A 15-inch laptop screen blinks black light into an already dark room: black light with a square of white light in the centre of which sit the spinning spokes of a loading icon. The black light frames the black silhouette of a man’s head.
That man’s head is Michael Benzine, three-times winner of WeWork NetuprenEDUdisruptor of the Year – 2016, 2017 and 2019 (in 2018, he had a year off-grid, teaching native Devonians to weave cream teas). And this… well, this is his time.
I am here, in Michael’s studio apartment with Michael Benzine and his teaching assistant, Glynis Hardacre.
“I only popped round to drop off a HDMI-to-Usb-C-to-VGA adapter for him,” she blushes, “and got caught on the wrong side of the Lockdown. So…”
“She has to stay,” Michael chips in, briefly looking over his shoulder and then instantly turning back to the screen as a series of small rectangles start to pop onto his laptop’s screen, “I need her to support Callum with his phonics.”
“Phonics!” Glynis laughs.
“What!” Michael turns and looks at Glynis again, proper eye contact this time.
“Nothing.” Glynis looks at me.
Each small screen is now animated with the face of a child: “This is what’s left of Bracewell Primary, Year 3,” Michael sniffs. Glynis moves to the screen and stands at his shoulder. She moves her hand towards his shoulder.
From one of the small screens-within-a-screen, Keith (the school’s IT ‘teachnician’) can be seen scratching his crotch, “Ayup, Glynis.”
“Hello, Keith,” she says, her hand drawing back, “Dressing gown.”
“Oh, yes,” Keith straightens up and adjusts his camera to rest upon his upper body. “Is everything ready, Michael?”
Michael scans the multiple screens: “Callum, Connor, Alan, Ben, Ursula, Jacinda, Jacintha, Cynthia, Jack, Byron, Brian, Ryan, Rowan, Lysander, Hermes, Banner, Xanthanan, Pole-position, Liam, Rancid, Paul, Loop-guru, Radegast, Diva, Tracer, Enderman, Pliplup, Creeper, Mercy and Rocket League. Yep, all here.”
“Hello, Ms Hardacre!” says Callum, “Is that a kimono, Miss?”
“It’s a sarong, Callum.”
“It’s nice,” Callum shifts on his seat, a poster of Harry Styles on the wall behind him.
“Thank you, Callum.”
“Sir,” says Hermes. He pauses, picks his nose, then looks at the tip of his finger. “Sir, have you shaved your head?”
“Yes, Hermes,” says Michael, brushing his right hand over his scalp. “Can’t go to the hairdressers at the moment. Glynis did it.”
“Nice job,” says Callum, “silk like your kimono, Miss.” Glynis lets her head drop to one side with a closed-lips smile. “Sarong,” says Radegast, a propos I don’t know what.
Michael lets his gaze rove over each child’s face. His lit face turns to Glynis, both of them bathed in the light of the laptop’s screen.
“God, Glynis, it’s good to see them.”
“Yes, Michael,” she looks down at him and time sinks down into that moment, “it is good to see them.”
“Xanthanan hasn’t moved yet, Michael,” says Glynis, “I think he might be cardboard.”
“I’m not cardboard,” says Xanthanan, “I’m just sitting really still.”
“I’m cardboard, Miss,” says Alan.
“No, you’re not, Alan,” Glynis smiles.
“Banner’s cardboard, Miss,” says Jacintha in a clipped voice, “Him and Liam are playing Rocket League now – I can see their names in the corner of my TV.” Rocket League briefly looks up.
“Are you playing Rocket League, Jacintha?” says Michael.
“A bit.” Rocket League looks up again.
Banner and Liam look around from behind their cardboard cut-outs: “‘Cintha?!!” they both shout together.
“Right, let’s get started, kids,” Michael pops his knuckles and starts to fire up a powerpoint.
“Breaking up, sir,” says Ursula, a cat on her shoulder.
“Totally breaking up,” says Byron, a hamster on his head.
The screens, one by one – pop pop pop – go black, until only Keith is left, the camera having ridden back down to his crotch.
“Bandwidth?” says Keith, through a crunching mouthful of Skittles.
“I’m not sure it’s bandwidth, Keith,” Michael scratches his head.
“Don’t scratch it,” says Glynis, “Come on, let’s try Asda online again.”
Michael huffs and lets his shoulders slump, then braces himself and turns to Glynis, “Okay,” he says, tapping the laptop’s keyboard and bringing up the Asda home delivery page.
“Milk,” says Glynis.
“Almond UHT,” says Michael.
“White sliced,” says Glynis.
“Coconut rye,” says Michael.
“12 x 4-ply white, preferably lavender – I don’t mind own-brand or Andrex,” says Glynis.
Michael squints at the screen: “Screen wipes?”
“They’ll have to do for now,” Glynis turns to me and smiles.
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