Category Archives: Teaching

What I Learned at School

One of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is forming my thoughts into something coherent. I’ve been caught up in a vortex of fear and work; it’s not pleasant, I can tell you. Sometimes, everything feels OK and we all carry on much as we do every summer (it has helped that the weather has been so lovely), with the added advantage of having daddy around. Other times, like last week and this morning, I, and the kids, feel like we’ve hit a wall. We want back the things we enjoyed. A takeaway. A hug. A chat and a giggle that just happens and doesn’t have to be organised and filtered through a screen. Movement. Someone different to the same five faces.

Most of the time I can almost persuade myself nothing much has changed. Over the years I have become used to periods of isolation. I’ve lived most of my life away from my parents and sister (funnily enough I am seeing more of them now than I have in a while). Chicken pox, nits, fevers and the, shall we say, digestive nature of many childhood illnesses have been good training for weeks of being housebound. I gave up going to church at Christmas some years ago – and my health at that time of the year has improved dramatically as a result. So far, so same old, same old.

This strange time has highlighted some of the sadnesses that are easy to ignore when you are all busy, beetling about, doing all the things. My younger children are hanging on in there with the support of friends on Whatsapp and Discord, but S…he has a phone but noone has helped him put a friend’s number on it, and I can’t because I’m not there where his friends are. Like many disabled children and young people, he is doubly lonely, the barriers to friendship amplified by this lockdown, a sinister foreshadowing of his future if we aren’t careful.

And mortality. I mean, I’m not saying that I forgot I was mortal, but I kind of did. Giving birth to S was the last time I had a proper brush with death, and that was nearly twenty years ago. It’s easy to pretend we will go on forever and fail to plan for the fact that we won’t. My biggest fear is that the hubs and I will be carried off and A will be left with the responsibility for both his older brother AND his younger sister. It isn’t to be borne, it really isn’t.

I do wonder what the medicine of fear will do to us all. In the short term it is keeping us safe, but there are side effects. Will we be able to function in the workplace when we feel breathless with anxiety about being there? How will I reassure everyone else who leans on me if I can’t reassure myself? And the children. Mine are older, but they are still young. How will this caution we have drummed into them – and I know we have because S doesn’t know what to do when he sees a stranger – affect their friendships? Will they judge friends who took a different approach to theirs? Social media has been great – but the FOMO is still strong and maybe even stronger now. Will they be afraid?

I’m not one for wishes and I don’t believe in luck, but I wish it was the summer holidays. I wish I didn’t have to cut myself in two, ignore my precious loved ones, in order to work from home. I wish that we were already at that natural break. I wish the economy that we have created, the giant hamster wheel we all seem to be trapped on, hadn’t taken advantage of the second wave of feminism and ensured that a household of expense needed to be serviced by at least two people working – and pretending that their familial commitments were managed by someone else.

I don’t know how we are going to get back to school, to some sort of run of the mill, humdrum, ordinary existence (I’m avoiding the word normal), but what I do know is that we need a plan. And more, it needs to be simple, clear and created together. I learned that at (specialist) school.

Just About Coping

There’s a meme that pops up on social media every so often, entitled ‘just about coping’. It’s a lovely space where (most often) parents of children with Down’s syndrome get to advertise the joy that an extra chromosome 21 brings to their lives, how their families aren’t so different from typical ones in the face of overwhelming pity and the tacit societal understanding that life with a disability/disabled child must be rubbish. If you want a smile, search for the hashtag. I promise you will be uplifted.

This post, however, has nothing to do with that. This post is actually about the reality that is just about coping. With work, with life, with money, without money, with parenting, with disability parenting, with getting older and your kids growing up and everyone having different expectations of you and you finding that, instead of somehow being apart from the patriarchy because you disapproved of it, you are just as trapped within it as everyone else.  Life in 2020 doesn’t look like it’s going to get any easier any time soon (sorry), so if, like me, you have a demanding work life and an equally (if not more so) demanding home life and you haven’t got any time for wellbeing because you are, in fact, just about coping, this post is for you.

I haven’t written a wellbeing post since this one; and this one isn’t so much about physical (wash your hands when you get home, EVERY TIME) as mental health. Not that I am an expert, but if you feel like this and you are weighed down with a heavy mental load in both your personal and your working life, then these are the things that (sort of) work for me.

  1. Ditch everything you can. I have successfully ditched the making of the packed lunches and the doing of the weekly menu and internet food shop. It does mean that I have to eat stale bread sandwiches with fillings that don’t go to the edge, but as far as I am concerned, this is a small price to pay. The way to achieve this is to just not do it. That way, someone (else) has to step into the breach or there isn’t any food. It has NOT been a successful strategy as far as the disability paperwork and meetings are concerned, nor does it work with personal care or ironing, but I refer you back to the first sentence of this point. Ditch the things you can.
  2. Related to the above is to identify the things that drag you down and stop doing them (if you can). I hate cleaning with a passion. I hate it and it drags me down. I resent spending my spare time doing something that I dislike so much. I’ll do it if I have to, but it’s not something that brings me joy. I’ve got a really good cleaner now, to whom I am pathetically grateful, and it helps. My house is, as she tells me, getting better, and that makes my life more pleasant in general. If you’re in a job where people treat you badly, keep your eyes out for a different job. It can take a while.
  3. You don’t have to agree to everything. There are things you can say ‘no’ to. You can say no to things in your personal life and at work. It’s OK. You don’t even have to have a reason. You don’t have to be extraordinary to live a good life, to be loved and to love in return. You can just be you.

You may have noticed that there is a theme to my reflections; that of taking away rather than adding, of simplifying rather than increasing the complexity of an already complicated life. There are things you can’t avoid (here’s looking at you, bills) and things that you can’t avoid that lay you low (here’s looking at you social care and I can see you trying to get out of the way, Mr Mortgage); there are always unpleasant things in life that you can’t get away from that have to be got on with. Sometimes taking your brain out and giving it a rest is an excellent option. Sometimes carving some time and space out for yourself is an impossible task.  Sometimes all you can do is grit your teeth. Cope, just about.

Christmas is A-coming

There is a lot about Christmas-time that I don’t like. I don’t like the being ill. It’s a rare year when one of us hasn’t got some sort of hideous virus; before I gave up carol services, it was a tradition that, having learned all the parts, I wasn’t able to sing them. And the dark, dark mornings. I actually hate those. I hate having to drag my still sleeping body out of the warm cocoon of my bed, force feed it some breakfast and then drive to work. It’s torture.  And I don’t like doing it to my kids, either. The everything on top of everything else you usually do. That said, there are many things about Christmas that I do like, not enough to make it my favourite time of the year, but certainly enough to have it up in the top ten. The lights, the decorations, the ultimate in thumbing your nose at the darkness as we gather together and make our own light. The topsy-turveyness of the whole thing. I like that.

There is an inevitability about Christmas that I have come to respect. I don’t really have time to write this (I should be wrapping the final presents, ensuring that the number of gifts is equal for each child, I should be delivering parcels to beloved family members, washing my hair), even though I have taken some steps this year in an attempt to avoid overwhelm. Last year I limped my way to the Big Day, chucking out anything that wasn’t essential (gingerbread houses – gone! Red cabbage a la Nigella – nowhere to be seen! Cards? What are they?); this year, by doing some things ridiculously early (the lady in the Post office actually rolled her eyes at me during half term) and refusing to do some others, I have managed to carve myself some time to think and – strangely – today, I have given myself permission to write them (some of them down).

So, without stopping to think too much (if I do that, I won’t write anything because of Fear of Repercussions), here goes:

  • Working full time with three kids, one of whom is disabled, is very, very hard, and there is an extent to which I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t caught in an economic trap along with the rest of the world. There isn’t much time for anything else and every day feels like a treadmill and every weekend is not long enough. It impacts on my ability to maintain ANY social connection beyond working relationships, which, in turn, means that every day feels like a knife edge with no backup plan. Thank goodness no-one has been properly ill (yet).
  • When an acquaintance of mine who works in school improvement for a local authority told me one hot afternoon the summer before last that it would take two years before I saw change in my workplace after taking on the role of leader, and that those two years would be not unlike climbing an excessively high mountain the most difficult way imaginable, she wasn’t wrong.
  • When a wise woman said, ‘don’t try to change anything!’, she wasn’t wrong either. It takes a while for trust to build. People have to see you work, and work well. You have to learn your job. This takes time. Turning up every day can be enough.
  • Leadership is lonely. Disability parenting is isolating. There’s a reason so many people use social media.
  • There’s a difference between being a leader and being a manager. You can be a leader without being a manager; you can get people thinking and change their minds from behind the protection of a computer screen, but doing it up close and personal while checking that everyone has logged their sick leave correctly is entirely different.
  • You cannot allow work to take over your life. There has to be something else other than work. Yes, it’s good for my kids to see that I work too, that I do not exist to service their needs – but I do need to be there for them at the end of the day. It is I who should dry their tears, not they mine.

And so I am back to the inevitability of Christmas, the forced stop and do something else, something that isn’t work, that isn’t dreaming about work, thinking about it, writing about it. This year I am grateful for it.

Happy Christmas.

An Apology

Apologies for the silence. I’ve been a bit busy. I’ve been busy working, stretching myself thinly and growing fat on oven chips and posh pizza (we don’t like cheap pizza with its fake cheese topping and cardboard bottoms). It’s alright when it goes alright, a logistical Heath Robinson Affair, ready to topple as soon as someone runs out of leave. At least I haven’t got any marking to do, even if I have the report writing, the phone calls and the emails, so many emails on a continuous running stream throughout my working day.

And then there’s the appointments. Squeezed in between the school run and the supermarket delivery, I have to log in and use a password and it’s not even for me. I have to explain (again), cajole and question; is that blood test really necessary? Will it make any difference? Is there really no-one to coordinate it all? No paediatrician for a grown up boy? It’s me? Are you certain, are you sure?

And the meetings. The number of strangers touching our lives is growing daily and yet we can’t find anyone to spend the personal budget on. Economic migrants, we haven’t got a social network; we haven’t got time to form one. Even if we had, there’s no reason why anyone we knew would want the job. No-one wants an itty bitty job that pays peanuts, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t shift that sneaking feeling that there’s an element of motherblame that still hangs around us, whispering, poisoning.

Slowly, so slowly, ‘inclusive’, ‘inclusion’ has shifted its meaning. Slowly, so slowly, we depart, softly wrapped up and separated into a lonely little isolated world and I can’t help but wonder, as I sit in front of the fire in a haze of relief and slight bogglement that the weekend is finally here and tomorrow I can sleep beyond the alarm, who should be apologising to who.

A Fish Out of Water

I remember the day that I decided I was going to go to Oxford University. It had rained for what seemed like weeks, my friend Kay had come to play and, on the way to drop her home, my dad had taken us to see the river Teign, swollen and brown, swirling under the bridge at Ashton. I expect he told us about the forces acting on the granite arches (the river, usually the sort that babbled over Dartmoor rocks was impressively high) but that’s not what I recall. I know the windows of his kingfisher blue MG Midget were steamed up, so much so that we couldn’t really see the torrent, raging or otherwise, but the conversation I remember was his answer to our questions about university. Goodness only knows why we were talking about it, we must have been about twelve or thirteen years old at the time, but we were and, at that time, I was determined to study English, so I asked him where the best place could possibly be. My dad, love him, not really knowing anything about English, literature or otherwise, seeing as he was, and is, a civil engineer (hence the lesson on the forces of floodwater on the arches of bridges) supposed that since they published a dictionary it must therefore be Oxford.

Years later, I had come to the conclusion that a degree in English Literature was not for me. By the time I was seventeen I had shifted a bit and begun to understand a little bit more about myself and what I was good at. My teacher made the suggestion, and I, thinking to myself that a single exam followed by an unconditional offer was a very good deal indeed, decided to go for it. I went to the extra lessons, applied to the only college I had ever heard of, sat the exam and was invited to interview. My mum sorted out my train ticket (I must have changed at Reading), bought me a rucsac (I still have it) and off I went.

For a long time, when I was really littleI thought that I had invented the town ‘Oxford’. Later, after I’d grown up a bit, I realised that the name must have entered my consciousness subconsciously, because my parents had a sort of metal etching picture that hung beneath the dining room cupboard that depicted the dreaming spires. I knew nothing about it apart from it being a university of world renown (because of the dictionary). I guess what I’m trying to say is that despite my ‘research’ I didn’t know what to expect. There was no Harry Potter, and despite Narnia and Middle Earth, I made it up myself out of a friendly combination of What Katy Did Next and Anne of Green Gables. I was wrong.

I walked from the station to the college and that was wrong. I missed my interview time (why didn’t I get a taxi? I hadn’t thought to, walking was normal, so that’s what I did), and somehow, making a cup of tea from a strange little kettle thing that sat on an open fire  was a confusing part of the process (I still don’t drink tea and at seventeen I’d never made a cup, despite growing up in a house parented by tea drinkers and containing an open fire) and what making a cup of tea for a lecturer had to do with anything I couldn’t imagine. Why had I written what I’d written? (It seemed like a good idea at the time and I had enjoyed myself following a train of thought didn’t seem like a very good answer – admitting bullshit in an interview has never really stuck me as a terribly wise course of action.) Before I knew what had happened I was dismissed, and a bemusing, bewildering, belittling experience gave way to exploring, to meeting other hopefuls and attempting to make sense of it all.

I palled up with a girl called Monica (she and I swapped addresses and wrote to each other for a while – the late 20thcentury version of being Friends on Facebook, I guess). She was head girl or something, and was fresh out of house hockey matches; she wanted to study Spanish and, seeing that her mother came from Spain, the word amongst the rest of us was that she’d get a place, no problem. (She didn’t, she went to Bristol). We went to tea (or was it dinner?) together, we queued up along a dark corridor that stank of cabbage and reluctantly ate something tasteless I didn’t fancy followed by a pudding with custard, seated on a trestle bench. We looked around each others’ rooms; mine had a rope in the corner for a fire escape and a bar fire I was warned not to leave on all night, despite the cold, hers had a sitting room and a bedroom with an old, threadbare carpet. There was a boy I remember, but not his name, because he had driven to his interview in his dad’s red sports car. He was missing a party back at home and joined it via the car phone. I suppose we were supposed to be impressed.

We made our way through a number of junior common rooms, some of them incongruously Seventies in the middle of all that medieval splendour, and listened to the apocryphal tales that flourish there. So-and-so was escorted to his father’s old rooms by the Dean. One college only had girls in it for the entertainment of the boys. The proportion of public school kids compared to Public School kids was shockingly low. There were no showers. I wasn’t invited to another interview and so, satisfied with my experience, I went home.  When I didn’t get a place I wasn’t surprised, and I wasn’t, not really, disappointed.

And what do I tell my daughter as we walk through the back streets of Oxford, who, in her innocence, thinks that the university is most convenient and rather pretty looking and who asks me why I didn’t go to university there. Was it a lack of cultural capital? Maybe. But not the sort that you can find between the pages of learned books or at the theatre or concert halls or down the dusty corridors of the museum. Was it some sort of other personal deficiency?  Possibly. It wasn’t my world. I knew it and so did they. Years later I can see my face was not reflected there and I know that what needs to change was not me then and it isn’t her now, or all the other children from ordinary schools in ordinary places; it’s them.