When I was a child, the telephone was a sacred object, rarely used and certainly never to be tampered with by my brother or me. The telephone calls my parents made were very, very few and far between, and they were short. Even when President Kennedy was shot, and my mother called her friend Mrs Jack to let her know, the call lasted about a minute. It was to be understood that telephone calls were expensive and that it was to be used only as a necessity. Even as a teenager, my calls were brief and, usually, supervised. ‘Hi, I will meet you at Binns at 6. Bye.’ was about it. When I was 14 and in the house alone and bored, I was looking at the telephone directory, and discovered Wagga Wagga a town with a name which, before I became politically correct, I thought pleasingly silly. I decided to make a phone ring in Wagga Wagga, dialled the relevant code and added a random set of number. Pleasingly it rang; less pleasingly someone answered, and for a month afterwards I prepared myself for the bill.
I realised last week that this telephonic parsimony still afflicted me 50 years later, when calls are free. I really can’t talk on the phone for ages to people, without a nagging feeling that I am doing something wrong. So it has been a great relief to discover FaceTime and, indeed, Zoom. I know, I know youse young uns have been using FaceTime since shortly after you were born, gaily chattering with Auntie Ethel in Brisbane, and celebrating virtual Christmases with relatives in Japan, Morocco, Kilmarnock and, no doubt, the Moon. But it’s been a fresh novelty to me, to see my friends, young and old, smiling at me and to be able to admire, if the conversation falters, their paintings and bookcases and teeth. Some of these conversations, my goodness, have lasted 45 minutes or more and not a pang of guilt has assailed me.
Given that we are all currently dependent on these forms of communication, including Skype – a word which always conjures up violence for me (‘We were just having a laugh, then suddenly he skyped me.’) – and falling back on Apple TV and Netflix and Amazon Prime, many of us have been learning a lot from the younger generations. Some of them have been lying on their beds talking and texting and WhatsApping and Messengering for their entire lives – it’s how they live, and the Coronavirus is, in this sense, making teenagers of us all. I had a conversation with someone I taught on FaceTime recently who described our 35 minute call as ‘short and sweet’; when I queried that he said he’d been in conversation with two friends the previous night and that they had had dinner and watched a film together, and that the ‘call’ lasted five and a half hours. I won’t be doing that. Maybe once this is all over, we will be a bit slower to criticise our young people for spending too much time on social media, because maybe we will ourselves find it hard to ditch our new habit.
On this note, let me say that it is right that every Thursday we are clapping and banging things and playing our bagpipes for everyone in the NHS, but I do also feel gratitude to teachers. Mainly, I confess, my gratitude is that I am no longer a teacher, for, to be frank, I could not teach online for a millisecond. My classroom teaching depended on the concept of audience. I talked, they talked, I questioned, they answered – I did not really like it when they were quietly working away at some task or other. I know from some colleagues at the older end of the teaching spectrum that they envy the new recruits, who are taking to lockdown teaching confidently and easily, utilising all the skills they have been taught and taught themselves. The equivalent for my generation of teacher would, I suppose, be improving your board-work, or, if we were lucky, mastering the Roneo, without being overcome by its fumes (or, indeed, addicted to them.) There will be plenty of more experienced teachers who are now wishing they had concentrated a bit harder when the Head of IT was speaking at the last in-service.
It has become a bit of an old saw that teachers don’t feel appreciated – I think I was lucky, for that was never my own experience. If it’s true though, I suspect that lockdown, bringing as it does the need for many parents to find out what it’s like to be a teacher, may make them appreciate real teachers more, people who are not just sitting with two or three children and home-schooling, but who are standing in front of 30 adolescents, or, more frighteningly, 25 six year olds, day in and day out, creating the miracle of education. So pity them and thank them when you switch on your computer for the next set of work that’s been prepared for you by these dedicated professionals – remember, this is not what they have been trained to do, and many of them, as I would have been, are well out of their comfort zone.