when-i-turned-five,-i-wanted-malibu-barbie.-my-sons-just-want-face-masks-at-their-party

When I turned five, I wanted Malibu Barbie. My sons just want face masks at their party

My twins started reception last week and so, for the first time, we’ve been right in the teeth of the prevailing school debate, although this year, instead of the usual arguments over slipping standards or shortfalls in funding, it’s been about whether kids should be at school at all. (Oh, I’ve really enjoyed August 2020, with people discussing very solemnly whether it’s selfish/unnecessary/downright dangerous to send kids back to school, usually right after describing their own recent return from Marbella/Crete/Cyprus.)

So many of the conversations about the return to school have been about the adults: how do teachers feel about it? How do parents? What do we – the smart adults who are talking as if we all have degrees in virology, even if our only science qualification is a scraped-through biology GCSE – think we should do? Of course, we’re only trying to Protect The Children. But grownups have a long-established habit of talking over kids’ heads and assuming they won’t pick up on what’s going on – and kids have an even more established habit of proving them wrong.

My twins also turned five last week, and we threw a little party for them. While we were sticking up the balloons, one of them asked if we were doing this because “the virus” is over. “Kinda,” I said. When they turned five, the three of us crossed a threshold, because they are now an age that I can remember myself. I have scattered memories from earlier years: the poster from my nursery school illustrating the months of the year; breaking my leg soon after my little sister was born (I always knew how to grab back the spotlight). But five… five, I remember; the feel of it, the size of it. I remember how big my classroom looked when I started kindergarten (the approximate US equivalent of reception), and the inner howl of outrage when my new best friend could do the splits in gym class and I could barely get halfway to the floor. So I am all too aware that the feelings my twins are experiencing will stick to them, like burrs and tics embedding themselves in a wild animal’s fur.

The coronavirus will be the first big news story they remember. I have a theory (you’ll be amazed to know) that the first news story a child encounters is as formative as their first experience of friendship or school. This is the start of your awareness of the world outside, a realisation that things – scary things – happen beyond the family home, and that your parents can’t control them.

The first news story I really remember was the Challenger disaster when I was eight. Every American child of the 80s remembers it, since we were all told to watch the shuttle’s lift-off by our schools, because a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was among the astronauts. I don’t know if this is why I tend towards the catastrophist end of the anxiety spectrum – assuming every plane I step on will crash, everyone I love will die in horrible ways – but it probably didn’t help. (One day, I will finally write my PhD thesis, Gen-OMG: How Growing Up Between The Challenger Accident And The Rise Of 90s Disaster Movies Traumatised An Entire Generation.)

How has the virus reframed the world for today’s kids? My twins have always been – to say the least – sociable, insisting on saying hello to every stranger we pass on the street. But they are now fully au fait with the idea that outsiders can bring dangers, and for their party one of them made a sign ordering all party guests to wear a mask. It was sweet, but it was also sad. All I worried about for my fifth birthday was that I wouldn’t get Malibu Barbie.

And yet, in all the heady run-up to starting “big school”, my boys’ focus has been entirely prosaic. While I’ve been frantically trying to keep up with all the information about staggered drop-off times and social bubbles, they’ve asked only what their teacher’s name is, who they will sit next to and what colour the uniforms will be. These are the same questions they’d have asked if they’d been starting school in 2019 or 1919, and are probably the same ones I asked when I started school (back in 1819).

In part, this is a reflection of their age: I am lucky that they are too young to feel proper anxiety about the current situation. But it’s also a reflection of life. My favourite war movie is Hope And Glory, based on John Boorman’s memories of childhood in blitzed-out London; even as the bombs rained down, his older sister sneaked out to snog boys she shouldn’t, while he and his friends queued up to look down a girl’s knickers. This, dear reader, is human nature, which not even international tragedy can staunch.

As is de rigueur, I took a photo of the boys on their first day and posted it on Instagram, and then I scrolled through all the other photos of all the other grinning kids in their slightly too large uniforms. It was sweet, and it was also cheering, all these gleeful images of time marching on. Life continues, despite the best attempts of everything else.

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