Monthly Archives: August 2014

Lost in Translation

I haven’t had an anxiety dream for a while, which as far as I am concerned is A Good Thing.  I haven’t run naked through shopping centres, searching fruitlessly for toilets, Baby Sam hasn’t been in a stolen car and left on the side of the road by robbers and I haven’t woken up, heart racing, wondering if I really was pregnant for quite some time.  I know it’s coming though.  In a few days I will no doubt embark upon a series of dreams that will wake me, unpleasantly sweating.  I can even tell you what these dreams will be about.  I will be teaching something, in a classroom, on the school field, up in space, anywhere, and no one will be listening to a word I say.

It doesn’t happen in January.  Neither does it rear its ugly head in May.  No, the time for the bad dreams is the end of August, the end of the summer and the start of September.  I don’t think I am on my own in my experience of this phenomenon.  It’s a common one among those of us who are teachers, and it signals the start of the new academic year.   I don’t have the same sort of dreams about my own children – they are usually the ones where I have lost them somewhere – no, the ones that signal my return to work are the ones about professional impotence.

Of all the things that I worry about when going back to work, it doesn’t tend to be the school run (although there is always a first time – I can see it now, I’m running around and no one has a packed lunch, or all the swimming things are left behind, or no-one can find their shoes…wait, these are the realities of my life) or the paper work; it’s the children.  How will these unknown beings respond to me?  Will they do as they are told?  How long will it take me to develop a working relationship with them?  How long will it take for them to trust me?  Now that I have three of my own I know what manner of complicated little things they are, how worried and nervous they must be about a new teacher too.

That said, there were days, I reckon, when Sam was glad to have gone to school, to escape me, Cross Mummy.  Back when L was tiny, so Sam must have been about seven or eight years old, we went through what we teachers somewhat euphemistically term a Challenging Time.  It was a time where Sam displayed quite a bit of Interesting Behaviour.  Mostly at the point at which I attempted to get him to do anything.  Anything he didn’t want to do, that is, which at the time seemed to consist of: getting dressed, putting on his shoes, walking up the road to school, coming to the table for tea, cleaning his teeth, going to bed, staying in bed…I’m sure, if I gave it some thought I could come up with a more comprehensive list.

And the fighting.  The constant fighting between brothers.  We have just about got to the point, four years later, when I can almost trust them not to fall upon each other in a squealing, shouting fist fight at the front door, sparring over who gets to be the one who opens it.  Or who gets to sit in the front of the car.  Or the flopping to the floor.  It never used to be a problem, but then he grew and it became more difficult to carry him up the stairs and put him where I wanted him to be without negotiation and patience being fully engaged.

People used to say to me, when I eventually arrived in the school playground, three children in tow, how calm I looked, and I used to think, ‘if only they knew.’  If only they knew how I was perspiring beneath my clothes, heart still hammering, tears of frustration still clinging to my eyelashes.  If only they knew about the tussle Sam and I had just had over teeth, shoes, coats, bags, push chairs, reading, everything.  No wonder I never had any of those problems other mummies had, when their children cried and clung to them and made leaving them heartbreaking.

But the thing is, looking back, I can kind of see his point.  In the heat of the moment, when we were all going through it together I couldn’t see it, but a bit of time and space, no unlike the professional distance you have as a teacher, the moments at the end of the day when you can talk it through with a colleague, or reflect while you are searching high and low for the protractors, works wonders.  And I feel bad about that.  I feel sad that it took ‘til it was really awful and there were meetings (oh, how we adults love our meetings) and risk assessments and husbands had to take mornings off work.

I’m sad that it got to that point before I was able to figure out even a tiny part of what was really going on inside my boy.  Poor little Sam.  He was unhappy and he didn’t have the words to tell me.  He was having a tough time at school, and I was giving him a tough time at home.   I’m so glad that I, as his mother, get the chance to say sorry and make amends.

I might not teach little children with the same manner of communication difficulties as my son, but show me the child who can easily articulate how they feel, who has mastered language to such a degree that they can tell you which emotions are running high, especially when they are.  Running high.  Or show me the child who can tell you what is really going on, who can see to the heart of the matter, beyond the ‘it’s not fairs’ and into a complex web of adult agendas, some of which we know do not have their best interests at the centre.  I think about some of the children I have taught over the years, and I think about how they were never away, always in class despite the coughs and snot, large proportions of them in some kind of bother or another, kicking off.

I think about some of the children we have handed on to secondary school and I wonder how they got on, the mouthy ones, full of attitude, the silly ones, the nervous ones, the quiet ones, the ones who waited til the end of the lesson so that they could speak to you privately; did they find a teacher who ‘got’ them, was kind to them, who understood what kind of vulnerabilities were resident inside that small person?  Did they have someone who loved them enough to see beyond the behaviour, to put them first, their needs before their own, to forgive them no matter what they did, and protect them?

How easy it is to misunderstand.  What were, what are they trying to tell me?

 

Image taken from Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs.
Image taken from Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs.

 

 

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Uncle Ray

I’ve just seen it on the news.  Richard Attenborough has died.  A long life, nearly 91 years long, marked by a considerable contribution to film and drama, both as an actor and director, I expect that there will be lots of replays of his films, lots of coverage in the newspapers and on the telly.  His presence on film punctuates my childhood, from In Which We Serve (rainy Sunday afternoons), through The Great Escape (Christmas), A Bridge Too Far (that seemed to go on for years), Ghandi (Leicester and my granny), Cry Freedom (Paignton and my youth group) to Jurassic Park (university).  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a massive fan or anything, these films sit in the background of far more significant events in my life, but there is a deeper connection between Richard Attenborough and me than I realised until today, and it all comes down to my uncle Ray.

Uncles form a large part of the apocryphal story-telling of my family.  There’s Uncle C, an estate agent who used to lunch with H. Samuel back in the ‘30s, Uncle H who, after his divorce had only one plate, one knife, fork and spoon in the house and nobody ever went to visit except for a cup of tea, Uncle S, who left his vest in Spinney Hill Park (now nature reserve), thus forcing my mother to search for it from corner to corner, only to find that he was wearing it after all.  He was the one I was convinced knew everything in the known universe, because, when I was five, he was at university and I had somehow connected the two things together. And Uncle Ray, he with the talent for acting, such that he once persuaded his older sisters (my granny and great aunt) that he had fallen down the stairs and broken his leg while they were supposed to be In Charge.

When he grew up a bit he took his talent to the amateur stage, joining the Leicester Drama Society and performing in the Little Theatre, taking on a number of roles in The Taming of the Shrew (judging from the number of photographs of him in costume) in 1939.  It must be something that runs in the family, this taking part in productions.  For me, my job as a teacher has led me either back stage, or slightly to one side, playing the piano and frowning at front line wrigglers, for him, his involvement has echoed through the generations.

He didn’t, like Richard Attenborough, attend the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts (RADA).  He didn’t run the Am Dram society, making sure it entertained the community year on year, its systems running smoothly, like my mum.  He didn’t make his career in film and stage, unlike my university compatriot who shall remain nameless (but who was a leading character in Battlestar Gallactica, almost my favourite ever TV series, not that I’m name dropping or anything), not as I did, making an active choice not to chase after fame and fortune in order to devote myself to public service of another kind, but because, by May 1941, at only 20 years old, he was dead.

My granny never talked much about the war to me. I managed to get quite a lot (or what I thought was quite a lot; thinking about it now, she probably employed the same tactics) out of my grandma when she came to stay, with my constant ‘what was it like when you were my age?’ questions, my fascination with the past evident from an early age, but my granny stuck to the same few stories. There was the one about how Cadbury’s chocolate continued to advertise even though you couldn’t buy any, and the one about her boss, who even though petrol was also rationed, always seemed able to get enough to drive to work, and how that destroyed her respect for him. And of course, there was the one about there being no bananas.  But when I became an adult, different stories made an appearance, stories that the girl-me wouldn’t have understood.

In 2007 she, like the rest of my family and considerable numbers of my far-flung friends, rang me because my town was unexpectedly under water. She commented on my news that everyone was talking to each other, checking they were OK. It was like that for six years, during the war, she said. And there was the time when my newly wedded husband and I took our respective grandmothers out to lunch. They reminisced, two women, divided by the midlands, and I heard, for the first time, about her cousin, a young man callecdup just before the D-Day landings; he stepped onto a Normandy beach and lost his life, his head blown off, snuffed out in an instant.

She never mentioned her brother’s wartime experience, though.  I never heard her long-lived hard note of anger over his fate. I never knew, until today that her younger sister’s house was named after the bay into which the Hurricane he was piloting crashed, according to the letter from his commanding officer, fighting a far superior foe.  When she talked about him, it was with great love, great pride. He knew Richard Attenborough, you know. They acted together in the Little Theatre.

I thought of Uncle Ray today, when I heard about Dickie Attenborough. I thought about how differently his life turned out, how, despite his young man’s desire to avoid the fate of Uncle Charlie, dead in the trenches of the First War, found himself equally powerless in the face of circumstance.  I thought of how he didn’t go to the Wyggeston Grammar School and on to RADA, but my granny’s son, his nephew, the uncle I met and got to know, a generation later, did.

And I thought about how, with all our ante-natal testing and choices, we have given ourselves the idea that we are, somehow, masters of our own fate.  How differently Ray’s life might have turned out, if only we were.

 

On holiday with mum and dad.
On holiday with mum and dad.
The Taming of the Shrew, The Little Theatre, 1939.
The Taming of the Shrew, The Little Theatre, 1939.
The Taming of the Shrew,  The Little Theatre, 1939
The Taming of the Shrew, The Little Theatre, 1939
Young airman.
Young airman.  Much missed.

Need to Know

I did something yesterday that I haven’t done for a very long time.  It was stupid, really, and I knew I shouldn’t have done it the moment I clicked on the link.  I read an article about the health of people with Down’s Syndrome.  Now, you’d think, what with me being a ‘knowledge is power’ kind of person that I would be constantly reading everything I could find on the condition, but it’s not something I have done since the very early days.

Back then, when I was in the hospital awaiting the results of tests, low muscle tone was instantly obvious.  I found out that babies with Down’s Syndrome carry a 50% chance of having a heart defect.  Because this was the thing that was preventing our escape from hospital and necessitating a visit to a regional centre for a scan, I picked it up pretty quickly.  I also discovered that there could be problems with a disconnected gut when everyone examined his first poo and wee with great relief.  While I was waiting for my pass to freedom, I was given a sheaf of leaflets which, as there wasn’t much else to do when the baby was sleeping, I read.  I probably did a bit of googling when I got home, but I soon stopped.  (I didn’t have broadband, for a start.)

Like teachers, those who work in health care and medicine have a way of referring to the people they serve that protects them from getting their emotions too closely involved; it is a clinical, impersonal language that I, not being part of the clique, don’t understand. They spoke of a terrifying future for my son, and, by association, for me.  And the things I found out, they frightened me.

Now, I’m a planner.  I’m a primary school teacher, and I like to know where I’m going.  My time is chopped up into little bits, and I assign jobs to each and put them in a timetable.  I have aims and objectives, a point to which I am heading and head for it I do.  I like it.  If I had my way I’d have the rest of the family planned to the nth degree, but they resist me, the rotters, led by their father, R.

He, as opposed to me, doesn’t plan a thing.  Well, not in the same way I do, anyway.  He used to.  He used to have plans and make them happen, but then something happened to take them all away and he decided that going with the flow was more appropriate.  When I first met him, I didn’t fully appreciate his mindset.  Back then, I was mostly impressed by spiky hair, bass guitars and ripped jeans patched with beer towels (my poor parents – his were relieved when I was introduced), I never gave a thought to what the future might bring, except that it was there.

For a while, when we were first married, I was obsessed by it.  I dreamed of a job, a home, another home, decorating, babies; the sorts of things that young people like me fantasize about.  But when Sam was born nothing was as it seemed.  My world rocked upon its hinges.  Instead of being exciting, the future became a black hole of anxiety, filled with very real fears, very real possibilities, not for me, but for this vulnerable person who held my heart in his tiny fist.

When I was at school I remember a term’s worth of work we did as part of our PSHE course in Year 8.  It was called ‘Space and Chips’.  The thrust of the lessons were space and computers, the two being inextricably linked in the minds of the 1980s, and I didn’t like it.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like computers (how to start up an Amstrad proved quite useful when my dad got one and couldn’t get it going, its green cursor blinking smugly at him late into the night drove him into quite a temper, I recall), and it wasn’t that the study of space was uninteresting.  It was that it made me feel so small, so insignificant.  A tiny dot, sailing silently through the immense blackness of space on an unremarkable planet in a back water solar system.  This is not how the young teenager, full of her own importance, likes to see herself.

My own children, though, aren’t at all phased by their relationship to the wider universe.  This summer, we went on a glorious outing to the Royal Observatory.  We had a wonderful time, looking for the clocks, marvelling at the things you find out when you are seeking the answer to something else.  We popped next door to the Planetarium, and the good natured going-along-with-the-parents vanished in a rush of enthusiasm.  They got their hands stuck in the hands on, they turned to me, eyes like saucers, as, at the end of a video presentation, they were informed that they were made of stardust.  Their connection with the universe didn’t make them feel powerless; it filled them up with possibility, with infectious joy, and in that moment, I too rejoiced.  The stars shone in my eyes too.

I never had myself pegged as a slow learner, but sometimes it takes me a while to get it, I admit.  My husband regularly rolls his eyes as I flounder around, determined to figure things out for myself, reluctant to believe experience I have not yet had.  Sometimes, you read words in your formative years, and they come back to you, much later, rich with significance.  The future might still be an uncertain zone.  There are many things about Down’s Syndrome that I have yet to find out.  But if I do that, if I rush to the digital crystal ball to gather every byte of knowledge I possibly can, will it help me?  Will all my worry, all my anxiety, all my heartbreak at malformed teeth change one thing about tomorrow?  Will it change my parenting?  I’m still going to be insisting on cleaning them twice a day, six monthly visits to the dentist and long periods between sweets.

Sometimes there are things you only need to know on a need to know basis.  Because otherwise, that need to know about tomorrow stands in very grave danger of poisoning today.

 

Stars on the ceiling. Stars in our eyes.
Stars on the ceiling. Stars in our eyes.

 

 

Words of Power

The thing about being a school teacher, be it primary, secondary, Early Years or whatever, is that you see an awful lot of interesting behaviour in the course of your daily grind.  There is always someone doing something special you have seen before, and, I reckon anyway, a large amount of these behaviours have at their heart a desire to get something that they really want, not time out, not work avoidance: attention.

Children have a hundred million different ways of securing this most precious of commodities, and an equally large number of reasons for seeking it.  Sometimes you know it’s because they are starved of it at home, parents may both be working all hours (they might even be teachers), they might be part of a large family, they might have joined an even larger, blended family.  Sometimes, everything on the surface seems to be tickety-boo, only for chaos or unhappiness or money worries or illness or alcoholism to lurk underneath, stealing it all away.  Put most children in a classroom and they figure it out pretty quickly: they like getting the attention of their teacher and they will employ their considerable wiles in order to get it.

We teachers like the ones who figure their way to the attention-lode by conforming to the rules, handing homework in on time, having neat handwriting and completing all the tasks we set them to do and more, always trying hard, always doing their best.  But there is another sort (I rather like these ones too).  They are the ones that take up so much of our time, eating up our energy with their demands; they have figured out something else entirely.  For them, any attention is better than none, and they really don’t care how they get it.

There’s the one where they ask a question that is completely unrelated to what you are attempting to teach.  There’s the one where they can’t bear to wait for someone else to work it out for themselves, so keen are they for you, and everyone else, to know that they know the answer, to congratulate them on their cleverness.  There’s the one where they lead (or attempt to lead) derision over someone else’s stumbling mistakes, and then there is the one that gets on my nerves the most; just as you have everyone sitting there in the palm of your hand (figuratively speaking), eyes glued, brains firing fireworks, they make a smart remark into the pregnant silence and neatly switch the gaze of the entire class to themselves.

What these kids have worked out, what they have discovered without anyone having to teach them, is that words have power. They may take no notice of us when we blither on about choosing verbs effectively and up-levelling connectives (or are they conjunctions now?), but they know already how to use a word for maximum, disruptive, and often hurtful effect.

The thing about children, though, is that they are still overtly learning.  Sometimes they say things, and they have no idea that they have just dropped a verbal nuclear bomb on one of their friends.  They can’t understand why nobody will play with them, and, usually, when someone (ie. me) has pointed their mistake out to them, after a bit of encouragement, they are (usually) happy to apologise.  They are still young, they didn’t mean for it to come out the way it did, and for that, we are prepared to cut them a little slack.  Unless, of course, they did mean it, if they knew exactly what they were doing, and the sorriness they feel is that of being found out with their metaphorical hand in the cookie jar or their metaphorical pants down.  Their apologies, then, are grudging, revealing.

In many ways, it is the same with adults – although, thanks to years of learning subtlety, a little harder to discern.  Most times, when people realised that they have said something, say, about Down’s Syndrome and they see that it has hurt me or families like mine, their apologies come quick and fast, and with sincerity.  When they meet my son, my bonkers, funny child, they often admit that the person who was suffering was them, and it was ignorance that was the matter.  “I didn’t think he’d be like this,” is something I have heard more than once.  “You’d never think it, to look at him,” is another, and, one of my Granny’s best, “I can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about.”

She was right about that one.  There’s an awful lot of mis-information out there about Down’s Syndrome, and, sometimes, it can feel as if one has stepped into a time slip and fallen into the 1930s.  As if the future held only institutions, or shortened life spans or pity, or scary things for sure (like those things never happen to the genetically perfect).  Or it could be some sort of dystopian novel where if a potential baby, boy, girl, Down’s Syndrome, carrying a non-genius gene, or whatever was out of fashion that day could somehow be swapped for one that did measure up, and  no-one would be the least bit bothered about it, no tears would be shed, no hearts would be broken, there would be no shadow of sorrow or lingering what-might-have-beens at all.

And if they use words of power, like mong, or retard, or imbecile, or sub-normal (or educationally sub-normal, remember that one?), or Down baby/person and they haven’t met my son, my glorious, funny, vulnerable son, who has no voice, as yet, no way (yet) to tell them not to use him as an insult, the day they do their shame, their sorrow is palpable, and, when they understand how it is, they stop.  They step away.  They understand their power and they clean up their mouths, their minds.

Like children, you can tell what it was all about when you listen to the apologies.  And, in exactly the same way I deal with an attention seeker in my class, the best way to deal with them is to do the very thing they hate most of all.  Ignore them.

Does this look like suffering to you?
Does this look like suffering to you?

H is for Holiday

I love the holidays.  Being a primary school teacher I don’t dread the having to arrange alternative places for my children to be so that I can go to work, but even so, I love the holidays.  After weeks and weeks of running my home and family around the inflexible demands of the school timetable, rushing hither and thither from home to school to school to school and back again, washing uniforms, making packed lunches, providing unexpected fancy dress…after all of that I am heartily in need of, and glad for, the break.

I love the summer holidays in particular.  After all that rigidity the unstructured nature of it holds a particular appeal.  Obviously, this does mean that I miss out rather on some socialising with friends, because they are usually already organised by the time I have surfaced enough to suggest an outing or a picnic, but, as was pointed out to me on Saturday, working as I do, in a job where I am sociable for a living, the pleasure of shutting the front door and retreating into quietude is not to be sniffed at.

And I love the time that we get to spend together as a family.  Over the years we have come to some conclusions about our holidaying life (we like exploring, we don’t like sitting about, we like to play at doing stuff), and, thanks in part to my return to work, we have the means to take ourselves away to somewhere doing what we want to do when we want to.  We have relaxed together, played together, had the occasional squabble and, after the long school terms, done a bit of reconnecting as a family unit.  After all that time spent bossing children around, it’s lovely to allow them to lead the way, to set the pace.

One of the things that kept me away from the classroom for so long after Sam was born was that I couldn’t care less about other people’s children.  For the first time in my life I felt that the only children I had enough love for were my own.  I don’t think it would be exaggerating to say that, for the vast majority of teachers, love is a driving factor in why we do what we do. It’s a hard, consuming, not particularly well paid considering the pay packet of other professions job, and yet, the desire to improve the life chances of the next generation is what keeps us at the interactive whiteboard, day after day after day.

We might moan about standards of behaviour, or standards of inspection, or standards in the curriculum; we might get ourselves into a right proper rage over the best way to teach this that and the other.  These arguments might seem divisive and polarising, but, at their heart, is, well, children.  We want to make life better for them.  We have in our hearts their best interests.

But you know what?  I have found that love isn’t a finite thing.  I have found that the more I give it away, the more I have.  I have found that I do  have a reserve left for other people’s children. Giving it to them, in the form of their teacher, does not take it away from my own.  And sadly, sometimes what we do in the classroom isn’t enough.

Sometimes, because they are a child carer for a disabled sibling or poorly parent, because they live in poverty, either material or emotional, because they have home lives that are dominated by overcrowding, or violence, addiction or chaos, we are, and we know we are, simply scratching at the surface.  Sometimes we know that what these children need is not more time in the classroom, not longer lessons or summer schools, but, just as we do, what they need is a break.

So, last Friday I had my picture taken.  I attempted to get the husband to take it, but the school teacher frown was too much in evidence, so I took myself off to my local photographer (thank you Nick Jones for the professionalism), and, together with @betsysalt and @ChocoTzar (two anonymous teacher tweeters) we put our best feet forward (me in high heels, betsy barefoot, and the chocolate lady with the most marvellous pair of bright pink patent leather Doctor Martens you ever did see) for charity.  We are now officially in a calendar  whose aim is to raise money to send underprivileged children and their families on what we take so much for granted.

A holiday.

 

I don’t really know how to end this post, so I’ll leave you with a challenge.  I found having my picture taken for a fund raising calendar a surprisingly challenging thing, so I shall let a consummate children’s writer, Andy Stanton, lay one down before you.

 

Well now.  There is nothing quite so sad as the sight of a sobbing bear.  It is sadder than a broken toy lying in the rain.  It is sadder than a little white onion being bullied by a gang of tough courgettes in leather jackets.  It is sadder than a grandma who no one comes to visit because her face is just too hairy.  Believe me, children of all ages, a sobbing bear is not a happy sight.

The townsfolk looked on in astonishment.  But did any of them go and comfort that poor beast in his hour of soggy need? No, they did not.  Oh, they all said they liked bears.  They all donated money to charities like ‘Bear Aid’, ‘Save The Bears’ and ‘Let’s Buy Some Bears a New Toothbrush’.  But when it came to actually helping one out in real life, it was another story entirely.  It was a story of townsfolk looking on in astonishment – until a heroic young girl called Polly passed by, that is.  Polly was nine years old, with lovely sandy hair and nice trainers, and she simply couldn’t stand to see another person in trouble, especially if that person was a bear.    

Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear.

What will you do?  How will you be a heroic young Polly?

If you would like to join us in our aim please give generously here: https://www.justgiving.com/FHASweetDreamsCalendar2015/

You can lend us a hand with a donation towards the production costs or, you can buy a calendar when they’re ready.  Just let me know.

All money raised goes to The Family Holiday Association.

Processed with Moldiv

@mathmathical came to lend her support. 🙂