Delving into life’s selection box

Way back in 1994, Forrest Gump (aka Tom Hanks) famously stated that his mum had always said that “life was like a box of chocolates” before going on to explain that this was because “you never know what you’re gonna get”.

Fortunately (for the risk averse amongst us) there is that helpful illustrated guide to lead us ever so gently through that all-important selection process, ensuring that we don’t unsuspectingly succumb to a flavour so utterly repugnant, that it all but ruins a Saturday evening’s viewing – perish the thought…

And for those who prefer to dabble in a spot of (confectionary fuelled) Russian roulette, then just be sure to have the number of an out of hours dentist saved into your contacts – just in case you end up falling victim to a rogue toffee or two!

With the festive season rapidly approaching, the subject of ‘Christmas Nibbles’ inevitably came up, with opinion briefly divided as to whether Cadbury’s ‘Heroes’ or Nestlé’s ‘Quality Street’ should take centre stage this year. And (even putting aside the many valid reasons for boycotting Nestlé’s products) it soon became clear that no-one can resist a hero – chocolate or otherwise – and that the chances of any particular variety being left to languish in the bottom of the tub (in our house at least) are extremely slim.

However, it would seem that even ‘heroes’ are capable of falling victim to a slump in popularity, with one or two firm favourites (The Twirl and the Dairy Milk) habitually outranking the humble Éclair – the item purportedly most likely to be consumed as a last resort. Similarly, across a range of opinion polls, the nation has repeatedly spurned the Coconut Éclair in favour of ‘The Purple One’ and the mini-Mars went on to suffer the ultimate ignominy of being deemed the least cause for celebration – and this in spite of being credited with the unique ability to ‘help you work, rest and play’ in the late 1950s!

Talk about falling from grace…

The point is, that (try as we might) we simply can’t avoid the selection (or even rejection) process. Either at work, or in our personal relationships, it is likely that we will have fallen victim to being unceremoniously ‘left on the shelf’ at one stage or another. However, if it has acted as a catalyst for self-evaluation or growth, then perhaps it was not such a bad thing.

So, if you’ve felt the passage of time rather keenly of late (and found yourself somewhat inclined to wallow in self-pity) thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to be a hero, you can live on a street of your choosing and that (with any luck) there’s still cause for celebration.

Ploughing one’s own furrow

As one’s life gallops inexorably towards the next significant milestone, it’s funny how certain phrases resonate more emphatically than others – and I wish that I could say that I had done this particular one even a modicum of justice! However, being naturally rather cautious in nature, I have repeatedly demonstrated a propensity for choosing the ‘safest option’ and this is possibly why I am so admiring of those who’ve bravely refused to wear the cloak of self-doubt, choosing instead to adorn their outer garments with that boldest of emblems – individuality.

Having witnessed the enormous amount of sibling rivalry that pervades our household (on an almost hourly basis!) I am constantly trying to encourage my boys to ‘be themselves’. The very idea that they should simply be carbon copies of one another is something that I work tirelessly to refute because (for two males born of the same parents) they couldn’t be less alike! From their outward appearance, right down to their inner persona, they are very much the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’ and yet I would willingly adopt a range of traits from each, in order to set about achieving that much-coveted ‘happy medium’.

In my professional life too, I have gained something of a reputation for ‘championing the unusual ’ and I’ll admit that I am prone to developing a ‘soft spot’ for those pupils who evidently struggle to conform but possess a unique ‘spark’ of one kind or another. After all, these are the very ‘individuals’ who are most likely to end up igniting our future with their genius.

Of course, I can see how a class full of 35 ‘individuals’ might not be to everyone’s taste – something akin to the ‘Krypton Factor of the teaching profession’! Nevertheless, the temptation to quash individuality (simply to achieve compliance) is one that we should all try desperately to resist. Because whilst uniformity within the classroom undoubtedly makes things ‘easier to manage’, it is likely that it will also be responsible for choking those first fragile tendrils of brilliance too.

So, by all means equip each child with the best ‘tools’ for the job, but don’t worry if those initial ‘furrows’ resemble rather elaborate crop circles instead; there is more than enough time for some gentle refinement.

Be sure to pay it forward!

My dad was a firm believer in treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself and this is certainly something that I have tried to put into practice over the years. And should you find that the truism ‘kindness costs nothing’ lacks resonance for any reason, then ‘be nice to the people you meet on the way up, for they are the same people that you’ll meet on the way back down’ might just help to focus the mind!

Perhaps one of the few positives to be taken from the ongoing pandemic is that there have been countless stories of people (from all walks of life) ‘pulling together’ and that the dying embers of community spirit have, to some extent, been rekindled. As we move forward into a period of recovery then, let’s try to hold on to those desirable behaviours, casting aside the all-consuming self- interest of before.

‘Be sure to pay it forward’ by Gaynor Hall

For every act of kindness, however great or small,
For every ounce of encouragement that helped you stand up tall,
For every time you very nearly let the demons in,
For every time you fought a battle you had no right to win,
For every time the road seemed tough, and strained at each small sinew,
For every time a friend endorsed the strength that lay within you,
For every time a passer-by their smile on you bestowed,
For every time a colleague helped to ease your heavy load,
For every time the sun still rose in spite of deep despair,
For every time that someone showed you just how much they cared.
Be grateful for each kindness, there’s no need to feel awkward,
Just remember the difference each one made – and be sure to pay it forward! 

To label, or not to label, that is the question

Over the years I have met a great many parents whom, at one time or another, have faced this particular dilemma. They have come to realise that their child is struggling at school, and they have begun to take those first tentative (but necessary) steps towards seeking some kind of help and support.

In my experience, when a group of parents get together over a coffee, the conversation usually adheres to a common theme – that of parental self-deprecation (after all, how many people honestly think that they are ‘acing’ this particular role?!) interwoven with the fundamental reality that most of us just want our children to ‘fit in’, be happy and to achieve their true potential. And it’s incredibly difficult to accept when something ‘isn’t quite right’. Feelings of inadequacy and anxiety begin to surface, and it can take a while for us to work through our own emotions, let alone ready ourselves for the inevitable challenges that we will need to help our children to overcome.

Society as a whole, of course, offers very little encouragement here.

As demonstrated by some of the abhorrent behaviour surrounding England’s defeat at Euro 2020, prejudice is evidently still very much alive and well. Whether pertaining to race, sexuality, age, or religion it would seem that ‘equality’ is the luxury of the few and there needs to be a concerted effort to change this. And like it or not, with every educational / behavioural diagnosis comes a certain amount of stigma too and (whilst progress is undoubtedly being made to address this) one can understand why a parent might be reluctant to authorise a comprehensive assessment for their child, for fear of them being ‘labelled’ and therefore viewed differently from their peers.

I remember taking part in an INSET session some eight or nine years ago that was looking at the common signs of, and useful strategies to help, those children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Being a subject that genuinely interested me, I had (rather uncharacteristically) listened intently – and made copious notes too! And just as I was beginning to wonder if my child might actually be ‘on the spectrum’ too, the presenter explained that most children under the age of five would exhibit a number of the behaviours outlined and that the mean age for ASD diagnosis ranged between 38 and 120 months. My relief was palpable (the proverbial weight having been lifted from my shoulders) and I settled down gratefully to the paediatric first aid course that followed.

All these years later, I have come to realise that my reaction was ‘normal’ (but also incredibly short-sighted) and this has made me much more empathetic towards those awaiting the diagnosis of a specific educational need for their child. The very notion that one’s treasured offspring might not be able to access education (or understand social convention) in the ‘usual’ way can be difficult to accept, and it is not uncommon for parents to feel a degree of culpability either – unwarranted or otherwise.

However, I wonder if an analogy with the labelling found on an item of clothing might be worth some consideration here? After all, without such a label there is a real chance that a particular item of clothing might become damaged or (in the event of it being dramatically reduced in size) rendered utterly worthless to the wearer. By attaching a ‘care’ label to a child then (rather than simply viewing that label as a set of arbitrary instructions) there’s a strong chance that this might help to alleviate some of their feelings of confusion and inadequacy. And better still, you might just be furnishing your child with an enduring sense of self-worth too.

Significant milestones

Language evolution is something that has always fascinated me and so I decided to take a look at some of the main motivating factors.

To a certain extent, the language that we use reflects both our environment and those with whom we interact. If we think back to the days of colonialism, there would have been a necessity to find a way to communicate with other populations for the purposes of trade. Similarly, technological advancement has had a huge part to play in the introduction of new vocabulary as people have striven to find innovative ways to talk about these exciting developments.

It has also been suggested that a sort of ‘Linguistic drift’ tends to occur when language is passed down the generations. As a result, our pronunciation changes, new words are invented, and the meaning of old words can begin to shift too. And whilst I’m entirely in favour of working at broadening my vocabulary, I have to admit to having been rather affronted by the quasi canonisation of certain ‘new’ words by the Oxford Dictionary. Take, for example, the word ‘fitspo’, short for ‘fitspiration’. I mean, really? What hope does this kind of madness offer me for remaining undefeated in the family ‘Scrabble’ games of the future?!

One example of a word that has undergone a gradual shift in meaning is ‘milestone’.

Originally a ‘stone set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place’ this term is now used as a means of marking a significant life event. And whether it is within the context of childhood development, or the lifetime ‘firsts’ commonly celebrated by adults, a degree of both pride and joy is traditionally shared amongst friends and family alike.

Is it just a happy coincidence then, that this article marks not only my 1st anniversary as a blogger, but also my 50th blog?

Of course not. And, like so many personal achievements, this particular milestone has only been made possible by the support and encouragement of those around me.

My sincere thanks for taking the time to read this and (more importantly) please do stick around for the next fifty!         

Three Lions

Lions are frequently depicted as symbols of strength and courage and, as such, they feature in the works of various literary heavyweights. Aesop’s fable ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ used to be a particular childhood favourite of mine, not least because I fell in love with the idea that the humble mouse could lend such crucial assistance to a creature as formidable as the mighty lion. Of course, the lion is not portrayed in a particularly good light here, exuding vanity and arrogance as opposed to dignity and valour…

As I grew up, I discovered C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ and (like so many) found myself drawn to Aslan, one of the main characters. And whilst the description of his physical appearance (and irrefutable status as the ‘King above all High Kings’) was genuinely awe inspiring, it was perhaps his compassionate nature and strong moral compass that left the greatest impression on me during my teenage years.

More recent examples include Jessica Olivia Sinatra’s book ‘Leonardo the Lion. A leap of faith’ (written in 2018) which introduces children to a courageous and determined lion cub. The stories explore the many challenges commonly faced by today’s children (making friends, being accepted by others, and embracing diversity in the community) and each book in the series is centred around the core values of love, kindness, and respect.

The lion (sometimes referred to as a leopard) is also a dominant feature of the royal arms of England, having been adopted by the Plantagenet kings who ruled over the country from as early as 1154. There is something truly majestic about the sleek (golden) lions placed against a background of rich crimson and this bold image of heraldry has endured over the centuries – despite our country’s rather chequered history.

As I have mentioned before, I spend most of my Saturdays ‘braving the elements’ in order to watch our boys play football. At times, the biting wind and driving rain has tested my resolve to the limit, and I have frequently noted that ‘grassroots’ might reasonably be substituted with ‘mud bath’ (football) instead! (My washing machine would certainly agree…) However, the notion that healthy roots are the most likely catalyst for abundant growth and development has not been totally lost on me, and the ethos of Grassroots Football is one to which I can wholeheartedly subscribe. After all, bringing children together through sport “whatever their age, gender, physical condition, skin colour, religion or ethnic origin” is a powerful vision and one utterly worthy of the 40,000+ clubs that are represented by this organisation.

Since England’s defeat in the Euro finals last week, there has been much discussion in the media about managerial tactics, individual (under) performance and of course those missed penalties. And it would seem that everyone has an opinion on the matter, with little or no reluctance to share it! However, with the power of social media to reach an audience of epic proportions (instantaneously) it has been sickening to read the comments of a reprehensible minority who have seen fit to deride and wound this group of young players with their vitriolic remarks.

I am in no doubt that all 26 of the young men who were chosen to represent their country wore the ‘three lions’ with pride and I am also absolutely certain that each one wanted desperately to ensure that ‘football (was) coming home’ thereby putting an end to all those ‘years of hurt’.  However, for whatever reason, it was not meant to be, and it is now time to regroup and move on.

I, for one, enjoyed every minute of England’s progress to the final. If nothing else though, it has highlighted the need to address the abhorrent behaviour of some of our so-called ‘fans’ once and for all, and for us to take this opportunity to educate our children on the vital issues that have once again disgraced our nation. By exercising the compassion, wisdom, and humility of Aslan and casting aside the narcissism of both Aesop’s central character – and those individuals who feel that they have the right to boo the national anthem of every other nation – we might just build a national identity of which we can justifiably be proud.

Calling all Superheroes!

I often think that parenting is akin to an extreme form of superhero training. There may not be any kryptonite involved (and I’ve yet to encounter any infinity stones) but daily survival has, nonetheless, been known to present its own challenges with everyone’s wellbeing (especially mine) frequently left hanging (rather precariously) in the balance.

However, even the most stressful of mornings (when the relatively straightforward task of leaving the house as a family unit, suitably equipped for the day with one’s sanity broadly intact) has nothing on the abject horror of the ‘in-tray exercise’!

Yes, with one foot firmly seated in middle age (and the other desperately seeking a new and exciting chapter) I finally came up against this veritable instrument of cognitive torture. And I have to admit that I was more than willing to wave the white flag of surrender just a few short minutes later!

For those of you who haven’t yet had the ‘pleasure’ of such an experience, let me attempt to give you an indication of what to expect.

Now obviously, my little Pandora’s (In)Box was full of school-based scenarios – the likes of which (if they were to occur simultaneously on a Monday morning as suggested) would literally require the help of the ‘Avengers’ and the ‘Justice League’ combined in order to demonstrate even a modicum of managerial supremacy – but if you can imagine apocalyptic levels of employee, client, or customer dissatisfaction, coupled with a lack of resources and wholly unrealistic deadlines, then this should prove universally relevant!

In just 30 minutes one is required to ‘solve’ a seemingly near exhaustive list of ‘problems’, ranking them in order of priority and explaining what course of action should be taken. Simple, right?

Wrong!

Because for every choice that you make, you are basically providing your future employer with a Velux style window to your soul, laying bare your capacity (or otherwise!) for compassion, logic, and leadership. And the final straw here, is that your line manager will almost certainly be ‘unavailable’ to lend any support to this fire-fighting exercise, and your future colleagues are apparently representative of the very small percentage of the population for whom physical or mental impairment should really have rendered them unemployable – and thoroughly deserving of every benefit going!

The final twist, of course, is that (having prioritised the immediate safeguarding concerns of any pupil who has been hypothetically placed in your care; having dealt with any pressing staffing shortages; having provided pastoral support to a distressed team member; having prepared the necessary academic data for a governors’ meeting; having written a captivating article for the newsletter; having responded to a parental complaint; having disciplined a junior member of staff and having referred a parent back to the school’s policy on the administering of medication) your own child is apparently in need of urgent help too.

What to do now? Where exactly should your own ‘flesh and blood’ rank in all of this? I mean, if you deal with your own son / daughter ahead of a school issue, then there’s a strong chance that you will be inviting criticism along the lines of
a) not being very dedicated to your job or
b) failing to take your professional responsibilities seriously.
Then again, to ignore your own child’s ‘cry for help’ paints you in a rather unfavourable light too – not to mention lining you up nicely for a child protection concern that is frankly a little too close to home!

Thirty minutes later, I left the confines of that tiny office a mere shadow of my former self.

My head was literally throbbing with the strain of trying to deal with such a kaleidoscope of child-related chaos; the academic data had been delegated to possibly the only other suitable senior leader (assuming that they were not, of course, amongst the previously mentioned high numbers of staff absences); my newsletter article was about as engaging as a bowl of tapioca (having managed to devote just 2 minutes and 48 seconds to it, off the back of far too much ethical and logistical deliberation) and try as I might, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that I had more than likely overlooked something of real significance.

In summary, I suspect that my performance was moderate to mediocre, and it was undeniably an experience that I would be in no particular hurry to repeat. However, in a humble attempt to adhere to my original analogy, I would suggest that certain qualities would be a minimum requirement – if ever (like me) you should find yourself bravely pursuing ‘in-tray utopia’…

At the very least, you should aim to exhibit the genius of Iron Man, the leadership of Captain America, the resilience of Thor and the compassion of Superman. Otherwise, prepare for the comparative ignominy of, for example, Marvel’s Jack of Hearts.

Preparing to be unlocked

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

‘Daring to hope’ by Gaynor Hall

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

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

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

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

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

Crowd pleaser or individual?

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it!

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!