The mood was strange. Attendance at school fell to 62% today. Some were absent for genuine reasons of personal health and concern for the health of others. Some absentees were those who would miss school on the slightest pretext.
In my Year 7 tutor group, there seemed to have been a special effort to attend – twenty-one of the twenty-five students in the group were present. Their concern was with one thing, coronavirus. A PowerPoint presentation I shared with them suggested that they faced little or no danger. I told them I expected that they would live until the Twenty-Second Century when as ninety year olds they would recall the strange times through which they had lived.
As the morning passed there was a sense among some of the students that they were filling in time. “School is going to close, sir, why are we doing this.”
I tried to suggest that the best way of coping with uncertainty was to keep doing the ordinary things, to keep up the routines. They looked blankly when I said that they might be proud of having kept going through difficult times.
To a colleague, I suggested the mood seemed similar to the mood of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Troubled Sleep and Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, the waiting for the arrival of an invader.
In France in 1940, there was an uncertainty and ambivalence amongst the people as hostilities came to an end. There were people who cheered Marechal Petain, the hero from the First World War as he made his radio announcement that an armistice had been agreed. Then for many people there came a dawning realization that, for their community, the armistice had amounted to a surrender, that the coming invaders would be the new masters.
Against the background of the Nazi invasion, it must have been almost impossible to sustain everyday life. Had I been a school teacher in France eighty years ago, what would I have said to those in the classroom? How would I have kept them interested in their work? Would they have seen any point in trying to continue as though everything were normal?
As the virus advances and the number of cases increases, there is a sense of an invisible aggressor slowly coming to dominate life. The virus poses questions as profound as the questions raised by the reality of an invading army: it challenges the sovereignty of government; it disrupts every aspect of normal life; it places a question mark over the importance of everything that is learned.