Winners and losers

Winners and losers

by Henry Grossek, principal of Berwick Lodge Primary School

Michael looked back just once more.

Why? No particular reason. No reason at all, just a reflex reaction. On turning away, he walked slowly to his car at the head of the staff car park, noting the faded sign ‘Principal’ on the bitumen denoting his car park space.

He paused; eyes momentarily fixed on the sign, a ramshackle bundle of thoughts scrambling through his tired mind. The sign needed a new coat of paint, a refresher so to speak. So did Michael in a strange sort of way, but he wouldn’t find that here anymore.

As he turned on the engine, his car radio simultaneously sprung to life. There was a time when Michael sprung to life at the drop of a hat, but not now. Michael drove carefully out from the school car park. Everyone had long made their departure, it was well after 5.00pm and this was, after all, the last day of the school year. It was more out of habit than by design, Michael’s careful driving.

Years earlier, a child had inadvertently, impulsively bolted across the staff carpark and Michael, reversing out from his car park space had hit the child. No great damage had been done to the child’s physical wellbeing, nor Michael’s car, but Michael’s emotional state took quite a battering; undeservingly so.

Michael had one last task to perform in his role as school principal and it would take him an hour or so to reach his destination, more than enough time to be well-prepared.

As he drove down the Monash Freeway to the city, he flicked through the music channels on his radio. Michael loved heavy metal, but not today. Something quieter, something soothing. He finally found it – The Sound of Silence. Ever since his college days when he first heard the haunting melody and evocative lyrics, that song led him into another world of musical delight; that of Simon and Garfunkel, a duo that left the world of popular music as abruptly as they had entered it. Thankfully the longevity of their music has endured much longer than their partnership as a folk duo, so thought Michael. Ironic he thought as the song played out that it should be playing right now. Troublingly so, given that cacophony of disparate voices, so loud, too loud, too present.

The television studio, the prop for his interview, was a disappointment, a bare bones room with a blue screen as a backdrop, a couple of chairs, a coffee table and technical staff deeply engrossed in quiet conversation. The host, he recognised – receiving a last-minute briefing by the director, oblivious to him, seated, just a few metres away.

Michael was a shy person. Sometimes he wondered why he had ever taken on the role of school principal. His love of children and their learning had been his bedrock in his long career. The pandemic had tested him, more than he could bear at times. For all that, he had somehow managed to end up in a television studio at the very tail end of it all. The final curtain-call! Not what he had planned.

“Welcome to our show, Michael,” purred the host, a seasoned current affairs television presenter, the warmest of smiles perfectly in place. Within moments Michael was relaxed. The presenter did not enjoy top ratings by chance. The ten minutes flashed by in a blur of conversation. Before he knew it, a friendly technician had gently removed the lapel mike from his coat, the host had smilingly thanked him, and at once re-engaged in earnest conversation with his director. Michael stood there for just a moment. Long enough, though, to realise it was time to go.

It’s after the event, when all alone, that reflection can be a cruel companion. So it was with Michael, as he drove home from the television studio. A mere ten-minute interview, an hour’s painful regurgitation. Every word, both said and unsaid haunted Michael, much as had the two years of the pandemic insofar as any misstep would land squarely on his shoulders. The saving grace this time, Michael thought was that there was no tomorrow, a thought he’d entertained in quite a different light on more than one occasion these past two years.

“You spoke so well, Michael.”

“Are you sure?” Michael knew his wife Jan would always be there to shore up his faltering faith in himself.

“Yes. Absolutely. You covered everything and more.”

“Really? More than he could ever admit to himself, Michael had found the past two years the most stressful of his entire career. The pandemic had snaked through his school community in so many ways, and so unpredictably, serpent-like, with often only him to offer support and resistance to an increasingly exhausted and despondent, not to mention fearful workforce. So, it felt!

“Yes, Michael. You mentioned with great clarity the impact on your staff of the competing demands of providing both remote and onsite learning simultaneously. The constant fear of infection and the apparent double standards in Covid safety measures under which school staff worked. You said it all.”

“What about the children and their families? They suffered too – and there was so little I could do in so many cases. Those children, the ones who always seem to slip through the cracks. We didn’t save too many of those. We hardly saw them, remote learning or on site. And then the parents. At least we received our pay all the way through,” Michael’s voice trailed off.

“You acknowledged them too, Michael, as you always do – even those for whom remote learning and lockdown with their kids was just too much. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Jan always worried about her husband’s capacity for what she felt was a form of ‘professional martyrdom.’

Michael, thought for a moment. He knew Jan was right. The perfectionist, the acute sense of obligation, the kindness in his heart were worthy attributes in his career, yet not always, when unchained, his own best allies.

“You mentioned I covered ‘everything and more’, Jan. What did you mean? I can’t remember all of what I said, just what I didn’t say or didn’t say well.” 

“Yes,” Jane replied. “You surprised me actually, I must say, but in a good way,” she hastened to add.

“When you were asked about the impact on the children of two years of disrupted learning due to the pandemic, you mentioned something I’ve not heard before.”

“What was that?”

“You left the door open so to speak, on something quite important, I believe,” Jan paused before continuing. “You said that while discussion on the impact of the pandemic with all its lockdowns and remote learning programs on children centred on their wellbeing and academic progress or lack thereof, the jury was still out on another feature of the pandemic.”

“Oh yes” replied Michael.

“I remember. The polemic and very public debate about lockdowns, mandatory vaccination and freedoms. It’s torn families, colleagues and even friendships apart in more than a few cases and even brought science into dangerous question. What impact will that have on our children? They couldn’t help but be caught up in the crosscurrents of what has too often become a very toxic social environment.”