Ratcliffe College Headmaster, Jonathan Reddin, highlights the challenges that many young people face as lockdown restrictions ease and how God’s unconditional love for us can help those struggling to move on successfully in their lives.
Our boarding community is taking advantage of the easing of the lockdown restrictions today with a trip to a theme park. As I write, excited youngsters board a coach with thoughts of the day ahead. Those who have visited before are eager to share terrifying tales of previous fast rides such as the roller coaster. The boredom of the long queue is gradually swapped by a growing anticipation of what is about to come which, in turn, is substituted by utter dread as the car chugs away from the platform. The strange clackety-clack of the wheels releasing a surge of adrenaline, is then accompanied by the daunting realisation that there is no turning back – we are committed to this ride! For many, this moment manifests itself in nervous laughter, hollow cries indicating Dutch courage, with eyes closing in fearful expectancy while, all of the time, deep within, a little voice questions how we came to be on the ride in the first place!
I am sure that we have all shared similar emotions at a theme park at one time or another. As I consider the animated chatter of these remarkable young people, a strange parallel with their COVID experiences washes through me. Over the last 15 months, I have been asked many times by students, colleagues, Governors and parents, “how are things at school?” My answer has invariably included drawing parallels between our School’s COVID journey to a ride on a
roller coaster. This comparison, for me at least, recognises the charged emotions that we have experienced as well as the more obvious likeness to the metaphorical ups and downs of a fast ride. As I watch the coach disappear round the corner and return to my thoughts,
the similarities between our COVID journey and the roller-coaster ride becomes more acute as I consider the end of the ride and how we feel as eventually alight from the roller coaster car. My observations of School life since Easter suggest that getting off the COVID ride may be just as nerve racking as the 15-month ride we have just endured. With vaccination rates increasing daily, death rates and hospitalisations significantly down and falling steadily, we are on the brink of stepping away from COVID-19 restrictions – we are about to get off our roller coaster. But, as the 17th of May and the 21st of June approach, I fear that many within our School community are mentally exhausted by our COVID journey. Just like the clackety car slowing at the end of the ride, many knuckles remain white as they continue to grip tightly, many faces remain pale whilst the adrenalin still flows. It’s almost over, we whisper to ourselves “we did it.” We survived the fastest ride. We are slowing down now. No more gruelling climbs and stomach-churning descents; no more screams; I can open my eyes again – can’t I?
As I contemplate some of the pastoral issues that have arisen with student and staff welfare in the first three weeks of term, it is apparent that, for many young people and staff, getting off the COVID roller coaster has been and will be just as tough, if not tougher, than the whole of the past year. Of course, no one wanted to get on the COVID ride in the first place, but lockdown was necessary, and the Government was right to put in place measures to keep us safe.
The science suggests it will be safe to resume our day-to-day lives in the coming weeks and we wait in joyful anticipation for that day to arrive. But how will we really feel when the time comes to fully re-join society and how have we been affected by our COVID journey?
From my vantage point, many young people seem to be stuck in their metaphorical roller coaster cars; quietly sitting at the platform, the safety bar raised but unable to get out – unable to move on. As the adrenalin drains away, the reality of what has just happened seems to become more apparent. For some, this COVID ride was just too fast, too unpredictable, too frightening. The corners were too tight and too uncomfortable. This COVID ride was not something to enjoy, even if other people said that online learning was so much better than school. It was an experience we had to endure, a ride that has left bruises from the buffeting against the sides of the car in the form of mental scars, which will need time and support to heal. Could it happen again? When will we be safe? How do I really feel about what has happened to me, to us all? Who should I talk to and what should I say? Was the human mind designed to be assaulted in such a manner?
As some of our young people sit in their roller coaster cars at the exit platform, many are confused, unable to process what they have experienced in such a short space of time. Their lives have literally been turned upside down like the roller coaster looping-the-loop. Our young peoples’ experience over the past year has been overwhelming for many, but we are only now seeing some of the harm they have endured. Some have experienced genuine COVID loss with the death of family and close friends. However, all young people, denied the time and space to socialise with their friends, have been left jelly-legged on the exit platform as they climb off the COVID ride. Without their friends to support them, they are unsure and uncertain, questioning where they fit in. So many have been denied the right to sit public examinations and left at the mercy of government policy and examination board guidance. For these children, they remain on the roller coaster with their teachers. The uncertainty about their future means that they are yet to be released from the perils of the ride. They may be close to the end, but if the past year tells them anything it is that there will be one last twist before they can finally get out.
The pressure builds, anxiety levels rise and, for many, emotions bubble to the surface through expressions of anger, frustration and sometimes unwelcome and uncharacteristic behaviour. They want to get off the COVID ride but know they cannot. Young people need our support now and ongoing to gently guide them through their emotions. They need their parents and their teachers to set aside time to listen and to talk. They need the consistency of routines to create the stability that they once took for granted. They need encouragement and praise. They need our love and support. Only then can they truly begin to feel safe, secure and able to look ahead to the future with certainty.
As parents, family, friends and teachers our concern must be for our young people’s mental wellbeing at this critical time. To help them, we must ensure that the word of God continues to have relevance and that his voice is heard in their daily lives. At our Boarders’ Mass this weekend, we heard about the importance of showing love to one another in order to help support other people through these difficult moments. This unconditional love or, ‘Agape’, is the highest form of love and can be shown in many ways. It is best demonstrated by giving time to others to listen, to respect differences, to be honest, through prayer for spiritual growth and by not grumbling about others. These qualities should be the foundation of the relationships we build with our young people in our schools.
Getting onto the COVID roller coaster was relatively easy (although unwanted), getting off is proving to be much harder for some. Our schools must create the necessary time and space for God’s love for us to shine and to share his Agape with those around us in the way we live our lives.