Words, words, words ... and feelings. Jo Carroll

Words matter - as writers we know that more than most. And clarity of definitions matter as well - as the recent hoo-ha over the definition of 'alert' (here in the UK) shows only too well. I can't be the only writer who can spend half an hour thumbing through a thesaurus looking for a 'right word'.

Feelings matter too. As writers, we know there are times when we need to put words into a character's mouth while, at the same time, making it clear that they are thinking and feeling the opposite. On the page, we can use asides, parentheses, detours in the narrative to show that feelings might not mirror the words. When it's words we listen to, things can get complicated.

For instance - most mornings, I wake to the dulcet tones of Michal Husain and Nick Robinson on Radio 4's Today Programme (I need burbling, not music, in the morning). At the height of the pandemic their voices were appropriately subdued, full of grief for the dying and awe for the hopeless heroism of our health and care workers.

But things have changed. The lockdown is being eased. They need to sell us optimism, to forget how frightened they needed us to be (frightened people are more compliant), and get out there. The tunnel is short, they tell us, and the light at the end of it is tomorrow. Go back to work; prepare to open shops (but not cafes); send your children to school.

In my half-asleep state, I absorb the feeling before I listen to the words. But, once I can concentrate, there's an incongruity between the uplifting tones of Nick Robinson's voice and the words he is saying. Of course, the tone says, children are looking forward to going back to school - it is the right of every child, especially disadvantaged children (he reminds us, piously) to go to school. Parents will be relieved, he insists, to have their little treasures off their hands so they can go back to work.

Beneath his persistent bonhomie lurks a different message. For instance, all those children longing for normality - but this cannot be normality at they know it.

One of my daughters is a teacher - and so I have an inkling about how one school is tackling the possibility of children going back to school. Children will be taught in groups of 15, with one teacher staying with these children all day, every day, for a week. There will be no relief teachers who can pop in to give them a break (so no nipping off for a wee or grabbing a coffee). Each child will have his or her own working space, his or her own pencil, eraser, colours, pencil sharpeners, books etc. They will stay in their own space except during organised, carefully timed toilet trips - the loos cleaned before and after each visit (surely they know what happens when you tell a class of small children they can't go to the toilet for half an hour). They will have individual playground spaces. Nothing can be shared - so, for little children, no lego, no sand, no playing together in the home corner, no shared books, no counting blocks, no golden time (when children can leave their seats and choose something to play with), no taking shared measuring sticks into the playground, no games of tag, no giggling together in the corner ....

Some children will thrive in a quieter classroom. But, for many, their homes have to be truly grim (and I know some are) for this to be a better experience.

I know we need to reopen schools when the time is right (I'm not going to get into the testing and tracking challenge here); I know parents need to be working; I know we need moments of optimism to get us through this. We also need consistency in the message.

When we've grown accustomed to our politicians dissembling, it's all the more important that our journalists are clear. Nick Robinson's determined cheerfulness makes no sense when his actual words are unpicked. How many, like me, wake drowsily and listen to his optimism and take no notice of the words - and are more than happy to kiss their children at the school gates with no idea of the reality of their classroom days, nor the demands places on teachers.

We are writers. We understand fiction. But we need honesty from journalists.

My fiction? Have a look at The Planter's Daughter.


Susan Price said…
Jo, may your daughter and her class be safe. I share your doubts. I've never been a teacher, but I've visited a lot of primary schools. I was a pupil in one myself! -- I cannot for the life of me imagine how schools are going to maintain 'social distancing' for even one day.

Attempting it will mean constant chivvying, reminding, watching -- it will be utterly exhausting for all concerned. Meanwhile the children will, innocently, make carriers of the plague from one household to another.

Meanwhile, the private schools remain closed. But Cummings has already very clearly demonstrated that what's imposed on the rest of us has nothing to do with our 'leaders'.
Jan Needle said…
Very thoughtful piece, Jo. Thanks
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Jo - how true. Words at odds with the underlying feeling...
What a sorry mess it all is. I feel and fear for the teachers and the kids, who are merely pawns.
Griselda Heppel said…
You are voicing something very important: no politician/scientist/expert appears to have given a thought to what this kind of return to school will do to the children psychologically (plus the exhaustion promised for the teachers). It's nuts. Children have been shown to be at minimal risk of infection, both to themselves and others, so they should not be treated like caged animals, unable to associate or play together. I know of several families who are not returning their children to school, not because they fear the virus, but because they don't want their children to be subjected to a regime which teaches them everyone around them is dangerous and malign (OK, so that's not meant to be the message, but how do we expect young children to interpret orders not to associate with anybody?). Do Swedish schools do this to children? It would be interesting to know.
All of the above! As writers, as the saying goes, we tend towards being also deep and analytical thinkers. Perusers of human behaviour and human deviousness. Many of us are probably crime writers of one sort or another. Or we write comedy, using situations or double meanings or other word play. Whatever, our brains are full of the lore and language of people - which is common sense shot through with psychology or maybe viceversa... we understand what we hear on many levels -we distrust and we perceive dissemblers, we can often see through media hype and media persuasion.

Basically, we see that much which is wrong, and manipulative and yes, class discriminatory, is being used by those in power...

I tremble too for these masses of children and teachers, i am enormously relived our son's partner, a primary teacher, had already taken extended maternity leave, but my cousin's daughter will be forced back into the classroom...and the private schools? our great nieces and nephew have the whole summer in the safety of home...Who are our leaders fooling?
Today I saw a council employee painting yellow lines across the pavement opposite our local primary school - he had a template with the words KEEP YOUR DISTANCE STAY SAFE, which he spray-painted carefully along each line. This was near a school lollipop crossing... could it be in preparation for a return to school? Queuing to cross the road perhaps?
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