My son is currently in Year 7, his first year of high school, and he is busy doing remote learning during Sydney’s latest pandemic lockdown. There was a period last year when it was the same. I hear a lot of fear about the effect of lockdown on children’s and teenagers’ development and education, about missing gatherings with relatives and birthdays without friends. Whilst every kid and their circumstances is different, it’s not something I’m complaining about. I’ve lived it myself.
My Year 7 education was by correspondence. Every fortnight a package would come in the post with the latest notes and assignments and we would send off the completed work in return. None of the immediacy of Google Classroom and Zoom, the Internet and video chats were still mostly in the realm of science fiction.
From the second term of Year 4 until Year 6 I had been fully home schooled by my parents, who had bought into the whole alternative lifestyle movement. We left the big smoke of Melbourne and moved to Central Queensland, purchasing a small rural property about 30 kilometres out of Rockhampton.
We were living off the remainder of my parents’ savings from the sale of our Melbourne house and business and my father’s superannuation and disability pension, so we didn’t have much in the way of money to spend on luxuries. Eating out was a complete rarity, very occasionally fish and chips by the beach or a meat pie, a trip to the movies a couple of times a year.
If we travelled, it was by car, staying in a caravan or tent. There would always be plenty of experiences, visiting mines, nature areas or museums. It was a great education in itself.
My closest friends were still in Melbourne and we communicated via handwritten letters, so my only real company was my parents and two younger brothers, to be joined by an infant sister in Year 7. And I, err, didn’t really get on with at least one of them. All my other relatives lived in the southern states and visited rarely throughout my childhood. My parents did enrol me in once a week sports session of roller skating and squash, but that was pretty much about it for external interaction with peers.
As for birthday parties, I had to bake my own cake for my twelfth birthday because Mum was in hospital having just given birth to my sister. No, we didn’t have a ceiling full of helium balloons, fancy cakes and thirty guests at an indoor play centre.
Did I enjoy the isolation? Sometimes yes, often no, but I learned how to keep myself entertained. But when I started the next year at high school I made friends. Did my education suffer? Well, I was the school dux.
What I learned was to be independent, to learn for myself and to appreciate education and learning. I grew up not relying on the opinions of others for my self-esteem. That doesn’t always play well in a society geared around personal interactions and tribal politics, but the capability for independent thought is a powerful weapon against manipulation, which is why so many fear it.
Was it nature or was it nurture? Maybe I would have been like that regardless of my upbringing.
Now it is my son’s turn to be stuck at home. I’m not afraid for him. He has had time to play with his friends and to travel the world before and he will have them after. Right now he is learning to take responsibility for his own education and to find his own sources of happiness away from the influences of his peers.
Most of all my son is learning that the world is not a constant place, that you cannot take it for granted. He will find his own challenges in the future and the pandemic is about learning to adapt and face them.
Some challenges go beyond the individual and require all of us to do our part. That means change.
It’s a lesson we should all learn.