People Watching

I am a very nosey person. Fact. I have never been able to help myself earwigging in on strangers’ conversations and being far too inquisitive about other people’s lives. This week I feel I have excelled – even by my own high standards of shoving my ample nose wherever it is not needed; I have done more people watching this week than I have for some time.

I guess this is not really surprising, because I teach and although I have been in school throughout Lockdown III, this week we have seen students return to school so there is so much more to focus in on. Lovely.

My friends who are still confined to home working, will be sighing as they read this and thinking, ‘here she goes on another of her, ‘teachers are amazing, do you know how hard we work on the front-line’, monologues’. Bear with me, for I intend to blog about the people I have watched rather than asking you to cry my river in the educational sector.

For much of the week I have had the pleasure of stamping ID cards for students coming in to get one of the three lateral flow tests that herald their return on site. I was ‘front of house/meet ‘n’ greet’ if you will. The students have been coming back a year group at a time, so the first opportunity they are given to enter the hallowed school grounds after months at home, is accompanied with the bonus extra of being able to plunge a giant cotton bud down the back of their throat and up their nose. No wonder they have been skipping into the testing centre, smiling broadly behind their masks.


Not all students – or staff come to think of it – have been skipping, and some students are understandably very nervous about coming back on site, but this week has reminded me just how ace young people can be. Anxious though many are, they are all so flipping polite. ‘Morning James, how are you?’ invariably meets with, ‘good thanks Miss. Yourself?’

I have loved watching the students run the gauntlet of the walk through the school covid testing centre. There are lots of hand sanitisers, and an army of signs, arrows, and social distancing measures to navigate the students through the process. We seem to like to queue – and I speak as someone who will always join the end of the queue even if I don’t know what I am queuing for. If a human in front of us behaves in a certain way, we are likely to follow suit. At the airport (remember?) the queuing system is organised to slow the queue, and it works well when there are a lot of people. It is always a brave person, realising there is no-one in front of them (which negates the purpose of the slow maze-like walk to the check-in desk) who ducks under the barrier to create a short-cut to their destination . It is the same in the testing centre.

By the end of the week, I had created my own version of the Stanford marshmallow test that is given to young children as a predictor of how they may turn out in later life. My queue analysis tells me that the masked teenager who enters a room on time, without a friend, hand sanitise three times en route without being asked to do so (by following the clues on the signage) and then short-circuit a series of barriers when it is clear that no-one is queuing in front, will go far in life. Better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

My people watching reveals that for teenage boys in particular, the follicle challenges of the last few weeks are clearly visible. Girls usually tie their uncut hair back, whereas boys (ponytail or bunches seem to be under-utilised metrosexual options) tend to sport the binary opposites of either a hair bear bunch mop, or an oversized hood – the latter because their mother has shaved their head to stop them whinging about the closure of barbers. Wonderful though parents are, there are few who can pull off a buzz cut or faux hawk. Life is tough enough as a teenager without your mother brandishing a pair of shears.

On their last day of freedom before their return to class – despite a howling gale outside – many students come in wearing crop tops, shorts and pink hair. As they stand in the testing queue, above their mask you can see the dawning realisation that they need to find their school uniform by the next day…and work out how to tone down their neon hair colour.

Parents have been great supporting the return to school, but invariably there will be a parent who has sent their child in for a test without filling in the consent form. I earwig in on some choice telephone calls made from teenagers obliged to languish in a socially distanced waiting area while the consent form is provided. ‘Mum, this is so embarrassing. Look, I’ve sent you the QR code, just click on it. No, mum, you don’t need to know what a QR code is. I don’t know about your legal rights. GDPR? No, you do not need to come in to sort this out. Trust me, just click on the image. NOW!’

Back in lessons, the students are now obliged to wear masks and I have a sneaky feeling that some are using these as a snaffle bag and snacking through my ‘An Inspector Calls’ lesson. I don’t really blame them. We have all become used to teaching on-line and it has certainly increased my coffee and snacking capacity as a teacher. My Year 10 tell me that they are in shock at being fully dressed and so far away from a microwave at 11 am in the morning – I think this is what they are telling me, I can hardly hear them above my rumbling stomach.

Masks also mean that now a student doesn’t need to cover their mouth when they are trying to whisper to the person beside them. The only way you can really tell that they are talking is by watching their eyebrows change position. It is easier with the girls, because the big brow is still very much in fashion – this and the false eyelash is really all a discerning fashionista can sport now that a spray tan and thick foundation is covered by a mask and overgrown fringe.

Again, I can’t really blame the students for talking, for most haven’t seen their peers for some time. Looking around my Year 11, I can identify the students who have quite enjoyed the solitude at home, for they already look irritated by some of the classroom banter. I catch one boy wilting down behind his mask as a classmate calls, ‘ Ed, good to see you mate; blimey you’ve put on weight’. Brutal. I am just relieved that the staff room remains closed.

Let us hope that schools reopening offer some sort of teenage decompression chamber as we hold our breath and dream of easing out of Lockdown III. I have been reading around advice to adults on the etiquette of meeting up with friends after lockdown – useful tips on what not to say i.e. ‘I have painted my whole house, lost weight, mastered a sourdough/banana bread recipe’ ; after a week back in the class I am now kicking myself that I didn’t think of providing any such advice for teenagers. Just for the record – in case we ever get another lockdown situation – this week’s people watching would suggest that the following wisdom could have been useful:

Do say:
Lovely to see you
You’re looking great
No, I didn’t touch a book in lockdown either

Do not say:
Flipping heck you’ve let yourself go
I have finished all the set texts and written my own sci fi novel
I have been jogging daily with my dad.

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