Monthly Archives: August 2015

Growing Up

IMG_3597The first time I slept in a tent I must have been about eight or nine years old.  Up until that night, my main experience had been under a very thick green triangular canvas held up with red-and-white survey poles.  There was no inner, and no groundsheet and it was full of flies and the distinctive aroma of fly spray, so it was a revelation that tents could be orange and have rooms inside.  It was not a success.

Family friends had chosen to end their camping holiday at our house, and, as we had a big (although hardly what I might call flat) garden, as a treat for us kids, they pitched their tent so that we could play in it, and have a night in it if we so wished.  Everybody wished it, so out we went.  Boy and dad in one room, girls in the other.

I spent the night unable to sleep, partly because I was desperate for the loo, and partly because I had convinced myself that I would find the back door locked, even if I dared navigate two sets of stone steps (one more rustic than the other) in the dark; separated from the facilities by the Burglar Lock until the sunrise.  The following night, despite the transports of delight from all other child-members of our group, I did not join them.  The following night I slept, happily I might add, in my own bed.  It was a while before I was tempted into tenting again.

It might have been the Saturday job I had for a couple of years, while I was doing my A Levels, in a camping and outdoors shop, but I suspect it was really the Duke of Edinburgh.  Or maybe it was Bikes.  Or possibly a combination of the two.

You see, the first year we were married, R bought me a bike.  And not long after that, the idea that it might be nice to take our bikes on holiday with us had snowballed into catching the train to Inverness, and cycling across to Gairloch and back, camping along the way.  He knew all about that sort of thing, thanks to the Duke.  It was great.

There is something about packing everything you need into a couple of bags and cycling off into the sunset, the pitter patter of rain on canvas while you are toasty warm inside.  After a year of living and working in rooms, being in the outside all day and all night makes a more than refreshing change, even if you can’t sleep until you are too tired not to.  So, when the children were little, we upscaled our three-person dome tent and bought a family sized one.

Only, it’s not quite the same when there are children involved.  For a start, there is the size of the thing.  Instead of it taking mere minutes to put up (R and I are a good team where tent pitching is concerned), it takes at least a couple of hours, once you have identified which bit goes where and persuaded excited children to stop running into the walls.  Putting it away is no better.  There’s something about tent bags that means they never quite fit back into them, and, for a larger tent, the problem is proportionally multiplied.  And that’s all before the magical moment when, tired and sweaty, you finally stand back to look at your handiwork only to be greeted by a little voice saying, ‘I’m hungry’.

They always look so great when you go and have a look around the tenting shop.  You pop excitedly in and out of them and before you know where you are you have purchased one that not only gives you the unexpected pleasure of being able to stand up inside, but also room to play, should the weather prove unfavourable.  Separate bedrooms for all.  It always sounds so great in theory until you are attempting to put a nervous child to bed and go to sleep yourself before the clock strikes one, two, three in the morning.

Sam, like the eight-or-nine-year-old me, is not a particularly happy camper.  He’s fine during the day, like the others, he finds the packing and the pitching almost unbearably exciting, but once the dusk falls, and he realises that we are not, in fact, going straight back home, and that the tent is not, as he had thought, part of an elaborate game, but scarily real, he finds the shine coming rapidly off the experience.  I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I think it’s some sort of combination between the restrictions inherent in a sleeping bag, the slope of the ground (the ground always slopes), the movement of the tent walls (it is always windy) and the strangeness of the sounds of other people’s families, invisible and yet close at hand, that means that sleep, for him, and therefore for us, is an elusive prospect.  And when the child doesn’t sleep, everything else takes on a strange red glow.

So you might be surprised to hear that this year, in a fit of enthusiasm (or something), we have invested in yet another tent.

This time, though, it’s a tent with a difference.  This time, instead of complicated poles and pegs and inside rooms hanging from fiddly toggles, we have opted for a one-room wonder.  And a couple of weeks ago we gave it a try.

It really couldn’t have been any better.  The wind was gentle and the skies were clear.  The sun shone and so did the International Space Station.  There were camp fires and marshmallows, and special boys we always watch so closely cycled round lakes (about a mile) about six times on his own and told me all about it in the longest set of sentences I have ever heard him utter.  We went to sleep, all together, and Sam held my hand (and no one had to get out of their nice warm sleeping bag) and didn’t wake up until morning.  Well, he woke up with a whispered ‘yesssss’ at half past five (presumably he was relieved at his survival of the night), but being as he was right next to me, I told him the time and he nodded right back off with a huff.

It wasn’t just that, though.  It wasn’t just the weather, and the food, and the fun of sailing off with the washing up and sailing back again, or even of the unexpected growing-up-before-your-eyes of our eldest boy.  For me, that weekend represents a bit of a watershed moment.

You see, when you have a child with special needs, you experience something I can only really describe as a loss of independence.  You can’t do things, the way you used to, on your own.  Packing up your tent and putting it on the back of your bike and cycling off into the sunset is no longer an option.  Yes, this is the same for every young family, you need a community around you, to help you bring up baby.  But sometimes, for some of us, this state of dependence carries on for far longer than you were expecting.  Most of the time, we need assistance just to exist.  In a funny kind of way, it’s almost as if you aren’t really a grown up after all.

But that weekend, it was something we did all on our own.  It was great.  It was great to be growing up.

Would you just look at that beauty.
Would you just look at that beauty.

Feed the Hunger

This summer holiday I have been feeding the children.  They seem to have done nothing but recline on the sofa (while I have been tapping away at the computer), coming into the kitchen to regularly disturb my train of thought, demanding something to eat.  They have drunk gallons of milk.  I have had to send A to the corner shop every day for supplies.  He has discovered that the way to make jelly is not to put it in the kettle, and Sam has experimented with putting frankfurter sausages in the frying pan, the maternal bosom swelling with maternal pride at not only that, but that the Nigella cookbook with the correct recipe was open on the worktop.  They have grown, in independence and stature, before my eyes.

My children have always been on the skinny side.  It took years to get Sam to eat more than pasta and sauce for mains and banana and yoghurt for pudding every day, the more mushy the better, and it seemed the moment that we’d got him eating ‘proper’ food (and taking a sandwich to school for an occasional packed lunch is still a new thing), A took over in the food refusal.  And where A goes, L follows.

And it’s not just the number of things they will eat that has slowly restricted itself, but the amount.  They are far more interested in rushing off to play the moment the hunger pangs have lessened to the slightest degree than cleaning off their plates and loading them in the dishwasher.

There have been times, after I stopped worrying about Sam, that I have really worried about A.  Far more aware of his surroundings, and more generally anxious than his brother, there have been times when I have watched him and wondered at his likeness to a baby bird.  Spindly little arms and legs, knobbly knees and poky elbows that always hit the nerve when they climb on your knee for a cuddle.  A bonny baby and a solid toddler, he soon turned into a skinny schoolboy and I, a concerned mama.

This year I have finally given in to the calls for a packed lunch, at least for my younger two.  Sam enjoys his school dinners, checking the menu on the kitchen wall to see if today will be his favourite.  At his school, where it is so much smaller, meal times are social times, an opportunity to practice social skills as well as those of the knife and fork.  Skills that can be lacking where children grow up in homes too small for a table to eat at.

But the other two, they could no longer bear the waiting, the way that the hot dinner children go in last for dinner, the way he had to run to the cafeteria, leaving any potential friends behind, if he was to stand half a chance of getting something that he actually liked.

Poor A.  He has struggled with the new dinner time arrangements at the secondary school.  There was the day he didn’t realise that if he went to a lunchtime club he needed to get something to eat on the way there.  The day he returned from school, and, with a wobble in his voice, told me that he’d only had a jelly tot and a bit of someone’s Ritz cracker to eat all day was not a high point.  I have now got used to checking his packed lunch when he gets home, too tired to open the garage door and put his bike away, and insist that he eats the rest of it before he does anything else.

And lunch is so late.  Over the years I have been in schools, twenty of them, I have seen lunchtime slip later and later, get smaller and smaller, reduced.  No matter that everyone is too hungry to think by a quarter to twelve, and that includes me.  Sadly, I am not a particularly small person, my waistline bears the evidence of bearing three babies, but even I struggle to go from half past seven to one o’clock without anything to eat, and I had a reasonable breakfast, and for a teacher’s family, we don’t eat particularly early.

I watch my children, reluctantly forcing cereal through sleepy lips and I quash the pangs of guilt I feel as I pass them a packet of crisps to eat at break, because I’d rather they ate something than nothing at all.  I’d rather there was something in there other than the pain of an empty belly that means that all they can think about, all they are aware of is the smell that comes from the school kitchen, the crocodile lines of the younger children making their way to feed the beast that torments them.

I had an interesting conversation with a man from a think tank the other day.  Interesting conversations are something I have on a regular basis; I am lucky in my selection of friends.  But think tanks are not something I have ever had anything to do with before.  We talked about how schools could make a difference to children, how to keep them in school, how to help them to learn and take their steps towards a brighter future.  We talked about hunger.

It isn’t just about breakfast clubs.  It isn’t just about kind teachers spending their pupil premium money on bread and butter.  It’s about time.  The best time for teaching might well be the morning, but is it the best for learning?  Do we do the right thing in extending the morning as far as we possibly can, utilising every morning moment for spelling and grammar and Maths and English, and squeezing the rest into a tiny afternoon?

I look at my children, relaxed and holiday happy; fed.  And you know what I think?

Feed the hunger.


That kettle may never be the same, but it wouldn’t make a very interesting picture, so here’s a cake.


There’s a funny thing about teachers and the summer holidays.  Everywhere you go, there they are.  Once, just before I took up my place on a PGCE, I witnessed an off-duty teacher being excitedly greeted in the ferry waiting area in Portsmouth.  There I was, playing a hilarious game of cards, the rules of which I can no longer remember, with a friend who was very evilly good at it, and the nice looking woman at the next table was positively mobbed.  I’ve never been spotted when I’ve been on my holidays; it’s only when I am chasing my own children around the swimming pool trying to get them out and exhausted by the effort of holding my stomach in that some little voice pops up to say hello, no, I’m usually unmasked by my fellow adults.

There is always a certain reluctance to admit who you are when you are a teacher on holiday.  For a start, you are never quite sure what kind of reaction you are going to get.  Everybody has an opinion, you see, and pretty much everyone wants the holidays.  When you are a teacher in the months of July and August, and someone asks you what you do, you tend to answer in a quiet voice.  Until, that is, you discover that you are chatting to another one (at which point there is a general sigh of relief and the conversation swings to education politics and the husband and the children roll their eyes and sigh).

It happened the other day, when we were on holiday.  In a fit of enthusiasm and ‘wouldn’t that be a great way to spend our next holiday and wouldn’t the kids love it’ we booked ourselves a day out on a 32ft yacht and it turns out the skipper, in  his former life, was a teacher.  And a teacher of SEN no less.

It was all going so well.  The sun was shining.  The wind had stopped blowing a gale.  We had cheese sandwiches and crisps and the children were excited.  Until we started heading out to sea, that is.

There is something I never realised about the bit where the river actually meets the sea.  I never realised it was quite so lumpy.  I also never realised, when you are on a yacht, and especially a small one, how close you are to the water.  How the waves and the spray and the movement and the bigness of it all is all so immediate.  I never realised how silent it is when the engine goes off and the sails take over and the boat responds and leans with the wind and lurches into the water.

How Sam would be so afraid.

Now I know that I write about how he’s bolshie and full of his own ideas of what he should do and when, but to be honest with you, at home, he is generally a very compliant child.  Given the time to respond and a kind voice, he usually does as he’s told.  And, he does like to please you.  He’ll say yes if he knows it’ll make you smile.  He’s not very good at saying how he really feels.  So when he said he’d like to go on a big boat, and we showed him the picture, we didn’t give it a second thought.

We didn’t think that there might be another interpretation to his behaviour on boats.  We didn’t think that those moments when he looked down and seemed absorbed in the moment, he was actually deeply uncomfortable with the situation. We soon found out that telling him to look at the shore really didn’t help.

Poor old Sam.  He lost his breakfast about five times, burst into tears, shouted at daddy and may have even kicked him a couple of times, such was his distress.  It wasn’t long before we turned and headed back to the safety of the estuary.

Some people would have been cross with Sam.  Some people would have had him off that boat as soon as I had cleaned up the sick.  Some people would have looked at our son, red faced and tear streaked and washed their hands of him.  But some people have seen it all before.

Some people are more than happy to wait until a seasick child has recovered their composure and spend some time to make a boy with learning difficulties feel positive about his experience.

Thank you, Jon, for a lovely day.  It didn’t quite turn out as we had planned, but, like much of our lives, was not to be missed.  Not for a moment.

If you fancy a day out, I would highly recommend Salcombe Sailing Days.