School in an era of Covid-19 has thrown up some unprecedented challenges. But most of us will now agree that it has also presented us with an opportunity to see certain things in a new light and do some things differently.
Take, for example, Alumni reunions.
Faced with the impossibility of international travel, let alone receiving visitors to campus, we decided to end this school year by hosting a series of 15 virtual reunions, either based on interest - arts, sports, former employees, etc. - or the decade in which students attended the International School of Brussels, from the 1950s all the way up to the 2010s.
The formula for each 1-hour event over Zoom was pretty much the same:
a brief introduction and live link-up from somewhere on campus;
the opportunity to hear how school was like “back then” from special guests, often retired teachers who taught during “those days”;
a short film compiled from old yearbook photos and film footage languishing in our archives;
A chance to listen to former students explain how their experience of the school had shaped and impacted their lives.
Meeting so many former students and their teachers over such a short period often felt as if we were literally traveling back in time. But no matter which year our Zoom-powered time machine brought us to, it was striking that, time and again, the same unwritten script was being followed and the same experience described.
It began with expressions of sheer joy and recognition as, despite the years that had passed, participants started to arrive and recognize one another and their teachers. Not everything was easy to remember, of course, but you could see that the group was working hard to put the pieces together within the 60-minutes allotted to them. And, to make things easier, many had taken the time to prepare by digging out of the closet a 40-year-old letterman jacket or setting up a table behind them with all of the school memorabilia that they could find.
The students, of course, often wanted to list their teachers’ names and would frequently recall with a smile the time they went away on “that” field trip or when they had got into trouble for some long-forgiven misdemeanor. Meanwhile, the teachers, I noticed, had a remarkable ability to recall the names of everyone present to the delight of those who found themselves face-to-face again with someone who had taught them Middle School English or High School Maths way back when. I guess every one of us wants to be remembered by our teachers. Every one of us wants to feel that we somehow stood out as worth remembering.
And perhaps that’s the point. At a time in which we feel more disconnected from one another - literally, cut off from those usual reference points in our lives - all of us may be recognizing the need to return, in the words of C.S. Lewis, to “life at some more central region”, to a place uncluttered by the twists and turns of adult life and unaffected by the disruptive force of a global pandemic.
So whilst Zoom, I would dare to say, was never designed to be a time machine, in the Summer of 2021, it might have become just that.
At least in our school.