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! 

What will be your legacy?

As a teenager, I remember hearing countless conversations relating to the unfortunate death of one individual or another. And whilst I suspect that this was possibly just one consequence of being the daughter of a GP, it always amazed me just how much misfortune seemed to have befallen my fellow Salopians. From the farmer who had met his maker at the bottom of a slurry pit, to someone’s uncle who had been found (quite literally) ‘dead behind the door’, there appeared to be a veritable catalogue of unusual demises being discussed over dinner. And don’t get me started on the poor individual who had suffered the indignity of having “If her bladder had been stronger, she’d have lasted even longer!” inscribed upon her headstone… I don’t mind admitting that it came as an enormous relief when I discovered that the ‘lady’ concerned had, in fact, been of canine descent!

As an adolescent, the idle threat of having something similar etched upon a family member’s headstone caused much hilarity. Now though, I find myself observing the advancing of ‘time’s winged chariot’ with far greater reverence! After all, ‘Life’ (that most precious of earthly commodities) can cease in an instant, and with scant warning too. So, when the time comes, what will be your legacy?

In essence

A life should not be measured by letters after a name,
Or based on newspaper cuttings, about those who’ve courted fame.
It shouldn’t be judged on salary, on possessions, nor on titles,
For success (just like misfortune) has a habit of coming in cycles.

For everyone’s ‘point of departure’ will have varied ever so slightly,
Their rate of progress remarked upon by relatives painfully politely.
Peaks and troughs; spurts and plateaux; deftly explained away –
Oblivious of their irrelevance once we reach our ‘Judgement Day’.

But what if we focused, instead, upon the things that really matter?
(Leaving behind the emptiness of words designed to flatter)
Like honesty, wisdom, and compassion (keeping pride very firmly at bay)
Showing tolerance, love, and loyalty to all along our way.

For when we leave this earthly realm, being finally laid to rest,
It’ll not be our wealth or possessions that serve to define us best,
But rather the things we did for those from whom we are now parted,
The lives we touched, the dreams we shared, true legacy of the departed.

If at first you don’t succeed, shout a little louder!

When I was growing up, Cornwall was very much the destination of choice for our annual summer holiday. Every year, we’d set off from Shropshire in my Dad’s Citroen Familiale with a variety of hearty homemade meals stashed under every conceivable seat. Then, many long hours later, we’d pull up outside our holiday accommodation, only to find that one of us had fallen asleep en route (again) and left a sizeable footprint in the top of one pie or another. And whilst the flavour never seemed to have been palpably diminished by such treatment, I’m sure that you can imagine just how well this tended to go down with our parents… 

Imagine my excitement then, when Mum and Dad announced that we would be going to France for a change. The plan was to catch the ferry from Dover to Calais and then take the motor-rail as far as Brive. This in itself sounded like quite an adventure – taking your car on a train was ‘quite something’ back in the 80s and (quite apart from eating fresh croissants and trying out my term and a half of French) I couldn’t wait to see what sleeping on a train would be like.

The summer holidays finally arrived, and we all piled into Dad’s car for our first taste of foreign travel. The journey down to Dover seemed distinctly less onerous than the laborious annual struggle from Exeter to Wadebridge and standing up on deck waving a fond farewell to those iconic white cliffs, with the sea air blowing a gale, was nothing short of exhilarating. 

Fast forward to our arrival in Brive, following an ‘interesting’ night spent split between two 4-berth couchettes, wondering if what I could hear was the train’s engine – or my Dad’s snoring! Suffice it to say, I don’t think that any of us felt particularly well-rested the following morning – and both parents seemed to be sporting that ‘end of their tether’ kind of look, as they stepped tentatively out into the Aquitaine sunshine.  

With a (not inconsiderable) final leg of the journey still to be made, we were instructed that this would be the last opportunity for a comfort stop. I dutifully headed to the ladies with my mum (where we joined the obligatory long, snaking queue) whilst my brothers sauntered straight into the gents. No change there then! And after what felt like an eternity, there was just one woman standing between us and the sanctuary of the first available cubicle.

Now, to say that she looked distinctly French would be an understatement of epic proportions. She could have stepped straight out of ‘Tricolore’, minus the shallots and the beret, of course! Anyway, when the time came, this sophisticated Mediterranean lady made no attempt to stake her claim on the facilities; our expectant glances being met with a typically Gallic shrug that was truly mystifying, given the time that she had already invested in this exercise.

Far from happy to just sidle past this lady and potentially ‘jump the queue’, my mum decided to engage her in a conversation of sorts. Ten out of ten for effort – bearing in mind the (not insignificant) language barrier that was about to rear its ugly head.  

With full eye contact established (so as to avoid any possible confusion) mum asked, “Are you waiting?”

“Pardon?” was her reply. [The first clue.]

“Are you waiting?” mum offered once more, pointing in the direction of said cubicle.

“Pardon?” her slightly louder response this time, accompanied by that infamous shrug.

And so, in true British style, mum went for absolute linguistical supremacy…

“ARE YOU WAIT-EENG?” she asked once more, only several decibels louder and with an accent worthy of Rene Artois from the BBC’s ‘Allo, ‘Allo!  

And then the penny finally dropped.

Looking at me (nothing short of aghast) Mum said, “I think she’s French!” and rushed blushing into the cubicle, leaving me to endure much lip pursing, shoulder shrugging and (I’m willing to bet) some guttural native expletives – which my term and a half of tuition had left me ill-equipped to translate!

You can imagine how much flak she got for that, over the years…

In one sleep-starved moment, she had unwittingly confirmed what many Europeans had suspected for some time – that us Brits are notoriously bad at learning other languages, with a whopping 62% of the population still only able to speak English.

And there’s a fair chance that, having been responsible for publishing these damning statistics, ‘Honte à vous!’ might plausibly have been the verdict of the European Commission!

Like it or not, life’s a competition!

When I think back to my school days, a multitude of memories come flooding back. From uniform quirks to school trips, inspirational teachers to lasting friendships, special events to unforgettable sporting fixtures. And I consider myself extremely fortunate that most of these memories are happy ones.  After all, ‘school days are (meant to be) the best days of your life’, right?

Anyone who knows me can probably guess that my behaviour (whilst at school) was not always entirely exemplary… However, I’d like to think that I managed to strike a balance between hard work and harmless mischief, and that I didn’t over-step the boundaries too often. (Being able to change one’s name as a result of being ‘joined in holy matrimony’ definitely has its advantages though!)

Have you ever noticed how certain subject teachers tend to follow a particular stereotype though? Being a teacher myself, I feel qualified to say this – and I apologise unreservedly to colleagues both past and present, for the heinous generalisations that are about to follow…

You’ve obviously got your ‘arty’ types, for whom a ‘grip on reality’ has been unwittingly traded for a ‘vivid imagination’ and vast quantities of creative flair. Then there are the IT and Mathematical experts for whom a sense of humour is not (unlike the world of teaching in general) seemingly a pre-requisite. And finally, you have your PE / Sports teachers who, it seems to me, take a slightly sadistic pleasure in ‘pushing you to your physical limit’ whilst casually observing your many anatomical shortcomings. (I mean, who doesn’t try to take a short cut during the termly cross-country run? It’s just a pity that my attempt was so poorly timed as to make me look momentarily like an Olympic prospect.) However, it is the words of one such PE teacher that have remained with me all these years later, and for whom I now have a (grudging) respect.

I remember the incident well. My friend had just come last in the house cross-country competition and she was bemoaning the fact that the effort expended was hardly worth the paltry house point that she had been awarded. The teacher looked rather disparagingly at her puce complexion and, noting her laboured breathing, declared that “Life is a competition. The sooner you get used to that fact, the better.” Of course (at that precise moment) my friend was in no fit state to be receptive to such advice, but I remember thinking (even then) that this ‘Nike-clad, no-nonsense nutter’ possibly had a point!

In all honesty, my feelings on the subject haven’t really changed. After all, there can be only one winner in a competition, and only one candidate will ultimately ‘get the job’ at an interview. So, why do we have such a problem with celebrating supremacy? Shouldn’t we be preparing our children for failure as well as success? Isn’t that how we become more resilient, and learn to work that little bit harder to reach our goals?

I am, of course, frequently outvoted on this particular issue and have (regrettably) had to succumb to the ‘sticker for all’ mentality on more than one occasion. It will come as no real surprise then, to hear how secretly delighted I was to discover that my youngest seems to share my (seemingly antiquated) view on the matter. He recently refused to display a certificate that proudly stated that he ‘had taken part’, on the grounds that another one declared him the ‘winner’.

Sportsmanship (and learning to be gracious in defeat) is evidently still a ‘work in progress’!

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!    

‘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.