A Kind of Ode to this Online Generation

One morning, I saw online two photos of my grandniece seated in front of a laptop. Clutching one of her stuff toys, Leona was looking intently at the screen. Her father has captioned the photo as her first day in school. It was an orientation for all incoming Grade 1 pupils – a Grade School OrWeb (Orientation Webinar).

The first day of schools – kinder being more informal – is always a source of pride for parents, grandparents and other relatives. In her first foray in performing on stage, we all rushed as one, including an aunt newly arrived from Australia, to watch her sing and dance. Much as we would want to hold on to that baby and little girl, her growing up is a quiet assurance that this world goes on with the ancient rhythm of creation.

Leona has always been a little lady, prim and pretty, moody sometimes but easy to hug and easy to return that hug. To see her finally begin that process of education is heartwarming. And yet, that morning, I felt different about the scenario coming to fruition before me. Leona was in her home, safe. I am certain there was her father or mother around and other people. At the same time, I saw this little girl dealing with that day alone. While I congratulate Leona and her cohorts for braving this new world (with her, I will talk about what she saw during that day and what the teachers said), I know this is a world that is not for me, and the past generations.

Were this orientation happening last year, she would have been in school. She would have been one of the anxious and giddy young children eager and scared to start a new life in classrooms. She would meet her teacher and maybe get to like that teacher. But her parents will tell her it need not be a liking but a respecting of the teacher. Her parents, too, would wish that Leona’s teacher or teachers be strong, strict, but gentle and good. They would look forward to a year of learning about new things and, this may be a cliché, about life.

Leona would look around and, who knows, find the boys or girls who would be her friends for the next 6 or 12 years or forever.

Last year was last year. This year the virus came. The world came tumbling down. In stable societies, people are picking up the debris of the old lifestyles scattered around them. In our world, which does not bear the template of peace and order, the worst scenarios are multiplying. Overnight, we do not know anything anymore.

We were unsure of many things. Would we work again? Would stores open again? Would schools be there for our children and youth again?

Typical of educators and their built-in enthusiasm for cool concepts, schools embraced the present situation as the new normal. This now is the norm. It is a brave way of responding to the pandemic but, within it, hides vestigial fatalism. It has never left us – that terrible way of surrendering to fate or to a universe we accept as rational and yet irrational. The universe that throws our way the good and the bad, leaving us with the duty to bear it and soldier on.

The generation of Leona is bracing for this new normal. Or neo-normal as her school smartly labels the new order.

Leona and her generation did not create this new order. I can tell her I did not create this, the virus and the pandemic did. But I cannot tell Leona I did not create the response to the disease, the infection, the lockdown, the inutility, the helplessness.

There will be more days when Leona will be there alone facing the screen of her laptop. Her father or mother can be around and that is one good point for this new learning exercise. But there will be days for ambiguity. For all the confidence of school boards and administrators, the bravado of master teachers and the daring of pedagogue, no one among them is ever sure what will happen down the road.

As I write this, I think of those distant and isolated roads leading to farms and barren villages. I look inside those decrepit shanties and tiny huts and wonder where the laptop could be in that old normal condition of poverty. I wonder whether educators ever think of them or would their presence ever matter to them? I think of connection and disconnection, two concepts ever-present in the new technologies. Then I dream of a world where at least food is ever present even if no computers are there to serve the lessons.