Temet nosce

‘Temet nosce’ (or ‘know thyself’) might be the briefest of phrases, and yet these two small words convey such an important message.

However, before I go on, I feel duty bound to set the record straight. I am not (by any stretch of the imagination) a Latin scholar, and the irony of having chosen a Latin phrase as the heading for my latest blog will not have been lost on those who remember me from my school days…

As a nervous pupil starting Year 7 at secondary school, being placed in the top set meant that the (rather dubious) honour of learning Latin had been ‘bestowed’ (or rather thrust) upon me. And so, my (not so) illustrious relationship with the language of the Roman Empire began.

It ended just 12 months later when the teacher gratefully washed her hands of me, noting on my end of year report that I had “spent a good deal less time inside the classroom, than out in the corridor” – a fitting punishment for my “poor application and lack of reverence” apparently!

Anyway, in spite of all of this, I am often fascinated by the extent to which Latin words still dominate our language. After all, the notion of working on an ‘ad hoc’ basis, perhaps for a ‘bona fide’ company, in an attempt to ‘carpe diem’, makes a good deal of sense when trying to take control of one’s own destiny.

‘Temet nosce’ then, will possibly resonate with many of us, as we strive to overcome the many challenges associated with living through a global pandemic. Bereavement, loss of income, a sense of isolation and the sheer anxiety of trying to juggle work with home schooling / childcare are factors that have put untold strain on people. However, there have been countless stories of human resilience too, and so it strikes me that to ‘know oneself’ is probably currently more important than ever. Because, in understanding our own psyche (and dare I say it, ‘limitations’) we are enabling ourselves to set realistic targets (through tailor-made strategies) that will propel us forwards – hopefully with our mental health intact!

Sandwiches with a pinch of Friendship thrown in!

Many friends have told me that they have acquired new skills during the course of one national lockdown or another, and Facebook has borne witness to a veritable deluge of posts about the success (or otherwise) of home baking projects, ingeniously crafted ‘Fakeaways’ or the cultivation of fresh produce.   

I have to admit that (pre-2020) I had staunchly shied away from baking of any kind, believing that my efforts would almost certainly fall woefully short of my mum’s delectable creations. However, with lockdown 1 came the desire not only to rekindle precious childhood memories with my boys, but also to lay that particular ghost to rest. And by choosing a homemade chocolate cake (over a shop bought Harry Potter one for his birthday earlier this week), my youngest son unwittingly gave my baking skills the resounding endorsement that I so desperately craved! However, as I sat basking in the glory of my new-found culinary success, I found myself taking a somewhat reluctant trip down memory lane to a week’s work experience, carried out shortly after sitting my GCSE examinations. 

It was the summer of 1991 and my parents had kindly arranged for me to go and help out at the local primary school. My mum dropped me off at the school office and I waited nervously for my instructions. The Headteacher (a terrifyingly exuberant character) cantered towards me, welcomed me to his school and promptly dispatched me to Class One. I was immediately put to work cleaning up the painting corner (surely that was a job for a Friday afternoon, not a Monday morning?) and sorting the Lego from the Duplo – which I dutifully did. Later that day, I was entrusted with delivering ‘Storytime’ to twenty-four rather fidgety four- and five-year-olds but I relished that particular challenge, and I have to admit that (before long) I had them all captivated.

By lunchtime, I was beginning to feel much more relaxed and had already warmed to several of the children in that class. It was evident that many of them viewed me as a sort of ‘big sister’ and, rather like the Pied Piper, I seemed to have quite a following by the time I accompanied the TA out onto the playground! When I returned to the classroom, the teacher presented me with a large canvas shopping bag and quickly informed me of her plans for the next session.

The children had been growing their own cress and so they were going to make egg and cress sandwiches for their afternoon snack. I glanced into the bag and saw a loaf of bread, some low-fat spread, some hard-boiled eggs, and a plastic container filled with a thick creamy substance that looked like a cross between mayonnaise and salad cream. The cress, of course, was on the windowsill on a bed of cotton wool. All very straightforward, I thought.

The children were sent to me in batches of six where we swiftly found our rhythm (in true production line fashion) buttering bread, removing the shell from the eggs, and combining the ingredients before plating up the sandwiches and allowing the children to tuck in.

Well, they were thrilled with their efforts and utterly effusive in their verbal feedback. I beamed at them, rejoicing in the notion of a job well done. The teacher seemed pleased with our efforts too and it was soon time to tidy everything away and send the children home.

Once the last child had been safely handed over to his parent, I went to collect my things from the staffroom. As I was leaving, Miss B called after me to ask where I had put the canvas bag etc. I proudly informed her that I had placed it under her desk with the plastic container (meticulously washed and dried) inside. She looked at me aghast:

“But what have you done with the contents of the container?” she enquired.

“Most of it got used,” I replied. “So, I didn’t think that there was much point in keeping the rest.”

“Used?” she asked, “On what?”

(I began to wonder why Miss B was being quite so slow on the uptake!)

“In the sandwiches,” I stated rather incredulously, “to bind the egg together.”

“Oh, no!” she cried. “That wasn’t mayonnaise, it was Friendship Cake mixture!”

She went on to explain that she had been given the recipe by a parent and that it was one that had taken quite some time to ‘cultivate’.

Taken from an Amish tradition, the idea was to keep adding ingredients over a ten-day period and then to give portions of the ‘starter batter’ away to friends, so that they could bake (and enjoy) a cake for themselves.

I remember thinking that this was quite a long and drawn-out process. That it might have been considerably more ‘friendly’ simply to have given someone a cake that could be enjoyed immediately, with a nice cup of coffee perhaps? I resisted the urge to voice these thoughts, however!

And with that, my first day euphoria instantly evaporated and I beat (what can only be described as) a hasty retreat. I had absolutely no idea how Miss B might go about telling the parent in question that her well-intentioned gift had just been ingested (uncooked) by each and every child in Class One. Looking on the bright side though, the week could only get better!    

In pursuit of the happy medium

People constantly talk about ‘striking a happy medium’ and I’ve often wondered if this is, in fact, possible? So many factors would have to be finely balanced in order for this to be achievable and human nature is so inherently fallible (certainly in my case, anyway!) that somewhere along the lines the potential for error must arguably be too great!

I’m always utterly fascinated by family dynamics and I derive huge comfort from seeing that my parental struggles are by no means unique! The notion that the ‘second child’ is always something of a handful certainly rang true in our case, but then I’m the fourth out of six – so I’m not entirely sure how that should have affected my own personality or emotional development… Perhaps being ‘somewhere in the middle’ has left me ‘floundering’ (in hierarchical terms at least) and unable to voice my wishes / feelings with any degree of conviction? I suspect, though, that my colleagues might (ever so politely) disagree! 

I’ve written before about the sibling rivalry that pervades our home-life and (by association) my largely unremitting role as judge and jury. However, as the boys get that little bit older, I’m beginning to catch glimpses of certain (almost desirable) traits coming to the fore, and I find myself daring to hope that they will, eventually, manage to reach an ‘uneasy peace’.

The fact of the matter is that my boys couldn’t be more different. My eldest is shy, relatively sensible (he is a prepubescent boy, after all!) and prefers to observe first, then join in later. My youngest is self-assured, quick-witted, and impetuous – and causes us far more heartache as a result. In this regard then, I must confess that I am utterly guilty of wanting my boys to ‘strike a happy medium’. After all, being polite and unassuming doesn’t tend to fare all that well in a Saturday morning league match but then again, neither does one want to be the parent of a child for whom a red card might almost become a ‘badge of honour’!     

With the return of a third UK lockdown, I’m fairly confident that parents far and wide have been desperately striving for a healthy balance between ensuring that their children continue to make some sort of academic progress, whilst trying to protect their physical and emotional wellbeing too. For those parents also trying to hold down a job, it can feel like something akin to being a trapeze artist, where the margin for error is depressingly slim. It seems to me then, that the quest for a better work-life balance, the holy grail of parenting or indeed the happy medium, is something that is destined to haunt us all for many more years to come. If, on the other hand, you are fortunate enough to stumble upon it, please don’t be shy in coming forward; my liver and /or sanity might depend upon it!

A brief encounter

Many years ago, I had the privilege of meeting someone truly remarkable. It was one of those chance encounters that renders you momentarily speechless, then acts as a powerful catalyst for change.

It was a dismal February evening and I had just left a rehearsal in central London. We’d been working on Michael Tippett’s five spirituals from ‘A Child of Our Time’ and it had been one of those rehearsals where you come away feeling as though your soul has been suitably nourished, and that something within the music has transcended human understanding.     

I had been experiencing some problems with anti-social behaviour in and around the housing development where I lived, and I was seriously considering handing in my notice at work and moving away from the area. However, having just been part of something so utterly inspiring, I was loath to concede defeat and allow the local ‘Youf’ to drive me out of my home and away from my Monday night refuge.

Having caught up on everyone’s weekly news over a quick drink, we all went our separate ways, as was the usual routine. I headed for Victoria station and, upon arrival, gave the departures board a cursory glance. My heart plummeted when I discovered that, not one, but two trains to Swanley had been cancelled and that I would have just over an hour to wait. There was nothing for it. I would just have to grab a coffee and a magazine and set up residence on platform 5.

When my train did eventually arrive, I was delighted to note that two cancellations had not rendered this three-carriage-wonder ludicrously full, and I settled thankfully into my window seat. Before long, the train pulled away and I felt reassured that home was now within reach.

The first part of the journey passed without incident and I became quickly engrossed in my magazine. There were additional stops to make, but there was something pleasantly mesmerising about the staccato rhythm of the wheels moving over the track and the sound of needles of rain bouncing off the windows at jaunty angles. And then I became aware of a different sound. The sound of raised voices and dull thuds.

I felt myself stiffen and the all too familiar feeling of fear and unease (associated with broken windscreens and trampled fences close to home) resurfaced. I looked around the carriage in an attempt to establish where the noise was coming from. And then I spotted the silhouettes of three men looming in the doorway of the adjacent carriage. It was not immediately clear what they were doing, but their presence was both threatening and unwelcome, reminiscent of an ITV drama, but sickeningly real. In a matter of minutes, the train slowed, and all three men came hurtling through our carriage, disappearing just as suddenly into the night.        

A little later, a young man staggered into view and gingerly lowered himself into an aisle seat. He had a cut on his face and looked badly shaken but there was a disarming aura of composure about him too. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, “Are you alright?” seemed painfully inadequate and yet I couldn’t just ignore his plight altogether. So, I made do with frequent glances in his direction, hoping against hope that he would somehow sense my feeble attempt at compassion. He must have done, because he looked straight at me before giving me the most tender of smiles. But rather than providing the comfort that was no doubt intended, the warmth of his gaze made me feel even more ashamed. How could he be so calm, after what he had just endured? Hadn’t he just been badly let down by his fellow passengers? By me?

As if he could read my thoughts, he said simply “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. And as he left the train, I wept uncontrollably; not just for him, but for humankind.

The digital abyss

Is it really only a month since Christmas? Just four meagre weeks of ‘blended learning’ are starting to feel like a lifetime, and the extra workload is beginning to take its toll on teachers up and down the country. But before you cast your phone aside (consigning the self-pitying words of yet another ‘whinging education professional’ to the ignominy of your trash folder) I don’t mind conceding that this much eulogised, ‘blended learning utopia’, is not exactly a barrel of laughs for parents either.

Courtesy of the snow, I had the grave misfortune of spending a (mere) day and a half ‘overseeing’ my children’s home learning. Quite apart from achieving absolutely nothing myself, the sheer logistics of accessing resources, supplying the necessary stationery, finding additional reference material, and sharing the bandwidth amicably (amongst a family of four) left ‘Team Hall’ feeling more than a little jaded! The very notion that children (of primary school age) will be able to seamlessly access hours of online lessons whilst other members of their household calmly hold down a job would be highly amusing, if it weren’t for the fact that this gargantuan struggle is now a daily reality for many. And there are definitely no winners, as far as I can see!

‘Living the Dream’ was inspired by the stories of countless colleagues, desperately trying to navigate their way through the trials and tribulations of online teaching. Do let me know if it strikes a chord!   

Living the Dream

Hi everybody, I hope you’re all well.
As we enter week 4 of this virtual hell…
Did you finish your work from yesterday’s session?
Wait for it, cue a whole host of confessions!

“I couldn’t find any paper to write on”.
“My printer’s broken; there’s simply no light on”.
“I didn’t hear what you asked us to do”.
“Miss, I’ve got COVID, well that or the flu”.

Ok, not to worry, I think we’ll move on.
This is clearly a battle they think that they’ve won…
Today we’ll consider the use of apostrophes,
No doubt the signal for some new catastrophe.

Can you name both types; explain how to use them?
Contraction, possession – one mustn’t confuse them!
“Miss, my screen’s frozen, I can’t hear a word”
That’s the fourth time this week, Jimmy, don’t be absurd!

Try leaving the meeting, then joining again,
I’ll send you the PowerPoint, questions and then
You can finish the work just as soon as you’re able,
Return it via TEAMS when your broadband’s more stable.

Jimmy doesn’t answer, he’s eating his lunch –
Or playing on his Xbox, just call it a hunch!
But Edie’s on fire, answering question after question,
Completely oblivious of my hands-up ‘suggestion’.

Remember to use your virtual hands,
I’ll be with you shortly, or as soon as I can.
I do need to help all the pupils in school,
They cause far less grief, as a general rule!

Anne, can you tell me what you have just written?
It’s blatantly obvious you simply don’t listen.
We’re on question four, the one with the plurals…
Which you’d know full well if you’d viewed my tutorials!

James, please stop eating and sit on your chair.
He’s sprawled on his bed again, legs in the air…
How far have you got? Have you reached question six?
“Not yet, Miss, I thought I’d just stop for a Twix!”

Please do remember to check through your work,
The sheer lack of accuracy, drives me berserk!
I’ll mark it this evening and upload your score,
No rest for the wicked no, not anymore!

I’ll ‘see’ you all later, be ready for Science,
I’m hoping for something resembling compliance…
We’ll be looking at some foods which can cause tooth decay,
Not a moment too soon from what I’ve seen today!

“Miss, are you coming? I think you’re on duty”.
“Ben’s fallen over; his cut is a beauty!”
“I’m coming”, I call – through teeth tightly gritted,
If only I’d been just a bit more quick-witted…

I head to the playground, in search of poor Ben,
Only to discover it’s raining again.
The wound, now self-cleaning, is far from severe,
In no time at all, he’s been given the ‘all clear’.

The afternoon passes without too much trauma,
As numerous facts are presented with humour.
Jimmy returns, fresh from battles Royale,
There’s clearly ‘nowt wrong’ with his internet now!

Homework is issued, the kids have all left,
Teachers pack up, feeling strangely bereft.
Time to reflect on this changing profession,
Fuelled by drinks sipped in rapid succession!

Guilt: rite of passage, or wasteful emotion?

I’ve literally lost count of the number of times that I have sat worrying about whether or not I could have done things differently or handled a particular situation better. I try to tell myself that this is because I am constantly striving to improve. In reality though, I suspect that it has more to do with nagging self-doubt, and the awful realisation that life simply doesn’t come with a handbook.

I remember attending an antenatal class with my husband when we were expecting our first child. There we were, eager to learn the craft of parenting – and somehow naïve enough to think that three 45-minute sessions would suffice! We sat on the edge of our seats, earnestly focusing upon the midwife whose (unenviable) task it was, to talk us through labour and birth – which she did, with almost unseemly alacrity, and in glorious technicolour! As I glanced around the room, a real assortment of reactions was on display; from the overt smugness of a young (and very glamorous) couple, to the mild panic etched upon the face of a young single mum-to-be. And I don’t mind admitting that we were undeniably in the ‘Oh my goodness, what have we let ourselves in for?’ camp, clutching at thinly veiled humour to bolster our ever so rapidly dwindling confidence! One of the things that struck me then though (and haunts me even now) was the stark realisation that we would be taking on enormous responsibility and that, quite possibly, nothing that we did from this point onwards would ever be quite good enough. A truly sobering thought!

Anyway, whilst this facet of our lives is still very much a ‘work in progress’ (both boys mercifully having lasted an awful lot longer than any house plant hitherto entrusted to our care), it feels like an opportune moment to share our progress to date…

At nearly 35, and having recently lost both parents, I was blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby boy. At a whopping 9 lbs 1 oz (and making his appearance in something akin to a Superman pose) he certainly made his presence known! However, as if by way of atonement, he was an incredibly easy baby – sleeping through the night at just a few weeks old and calmly embracing each developmental milestone at his own pace. And so, having initially been rather doubtful as to my suitability as a Mum, I began to wonder if I was in fact Mother Nature?! I became enormously adept at accepting coffee invitations and chatting amiably to other mums (often above the shrill cries of their new-borns) whilst my own little bundle of joy slept contentedly in my arms.   

Imagine my shock then, when a ‘real’ baby arrived some three years later… One that had an aversion to sleeping, feeding or in fact complying in any small way with my (evidently) feeble attempts at parenting! Literally overnight, I seemed to have gone from having a calm malleable pre-schooler to being that parent who feels duty bound to apologise on arrival for the chaos that will inevitably ensue as a result of her child being within a 5-mile radius.

I can’t tell you how many times I have left a soft-play centre, school playground or children’s party at breakneck speed (and with tears pricking my eyes) because my youngest has (in true wrecking ball style) ‘imposed’ his ideas upon his peers. Or frantically scoured the area for any sign of a little boy in a (deliberately chosen) bright red coat who has managed to take advantage of a momentary lapse in concentration and disappeared without trace, only to re-appear many long minutes later unashamedly proud of the utter panic that he has managed to engender. And each time, I have blamed myself unreservedly – not just for his distressing behaviour, but for the woeful negativity of my response to that behaviour too. Because for every loss of self-control, lack of empathy or act of belligerence, there will also be a spontaneous hug, infectious giggle, or funny retort just around the corner and I’m left wondering how on earth to strike a ‘happy medium’, whilst also reeling at the complexity of it all. 

Rather regrettably, 2021 has begun in very much the same vein as 2020 ended – peppered with challenges, uncertainty, and heartbreak. The ‘new normal’ at work is quite alien from the job I used to love, and ‘remote examining’ feels very different from being ‘on the road’ too, where meeting candidates of all ages and backgrounds was a large part of the attraction.

For once then, my New Year’s resolution has nothing to do with weight loss, fitness goals, or even a commitment to consume less alcohol – although the latter would certainly be beneficial! This year, although my role as a parent remains largely unchanged, it is my approach that I am hoping to modify, because I have come to realise that (whilst I never hesitate to berate myself savagely for every time that I have lacked the composure to deal sensitively with a situation) I frequently fail to acknowledge the successes too.

Perhaps ‘guilt’ is simply the mantle borne by all parents? A rite of passage, as it were? However, if nothing else, the last 12 months have demonstrated to us all that life presents numerous challenges (some entirely beyond our control) and I wonder, therefore, if we shouldn’t all be a little kinder to ourselves – and dispense with what my Dad frequently referred to as a ‘wasteful emotion’?        

‘Snow Day’

Since it was first published in 2014, ‘Snow Day’ by Richard Curtis has been a firm favourite within the Hall household. For those of you who haven’t read it, the blurb states that: ‘When Danny arrives at school, the last thing he expects to find is a deserted school and his LEAST favourite teacher. But that’s exactly what he does find. And what starts as the worst day imaginable ends as the most magical day of the year’. In essence, it’s a tremendously heart-warming story about finding friendship in the most unlikely of places – and my boys (and I) absolutely love it!

Over the past few days, much of Derbyshire has (once again) been shrouded in snow, and this inevitably brought back many happy childhood memories. However, as my husband and I regaled each other with various snow-related anecdotes, we were both suddenly struck by the harsh realisation that ‘Snow Days’ (complete with days off school) have effectively become a ‘thing of the past’. Courtesy of COVID (and the associated national lockdowns) the chances of a child being allowed to simply enjoy the snow are becoming increasingly slim. Remote learning is fast becoming the ‘norm’ and the teacher who finds himself unable to travel to work (owing to hazardous driving conditions) is now simply expected to calmly trade their ‘Toyota’ for ‘TEAMS’ and continue with their teaching. And so, it seemed only right and proper to pay tribute to that much hallowed (albeit largely obsolete) institution – ‘The Great British Snow Day’.  

Ode to a Snow Day

That shroud of white that doth appear
Forsaken by children, once held so dear.
Nor from the garden beckoning,
Her icy fingers languishing.

‘Tis time to draw a veil o’er thee
And venture towards technology.
The snowman spurned, the sledge bereft,
With hours upon hours of tuition left!

Those halcyon days, so free and guileless,
(Listening for school closures on the wireless)
So cruelly displaced by video lessons
And daily commutes that last mere seconds!

Oh, how we pine for those simplest of pleasures,
(Instead of fractions, or other measures)
The crunch of snow beneath one’s feet,
A well-aimed snowball yielding victory sweet!

My wintry companion! My childhood friend!
You afforded such joy for hours on end,
But now those adventures have drawn to a close,
Just another sad symptom of COVID, I suppose.

So long, farewell!

As this calendar year finally draws to a close, I’m fairly confident that most of us will be extremely glad to see the back of 2020. There have been challenges aplenty, moments of anxiety and despair, and my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19; a virus that shows no mercy and seems intent upon wreaking havoc for some time to come. However, it is my firm belief that better times lie ahead and that this ‘new and silent enemy’ will eventually succumb to the fortitude and ingenuity of the human spirit. May the Lord ‘bless you and keep you’ until then.     

The Uninvited Guest

I don’t wish to sound ungrateful; I don’t want to seem unkind
But you’ve rather outstayed your welcome and taken up too much time.
When you crept up upon our communities, silent and somewhat shy,
None of us knew quite how potent you’d be – we hoped that you’d pass swiftly by.

You entered our homes uninvited, invaded our children’s schools,
You attacked the fit and the vulnerable, no thought for obeying the rules.  
You cancelled our hobbies and interests, you sabotaged parties and treats,
You even scuppered our festive plans; the latter was no mean feat!

And just when we thought that we’d found a solution – two vaccines quickly invented,
You chose to mutate, re-group and persist, local lockdowns circumvented.
You ripped through our cities, our towns big and small, without any sign of stopping,
Case numbers rose (as did hospital admissions) the death rates were truly shocking.

So, forgive me if I’m not a huge fan of yours, ‘Master Covid’ you cruel imposter,
You’re made yourself known through sadness and loss, and managed much fear to foster.
You’ve won a few battles (I’ll grant you that) but you’ve certainly not won the war,
With family, friendship and faith on our side, our spirit is sure to endure.    

The sands of time

2020 has not been an easy year for anyone. There has been uncertainty and loss in abundance and trying to juggle work with home-schooling (during lockdown 1) certainly tested the parenting skills of even the most adept of multitaskers!

However, venturing out for local walks and bike rides (during the permitted daily exercise slot) became our way of looking after our emotional and physical wellbeing, and I found myself feeling immensely grateful for those precious family moments and (by association) the many opportunities for self-reflection that they afforded.

Being a Sagittarian, I have just ‘celebrated’ another birthday (groan) and I have to admit that my natural instinct was to dwell (rather unflatteringly) upon the ‘sands of time’. After all, feelings of frustration, a loss in confidence and (to some degree) a sense of inadequacy are incredibly common in women whose career path has (understandably) been re-routed in order to accommodate the raising of children.  However, I have tried instead to acknowledge some of the aspirations that I held when I was young, whilst also being mindful of the ‘bigger picture’. Let’s hope that I can carry this (frankly rather uncharacteristic) brand of positivity into the next decade – when the time comes! 

Another year older

When I was but a tiddler, I dreamt of being a teacher,
(My brothers said my bossy streak would be a useful feature!),
I’d line up all my teddies and issue clear instructions,
Or take a crafty polaroid of their end of term ‘productions’.

When I moved up to ‘juniors’, I thought I’d be a dancer –
Not Ballet (requiring elegance) but ‘Tap’ the obvious answer…
I had an excellent memory for dance routines straightforward,
I just lacked poise or presence, and looked extremely awkward!

As I approached my teenage years, I decided to become a swimmer,
(I’d entered a single gala and been proclaimed an ‘almost’ winner!),
I joined a club and practised hard – the lengths offered time to think,
But a lack of pace (or stamina) caused my dreams to quickly sink!

When I was in my twenties, my love for music flourished,
Spending hours at the piano and keeping my soul well-nourished.
I rattled off countless ‘études’, ‘rhapsodies’ and ‘sonatas’,
And still I lacked the confidence to really raise the rafters.  

When I was in my thirties, I yearned for far-off lands,
The type you see on postcards – turquoise waters, golden sands.
I set about visiting heritage sights, monuments great and small,
Sampling different cultures; in truth, I had ‘a ball’!

And now that I’m in my forties, wondering what’ll come next,
I find myself re-evaluating, and feeling truly blessed,
I may not have ‘set the world on fire’ – but perhaps there is still time…
But I’ve found my soulmate and borne two sons, and I’m proud to call them ‘mine’.

After the gorillas

Anyone who works in a school will know that Christmas (out of necessity) comes incredibly early each year. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely rather Grinch-like in my approach to the festive season, and I really don’t enjoy being bombarded with (often rather alarming) statistics about the rapidly decreasing number of sleeps until a certain event! For me personally, Christmas begins once all of the end of term performances have been successfully completed, the parents have been reminded of the exceptional power of music to genuinely move them, and the children have experienced that tremendous sense of satisfaction gained from knowing that they have been part of something special.

Having entered the final stages of the Autumn Term once more, I found myself reminiscing about the run-up to Christmas some 17 years ago. 

I had just joined the staff as Director of Music, and I was ultimately keen to make my mark. I had put together an ambitious programme for the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols, organised a concert for our junior instrumentalists and (rather foolishly) decided that I could also fit in a performance of Herbert Chappell’s ‘The Christmas Jazz’ courtesy of our Year 3 pupils. Rookie error!

Well, the rehearsals had been something of a struggle (largely because I had grossly overestimated the ability of 7- and 8-year old children to commit large amounts of song lyrics to memory) and I found myself taking the dress rehearsal and genuinely wondering if we would make it safely from start to finish.

I had started by instructing the children that we needed to run through the whole work without stopping, and that they should be listening out for their cues, especially if they had a solo to perform. We had spoken (fairly exhaustively) about the need to learn their words (from the sheets which had been provided several weeks earlier) and to make sure that they knew where their part fitted in. Satisfied that we were all working to the same agenda, I took my place at the piano and looked up expectantly. Just as soon as most sets of eyes were looking in my direction (there’s always one, after all!) we began.

Everything started well. The young lady who was singing the opening solo did a fantastic job, and the rest of the year group joined in lustily for the first chorus. I began to relax. As we moved through some sizeable solos, all of the children seemed to have peaked at just the right time. I dared to hope that we were heading for chart topping success.

As we progressed through the performance, I sensed that we had company. Having furtively glanced behind me, I gleaned that the catering staff had emerged from the kitchens to listen and we had also been joined by the Headmaster. My desire for a smooth run instantly intensified.

With the cow, donkey, Mary and all three sheep having sailed through their respective solos it would soon all come down to the Wise Men. No less than 45 voices (potent in their sincerity) sang the ‘Gloria’ with gusto. And then… silence! Not a single Wise Man had sprung to his feet and, not for the first time that term, I began to wonder quite why I had entrusted such a crucial role to the three boys who (even now) seemed oblivious as to the reason why our dress rehearsal had spectacularly ground to a halt.  

Utterly incensed, I leapt to my feet. I glowered in the direction of the three boys and enquired (rather acerbically) as to why they weren’t singing their trio? With a look of absolute bewilderment, one of the boys responded: “Because it’s not our turn yet, Miss.” With a withering look, I asked when he thought it might be his turn – after all we were within a few bars of the grand finale…

He reached for his word sheet, referred to it quickly, and fixed me with a look of pure defiance:
“It says here that we sing after the gorillas, and they haven’t sung yet!” he stated. For once, I was speechless. Gorillas?? Certainly not a feature of any nativity scene that I had encountered!

As I summoned up the energy to point this out, the penny finally dropped… In actual fact, his word sheet bore the instruction that ‘the Wise Men sing immediately after the Gloria’ – with hindsight, possibly not the most helpful of directions for a 7-year old boy suffering from dyslexia! Feeling rather contrite, I went on to explain just where the misunderstanding had occurred (much to the amusement of the entire catering staff) and we tried that section again.

Thankfully, having cleared up any confusion, the performance later that week went well. However, when ‘Love Actually’ was released (just a couple of weeks later), I found myself chuckling about the much-coveted role of ‘1st lobster’ and thinking that a ‘Gorilla’ was perhaps not all that far-fetched after all!