PANDEMIALS: NOT LOST BUT MOVING FORWARD
THE STORIES WE TELL THE PANDEMIAL GENERATION
“Remote schooling has had devastating effect: a whole generation of vulnerable teens are at risk of educational failure and unemployment, or crime or exploitation; many students have simply fallen off the radar.”
These words, from the Children’s Commissioner at Westminster, Anne Longfield, tell a story of a lost generation who desperately need to catch up. It is not a good story, or a helpful story, it is not motivating, and it is not a Christian story.
Instead, Ruth Wilkes, a School Principal in Bedford, tells a different story around the same pandemic experience. She described the present generation not as lost but “the crucial generation” who have “built resilience and an awareness of the fragility of our world”. The reaction of parents to her words were positive, life affirming and energising.
These two views on the experience of the pandemic illustrate the importance of well-told stories about our lives. They help us to understand ourselves better, create new awareness, strengthen relationships, build resilience, and uncover deeper meaning in life. A good story has the power to put our present difficulties into a wider personal, social and spiritual horizon and, in that wider horizon, we find new strength to move forward. Since we, as a species, began to tell stories around fires at the mouths of caves, the arc of a good story has always brought hope and unity especially in times of uncertainty. Our brains are wired for such stories, they work through images and help us to sort out our inner world so that we can better manage the world around us.
So, what stories do we tell our pupils in the year ahead? Are they a lost generation? Are they really way behind the expected standards? If we push the need to “catch up” we are likely to reduce hope and increase despair in some young lives. We need to tell a different story: they are a unique generation, a generation that knows frailty, understands the way that people can work together, the way that self-sacrifice saves lives and self-discipline builds community. Perhaps other generations, including their elders, need to catch up with them!
Let’s be practical and talk about particular stories that we might remind our pupils about next term:
The ugly duckling is a perennial folk tale that describes how an individual is rejected, isolated and eventually emerges from isolation in a new way, as a swan, full of grace.
In a more down-to-earth way Nelson Mandela entered Roben Island and emerged transformed after 27 years of isolation. He said “Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment.” For him isolation became a seed bed for a deeper and more lasting social revolution.
The identity of the Jewish people was forged during 40 years in the wilderness. In that place they learnt to work together, to recognise God’s presence, to forgive, to be healed and to eventually reach the promised land. Isolation and struggle led them to a mystical relationship with their God and a deep sense of who they were to be in the world.
In a similar way the whole arc of the Gospel story sweeps through threats, suffering, death and arrives at new life in the resurrection. The story of Jesus enduring through isolation and confusion by maintaining trust in his Father is the core story of Christian life, sometimes called the paschal mystery.
These stories, particularly the last one, could form a template for the way we think about and talk to the so-called lost and catching up generation that will arrive at our school gates in September. But the richest source of stories comes from within our own life experience, from the depths of our own struggles that helped to build character into our pattern of living and relating to others: the teacher who gives herself to her role with extraordinary energy because she was rescued from youthful despair through her school experience: the PE teacher who runs extracurricular activities because of the way that sport built his own confidence as a boy: the determination of pastoral staff who have experienced their own dysfunctional family life and find a deep meaning and energy to work with damaged children. These are transformational stories of life hidden beneath the radar of school life. They point to the resilience of the human spirit. They focus on journeys of hope and not despair. They uncover the deeper motivation to manage real loss with the trust that Jesus showed in the abiding presence of something larger, kinder and wiser at the centre of his life and all our own lives too.
We need to look at the Gospels for stories of resilience and awakening to inspire young people and lead them into the trust that Jesus had in his Father. Put some of the following Gospel stories into the context of the pandemic and use them to find a deeper way forward for staff and pupils:
· The weeds and the wheat: Focus on what is good, what has been positive about the pandemic and work gently with what has been broken. (Matthew 13: 34- 30)
· The prodigal son: Do not write off any experience as a disaster but bring it to the creative and gentle presence of a loving Father who has never abandoned us. (Luke 15:11-32)
· The grain that dies: There is no real growth without some confusion and loss. It is only when the pattern breaks that new life can emerge. (John 12:24)
· The lost sheep: Even when we feel lost, when we give way to despair or depression Jesus as the Good Shepherd searches us out in our darkness and brings us home to our true self. Then there is real joy and a deeper sense of belonging. (Matthew 18: 10 – 14)
· Cross and Resurrection: This is the template for all life-giving stories that reveals the deepest meaning of all our struggles. We all experience the cross in our broken world and in our imperfect lives, but the last word goes to love through which such cross experiences are transformed into new life. ( Mark chapters 14 -16)
As schools rooted in Gospel values, we have a duty to open up the treasures of these stories to support the healthy growth and resilience of our pupils. That growth is not just in academic excellence, important as that is for their future, it is also a growth in self-awareness, relational skills and the whole world of inter-connectivity into which they are already woven. The way we tell our stories in school eventually helps to shape the story of our world with all its challenges in justice and climate. The way we tell stories in school can also help to build the confidence and self esteem of a generation that will meet far more challenges and losses than their elder generations could ever imagine.
Young people are not a lost generation; they are our future and a crucial generation for our planet. In the new term let us tell our pupils the truth that the resilience within them is greater than the problems before them. Let us tell them how proud we are of them, how we have confidence that they will lead our world in new directions and let us promise, as parents and educators, to walk with them.
 By Alex Pope BBC News, East Published 26 February 2021