Tag Archives: Children

Capacity

When I was a little girl I got involved in stuff a lot. I wouldn’t say that I was a joiner-in particularly, but when I look back, and count up the activities I did as a young person, it comes to quite a lot, especially when you consider I grew up in a Devon valley ten miles away from anywhere. For a small village, there was a lot going on, from amateur dramatics (adults and children) to gymnastics. The only fly in the ointment (for me, anyway, other children had differently inclined parents) was that if it didn’t happen in the village, it wasn’t happening for me. Hence, any dreams I had of being an ballerina or ice dance champion were dashed.

I started gymnastics when I was six or seven. As it was not long after the end of my four month hospital stay and I was a bag of bones with a red-raw operation scar that went half way round my back (still does, but it’s not red-raw) my parents were, understandably, somewhat anxious about it. I was put in my sister’s group, and she took care of me (or, as I saw it, bossed me about and made me be her partner – she took her role seriously, I guess), and made sure I didn’t hurt myself or wear myself out. I kept going until I was about 12 or 13, my lack of strength preventing me from being much good, but not from enjoying myself thoroughly, even though I could never manage to land on my feet after a handspring and my walkovers went one way but not the other.

Am-drams were similarly long-standing. One of my earliest memories was a rehearsal in the back room of Mrs Hughes’ house (she had so many children, I was never quite sure who they were or how many). I had somehow found myself in the group that were somehow baddies. I burst into tears and had to be moved, even though they came good and won out in the end. Costumes always seemed to involve nylon tights (yuck) and backstage was a wonderful gloryhole of rooms stacked with trestle tables that must have been born before the war. My favourite role was ‘Punch’, where my friend Kay and I got to hit each other with pipe insulation. The worst was when I had to wear an itchy leotard that was supposed to be my friend Carla’s costume.

The clubs were always filled with the same people (we all had similar parents, apart from Sophie, who gave up gym for dancing). Amy came with me to gym and drama. Kay to drama and Sunday School. My mum used to run the Sunday school with Mrs Hughes (who ran the Junior Players) and Mrs Freshney (who ran the holiday club with Mrs Hughes andmy mum), which meant that I didn’t have much choice in going or not (my dad was the man who Washed the Car on Sunday mornings) (not that I minded, I hasten to point out, I was more than happy to go). She used to make the booklets by spreading the individual pages out all over the sitting room floor. Kay and I used to giggle together, and I remained fascinated by the Chinese-style wallpaper in the vicar’s toilet for years, that and the open cistern, for years.

Actually, now I come to think about it, the reason I got so involved was no doubt directly related to my parents. My dad was on the organising committee of the gym club AND the PTA (until he fell out with the headmaster over the spelling of ‘barbqueue’). Along with a go-getty set of parents who ran the sort of clubs they knew their children would enjoy, they provided for us a range of out of school activities that certainly kept us busy and enriched our lives at the same time. When it came to my turn, and my children started nursery and Sunday School and football and scouts, naturally, I thought that I would do the same.

Except, I didn’t. I volunteered for the committee of this, that and the other, and even went to a few meetings, took my turn with a few teas, but, somehow, I couldn’t keep it up. At first I thought it was the new baby thing. Having three young children saps the energy of the youngest and fittest of mothers, so I thought it might be that. Next, I thought it was the fundraising thing. I have mixed feelings about fund raising (and very firm views on cake sales), or meetings and endless circular discussions. But, somehow, other women with more children than me seemed to manage. Other women who were equally busy, or impatient with group decisions seemed to get along just fine. They ran the committee and baked and sewed, raising large amounts of money for a variety of projects as they went along, cheerfully giving of themselves to the community and I…couldn’t.

It took me a while to figure it out. It took me a while to discover things like ‘mental load’ and capacity and how this is different for everyone and how when there is disability in the family, everything is magnified.

So now, when I see something about inclusive church, or business start-ups for learning disabled people, or personal budgets or anything else that sounds like a great idea if only it happened near to where I live, I smile sadly to myself (or scowl, depending on which side of the smile you happen to be) and sigh and know that what the answer will be to any number of good ideas.

‘Here’s an email address.’

‘Here’s a website.’

You make it happen.’

And, like every other time before, I drift away, disappointed. Having a good idea is great and all, but unless you have other people around you who have the capacity to turn your idea into something real, unless you have someone around who can make it happen, that’s all it will ever be. Without capacity, it will only ever be a pipe dream.

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Sharing the Load

One of the things I have been struggling with lately is the notion of myself as a carer. It’s very strange. I remember, when I was expecting my beloved first-born, the very idea of me being the parent, the mother to another person, was astonishing. When he first arrived, a tiny bundle with a home-made hat, safely contained within the hospital Tupperware, there was a suspended time when I looked at him (and to be fair, I repeated the experience a further two times) and wondered what he had to do with me, and what I was supposed to do – and supposed to feel.

At the time, it was one of the things that disturbed me; this idea that I should instantly ‘fall in love’ with my child, as if motherhood, and all it entails, was supposed to come easily, that it was somehow as natural as falling off a log. (‘Cos you know, there’s a lot of falling off logs that goes on in day-to-day life.)

When you think about it, there’s a whole lot of things that mothers are under societal pressure to somehow find a doddle, a pleasure even. Breast feeding. Home-made purees. Broken nights. The wiping of bottoms, noses and sick. Constant laundry. Tidying up after everyone else. The pressure is on to make you feel as if you should Enjoy Every Moment and if you don’t, then there must be something wrong with you. You’re not a Real Woman, or you’re a Bad Mother, you can’t cope or something.

And then, of course, there is the whole disability thing. If you dare to bring to birth a disabled child – and I don’t think that this is specific to Down’s syndrome, although, given the antenatal screening that takes place you really wouldn’t think so – then it’s as if the only acceptable response from you, as a mother, is to throw yourself down on the altar of motherhood, either as some sort of public advocate for disability rights or by negating any needs you might have of your own for a separate kind of life in deference to those of your child (remember the woman who was awarded her own degree, after attending so many lectures with her disabled son, in order to ensure that he actually got there, at her son’s graduation?).

The hardest thing for me, though, is not that we should enjoy this process but that, somehow, the expectation that we should do all of this on our own. We are already isolated, working hard, paying the ginormous mortgage, travelling to work, to and fro, in our little metal boxes. We have separated out work and home, spheres with edges that kiss, but only in the evenings. And it’s not just our personal lives. Apparently there is no “I” in team, but even the seemingly most collaborative, collegiate of professions (teaching, the one I know the most about it has to be said) are increasingly set in the ways of individual competition.

You know, this is where I think we have got it wrong. Bringing up a family, the next generation, no matter how we might construct it, or what our role in it, personal or professional, is not the sort of thing you can do on your own. You need your friends, your wider family, your colleagues, around you. You need the people who are supposed to be supporting you to join you, not to sit in judgement, or complain that you didn’t stick to the plan, or that you are somehow less or shamed because you actually admitted that you needed help.

We can’t do it on our own and that’s OK.

 

Recipe for Success

There’s nothing quite like the successful student in the successful school to give all the adults associated with them the satisfied glow of a job well done.  Follow these simple steps, and you, too, could be bathing in the reflected glory of your progeny.

Ingredients

One ten-to-eleven year old child
One teacher
One set of end of key stage tests
One set of standards (variable)
Advice/guidance (to taste)
One league table
One performance management tool, named, ‘performance related’

 

Method

  1. First you must persuade the ten-to-eleven year old child that the end of key stage tests are important, the culmination of everything they have worked towards for the last seven years, and will have long-reaching ramifications on their lives. You can do this by mentioning it at every given opportunity, together with reminders about behaviour and admonitions to work harder*.
  2. Next, you must impress upon the teacher the importance of the end of key stage tests by engaging them through the skillful mixing of league tables and performance management.
  3. Finally, season with standards (variable) and advice/guidance (to taste) until you have your preferred mixture.
  4. Set the temperature to early summer, place all ten-to-eleven year olds in the same room at different tables and make them work in silence all morning and all afternoon.
  5. You will know when you have achieved success when the ten-to-eleven year old child has a dead-eyed expression, a sulky mouth, displays no enthusiasm for reading or writing at all, and cries at the mention of fractions. If you are particularly successful, they may even have the slow, tired demeanour of one who is not sleeping due to worry.
  6. If your ten-to-eleven year old child is not quite ready for success by the second week in May, you can try holiday and/or Saturday school/catch up sessions. Make sure you do these in advance of Easter for best results.

 

Remember, we all want the best for our children, and nothing quite beats the experience of success.

 

*see compliance recipe

Trench Warfare

Did you ever read the books about the First World War by Pat Barker?  (Yes, I know one of them is missing – someone, not looking at any of my relatives, must have pinched the first one.) I did, some time ago now.  I bought them when I was the kind of person who had the time to hang around in bookshops on a Saturday afternoon, browsing those big tables, piled with not-quite-skyscrapers of paperbacks, looking for something to spend my disposable income on.  I haven’t read them in a while, but I remember them vividly.  Whenever I have a clearout of my bookshelves (which I do on an infrequent, but regular basis, contrary to public opinion) I hold them in my hand, weighing up whether or not I wish to pass them on, and so far, the answer has been, ‘no’.

A couple of things stand out in my memory of them.  A couple of things that struck me, and have continued to strike me, over the years since I first sat dreaming, transported to a world gone by, by a skilled writer. The first is the enforced femininity of trench warfare. The endless waiting. The powerlessness of the men over their own fate. The obedience to orders they had no power to challenge. The care and concern by the officers for the men, over their wellbeing, their health, whether they had enough food, shelter or clothing. The difficulties that some men had in bending themselves to an unfamiliar state.

But the thing that echoes, the thing that haunts me, was the look in the eye, the shared experience, in this case of the horror of war, that asked, ‘Have you been there? Do you understand?’

In many ways it’s a bit like childbirth. Or traumatic childbirth, anyway. Or the bringing to life of a disabled child, of Down’s syndrome, come to that. In a sense, unless you’ve been there, you don’t understand. In many ways, no matter how many of us write or speak in our attempt to make the experience about the universal, you can’t. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know what it is like; the forced femininity of powerlessness.

We think we might understand, because we have children of our own, or we hope to one day; we think it is enough, but we betray our assumptions with the questions we ask. So busy to show we understand, we forget to listen.

It’s the same with teaching.  Like nursing, or the law, it’s a profession with an illusion of transparency because we’ve all been in that classroom (pretty much), we all (pretty much) send our own children there. But it is an enclosed world. Even within the sector, our differences make only some of our experiences transferrable. Our own experience overlays understanding. Unless you’d been there, you wouldn’t know.

And how easily we forget. I forgot, when I went on my ten year maternity leave, what it was like. It’s so easy to know your own child, in the early days, anyway. You watch them so closely – you have to or you fear they might die – and you forget that it’s impossible for a teacher to know them like that, to be able to adapt like that. You have your home set up to accommodate their needs, a nearby toilet, quiet spaces, freedom of choice – and you forget that when you teach, you just can’t do that.

You forget, when you know them so well, that it takes time to get to know a child, and that that knowing comes from spending time with them, in context, and not on a piece of paper, for yourself, and not through someone else’s eyes.  When you have a child, the responsibility can feel overwhelming. When you have a disabled child, even more so. You will be accountable to them for the rest of your life. But you forget that other form of accountability, when you work as a teacher, the one you have towards multiple children, all equally deserving, towards government, parents, inspectors, the boss.

How easily you forget the never ending pile of things to do – the stack that grows by 30 every time you teach a lesson. You can see it in school leaders who merrily state in staff meetings, ‘it should only take a minute’, while the classroom staff quietly look at each other under their eyelashes and wonder who will point out that what seems so reasonable when you times it by one, is not a simple matter, when multiplied up. What seems so simple, from a distance, from the computer screen or from the office – from the home, even, when it is played out in the classroom, is, indeed, complex, and that the description of the complexity leads us into ethical dimensions that take time to work through, time to understand.

When I went back to work after my long absence it was a was a wake-up call. It was a reminder that I wasn’t perfect – and neither should I, could I be, that entrenched positions of enmity never help the child.  It was a reminder that, while I held responsibilities, I didn’t hold them all. I could not hold them all.  Being something and nothing, a split person,  a balancer along the tightrope, one of them and one of us, helps. Because when you walk in someone else’s shoes – or you put your old ones back on – you remember.

Have you been there? Do you understand?

 

A Christmas Carol

img_4865I’ve been to my first carol service already.  It was last week, in fact; an evening service of medieval simplicity on the first Sunday of advent.  I wasn’t in the choir, I didn’t play the piano.  I sang no parts.  I sat somewhere towards the back, slightly to one side, concealed by semi-darkness, shadowed as the candles and the brightly lit choir passed by.  It was peaceful.  I came away refreshed; my mind calmed and my spirit eased.

Carol services and concerts haven’t always been this way.  For years, I was a participant, someone with a part to learn, to perform.  When I was a little child, at primary school, we spent hours (or at least it felt like hours) learning words off by heart.  Mrs Puddicombe played the piano (I never got used to calling her Ruth, even when I grew up and I understood that she was a friend of my mum’s) and the rest of us, the children and the other two teachers, sang the words from the pungent purple typescript, a banda-ed copy of the traditional and modern, until we could do without.  There was always ‘Little Donkey’ (plus coconut shells) and ‘The Calypso Carol’ (wood blocks, tambourines).  (For some strange reason there were also always crepe paper hats; we used to design our own and wear them for the Christmas Dinner and the Christmas Party.  There was a competition, and I never won it, not once.)

When I went to secondary school, I left the hats behind and joined the choir.  The carols were no longer a simple affair, in the village hall or Top Class with the tables pushed back to one end and the sliding doors opened.  Now they were much more complicated, with parts (alto, followed by various descants, I was a confused chorister, I admit) and an orchestra.  There was a sale of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ at the back of the church, and my dad bought one.  When I was older still, I gave up the choir and concentrated on the orchestra.  I learned the bass, and how to fake it when you lost your place.  There was a cathedral and mulled wine; no uniform, we were far too cool for that, but a similarity in dress brought on by arran jumpers and Doctor Marten.

And then there was teaching.  As one of the pianists in Key Stage Two, it fell to me, and my colleague Rose, to take it in turns to play or lead the singing.  More parts, this time for recorders and triangles; no coconuts, but ‘The Calypso Carol’ too.  I used to enjoy it when it was my turn to play.  We used to borrow a Clavinova and set it up, just to one side of the rood screen.  There I would sit, tucked away, filling the church with my choice of the empty melodies of waiting while the pews filled and the cold air warmed with the steam of subdued conversation.  It was far better than conducting the singing, standing in the front, waving your arms about for all to see.

Of course, the advantage of conducting is that you can hide your own mistakes in a way that you can’t when you are accompanying singers on an instrument.  One time, our choir were taking part in a competition, and I got so nervous that I made them sing without (we didn’t win, we didn’t get anywhere near winning); often I would get out the guitar and convert every song to sing-along-a-G-C-and-D.  Rose and I had a running competition going over who could do the best Les Dawson impression, and we had trained the children well to JUST CARRY ON REGARDLESS.

I reckon it made them more aware of the imperfections inherent in any performance anyway.  And, like I said to one young lady, curiously seeking me out on a cold January afternoon when I was stamping my feet on the playground and wishing that I had brought a hat, I didn’t ever feel embarrassed, because, when it came to it, the assembled throng hadn’t come to see me.

That’s the thing I often think about teaching.  For all our loud, strident, in charge voices, we are a quiet profession.  The stage is not ours.  The prizes and medals and stickers and certificates are given, not taken.  The hours of practice, the preparation and planning, are not to show how clever we are, but to showcase them.