Time to embrace the decline?

Words (whether written or spoken) can be incredibly powerful. Carefully chosen, they can serve to motivate or embolden. Sensitively proffered, they can provide immense comfort at times of great sorrow.  Imaginatively crafted, they can provoke an emotional reflex that leaves a profound impression upon the reader or listener. But when they are delivered in anger, haste or simply without thought, they can wound and belittle. Indeed, the notion that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ has real resonance here, because it is quite extraordinary how a perfectly innocent throw away comment can engrain itself in your subconscious and then continue to torment you, many months later.

Today’s reminiscence though, is not one of deep resentment (or offence bitterly taken) but of genuine gratitude that someone (albeit unwittingly) gave me the wake-up call that I so desperately needed!

We had set out for a lovely walk in the Peak District, taking in the stepping-stones at Dovedale. Our boys were still very young at the time and so we were not looking for anything particularly energetic, but we felt fairly confident that meandering streams (complete with large boulders for scrambling over) would be an instant hit. We weren’t wrong. In fact, the outing had all the ingredients for success – fresh air, exercise, and great company.

We had arranged to meet up with another family whose two little girls were the same age as our own children. Inevitably though, our two didn’t want to adopt the same pace as their counterparts (preferring instead to examine every conceivable rock in minute detail, whilst also relishing the possibility that their brother might yet end up in the water!) so Hubby ended up bringing up the rear, whilst I (rather predictably) chatted happily with the other adults in our party.

It was during one such conversation that I became aware that I was really quite out of breath, and that I was making decidedly ungainly progress up the various screes. In my (somewhat futile) attempt to divert attention from my woeful lack of fitness, I asked my friend if she was limping. After all, by showing interest in someone else’s apparent discomfort, I was buying myself valuable minutes to re-group, right?!

I was quickly informed that ‘yes’, it was the result of a sporting injury. Not quite the ‘get out of jail’ card that I was hoping for – Sport? What was that?  I needed to look back at my school days in order to find a genuine example of vigorous exercise

Perhaps the bewilderment of my facial expression (coupled with disturbingly crimson cheeks and ridiculously laboured breathing) led to the statement in question. Whatever the catalyst, it really hit home!

I listened dutifully to a terribly painful sounding account of how a cycling accident in central London (during the early morning commute) had caused temporary damage to her Achilles and Patella tendons. This, of course, led me on to evince surprise that she was cycling regularly into work, when previously the number 56 had more than sufficed… She fixed me with a steely gaze and said (without any discernible emotion) that she had reached the conclusion that she should “either do something about her general level of fitness or embrace the decline”. Well, at just two years younger (and easily about 3 stone heavier) I felt suitably chastened!

Indeed, many weeks later, I found myself pondering those words again.

As an older parent, (of two incredibly energetic boys) I realised that my (hitherto) largely sedentary lifestyle probably wasn’t going to ‘cut it’ long term. I didn’t want to be the type of parent who is always ‘too tired’ to play, or who looks for the (superficially) ‘easy’ option of a ‘quiet afternoon in’.

And so, a heartfelt ‘Thank you, dear friend’ is in order here, for nudging me in the right direction. Having chosen not to ’embrace the decline’ just yet, we have effectively opened up a wealth of opportunities. Some of our most cherished paternal memories now originate from our encounters with the great outdoors, and of family sporting activities that we would previously have dismissed as being ‘out of our reach’.   

When the red mist descends

As the daughter of a GP who didn’t have much truck with diagnoses of an educational nature, I have perhaps inherited a little of his scepticism when it comes to identifying some of these traits in very young pupils. With children hitting key developmental milestones at such varying rates, it is often all too easy to reach for a ‘label’ prematurely, in the hope of seeking justification for slightly unorthodox behaviours. An area that has fascinated me for quite some time though, is that of Asperger’s Syndrome – although here too, of course, there are wildly varying degrees of severity.

Over the years, I have had the immense privilege of being a part of the educational journey of a great many children and it is fair to say that some of the most remarkable personalities that I have encountered have been part of this particular cohort. Indeed, today’s reminiscence is centred around one such pupil – a young lad that made a huge impression on me, at a time when I was still very much ‘learning my trade’ and (dare I say it) perhaps rather too quick to judge!

‘X’ had joined the school that term, and he was one of the few children who seemed to understand my particularly dry brand of humour. He would regularly give the impression that he wasn’t really paying all that much attention to what I was saying and then, seemingly out of nowhere, he would give a wry smile and respond with some crushingly insightful response. I warmed to him immediately.

We were approaching the end of November and Christmas was beginning to loom large.  Cue the big announcement regarding my choice of musical for Year 3: ‘Stable Manners’ by Mark & Helen Johnson. I did the usual introduction (stopping just short of an actual drumroll or fanfare) explaining that we would be retelling the Christmas story – but through humour, and no less than 10 catchy songs! Full of enthusiasm, I started to teach the opening number straight away.

Well, ‘X’ wasn’t a fan of singing, and he clearly thought that the story of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus was terribly passé. He yawned rather conspicuously and stated that the first song was ‘boring’. Now ordinarily, I would have been livid at such a damming appraisal (and from a 7-year-old too!) but I saw an opportunity to regain the upper hand… I smugly responded that “it might be boring if the song was called ‘Nothing is happening tonight’ but the fact that it was in fact entitled ‘Something is happening tonight’ meant that it was anything BUT boring” – or words to that effect. But, far from being chastened by this professorial flexing of muscles, ‘X’ simply looked at me (with palpable disdain) and muttered that “everything is relative”. I was torn between exasperation and a grudging respect; this boy certainly had guts!

Well, a few more weeks went by, and I was just leaving school for the day when I heard quite a commotion coming from one of the Year 3 classrooms, on the floor above. The noise seemed to be emerging from the classroom of an extremely experienced teacher, and that is possibly what piqued my interest enough for me to make a small detour…

I mounted the stairs as quickly as I could and headed in the direction of the rapidly escalating sound of various learning resources being hurled angrily across the room. On arrival, I was met with the (rather extraordinary) sight of my colleague standing in the doorway (quite literally spellbound) whilst ‘X’ proceeded to fling as many items as he could at anyone foolish enough to try and enter. The other children in the after-school activity had already been moved to an adjacent classroom, in an attempt to minimise any distress that this outburst might cause.

I quickly went to intervene, but something told me that my hitherto default setting of ‘yell first, question later’ might not be the best way forward. If I’m honest, I also suspected that my colleague had possibly already used this approach, hence the red mist that had evidently descended!  So, rather uncharacteristically, I got down to ‘X’s level and, gently taking his hands (and a large amount of Lego bricks) in mine, I asked him if he could tell me what had made him so angry.

After much gnashing of teeth, very little eye contact and something bordering upon hyperventilation, ‘X’ began to respond. His eyes still welling up with tears, he asked me: “When someone says that it’s time to put everything away, does that mean that you have to take the Lego model (that you have spent absolutely ages building) completely apart?”.

And that is when the penny dropped.

For you or me (and indeed the vast majority of the other children present) my colleague’s instructions would have been abundantly clear. In order to put the Lego away neatly (in the two large drawers that had been assigned to this) it was fairly obvious that the 3ft model that ‘X’ had painstakingly created, would need to be more or less dismantled first. However, to ‘X’, this was not the instruction that he had been given and to his mind, therefore, it was totally unacceptable that one of his peers had taken it upon himself to start ‘destroying’ his masterpiece in an attempt to speed up the tidying process.

I often wonder if this particular trait is one of the most debilitating aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome. Admittedly, the list of signs and symptoms doesn’t make for easy reading – with ‘lack of social awareness’, ‘difficulty making and sustaining friendships’ and ‘a failure to respect interpersonal boundaries’ all making the headlines. However, in a world where we rely so heavily upon the ability to ‘infer the thoughts, feelings or emotions of others’ a tendency to take things quite literally must be an absolute minefield to circumnavigate. However, whatever ‘X’ lacked (in relation to the understanding and processing of language), he more than made up for in intellect and wit. He had a tremendous personality and I still remember him with great fondness; he certainly knew how to keep me firmly ‘on my toes’.

Unreasonable behaviour

According to ‘Divorce online.co.uk’, 36% of all husbands and 51% of all wives file for divorce on these grounds. Apparently (when making a petition) the relevant party is generally advised to cite 4 or 5 examples of ‘unreasonable behaviour’, as a means of proving that the relationship has irretrievably broken down. Certainly, some of the examples listed (such as domestic abuse or alcoholism) would be difficult to contest and I found myself feeling incredibly grateful that my own circumstances are so far removed from the heart-breaking reality faced by so many.

Nevertheless, this got me thinking…

If 87% of adults who are seeking a divorce are using this phrase as justification (and I did read that ‘the Responder spending more time with their pet than the Petitioner’ was also a perfectly valid reason, albeit a little less compelling!) then it’s nothing short of a miracle that we, as a society, haven’t yet reached a stage where parents actually consider divorcing their own children!

Over the course of the last week alone, I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have been rendered speechless by the sheer audacity of my own two. The following is just a small sample:

  • Monday – A seemingly simple request relating to the relocation of a pair of (evidently quite weighty) ankle socks (a whole 5 paces) from the bedroom floor to the laundry bin culminated, quite bizarrely, in an extended bout of flouncing and door slamming. On the plus side, at least this extraordinary outburst earned the protestor some much-needed steps on his Fitbit!

  • Tuesday  – Having spent approximately 90 minutes producing a new recipe that was very much on a theme of past successes (with any potentially contentious ingredients shrewdly omitted), I was greeted by morose expressions, deep sighs, and some carefully timed gagging – purely for dramatic effect, of course. Later on, having actually deigned to taste it, they both reluctantly admitted that “it was quite nice actually” – small comfort when your blood pressure has already gone through the roof and you are suffering the effects of chronic indigestion!
  • Wednesday – Having rushed straight from school to the weekly swimming lesson – ‘beach ready’, as is the norm these days – I was treated to a full blown meltdown (synchronised to perfection with the arrival of the swimming instructor) for that most heinous of crimes; that of removing the ‘wrong’ sock first.
  • Thursday – Upon mentioning (after at least two prior warnings) that it was time to  switch off the Xbox and leave for football training, I was met with abject sullenness, Olympic standard fist clenching and an apparently genetic inability to prevent his bottom lip from repeatedly dragging on the hallway floor! None of this would have been quite so galling if:
  1. I hadn’t literally just got in from work and
  2. my son hadn’t already spent an hour and a half slouching at leisure in front of said Xbox, whilst his Dad stoically tried to finish off a fee bid, to a relative symphony of rapid gunfire!

After all, whose football training was it, anyway?!

  • Friday – This is traditionally my ‘day off’ and, therefore, the one day of the week when patience is in slightly greater supply… I arrived outside the classroom door smiling warmly through the window at my youngest, whom I had come to collect from school.  With a face like thunder, he burst passed the teacher thrusting first his coat, then his jumper, and finally his bag into my arms. Upon enquiring tentatively as to what was the matter, I was met with an angry tirade during which my failure to return a slip to the office, from a letter that never came home, concerning an activity that (until now anyway) I genuinely didn’t know existed, was cited as the sole cause of his displeasure. I was so glad that I had asked!!

So, in just one (fairly typical) working week, I had single-handedly managed to gather enough evidence to file for a divorce from my two rather temperamental (but ultimately fairly normal) children, on the grounds of ‘unreasonable behaviour’. Imagine the strength of our case if my husband and I ever chose to pool our resources and produce an entire portfolio of examples?

The difference, of course, is that the love we have for a child is unconditional, whereas the love we have for a partner can stand up to a good deal less provocation. And so, on reflection, I guess that we’ll just have to accept that we are the grown-ups in this particular relationship and that it is our moral duty to continue to love, guide and support them.

Just wait until they have children of their own!  

One step forward, two steps back…

Do you ever get the feeling that ‘the man upstairs’ is having a jolly good laugh at you? Or that, instead of sailing through the day’s challenges with consummate skill, you have somehow managed to chalk up another ‘epic fail’ in this thing that we refer to as the ‘rich tapestry of life’?

Like so many people, I often go to bed feeling that I haven’t handled things as well as I would have liked, promising fervently to myself that I will do better tomorrow.  Guilt (it would seem) is a privilege reserved for over-stretched parents struggling (and inevitably failing) to be something to everyone. However, New Year’s Eve 2019 sticks out in my memory as being one of those rare occasions when things had gone surprisingly well…

The day itself had passed without incident (i.e. the boys had managed to refrain from maiming each other) and the evening was one of high spirits, optimism, and good cheer. Ok, Ok, I might have been tucked up in bed with a cocoa chaser shortly before 11.30pm – but let’s be honest; none of us are as young as we were…

You get the gist though – 2020 was meant to be a fantastic year all round.

But even before Covid-19 reared its ugly head, I had a feeling that this was not going to be a chart topper of a year.

2020 began with a dismal January (aren’t they always?!) and as February crawled reluctantly into view, I was struck by a deep sense of foreboding. The boys were seemingly hell-bent upon vying for my attention at all costs (sibling rivalry being very much alive and well, chez Hall); there was an inspection looming at work; and my examining work was on the verge of going paperless – a truly terrifying prospect for a self-professed technophobe like me!

With characteristic tenacity (and one or two bouts of slightly unhinged ranting) I managed to gradually bend the boys to my will. The inspection came and went relatively painlessly – with resounding endorsements that we were, in fact, doing a good job. The new examining software arrived and, after two fairly gruelling days of CPD, I dared to believe that I was, in fact, not as incompetent as I had first thought. Whoop, whoop!

Cue half term (and some much-needed R & R) followed by a period of normality and the opportunity to test out these newfound technological ‘skills’ of mine. Surely, things were set fair…

But ‘Covid’ had other ideas…

The prospect of teaching without an inspection,

A rare opportunity for private reflection.

Letting the children evolve and develop,

Allowing them time for their dreams to envelop

Their daily pursuit of excitement and fun,

Had sprung back to life; it had finally begun.

But then came the briefings from Boris and friends

“This virus from China is showing no end.

We need you to distance, stay home and save lives”,

Cue the mad rush for basic supplies…

“Schools need to close, you should all work from home,

But keyworkers have our permission to roam”.

Never before had parents felt so tested,

“Teachers have it easy”, they’d previously protested

But now they could see just how much was involved,

Two hours in, and a fading resolve

To get little Charlotte to practise her sums,

Whilst Joshua argued and twiddled his thumbs.

Bike rides and baking all came to the fore,

Countless disruptions on Zoom, Skype and more,

Exams were now cancelled, bright futures on hold,

Jobs were to suffer; the virus grew bold.

No time for trialling the examining app,

Face to face teaching now (sadly) ‘a wrap’.

But amidst all the sadness, restrictions, and fear,

Some positive elements began to appear.

Parents took time to reflect and respond

To children who needed them, craving that bond.

Neighbours enquired of each other more freely,

A much nicer world (if we’re honest) really.

Pollution diminished, our skies morphing blue,

Roads less congested; used by so few.

A sense of community slowly reviving,

Stories of encouragement, patients surviving

This silent enemy, the source of such fear,

Let’s pray we can vanquish it early next year.

A Round of Applause

Having recently accrued 15 years’ experience working as a music examiner, I can honestly say that no two examining days are the same. Admittedly, much of the procedural stuff is quite similar from exam to exam, but part of the attraction for me, is that you never know quite what to expect, and that you are afforded the opportunity (& privilege) of meeting some truly wonderful personalities along the way.

When I look back over the vast number of candidates that have entered my exam room, a handful of individuals inevitably spring to mind; from the incredibly nervous (and acutely apologetic) adult beginner, to the supremely talented (if slightly precocious) young adolescent.

Today’s reminiscence, however, is of one of my initial training days at HQ. It was a stiflingly hot June afternoon and I had just settled down for the afternoon session (alongside a highly experienced examiner & moderator) in the hope of persuading this gentleman that I was ready to be let loose on the general public.

I was hoping for a straightforward run of exams, during which I could demonstrate my ability to interact warmly with the candidate, deliver the various practical components with confidence and professionalism, whilst also keeping rigidly to the rather unforgiving schedule – something that is always an area of concern for the anxious trainee. Fitting all six sections of the syllabus into just 12 minutes is no mean feat, after all!

So, imagine my surprise when the first candidate of the afternoon entered the room wearing a duffle coat, scarf, and gloves! It must have been just short of 30 degrees Celsius outside and this individual was wrapped up for something resembling a Russian winter… Pushing these thoughts firmly aside, I turned my attention to the exam requirements.

Having ascertained that the lady wished to begin with her scales, I read confidently from the syllabus, my pen poised and ready to jot down my observations. But these were not a type of scale that I recognised! For one thing, the notes didn’t seem to progress in any particular direction, and it was difficult to spot any discernible sequence to the pitches.  Not to worry. I was certain that the pieces would be more familiar.

Not so! Within a matter of seconds, the performance came to an abrupt halt and somewhat taken aback, I respectfully enquired as to whether the candidate might like to ‘have another go’. She assured me that this would not be necessary, going on to explain that she would not be offering any other pieces for assessment that afternoon. Again, it was my duty to sensitively gain confirmation that she was not offering any work in two further sections, and to explain that this would, unfortunately, prevent me from awarding any marks. This was, apparently, absolutely fine by her.

Next came the ‘playing at sight’. In my naivety, I assumed that (since this was an element of the exam that couldn’t be prepared to the same extent as the scales and pieces) this would more than likely fall well short of the expected standard too. I was wrong! Not only did she read a large proportion of the pitches accurately, but there was musicality in evidence too and, dare I say it, the final phrase was played with aplomb!
Feeling suitably chastened, I made my way over to the piano to administer the listening tests – all the while roundly admonishing myself for so brazenly ‘judging a book by its cover’.

I began to relax a little. After all, we were coming to a section of the exam that could be ‘steered’ by the examiner to a much greater extent. I read the rubric for the first test as carefully and deliberately as I was able.
(I just needed this exam to finish now, because goodness knows how much time I had already lost from having to clarify so many points with the candidate… This was not the smooth start to the afternoon that I had envisaged.)

I explained that I would play a short extract on the piano and that I would like her to clap in time with the beat. I also made sure that she understood the need to join in just as soon as she could. Off I set, possibly labouring the main beat a little too much, in a last-ditch attempt to give the candidate the very best chance of success…

Nothing. No response whatsoever.

I instinctively repeated the (now rather lengthy) extract a couple more times, looking (first, expectantly, then rather desperately) in the direction of the lady. Feeling somewhat deflated, I eventually stopped playing, gearing myself up to explain (once again) what was required of her. This was when she took me completely by surprise. Her face lit up and broke into the most beautiful of smiles as she clapped vigorously. ‘Wonderful. Simply wonderful!’ she said, ‘You can certainly play that piano!’


These days, like so many other parents I know, I seem to spend vast amounts of time standing on wildly exposed areas of boggy land watching one or other of my sons play football.
Now don’t get me wrong, I genuinely love it – I’m just not that keen on the second stage hypothermia that tends to come with it!
Perhaps growing up with four brothers was fitting preparation for being a Mum of two boys. And I’m more than happy to concede that there are a great many things to admire about the ‘beautiful game’. However, to my mind, the offside rule is definitely not one of them!
When asked to explain the offside rule to his Dad, I heard a young lad reply that “it’s basically a way for the referee and linesmen to stop us from getting lots of goals”. Now, I’m quite sure that this was not the response that this particular father was hoping for and, (judging by the long string of expletives that followed) this father evidently felt that he had more than adequately covered this subject on a previous occasion! However, aside from making me chuckle, I found myself drawing some uncomfortable analogies between one boy’s interpretation of the offside rule, and the many stories that flood the likes of LinkedIn, in relation to difficult employers.
I guess that, as he works his way steadily through the various age groups, that young lad will come to realise that ‘offside’ is neither a conspiracy nor a cheap shot at reducing a team’s ability to score. His team may even eventually learn to employ the ‘offside trap’ to their advantage.
Leadership, however, is arguably a trickier concept to master. If an employer is seen as conspiring to halt creativity and flair, choosing not to ‘play the advantage’ (where the conclusion remains unclear) and metaphorically ‘blowing their whistle’ at every turn in a muscle flexing manner (simply because they are in a position of power) then productivity may unfortunately dwindle. The last thing that any organisation worth its salt should want is for the frisson that young, innovative staff can inject into a company to become an unwelcome casualty of overzealous micromanagement.

What’s this all about then?

Everyone is entitled to a midlife crisis of sorts – and this is mine!

I’ve checked that I fall into the correct age bracket (45-65 apparently) and I understand that (being a woman) I have between 2 and 5 years to work through this ‘condition’ in any which way that I can. How incredibly liberating!

I also understand that if I were a man, this ‘phase’ could legitimately be spread over 3-10 years (the vindication here of a prolonged absence of judgement should not be underestimated lads) so I feel fully entitled to press on!

And there is some good news here too… (husband, please take note):

  • There won’t be any rash purchases – I’m not all that motivated by status symbols and, more importantly, the (bank’s) computer would almost certainly say ‘No’.
  • There won’t be any costly cosmetic procedures – I’m a realist; ‘silk purse’ and ‘sow’s ear’ spring very much to mind here.
  • I suspect that I won’t really be any good at ‘apathy’ either – the need to verbalise my emotions seems strangely undiminished as yet!
  • In sharing the observations, insights and (let’s face it) ramblings (!) of a Teacher, Examiner and Mum, they may (at best) prove entertaining to some, and (at worst) cathartic for the author.

So, all in all, things could be far worse. As midlife crises go, I’d say that this one could be classed as rather low maintenance!