Moving on

Life is rather like a novel, consisting of a series of different chapters that vary in both length and intensity. Of course, some chapters are more compelling than others, but each one has its part to play in the ‘novel’ as a whole, either endorsing what went before or striking out in an entirely new direction.

Yesterday afternoon, my eldest son’s primary school ‘chapter’ drew to a close and it won’t be long before he finds himself embarking upon the next one. He is by no means unique in having reached this particular milestone, and the wide range of emotions that he has been exhibiting over the past few weeks will have been typified by countless children around the globe. Nevertheless, he is the first of my children to have reached this stage and (quite apart from having made me feel incredibly old!) it has spurred me on to record my own feelings on the matter. After all, in a vain attempt to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ we sometimes neglect to give our children the resounding endorsement that they so desperately need.   

‘Moving on’ by Gaynor Hall

You’ve learnt so much already, achieved things great and small,
Managed each disappointment, risen bravely from every fall.
You’ve nurtured each tendril of friendship, and shown that you understand
That laughter and humour don’t always suffice, so instead you’ve offered your hand.

You’ve laid the best of foundations, established healthy routines,
You know your strengths (and your weaknesses) and appreciate the value of dreams.
You’ve experienced the shame of wrongdoing, and faced your punishment well,
Each one an important learning curve, not something upon which to dwell.

Step boldly forth on your journey then, and embrace the next new phase,
(You’ll be shocked to learn just how fast it goes, that 7-year ‘secondary’ haze!)
Embrace every opportunity with courage, good humour, and joy
But don’t forget to have some fun – after all you’re still a young boy!

Believe in yourself, be honest and true, stand firm in all your endeavours,
Success is by no means guaranteed, there’ll be plenty of storms to weather.
But know that whatever befalls you – be it fortune, or perhaps a low tide –
We’ll always be right there beside you, ‘midst a surfeit of devotion and pride.

The Adolescent

Parenting is undeniably one of the greatest challenges that I have ever faced, and I frequently question why quite so many of us put ourselves through this particular ordeal…

As voluntary jobs go, it is ‘right up there’ in terms of emotional investment and logistical planning and (once the prepubescent hormones kick in) the ‘goal posts’ certainly seem to move with baffling proclivity.  Nothing that I have encountered in either the exam room or the classroom has even come close to the dramatic surges in blood pressure that my own children have managed to induce, and (for a reasonably confident person) I’ll admit to having given in to feelings of utter inadequacy at one time or another.  It is then, as they say, just a happy coincidence that I am writing this now – before my two boys decide that they are old enough to contradict me!

Despite frequently thinking that a user manual might have been helpful, I’ve never been one for reading vast tomes on parenting. Besides, who actually has the time to read that type of stuff whilst frantically trying to juggle the demands of their job with the day to day needs of their offspring? On the other hand, if someone (who has done the necessary research) could please just explain to me how two children from the exact same gene pool can be so utterly different in temperament and outlook, I’d be ever so grateful!

What follows then, is my (deliberately tongue in cheek) ‘Attenboroughesque’ commentary on the ‘Adolescent’ – that most complex of human species!

If one looks carefully into the dense urban undergrowth, it should be possible to pick out a lone adult female scratching her head in bewilderment. The eldest of her offspring (at just over a decade old) is seemingly ill-equipped to take responsibility for any aspect of his existence and looks to her to ensure that his every need is met. Multiple items of clothing lie strewn about the enclosure whilst the parched bristles of a toothbrush show no sign of recent activity. A pair of glasses (the lenses of which look oddly opaque, buried as they are under a thick crust of grime) lie discarded upon the ground, whilst the pages of a book (heavily dog eared from the nocturnal pursuits of the past 11 hours) rest casually within the creases of a hollow fibre duvet. Contained beneath the solace of the cosy bedding, glimpses can be snatched of a bleary pale blue iris, tentatively attempting to take in its immediate surroundings, braving the relative intensity of the new dawn. But alas, this brief display of energy proves utterly overwhelming and (having issued a deep guttural groan for good measure) the adolescent willingly submits himself to the clammy darkness of his natural habitat once more.

Meanwhile, movement can be detected from inside enclosure two. Light streams in through the main observation point revealing meticulously organised sleeping quarters and a spirited young male engaging in the final throes of his morning routine. As he nonchalantly casts his towel over a nearby radiator, deftly selecting a playlist at maximum volume on his Echo Show, it is clear that this young mammal has no intention of awaiting instructions (or seeking approval) from the adult male who can be seen lethargically arriving upon the scene. Hackles rise as the two males begin posturing for supremacy, and the early threads of conversation swiftly escalate into the loud staccato tones of conflict. For now, at least, the young male grudgingly accepts defeat and beats a hasty retreat. From the confines of his den, he sets about laboriously (and vociferously) pacing the perimeter until the call of the alarm clock finally beckons. With a degree of calm temporarily restored, the adult male can be seen lavishly preening himself, as he basks in his first (and probably last!) victory of the day.

Do. Or do not. There is no try.

As you might imagine, living with three ‘boys’ has meant that I have had to work hard at broadening my knowledge of anything (and everything) pertaining to a certain galaxy ‘far, far away’. And as movies go, I have to admit that the Star Wars collection has made for an enjoyable (and considerably less demanding) alternative to studying for either a master’s, or a PhD.

Almost inevitably though, I have found myself pondering the phrases of certain on-screen characters and wondering why on earth their ‘pearls of wisdom’ don’t feature rather more extensively in the material of modern-day motivational speakers. After all, they certainly make some cogent points!

Having always secretly admired a baddie, Darth Vader’s warning: ‘Be careful not to choke on your aspirations’ (in response to Director Krennic’s self-seeking lust for glory) definitely makes my top 5! I guess that it’s simply a more sensational take on the proverb ‘Pride comes before a fall’, but delivered with such a generous helping of contempt, it certainly makes an impression!

Shmi Skywalker also has a valid point when she notes that ‘You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting’ (‘The Phantom Menace’). This is definitely something worth remembering, particularly if you are getting rather ‘long in the tooth’ like me, and more than a little weary of all that career related hoop jumping! However, the notion of ‘change for change’s sake’ is not one that I find easy to subscribe to, preferring first to understand the reasons behind implementing a host of (time guzzling) new procedures, before rushing to comply. I have a sneaking suspicion that Obi-Wan Kenobi might have had a similar view. After all, his question ‘Who’s the more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?’ resonates here.

Some of my fondest childhood memories stem from sitting around the kitchen table as a family and playing a variety of board games. Being the youngest of four (until the family increased in size again 7 years later!) I was frequently outperformed in any game that required either knowledge or strategy and yet I was genuinely grateful that no-one ever ‘let’ me win because it gave me something to strive for. It made me smile, therefore, when C-3PO, following a graphic description from Han Solo as to how Chewbacca’s strength and temperament might play out (rather unfavourably) in the event of being defeated at a game, sensibly suggests that R2-D2 should ‘Let the Wookie win’. I’m all for putting up a decent fight, but it pays to know when you are ‘outgunned’ too!

With Speech Day rapidly approaching, I found myself wondering which Star Wars character would have the greatest allure as guest speaker, particularly if the event were to clash with a certain quarter-final match in this year’s European Championships… And although we might need to make allowances (in order to give him the necessary height to surmount the lectern) and possibly provide a translator (in order to help with syntax) Yoda would appear to be the perfect choice. Notable for his enviable wisdom (and frank appraisal of a situation) what better parting advice to offer a student than: ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.’

Learning to dance in the rain

As a young child I was definitely a ‘glass half empty’ sort of person. I can remember grumbling about all manner of things, frequently behaving as if the world were about to end. Looking back, I’m quite sure that this pessimistic outlook on life was one of the main factors in earning me the title of ‘Mummy’s little ray of sunshine’ in my mid-teens. The irony certainly wasn’t lost on me, even then!

Of course, some of our character traits are inherited, whilst others develop in response to our experiences and surroundings. However, I’m inclined to believe that certain aspects of our personality can’t really be altered and that it is, therefore, simply a case of embracing those desirable qualities that essentially define us, and then working hard to dilute the less favourable ones – petulance included!

Like so many parents, my husband and I have (inevitably) had to weather countless ‘storms’ where prepubescent hormones have clashed violently with parental exhaustion and (as someone for whom a strong sense of justice is inextricably ingrained) I have genuinely struggled to tolerate such bouts of unreasonable behaviour. On each occasion though, I have just about managed to remind myself that I am the ‘grown up’ and that being drawn into a full-scale shouting match with a 9- or 10-year-old boy is neither dignified, nor productive. I’m not going to lie though; it’s often been a close-run thing!

Then came covid-19, a global aggressor intent upon flaunting uncertainty, fear, and anxiety galore. With daily liberties revoked, livelihoods at risk and a substantial threat to life, perspectives began to shift, and families had no choice but to adapt.

With trips to restaurants quite literally ‘off the menu’, the focus on home cooking intensified. With cars sitting redundant on the drive, walking or cycling became the favoured mode of transport or exercise. Little by little, daily routines evolved and (with them) so did our expectations.

We simply had to accept that instant gratification had been placed (rather ironically) ‘on hold’.

And it was being forced to live through this strange new existence that really made me stop and think. The stark realisation that my ‘glass half empty’ approach to life would be of absolutely no use to me now, hit me like the proverbial sledgehammer. With no legitimate timescale in the offing, I figured that ‘waiting for the storm to pass’ was probably not the best strategy here, but that ‘learning to dance in the rain’ might just be the better option! 

Is social media your new best friend?

I sometimes wonder if we, as a society, have lost the ability to really engage with each other. After all, the growth of the all-encompassing world of social media has meant that we can ‘friend’ (or ‘connect’ with) literally thousands of people, many of whom we have never actually met. And whilst this has enabled us to grow our business networks, expanding our virtual ‘audience’ with relative ease, I suspect that it has done nothing for that humblest of relations, Friendship.

When was the last time that you rang the friend who recently lost their partner to cancer? Or checked in on the mum who was worried sick over a recent spate of bullying at their child’s school? Or asked after the colleague who was struggling with mental health issues to the point of leaving their job? And yet, like me, I’m willing to bet that you have ‘liked’ at least five posts on Facebook today, without truly stopping to consider whether or not the author of that post might simply be putting on a ‘brave face’.

And so, in honour of my many wonderful friends (who frankly repeatedly put me to shame!) this poem is for you. Thank you for all that you have done for me (during lockdown and beyond) and I hope that you know just how much I have appreciated every text, every phone call, and every frantic wave that I have glimpsed as I have rushed about the neighbourhood trying to darn the holes that have inevitably appeared in life’s rich tapestry!

‘I owe you one!’ by Gaynor Hall

For every time you’ve texted, to see if I was OK,
For every time you’ve offered to have my boys to play,
For every time you asked me if there was a reason why
A tear or two had inexplicably formed and leaked just outside my eye.

For every time you’ve remembered an important family date,
For every time you’ve forgiven me for arriving a little bit late,
For every time you’ve invited me to unburden myself at leisure –
Or arranged a breakfast at ‘Wetherspoons’, indulging my guilty pleasure!

For every time you’ve allowed me to simply tease you rotten,
For every time you’ve allowed the odd cross word to be forgotten,
For every time you’ve offered me a friendly shoulder to cry on,
Showing me (time and time again) that you’re someone whom I can rely on.

Thank you, most sincerely, for all that you have done,
For supporting me, and celebrating each small battle won.
If I can return the favour, then you only have to say –
I’d be ashamed to take for granted those who’ve helped me along the way.

Otter or Platypus?

I recently walked in on the tail end of a class debate. Rather uncharacteristically, I had arrived a few minutes early – and I was instantly intrigued.

A young lady was standing at the front of the classroom, merrily extoling the advantages of living with friends (as opposed to parents) promoting this as an enviable alternative for today’s adolescents. She was busily siting a multitude of (perceived) benefits to her peers, and she certainly had the support of the room. Now, I won’t go into exactly what these benefits were, but the look on my colleague’s face was enough to indicate that (like so many discussions with young children) things had moved in a very different direction from that of the original remit! To say that she looked horrified would have been an understatement.

Much discussion is currently taking place in the media, about the rapidly spreading Indian variant of Covid-19, and how this might impact the next phase of lockdown easing measures in the UK. And yet, only a matter of days ago, friends and families were celebrating the ability to embrace loved ones once more, with the ‘humble hug’ having acquired almost celebrity status following such a lengthy period of enforced abstinence!

As with so many issues relating to the global pandemic though, views have (of course) been divided. One person’s sheer delight at being able to return to a more tactile form of interaction, has no doubt been met with absolute dread by a person for whom the notion of ‘social distancing’ has provided the perfect excuse to remain rather detached from others.  

So, where do you stand on the whole issue of physical contact? Are you similar to the otter, for example?

We know that otters are sociable creatures, for whom ‘safety in numbers’ is undeniably a watchword. They frequently hold ‘hands’ in groups (called a raft) whilst eating, resting, or sleeping to prevent them from drifting apart and losing each other.

Or, perhaps you are more akin to the platypus? Solitary beings who spend their lives feeding along the bottoms of rivers (or resting in burrows dug deep into the banks) and don’t seem to have the stomach (quite literally, in fact!) for lots of company.

On balance, I suspect that (a bit like me) you sit somewhere between the two. I’m more than happy to indulge in varying degrees of physical contact, as long as it’s on my own terms!

…And the wisdom to know the difference

Having undoubtedly stumbled upon the barren wastelands of middle age, it would be far too easy to look back upon past events and pay gratuitous homage to regret. The dreams and aspirations of youth seem strangely unattainable now, and life has acquired an almost brutal propensity for galloping inexorably onwards, whether we like it or not.

And yet, if one can just look beyond the aging reflection in the mirror (and embrace with gratitude the many blessings that life has bestowed upon us) there’s a chance that something of the indomitable adolescent spirit of yesteryear, just might endure.

Without a doubt, the last twelve months have afforded plenty of opportunity for reflection and a great many people have found themselves looking at ways in which they might alter certain aspects of their lives – either through necessity, choice, or a combination of the two. 

Only a matter of days ago, I was reading an article entitled ‘Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic’ and it was fascinating (and somewhat alarming) to learn of the many and varied emotional reactions that are likely to have been triggered by such a virus. Mercifully for many, resilience will have come to the fore and indeed, some people will have found new strengths and developed fresh coping mechanisms. However, for those who have been exposed to significant trauma, depression and anxiety are likely to have either surfaced or intensified and will no doubt have been exacerbated by the need to shield or self-isolate.     

For me personally, the aspect I struggled most with was having my freedom (coupled with the ability to make any plans whatsoever) suspended indefinitely. Without the prospect of a family holiday on the horizon (and feeling utterly starved of any external form of social interaction) I’ll happily admit that the working week seemed significantly less alluring! However, having two young sons to take care of gave me the purpose that I so desperately needed – and we often talk about the endless bike rides and home baking sessions that carried us all through.

And so, being mindful of the fact that 2020 taught us that we can never be entirely in control of our own destiny, the sentiments of the ‘Serenity Prayer’ seem as pertinent now, as ever they were:

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Preparing to be unlocked

Having recently entered the next stage of the government’s plan to ease restrictions, there’s a sense of cautious optimism in the air. We’ve been here before, of course, but with the roll-out of 30 million+ COVID vaccines, there is every reason to feel quietly confident that we are taking back some of the control that was so ruthlessly snatched from us 12 months ago. Here’s hoping that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is not simply a train coming the other way, ready to knock us off our feet once more…

‘Daring to hope’ by Gaynor Hall

Tell me it’s over, the incarceration
That stifled the freedom of many a nation,
Prevented the sharing of happiness or grief,
And threw up behaviour that ‘beggared belief’.

Playgrounds fell silent, parks were left bare,
Homes and gardens deemed unsafe to share,
Bus stops deserted, restaurants too,
Roads less congested; used by so few.

Hospitals quite literally bursting their seams,
Struggling to cope with a virus so extreme
That people were dying – regardless of age,
With figures quite simply impossible to gauge.

But slowly the tide has started to turn,
Children are back in their classrooms to learn,
Businesses fighting so hard for survival
Preparing to open, to start their revival.

And so, there is only one question to ask,
(Although it might seem an onerous task)
What will you cherish, and what will you change –
Having lived through an era unparalleled and strange?

Crowd pleaser or individual?

I remember coming out of my A’ level English Literature exam feeling reasonably confident about my performance, and hopeful of a good result. There were just twelve of us who had taken the exam and we all met up for the customary post-exam analysis, sprawled out on the grass and basking in the knowledge that the long summer holidays were almost upon us.

Our teacher happened to be in the vicinity and came over to see what we had all made of the final paper – and that is when I experienced that utterly sickening feeling, deep in the pit of my stomach. It seemed that literally everyone else had interpreted the final essay question differently from me, and I was more than prepared, therefore, to accept that I had simply got the ‘wrong end of the stick’. I decided not to draw attention to my obvious faux pas, choosing instead to listen good naturedly for a while and then slip away quietly, just as soon as an opportunity presented itself.

As results day loomed, I felt certain that my error of judgement would prove costly and so the elation (and if I’m honest, surprise) of being awarded the top-grade all those weeks later felt all the more precious. Indeed, the whole experience taught me a valuable lesson – that just because you are in the minority, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong.

The notion of having the confidence to ‘plough one’s own furrow’ is no less pertinent all these years later and yet parents up and down the country will almost certainly (like me) have found themselves in something of a quandary. On the one hand, we try to teach our children that standing up for what is right is vital to our integrity and self-esteem and that individuality is to be encouraged, even celebrated. But on the other hand, most parents secretly want their child to fit in, to be accepted, and we go to significant lengths to make sure that the way in which they behave (right down to the clothes that they choose to wear) doesn’t attract the unwanted attention of a would-be aggressor.     

Hans F. Hansen once stated that “It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.” My younger (more forthright) self would no doubt have embraced this statement wholeheartedly. Today though, I would possibly champion a slightly modified version. Yes, I would acknowledge the pitfalls of ‘blindly following the crowd’ (whilst urging my children to ‘be true to themselves’) but I would also remind them that ‘no man is an island’ and that there is something to be said for maintaining ‘safety in numbers’.

Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it!

Youth v Experience

Many years ago, I had the great privilege of working with an exceptional teacher. She was one of those extraordinary people for whom plucking some obscure fact or figure out of thin air was practically a daily occurrence. She was definitely one to have on your pub quiz team!

Of course, exceptional intelligence can sometimes be coupled with a degree of social awkwardness, and I can’t say that I ever felt particularly relaxed in her company… That being said, her pupils adored her. Her lessons were full of energy, quirkiness and cynicism and every class that crossed the threshold of room C3 was mesmerised by the passion (and skill) with which she brought her subject to life.

‘In praise of middle age’ is intended as a light-hearted reminder that there will always be a younger, more attractive NQT hot on your heels, but that experience certainly has its strengths too. And in working together with the next generation of teachers (rather than feeling threatened by them) it is possible to enjoy the ‘best of both worlds’, where ideas are shared, and skills are honed.

In praise of middle age

“The years have not been kind!” they say, in whispers low and furtive,
“There are bangers with less wear and tear,” their judgement harsh, assertive.
Her sight is slowly fading, and she’s gained a couple of chins –
It’ll not be long before the ‘journey south’ of certain bits begins!

Her hair is slowly greying and there are crow’s feet around her eyes,
And wrinkles upon wrinkles which foundation can’t disguise!
Her walk is a little less purposeful, her stride somewhat lacklustre –
Her voice is unassuming; excitement hard to muster.

She quietly walks the corridors, she’s seen it all before:
Messy shoe racks, dirty socks, coats strewn across the floor.
She sidles into the classroom and softly shuts the door,
Greeted by rows of eager eyes, and faces full of awe.

The show begins, the theme unfolds, she places them under her spell,
With passion, guile, and anecdotes – the tools she knows so well.
She piques their curiosity, and tends their burgeoning knowledge,
She cultivates their interest, whilst for hidden depths she’ll forage.

The lesson ends, the pupils leave; her impact monumental –
Taking pride in her work is reward enough, she’ll not be sentimental.
But for those who mourn the passage of time, on retirement placing a bet,
She’s far from ready to hang up her hat – there’s life in the old dog yet!