I went to bed very anxious the night before we went back to school this week. Simon and I were worried about everything. Worried about coming back out into the real world, worried about whether we had got the myriad of constantly changing COVID-19 precautions right, worried about our student's worries and our tutor's worries. It was not a good night's sleep, but I got up with more resolve than when I went to bed.
#yougotthis I kept saying to myself.
As usual, Simon's sense of humour kicked-in to lift the spirits, albeit slightly black humour today. His disturbed dreams had included one about the need to bury a dead horse on the way into work, and that his face mask had transformed into an allover body condom that came up over his head. Nice images to start the day.
#yougotthis I said again.
The next dilemma was what to wear. It’s been months since I was out in public or in the workplace and my wardrobe, usually full of smart work clothes, has been reduced to shorts and T-shirts for what feels like an eternity. I decided on simple lightweight trousers and layers on the top because Ardington can be draughty at the best of times but with all the doors and windows open to improve ventilation for COVID-19, it was likely to be even cooler than usual. Interestingly I haven’t worn any jewellery for 4 1/2 months either but noticed that in my dresser drawer, there were some pieces of silver clay jewellery that I had made myself at Ardington. It was comforting to put them on this morning and I left the house feeling almost human.
Walking down our garden path, I noticed there were a few brown leaves and some baby conkers that had already fallen from the trees. It's now early Autumn I thought. How strange that we have missed two whole seasons at the school already this year. The last time we opened was early Spring. The seasons do seem to catch us out at Ardington. I shuddered at the thought of 'Snowgate', when in our first Winter at the school, we got stuck in snow for four hours on the A34 and couldn't open for the last day of term. It was our 25th wedding anniversary that day too!
The journey to work was silent. Both of us usually have plenty to say on the way in, but this morning we just sat quietly in the relative safety of the car. I Googled that. There were 1,870 deaths on the roads in the last year, compared with over 46,000 deaths from the virus. I never thought that speeding along in the car on the A34 would be 'safe', but in absolute terms, it really was today.
I felt unnerved by my heightened anxiety levels today - I of all people should know what to expect. My day job as an HR consultant means that I’m advising companies on the health, workplace and financial implications of COVID-19 on a daily basis. I've even completed a major piece of research this year with WEF on the topic. And it seems that no matter how much exercise, yoga, meditation and healthy eating I do, and despite living smoke, alcohol and caffeine free, (all good anxiety busting activities), I was still feeling super anxious today.
We got to the school and opened up and there were several bunches of flowers that Simon had bought, waiting to be arranged in vases, as we usually do in the school. Anyone who knows me will understand that this is something I delight in. I set to work in earnest but still quietly. It was good to smell the flowers, and to the roses I added some honeysuckle and buddleia from the school garden for extra fragrance. Hmmm - still feeling anxious though.
I was booked as a student on today’s course as well as being there as a director of Ardington School to experience the new procedures first-hand. Our tutor and students started to arrive and we went through our new procedures with everyone, a long speech, the new one-way system, what to expect and how to craft and move around the school safely. Compared to the usual open arms warm welcome with a basket full of freshly baked cookies, today was definitely different.
However, the new 'brown-bag system' for the cookies felt friendly, nostalgic somehow in a nod-to-childhood sort of way, and the students and tutors embraced it. Small triumph #1! And the cookies were as yummy as ever, by the way.
It wasn’t long before the tutor, the lovely Debbie Page, was using the new overhead desk camera, from behind her perspex screens, projecting her demo to students via the 40 inch TV screen on a table out front. Debbie was also sharing her handouts via a special Pinterest board and through email PDFs with the students. She encouraged us to Google one of her icons, Dorothy Feibleman, whose work in Nerikomi ceramic techniques is exceptional and inspired today's worksop. Luckily we had put in a new Wi-Fi mesh system at Ardington School during lockdown, and students connected super quick to access all this good stuff from Debbie. Triumph #2. Our Wi-Fi has always been erratic in the past and would never have coped! Technology upgrades seem to have accelerated everywhere - tutors, students and even Ardington's old Victorian school building are now speaking another language - techno!
Debbie has always been a great tutor. Generous with her knowledge, calm, kind and supportive to the students and she started the session by giving us all a piece of white Saint Thomas clay just to handle as part of the warm-up for the session. It was cold and damp and left dirty marks on our hands - but it felt so good. Good dirt for a change – the sort of dirt that you don’t mind scrubbing your hands for. And with the cobalt and copper oxide colourants in the clay we were using, it was not just Ardington that was insisting on frequent hand-washing today!
It wasn’t long before the students were fully engrossed in Debbie‘s commentary and instructions. She demonstrated three approaches to Nerikomi - 1. laminating with pieces of coloured clay and making blocks of patterns from it, 2. coiling with clay using different colours in the coils like a stick of rock, and finally 3. a marbled effect using all your off-cuts 'smushed' (technical term) together.
Interestingly, my diary note-taking stopped of its own accord at this point. I was in crafting zone. On crafting time. My brain was working very differently with no wandering dark distractions. I was using different brain muscles that felt like they had been asleep for years and were just waking up! Ideas were flowing and good thoughts were flooding my head. I also felt the return of a sense of purpose. I was set on looking after our tutor and her students. How can we improve the camera set up? Is the screen in the best place? Is the one-way system working? Here, now, we could take positive action and fix things. In fact, we rolled out our 'Plan B' camera during the lunch break, as 'Plan A' camera kept timing-out. It was great to be back in control of making things better, albeit in a small way.
Lunch was a delight, delivered in brown-bags with Simon‘s calligraphy and culinary skills in full flow. He labelled every one and they were filled with what the students had ordered on their menu card at the start of the day. We both knew that this was the beginning of a new tradition that we want to keep post COVID-19. No more plates of sandwiches left open on the dresser for passing germs to jump onto. And everybody got exactly what they ordered, including a few treats at the bottom of the bag. No-one at the back of the queue missing out on their first choice of lunch, or unhappy because all the scones had been snaffled! Triumph #3. This day was getting better.
We took lunch into the sunny garden and everything started to feel a bit more normal now. The students started to talk together and share their own experiences and how it feels coming back to school. The afternoon workshop session was then full of chatter, just like the old days. And as for the work produced by the tutor and the students, well you can see for yourself it was an exceptionally creative workshop. Nerikomi was a great hit - we will do this again. Triumph #4.
During and at the end of the school day, students used the individual sanitising kit we provided to spray tables and chairs. And when everybody had packed up and gone home, we felt a sense of immense relief. Back to school - Day One - was done and it went very well. Yes there were things we would change, including the slightly over complicated menu card and the dysfunctional camera, but there were things we decided that we will keep forever. Brown-bags for cookies, lunch and cake, the new Wi-Fi mesh system, and big screen demo's for starters.
And even though we have set up ardington academy online workshops, now managed by our daughter Gemma who joined us on 1st August, I also concluded that there’s still a lot to be said for an in-person crafting experience. There are so many sensory elements from being in a room with other crafters and an experienced tutor that you can’t get online. You can see, hear, feel, smell and touch as well as understand from other students how to hone a technique or improve your own work. OK - yes, you have to get up and dressed and get yourself to the school, but it's still worth it!
One final thought - our feedback forms will be replaced with an online survey going forward. Small Triumph #5 – less paper and a more accurate set of analytics on how people felt about their experience so that we can continue to improve. But I did rely on old fashioned methods and asked everyone for feedback at the end of the day 'how do you feel?', 'what can we improve?' The students told us they felt very safe and comfortable, that they enjoyed the excellent course, that they were so happy to be out and crafting again, and gave us their thanks for seeing the school through the hard times and getting it back up and running. This was the biggest #Triumph of all.
We felt humbled and proud, emotionally drained and even more resolved to run many more craft courses in-person, for those ready to venture out, and online for those who can't get to the school. Arts and crafts are good for the soul. They were good for mine on Tuesday and I'm 100% certain they always will be.