Temet nosce

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandwiches with a pinch of Friendship thrown in!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Used?” she asked, “On what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The digital abyss

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

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

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

Living the Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guilt: rite of passage, or wasteful emotion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the gorillas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do I need a licence for this?

Those of you who know me will be aware that I’m not terribly brave when it comes to animals. If truth be told, I’m a complete and utter wimp!

Now, I’d like nothing more than to regale you with some terribly alarming account of how I almost lost a limb, during a particularly ferocious canine attack. Or better still, describe in glorious technicolour the wounds I sustained (during a prolonged altercation with a Canadian Lynx) whilst visiting Alaska. But alas, as with most phobias, there would appear to be no tangible reason for my fear. If I’m completely honest though, I suspect that it has something to do with my slightly controlling nature and the fact that I’m simply no good at dealing with unpredictability.

You’ve heard of the old adage ‘Never work with animals or children’? Well, I found myself contemplating how it was that I had managed to spend the last 20+ years working closely with children, whilst avoiding animals at all costs – a truly curious state of affairs!

Having never owned a pet myself, I decided to find out a little bit more about what might be involved. Rather ironically, I decided to focus upon what a dog might need (they are meant to be ‘man’s best friend’ after all) and good old Google obliged by providing the following (albeit rather simplified) list:

Food
Shelter
Company
Exercise
Medical attention
Training

So, not all that different from the needs of children then – although nurturing / educating might be a slightly better description than ‘training’, assuming that you’d like to avoid a call from social services!

I had also imagined that owners might be required to hold a licence for their pets, and I learned that this was indeed the case, for certain types of exotic bird and domestic-wild hybrid animals. Fair enough.

So, why don’t you need a licence for raising children then? After all, herein lies great responsibility and yet anyone (who is physically capable of producing a child) is free to go ahead and do just that.

When you consider just how challenging and complex a task the raising of a child can be, it’s a minor miracle that there are no assessments to pass (or qualifications to gain) beforehand. You can’t (for example) jump into a car and drive on a public road without first proving that you can handle a car safely, and that you are also familiar with the Highway Code. Nor can you walk into someone else’s home and re-wire their house for them without providing the necessary documentation.  And yet you can walk straight out of the maternity ward and into (the veritable minefield that is) the world of parenting, and no-one bats an eyelid.

I, for one, wish that I had been better prepared; it’s been one heck of a learning curve so far!

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!  

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!’