All that glitters is not gold

Let’s face it. We’ve all done it. At least once.

It’s so easy to get into a mindset where we become increasingly dissatisfied with ‘our lot’ reaching unwittingly for those rose-tinted glasses through which so much of what we see on social media must surely have been captured.

However, it’s human nature to want to better oneself and there is nothing quite like the feeling of seeing the fruits of one’s labours boldly looking back at us in the shape of a shiny new purchase!

The first car I ever bought will always occupy a very special place in my heart. Not only was it a nippy little thing in a pretty purple colour – mercifully, with age, comes better judgement! – but it was what it represented that made it so precious to me. It was a symbol of my new-found independence and heralded my first foray into the world of paid employment. I’ve bought no less than seven cars since then, and although they have outperformed my humble little Clio on pretty much every single level (I mean, it had handles to ‘wind’ down the windows, for goodness sake!) not one has won my affection in the same way.

And people can be much the same. Some can make you feel instantly better for seeing them – exuding warmth, humour, and compassion – whilst others don all of the outward vestiges of confidence and success but fail to touch us in quite the same way.

I recently learned that a friend of mine had been (as they say) rather unceremoniously ‘traded in for a younger model’ and she was quick to show me a photo of the new ‘acquisition’. And (apart from some rather prominent body-coloured bumpers!) it was difficult to see the attraction. All of a sudden, my thoughts returned to the car that had won my affection all those years ago. It had faithfully taken me safely all over the United Kingdom (in high winds, snow, and fog) and, had it not eventually gasped its last on my mum’s front drive, I’d like to think that it would still have been with me today. For no other car (albeit blessed with a host of advanced electrical features) has ever been quite so dependable – or indeed so much fun to drive.

‘All that glitters is not gold’ by Gaynor Hall

She always looks so glamorous, bedecked from head to toe
In jewellery rich and sparkling and tones that make her glow.
Her hair is thick and glossy, a profusion of gentle curls
Which frame her dainty cheekbones whilst her generous lashes unfurl.

His smile exudes an arrogance – the cat that got the cream –
As upon his arm she simpers, doing wonders for his self-esteem.
They dart from table to table, simply desperate to advertise
To every other person there that he’s won the topmost ‘prize’.

They cut a striking figure as they glide across the floor,
Moving in perfect synergy as they chassé towards the door.
They step into a waiting limo, waving such fond goodbyes,
But as soon as the car is out of sight, she drops her clever disguise.

The demands start to tumble incessantly out, each one just a bit more unreasonable,
He weakly offers his assurances, though he’s not sure they’re actually feasible.
He watches as she snaps and snarls – transforming those dainty features
Into something far less alluring – akin to a vicious creature.

His thoughts drift back to times gone by, when the person at his side
Cared about his feelings – made him laugh until he cried.
She never asked for expensive gifts, preferring instead to play
Endless board games with him and the kids, bringing cheer to a rainy day.

He’d been foolish (he could see that now) simply wanting to spread his wings,
Getting caught up in his own vanity and seeking ‘better’ things.
Why hadn’t he seen the value in the life they’d built together?
A life where honesty and love so many storms had weathered.

The rise of the emoji

Words have always been a source of fascination for me and I often attribute my passion for language to the many hours that my dear old mum spent reading to us as children. Quite apart from the traditional bedtime story slot at home, she would often have a book stowed away in the glove compartment of the family car, to be brought out on long journeys and read by torchlight as my dad drove us to our destination.

Seeing a similar level of enthusiasm for books beginning to develop within my own boys gives me indescribable pleasure and it is for this reason that I continue to make time for sharing a bedtime story with my youngest. This has always been our opportunity for spending quality time together (not to mention my best chance of managing a good old snuggle!) the only difference being that the rather simplistic picture books of early childhood have given way to gripping adventure novels whose chapters provide the perfect conditions for allowing the imagination to run wild.

And boy, does it run wild!

One thing that took a little time for him to grasp, however, was that words can be used figuratively. Indeed, it would often be several days before I’d realise that he had taken a particular phrase absolutely literally and then spent hours desperately trying to decipher its meaning. And, if I’m honest, I can see just how such confusion arises.

The English language is by no means straightforward – with seemingly many more exceptions than rules. Add into the mix our almost addictive penchant for using a range of metaphors (mixed or otherwise) and non-native speakers must frequently risk finding themselves in a linguistic minefield. I can see why the (not so humble) emoji holds such appeal! Furthermore, just as you think that you have found a saying that aptly supports the case that you are trying to put forward, some ‘smart Alec’ (rather infuriatingly) manages to come up with a gloriously contradictory one!

I seem to have spent the last few days ‘checking in’ with various friends, being all too aware of just how easily the busy daily routine can prevent us from nurturing our relationships with others. I have genuinely struggled to find the time to commit my thoughts to (virtual) paper of late either and this got me thinking… Would the absence of something to read (amongst my loyal followers at least) ‘make the heart grow fonder’ or would it simply be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’?

I concluded (rather grudgingly) that it is probably a case of the latter. After all, ‘Time (or at least the world of social media) waits for no (wo)man’ and anyway, (as Robert Half rightly observed) an ego trip is ‘a journey to nowhere’.

Delving into life’s selection box

Way back in 1994, Forrest Gump (aka Tom Hanks) famously stated that his mum had always said that “life was like a box of chocolates” before going on to explain that this was because “you never know what you’re gonna get”.

Fortunately (for the risk averse amongst us) there is that helpful illustrated guide to lead us ever so gently through that all-important selection process, ensuring that we don’t unsuspectingly succumb to a flavour so utterly repugnant, that it all but ruins a Saturday evening’s viewing – perish the thought…

And for those who prefer to dabble in a spot of (confectionary fuelled) Russian roulette, then just be sure to have the number of an out of hours dentist saved into your contacts – just in case you end up falling victim to a rogue toffee or two!

With the festive season rapidly approaching, the subject of ‘Christmas Nibbles’ inevitably came up, with opinion briefly divided as to whether Cadbury’s ‘Heroes’ or Nestlé’s ‘Quality Street’ should take centre stage this year. And (even putting aside the many valid reasons for boycotting Nestlé’s products) it soon became clear that no-one can resist a hero – chocolate or otherwise – and that the chances of any particular variety being left to languish in the bottom of the tub (in our house at least) are extremely slim.

However, it would seem that even ‘heroes’ are capable of falling victim to a slump in popularity, with one or two firm favourites (The Twirl and the Dairy Milk) habitually outranking the humble Éclair – the item purportedly most likely to be consumed as a last resort. Similarly, across a range of opinion polls, the nation has repeatedly spurned the Coconut Éclair in favour of ‘The Purple One’ and the mini-Mars went on to suffer the ultimate ignominy of being deemed the least cause for celebration – and this in spite of being credited with the unique ability to ‘help you work, rest and play’ in the late 1950s!

Talk about falling from grace…

The point is, that (try as we might) we simply can’t avoid the selection (or even rejection) process. Either at work, or in our personal relationships, it is likely that we will have fallen victim to being unceremoniously ‘left on the shelf’ at one stage or another. However, if it has acted as a catalyst for self-evaluation or growth, then perhaps it was not such a bad thing.

So, if you’ve felt the passage of time rather keenly of late (and found yourself somewhat inclined to wallow in self-pity) thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to be a hero, you can live on a street of your choosing and that (with any luck) there’s still cause for celebration.

When the mornings aren’t quite dark enough

It is difficult to recall a time when our country has faced a more diverse set of challenges. A period of post-Brexit economic uncertainty was quickly eclipsed by the global pandemic and, in addition to the heavily publicised failings of the Metropolitan Police, the last few weeks have seen widespread disruption caused (in part) by a shortage of HGV drivers, but also by the subsequent panic-buying of fuel.

Those members of our family who continue to live in the Southeast of England, frequently regale us with stories that would strongly suggest that many local councils are close to breaking point too. One such council has had to suspend its garden waste collections – despite its residents having already been hit with paying an additional subscription for this particular service – and I’m told that its household waste and recycling collections are currently somewhat sporadic too. I gather that hospital appointments around the region are also something akin to gold dust at present, with NHS trusts working flat out to cover staff shortages whilst also trying to meet the ever-increasing demands posed by the ongoing pandemic. It would certainly seem that (in this respect at least) the North-South divide is currently tipping ever so slightly in our favour because, since relocating to Derbyshire in 2014, we have been fortunate enough to see little or no reduction in either the quality or availability of our local service provision. Any medical concerns have been promptly dealt with (to the point where my husband saw his GP one morning and, rather impressively, attended the local hospital for a range of tests the very next day) and our various bin collections have continued without disruption – and, better still, with no hint of a surcharge either.

Much to the relief of us all, I might add. Especially this week.

For half term week (regardless of location) is challenge enough for any family. With countless sibling disagreements to mediate, a range of interesting activities to mastermind, unpredictable weather to surmount, and one’s own last few shreds of sanity to retain, there is one household collection that positively NEEDS to take place. And boy, did our neighbour take full advantage this week…

As I reluctantly stepped from the shower cubicle this morning, I was met with the (all too) familiar sound of clinking glass and falling dustbin lids.

‘Grown-up’ cordial evidently forming part of this week’s coping strategy for other households too!

But this raucous ‘dawn symphony’ lasted well beyond the expected 4 movements, eventually culminating in an elaborate cadenza of aluminium cans too. And as I chuckled to myself (noting that perhaps a wine box or two might have been the wiser option here) I caught a brief glimpse of the ‘conductor’ surreptitiously wheeling their recycling bin towards the pavement. The irony being, of course, that in less than 48 hours (when the UK reverts to GMT) their identity would likely have been well and truly protected.

Ploughing one’s own furrow

As one’s life gallops inexorably towards the next significant milestone, it’s funny how certain phrases resonate more emphatically than others – and I wish that I could say that I had done this particular one even a modicum of justice! However, being naturally rather cautious in nature, I have repeatedly demonstrated a propensity for choosing the ‘safest option’ and this is possibly why I am so admiring of those who’ve bravely refused to wear the cloak of self-doubt, choosing instead to adorn their outer garments with that boldest of emblems – individuality.

Having witnessed the enormous amount of sibling rivalry that pervades our household (on an almost hourly basis!) I am constantly trying to encourage my boys to ‘be themselves’. The very idea that they should simply be carbon copies of one another is something that I work tirelessly to refute because (for two males born of the same parents) they couldn’t be less alike! From their outward appearance, right down to their inner persona, they are very much the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’ and yet I would willingly adopt a range of traits from each, in order to set about achieving that much-coveted ‘happy medium’.

In my professional life too, I have gained something of a reputation for ‘championing the unusual ’ and I’ll admit that I am prone to developing a ‘soft spot’ for those pupils who evidently struggle to conform but possess a unique ‘spark’ of one kind or another. After all, these are the very ‘individuals’ who are most likely to end up igniting our future with their genius.

Of course, I can see how a class full of 35 ‘individuals’ might not be to everyone’s taste – something akin to the ‘Krypton Factor of the teaching profession’! Nevertheless, the temptation to quash individuality (simply to achieve compliance) is one that we should all try desperately to resist. Because whilst uniformity within the classroom undoubtedly makes things ‘easier to manage’, it is likely that it will also be responsible for choking those first fragile tendrils of brilliance too.

So, by all means equip each child with the best ‘tools’ for the job, but don’t worry if those initial ‘furrows’ resemble rather elaborate crop circles instead; there is more than enough time for some gentle refinement.

Outstaying one’s welcome

I’m not usually one for submitting a formal complaint, preferring instead to speak with the individual(s) concerned and see if a solution (or even a compromise) might be found. I am, however, a firm believer in giving praise where it is due, and offering thanks where it is justified, and I am always genuinely grateful when someone takes the time to formally acknowledge my contribution to a ‘job well done’.

Today though, I have decided to break with tradition and (rather publicly) lodge a series of complaints against that most insidious of uninvited houseguests…

‘Dear Covid’ by Gaynor Hall

The purpose of this missive is to state a few home truths,
I don’t suppose you’ll listen though, you’re renowned for being aloof!
The thing you need to understand, is your welcome you’ve rather outstayed,
And although we’ve tried to tolerate you, a reprehensible card you’ve now played.

You arrived here in 2020 and boldly knocked at our doors,
You ‘befriended’ not just the vulnerable, but the young, the rich and the poor.
You wandered the streets of our cities, closed all of our restaurants and shops,
Disrupted our kids’ education and caused foreign travel to stop.

And rather like a squatter, you insisted on extending your stay,
Disrupting another calendar year, refusing to go away,
Ensuring that plans (though cautiously made) were unceremoniously trampled
At will by you, mean spirited fiend, your path of destruction most ample.

I applaud you for your timing, disrupting half-term was inspired –
Preventing adventures further afield that had been (by us all) so desired,
But for every disappointment that you’ve ‘kindly’ sent our way,
There’s the hope of better times ahead that keeps the blues at bay.

So next time you target my children, and choose all our lives to disrupt,
Don’t expect any nicety of language – just a tone that’s both sharp and abrupt.
I’m hereby serving you notice, not withstanding the absence of rent,
That you’re really not much of a lodger and isn’t it time that you went?

Once damaged, can it ever be fully repaired?

I recently read somewhere that “confidence comes naturally with success, but success comes only to those who are confident” and this left a lasting impression on me. Talk about catch-22! I mean, that’s a bit like attending a job interview for a more senior role, only to be told that you are pretty much a perfect fit – but that you lack the experience of working at that level.

Confidence is undoubtedly one of life’s most precious commodities, but its fragility should not be underestimated either. Often having taken (what feels like) an age to develop, it can be destroyed within the briefest of moments and the road to recovery can be both painful and arduous. And so, if our children have been fortunate enough to have cultivated even the slightest amount, let’s do our utmost to preserve it.

‘Watching from the sidelines’ by Gaynor Hall

Be sure to take a moment before you rush straight in and speak,
Will what you say be useful? Will it help him reach his peak?
Are your words borne out of anger, frustration, or displeasure?
Are you criticising him for ‘failing’ at the thing he does for leisure?

I’m sure you were ‘quite something’ on the pitch ‘back in the day’,
But it’s only his first season and he’s still just learning to play.
He doesn’t know what position he is or understand his role –
He just feels enormous pressure to go out and ‘net’ that goal.

You wouldn’t condemn a tiny child who’s struggling to read,
Nor shout at a crying baby who’s refused to take a feed.
But your words have cut him to the quick, he no longer stands so tall,
And all because he failed to win a tackle and lost the ball!

Next time you’re on the sidelines passing judgement from afar,
Remember they’re only children, not Ronaldo or Cantona…
The ‘result’ is quite irrelevant, you see, it really doesn’t matter,
But with each disparaging thing you say their confidence could shatter.    

Be sure to pay it forward!

My dad was a firm believer in treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself and this is certainly something that I have tried to put into practice over the years. And should you find that the truism ‘kindness costs nothing’ lacks resonance for any reason, then ‘be nice to the people you meet on the way up, for they are the same people that you’ll meet on the way back down’ might just help to focus the mind!

Perhaps one of the few positives to be taken from the ongoing pandemic is that there have been countless stories of people (from all walks of life) ‘pulling together’ and that the dying embers of community spirit have, to some extent, been rekindled. As we move forward into a period of recovery then, let’s try to hold on to those desirable behaviours, casting aside the all-consuming self- interest of before.

‘Be sure to pay it forward’ by Gaynor Hall

For every act of kindness, however great or small,
For every ounce of encouragement that helped you stand up tall,
For every time you very nearly let the demons in,
For every time you fought a battle you had no right to win,
For every time the road seemed tough, and strained at each small sinew,
For every time a friend endorsed the strength that lay within you,
For every time a passer-by their smile on you bestowed,
For every time a colleague helped to ease your heavy load,
For every time the sun still rose in spite of deep despair,
For every time that someone showed you just how much they cared.
Be grateful for each kindness, there’s no need to feel awkward,
Just remember the difference each one made – and be sure to pay it forward! 

To label, or not to label, that is the question

Over the years I have met a great many parents whom, at one time or another, have faced this particular dilemma. They have come to realise that their child is struggling at school, and they have begun to take those first tentative (but necessary) steps towards seeking some kind of help and support.

In my experience, when a group of parents get together over a coffee, the conversation usually adheres to a common theme – that of parental self-deprecation (after all, how many people honestly think that they are ‘acing’ this particular role?!) interwoven with the fundamental reality that most of us just want our children to ‘fit in’, be happy and to achieve their true potential. And it’s incredibly difficult to accept when something ‘isn’t quite right’. Feelings of inadequacy and anxiety begin to surface, and it can take a while for us to work through our own emotions, let alone ready ourselves for the inevitable challenges that we will need to help our children to overcome.

Society as a whole, of course, offers very little encouragement here.

As demonstrated by some of the abhorrent behaviour surrounding England’s defeat at Euro 2020, prejudice is evidently still very much alive and well. Whether pertaining to race, sexuality, age, or religion it would seem that ‘equality’ is the luxury of the few and there needs to be a concerted effort to change this. And like it or not, with every educational / behavioural diagnosis comes a certain amount of stigma too and (whilst progress is undoubtedly being made to address this) one can understand why a parent might be reluctant to authorise a comprehensive assessment for their child, for fear of them being ‘labelled’ and therefore viewed differently from their peers.

I remember taking part in an INSET session some eight or nine years ago that was looking at the common signs of, and useful strategies to help, those children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Being a subject that genuinely interested me, I had (rather uncharacteristically) listened intently – and made copious notes too! And just as I was beginning to wonder if my child might actually be ‘on the spectrum’ too, the presenter explained that most children under the age of five would exhibit a number of the behaviours outlined and that the mean age for ASD diagnosis ranged between 38 and 120 months. My relief was palpable (the proverbial weight having been lifted from my shoulders) and I settled down gratefully to the paediatric first aid course that followed.

All these years later, I have come to realise that my reaction was ‘normal’ (but also incredibly short-sighted) and this has made me much more empathetic towards those awaiting the diagnosis of a specific educational need for their child. The very notion that one’s treasured offspring might not be able to access education (or understand social convention) in the ‘usual’ way can be difficult to accept, and it is not uncommon for parents to feel a degree of culpability either – unwarranted or otherwise.

However, I wonder if an analogy with the labelling found on an item of clothing might be worth some consideration here? After all, without such a label there is a real chance that a particular item of clothing might become damaged or (in the event of it being dramatically reduced in size) rendered utterly worthless to the wearer. By attaching a ‘care’ label to a child then (rather than simply viewing that label as a set of arbitrary instructions) there’s a strong chance that this might help to alleviate some of their feelings of confusion and inadequacy. And better still, you might just be furnishing your child with an enduring sense of self-worth too.

I’m with Confucius on this one!

English Proverbs have long held a certain amount of fascination for me, and I used to love hearing my mum refer to a large number of them as she went about her daily tasks. Coping with six children cannot have been without its challenges, but she was incredibly adept at finding a saying that would put a positive slant on an otherwise demanding situation.

I’m quite sure, however, that in our case (my mum being constantly surrounded by a veritable gaggle of ankle biters) ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ might have been rather more apt than ‘Many hands make light work’ and this is possibly why she became a staunch believer in ‘Making hay while the sun shines’ – or at least before any of her ‘little darlings’ had had the chance to surface!

What I really love about all these sayings though are the many straightforward messages of wisdom and morality that they help to impart, in language that is rather less condemnatory than some of the statements found within the scriptures of the Old Testament. Take, for example, Proverbs 1:32-33 “For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm”. This is pretty uncompromising stuff! A case of ‘my way or the highway’ perhaps?

As with so many popular sayings though, it is usually possible to find another one that conveniently provides a ready-made counter argument.

‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ can neatly be substituted for ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ depending upon the mood of the protagonist. Similarly, ‘Great minds think alike’ can be turned upon its head with the maxim that ‘Fools rarely differ’! And, being an unashamed devotee of language, I often find myself marvelling at the astonishing power of words to empower or defeat, comfort or wound, entertain or reduce to tears.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and politician who was generally considered to be the ‘paragon of Chinese sages’. Born in 551 BC, Confucius lived until he was 71 and during that time, he gained a reputation for striving to make education broadly available, and for establishing the art of teaching as a much-respected vocation. His ‘golden rule’: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself’ would seem to offer a moral code fit for all and one that requires no further explanation. For this reason (and because I am still working my way steadily through a mid-life crisis of my own) I decided to find out what Confucius had to say on the subject of old age. The results were surprisingly encouraging…

“Old age, believe me, is a good and pleasant thing. It is true you are gently shouldered off the stage, but then you are given such a comfortable front stall as spectator.”

Perhaps it’s time to let the youngsters take centre stage, and for me to settle gratefully into my seat, with a substantial container of popcorn at the ready!