…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?

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!

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’.

Reading between the lines

I’m not sure whether acute cynicism has developed with age, or if I have always been just a little bit suspicious of the true message behind school reports. I know for a fact that as the various deadlines approach, there is often a sense of extreme trepidation on the part of the teacher. Exactly how truthful should one be? After all, honesty often equates to parental discontent, and ‘the path of least resistance’ can often seem like a wiser (and safer!) option. So, here is my attempt to capture both sides of the story:

Reading between the lines

“Eddie’s had a fantastic term,” wrote Mrs Addison-Cole,
“He’s settled in well, made new friends, and even scored a goal.”
He’s made no attempt with his writing, his spellings or his phonics,
In fact, we’ve not had a single day without his histrionics!

“Eddie has a real flair for using his imagination,
He’s constantly thinking up games to play at lunch, during recreation.”
He’s maimed or injured most of the class, at one time or another,
I’ve a list of complaints as long as my arm from every other mother!

“Eddie loves to share his thoughts, he’s a confident little boy.
He always knows just what he wants; be it a book, or a favourite toy.”
He does not listen, (or like to share) he simply makes demands,
And woe betide the little stooge who ignores ‘Big Ed’s’ commands!

“Eddie is lovely and punctual at the beginning of each new day,
He’s often the first to arrive at school – and reluctant to tidy away.”
He appears whilst I’m eating my breakfast, you can hear Dad leaving the site,
He’s obviously desperate to get into work, just not to collect him at night.

“Eddie is brilliant at helping his peers to locate all the things they have lost,
He seems to know where everything’s gone; he’s a real live ‘Detective Frost’.”
Most of the items have not gone far, snatched by his thieving fingers,
The looks of disgust that his classmates share, a deep mistrust that lingers.

“I’d like to put Eddie forward for some extra 1:1
In English, Maths and Science – this would really bring him on.”
He’d be out of the room each morning – for half an hour at least,
And I’d be so much happier, with just a moment’s peace!

Divine intervention?

It never ceases to amaze me just how fickle the human memory can be! These days, it can be a gargantuan struggle to recall the name of a recently discovered perfume or restaurant, whilst certain events (dating back to the previous decade!) remain perfectly preserved, as if they have undergone a sort of mental embalming process.

Some 13 or 14 years ago, I had all but completed a full week’s examining work in the South East of England. I was still relatively new to the whole process, but I was beginning to feel reasonably confident about the various procedures, and I was gradually developing a style of my own. I had looked at the candidate list the previous evening, and there was seemingly nothing out of the ordinary. Friday, (I felt certain) would be a relatively straightforward end to a busy, but rewarding, week.

Always one to err on the side of caution I rose early, ate quickly, and checked out of my accommodation. I set off down the road (at the behest of my ageing Sat Nav) for what was purported to be a 15-minute journey to the exam venue. However, it quite rapidly became the proverbial ‘journey from Hell’…

No sooner had I pulled away, than the heavens opened, and the windscreen wipers of my Renault Clio battled heroically against the deluge of water that was waging war upon them. Meanwhile, I was fighting a battle of my own; I was desperately trying to maintain some degree of visibility whilst every conceivable viewpoint promptly misted up. Heavy traffic (and strategically placed roadworks) all conspired against me, and the minutes ticked stubbornly away. Having missed my turning a couple of times (to the extreme displeasure of countless unforgiving local drivers) I finally pulled into the car park of the exam venue.

I could hear the wind whipping around the corner of the building (in near apocalyptic fashion) so I decided to wait in the car for a while. As I surveyed the outside of the building, I wondered if I would be spending the day inside the church itself, or in the rather gloomy looking hall to the side. I later discovered that the exams would be taking place in the church hall, and began making my way towards a (frankly quite intimidating) steel security door.

Just a bit further along the path I spied a billboard. It sported a rather garish looking poster, that was curling up at the edges:

 ‘Jesus Lives Here!’ it claimed (rather optimistically).

Really?” I thought. And then (having briefly considered the many other options that must have been available) I muttered, “I’m quite sure that He doesn’t!”

Determined not to ‘judge a book by its cover’, however, I strode confidently inside and called out a greeting. A few moments later, a man that could quite easily have been Mr. Filch’s doppelganger (from the Harry Potter movies) emerged, looking mildly irritated that I had arrived before he had finished ‘setting up’. I apologised for any inconvenience caused and followed him dutifully down a series of gloomy passageways, to a remote room at the far end of the building. Once inside, I noted that there was a piano, a narrow desk, a wooden chair, and a somewhat rickety music stand. At the edges of the room were stacks upon stacks of chairs and various other pieces of discarded furniture. The only light cast was from a single bare bulb that hung from the ceiling. Not exactly welcoming!

Not to be deterred I unpacked all my materials, affixed my warmest smile, and braced myself for the morning’s exams… The door opened and the steward introduced the first candidate; a young girl of about 7 or 8, immaculately dressed, and wearing the most beautiful smile. My spirits rose.

The rest of the working day passed without incident. A large percentage of the candidates were extremely well prepared and even those who were not, managed (by and large) to meet the requirements. I swiftly packed everything away (keen to get home) and I began retracing my steps along the myriad of passageways, towards the exit.

About three quarters of the way there, the lights suddenly went out and I was plunged into darkness. I called out to the caretaker, and he obligingly responded that there was “a switch on the right-hand side – just in front of the door”. All very well, but this was total darkness that I was dealing with…

Anyway, after some increasingly frantic searching, I eventually located the light switch (on the left-hand side, incidentally!) and I flicked it on gratefully. I was immediately confronted by another poster, attached to the back of the steel security door that I had been trying so hard to locate. It was a striking gold colour with the words:

‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ emblazoned upon it.

As I left the building, the irony was not lost on me!