A Thank You

This post was originally published in TES, March 2021

I arrived on campus for the first time in many months last week. I was juggling mixed feelings about my return, and on pulling up to the car park I realised that the barrier code was internally lost amidst the surging cognitive turmoil. I was flummoxed. I had arrived at this barrier every day for many years; predictable in my every move, like clockwork. I was always early to beat the morning gridlock and ensure my preferred parking space, equidistant from both entrances. I would wave to the canteen staff as I passed their windows, and they would wave back, knowing I’d soon arrive at their counter amidst the bustling breakfast club for my essential email purge accompaniment; the latte. I would unlock the office, pop some porridge in the microwave, lift the blinds and make my way around my colleagues PC’s, prompting their slow, sluggish awakening in preparation for everyone’s arrival, before settling at my own desk.

This morning already felt very different. A porter rushing past in disposable gloves let me through the barrier. I didn’t recognise the solitary, masked face as I passed the kitchen window, and my red car seemed jarring against the vast concrete sprawl of empty spaces. I tucked the car beneath the tunnel that connects the college annexes, where it’s bright hue somehow seemed less offensive, and headed for the door. I stopped by an outdoor desk, set up temporarily some time ago. I smiled at the porter from behind my mask and hoped it reached my eyes. There was a little bit of a language barrier between us, as well as a glaring Glaswegian accent (mine) and a perspex screen (his). After batting a few vowels back and forth between us without successfully piecing together my name for the sign in sheet, he gestured to his lanyard and non-verbally asked to see mine. Feeling deflated on realising my return was not going terribly well, I reached for my badge which was, of course, at home.

Eventually we performed a short, impromptu interpretive dance to agree that I would write my own name before thoroughly wiping down the pen. I sanitised my hands and noticed the porter spraying the table I had briefly leaned on with a generous amount of disinfectant as I headed through the door. I stuck to the left hand side of the yellow and black tape that split the floor and noticed the heavily embellished walls; sanitiser dispensers, reminders to wear masks, further reminders that masks must go over the nose, social distancing reminders, reminders to stay on the left and directions to the testing centre.

This was my destination, so I followed the large, red arrows through deserted, bleach-scented corridors. Within minutes I found myself in a testing booth, asking the very patient facilitator if she was absolutely certain I should be using the same cotton bud for both samples. Turning to the mirror to harass my tonsils for a while I wondered whether we were so caught up in the organisation and implementation of the ‘new normal’ that we haven’t left much room for acknowledging how completely abnormal all of this is. I resolved to write an article on the many Covid-related grievances that our Teachers’ Resolve is trying very hard to embed into our everyday lives; but grossly unpleasant sinus-bothering on a Wednesday afternoon is something I would rather not normalise.

I planned a written call to arms. Not to rebel against these measures, because I appreciate they’re paramount to our safety, but to recognise that they’re also a bit rubbish. To acknowledge that whilst we may celebrate returning to our classrooms, there are still invasive and isolating measures creating strange environments. I wanted to remind my colleagues that practising self-patience and self-kindness might sometimes involve admitting that we’re finding things difficult.

I still see value in this message, but having been back on campus full time since these initial reflections my primary purpose of this particular post has evolved somewhat. 

This morning I arrived at college, pausing at the zebra crossing to let a group of smiling learners cross, returning their smiles as they waved thanks. I stopped briefly at the barrier to punch in the code, topped up on hand sanitiser and set off through the tunnel, waving to the porter behind his screen and the new canteen assistant behind the window. It was around 7:45am, but spaces were already filling up and the chilly morning sun glistened against the colourful spectrum of cars. I parked amongst them, popping on my mask and lanyard as I headed for the sign in desk. I called a greeting to the porter as he waved from the far end of the tunnel, pointing at the sign in sheet and giving me a thumbs up to let me know I had been accounted for. I took the side door and headed straight for the canteen. On the way I passed testing booths, where the familiar kitchen and serving staff can now be found, smiling as they warmly guide learners through the testing process. I waved as I passed and we exchanged some physically exaggerated pleasantries from behind PPI. After picking up two lattes in gloved hands I headed for my desk via the tunnel, dropping a warm coffee off to the friendly porter enroute and safely passing many masked faces, all smiling with their eyes, all wishing me a good morning.

As my sleepy computer began to stir I reconsidered my approach to this piece of writing. I would, if I may, much rather take the opportunity to address everyone who has found themselves on a school or college campus this week. Who has tormented their tonsils and sneezed on a swab. Who has welcomed others and kept us all safe. Who has stepped up to a new role, reminded a colleague of the car park code, or smiled from their side of the corridor;

Thank you.