picked over by my son/daughter, very much as usual. I couldn’t go to the theatre or opera, I couldn’t go to galleries or museums, I couldn’t pop over the Channel to Paris…but, to be fair, I don’t do those things that often anyway. While some people had their lives utterly overturned, my life pootered along very much as before, once I’d go used to Google Classroom and Google Meet. And then the Easter holiday arrived anyway.
The sudden disappearance of exams, however, had a huge impact on me – not as much as on the girls, but still. As I said to my students at the time, my immediate reaction was a feeling of having been cheated – I had two excellent classes who had worked so incredibly hard for so long, and the results were due to be outstanding. It just seemed monstrously unfair.
But if I felt bad for the Y11s, that was nothing compared to my feelings for the Y13s. GCSE, after all, is a stepping-stone towards A levels, and I would have the time to make it up to the Y11s. For the Y13s, however, exam preparation came to a sudden, juddering halt, with no clear idea of what mechanism we were going to use to get them their grades, nor any real feel for how university places were going to be allocated. I had known all of my Y13s since Y7 (I had taught some of them for all seven years) and, in a limited (and admittedly pretty corny) way, I felt towards them almost like daughters. (A feeling made easier by the fact that my sixth formers don’t refuse to eat leeks, never graciously accept the pasta I’ve made but only if I produce a totally different sauce and have never been heard to complain that the broccoli is neither sprouty nor purply enough.)
The exam board didn’t even want to see the NEAs, the dissertations that the girls had been slaving over for so very long, their wonderfully independent pieces of research. One girl had read up on the Anglo-Saxons and Christian conversion (trashing the opinions of my much-loved university tutor in the process – thanks a bunch); another had decided to investigate Indian independence and familiarised herself with the works of two Indian historians I’d never even heard of. This was brilliant work, deserving of a wider audience, but no one wanted to see it. I felt that I had, in some way, let them down; I had spent years saying “trust me, I know what I’m doing, you’re in safe hands, I’ll get you through this” and, suddenly, it was all over. I just couldn’t do anything.
So I found myself something to do. For a start, I marked the dissertations just as I would normally have done and posted them to the girls (or, in one case, walked it round to her house and put it through the door). But that felt like a drop in the ocean, so I decided to e-mail friends who teach at universities and said, “I have a student wanting to read archaeology at university” and “I have a student wanting to do law” and “I have a prospective historian”, asking them to recommend five books that they would like an undergraduate to arrive at university having read – not things off a standard reading list, not textbooks; things to excite and enthuse, things to keep a bright and able student engaged over a six-month period between “Your exams are cancelled” and “Welcome to university”. My friends, as I had expected, replied reasonably quickly with some good ideas. However, they also sent suggestions of other people, colleagues or friends or friends of friends, and suggested I should contact them. I did, and once again in flooded the replies, often later that same day (and once, memorably, within minutes). Now, with the bit firmly between my teeth, I started e-mailing people I knew only by reputation, then people I’d never even heard of before but whose names I found on university websites, in every case making the same plea – “I feel bad for my students – help me help them to prepare for university”.
In almost every case, I was answered with kindness and understanding. (In almost every case – one famous historian replied with a solitary recommendation of his own, rather dull, book, and there is a law department in the west of England which sent back not a single reply and which has been forever crossed off my Christmas card list. Or would have been if they’d ever been on it. Or if I had one.) Lecturers appeared genuinely to care that students had been left feeling high and dry, and wanted to do their best to help them to feel cared for and valued.
Of course, there were some answers that stood out. For example, there was one law lecturer who copied my message to her entire professional contacts list (that’s what she said, not what I suspect she did) – while that was kind of her, the extraordinary thing is that she asked her colleagues to reply to her and then collated all of their responses into a Word document for my convenience. There was the Cambridge archaeology don who, in addition to suggesting some books, sent a link to a film in ancient Babylonian. There were two historians who, independently, recommended each other’s books and, finally, there was the ludicrously important historian who replied with a list of books but also asked me to give her some feedback from my students on a chapter in one of her own books. I’ve not done it yet – Y12, get your reading glasses on.
What’s my point here? Well, Covid has been a bad time for the planet and bad times for the planet often bring out the best in people as well as the worst. People have broken lockdowns because of their personal need for a party, but people who have given freely of their time to make sure that the elderly get their medicine and groceries; young people have disguised themselves as Floridian grannies to get early vaccinations, but a country music star gave some of her personal fortune to help develop those vaccines; people have filled their garages and deep-freezes with toilet rolls ‘just in case’, but there are also academics out there willing to use their free time to help a man they’d never met help girls they’d never met feel that they mattered, that this would all pass, and that university and the future were waiting for them after all.
Written by Mr Sherwood