Let the festivities begin

Now that my children have finally broken up for Christmas, we are all daring to hope that we’ll be permitted to spend some quality time with our extended family – lateral flow tests notwithstanding, of course. At least, that is, until Boris calls a somewhat premature halt to any seasonal revelry.

As 2021 gradually draws to a close, it is astonishing to think that so much uncertainty still pervades everyday life and the distinct possibility of having to surrender many of our basic liberties once again (almost as soon as the last mince pie has been devoured) is more than a little demoralising! However, now is not the time for negative thoughts (after all, that’s what January is for!) instead, why not follow the advice of Stephen Covey? Namely that we should ‘Live, love, laugh (and) leave a legacy’, because these are the memories that will ultimately sustain our loved ones when we can no longer be together.

‘Last Call for Christmas’ by Gaynor Hall

’Twas the night before lockdown when all through the nation,
The people were cursing in abject frustration –
They’d barely discarded their party hats,
Nor managed the very last riddle to crack.

Gifts lay unopened at the foot of the tree,
Intended for Gran who’d been sleeping since 3!
And now the PM (centre stage on the telly)
Was ‘calling time’ on their festive Beef Wellie!

With no time to work off the Christmas excess,
Life would be cancelled again – more or less,
With guidelines as ‘rich’ as the festive fruit pud,
He began to outline all the ‘coulds’ and the ‘shoulds’.

Despite having chosen his rules to ignore –
Indulging in gatherings behind (public) closed doors –
It was clear that ‘Joe Bloggs’ was expected to comply
With another round of restrictions – no chance to defy.

But instead of being angry, with those cloaked in power,
(Lecturing, once more, from their ivory towers)
Those precious few hours of unrivalled pleasure,
Filled with such magical moments to treasure,

Are a fitting reminder of the laughter and love,
Witnessed, I’m sure, by our loved ones above.

All that glitters is not gold

Let’s face it. We’ve all done it. At least once.

It’s so easy to get into a mindset where we become increasingly dissatisfied with ‘our lot’ reaching unwittingly for those rose-tinted glasses through which so much of what we see on social media must surely have been captured.

However, it’s human nature to want to better oneself and there is nothing quite like the feeling of seeing the fruits of one’s labours boldly looking back at us in the shape of a shiny new purchase!

The first car I ever bought will always occupy a very special place in my heart. Not only was it a nippy little thing in a pretty purple colour – mercifully, with age, comes better judgement! – but it was what it represented that made it so precious to me. It was a symbol of my new-found independence and heralded my first foray into the world of paid employment. I’ve bought no less than seven cars since then, and although they have outperformed my humble little Clio on pretty much every single level (I mean, it had handles to ‘wind’ down the windows, for goodness sake!) not one has won my affection in the same way.

And people can be much the same. Some can make you feel instantly better for seeing them – exuding warmth, humour, and compassion – whilst others don all of the outward vestiges of confidence and success but fail to touch us in quite the same way.

I recently learned that a friend of mine had been (as they say) rather unceremoniously ‘traded in for a younger model’ and she was quick to show me a photo of the new ‘acquisition’. And (apart from some rather prominent body-coloured bumpers!) it was difficult to see the attraction. All of a sudden, my thoughts returned to the car that had won my affection all those years ago. It had faithfully taken me safely all over the United Kingdom (in high winds, snow, and fog) and, had it not eventually gasped its last on my mum’s front drive, I’d like to think that it would still have been with me today. For no other car (albeit blessed with a host of advanced electrical features) has ever been quite so dependable – or indeed so much fun to drive.

‘All that glitters is not gold’ by Gaynor Hall

She always looks so glamorous, bedecked from head to toe
In jewellery rich and sparkling and tones that make her glow.
Her hair is thick and glossy, a profusion of gentle curls
Which frame her dainty cheekbones whilst her generous lashes unfurl.

His smile exudes an arrogance – the cat that got the cream –
As upon his arm she simpers, doing wonders for his self-esteem.
They dart from table to table, simply desperate to advertise
To every other person there that he’s won the topmost ‘prize’.

They cut a striking figure as they glide across the floor,
Moving in perfect synergy as they chassé towards the door.
They step into a waiting limo, waving such fond goodbyes,
But as soon as the car is out of sight, she drops her clever disguise.

The demands start to tumble incessantly out, each one just a bit more unreasonable,
He weakly offers his assurances, though he’s not sure they’re actually feasible.
He watches as she snaps and snarls – transforming those dainty features
Into something far less alluring – akin to a vicious creature.

His thoughts drift back to times gone by, when the person at his side
Cared about his feelings – made him laugh until he cried.
She never asked for expensive gifts, preferring instead to play
Endless board games with him and the kids, bringing cheer to a rainy day.

He’d been foolish (he could see that now) simply wanting to spread his wings,
Getting caught up in his own vanity and seeking ‘better’ things.
Why hadn’t he seen the value in the life they’d built together?
A life where honesty and love so many storms had weathered.

The rise of the emoji

Words have always been a source of fascination for me and I often attribute my passion for language to the many hours that my dear old mum spent reading to us as children. Quite apart from the traditional bedtime story slot at home, she would often have a book stowed away in the glove compartment of the family car, to be brought out on long journeys and read by torchlight as my dad drove us to our destination.

Seeing a similar level of enthusiasm for books beginning to develop within my own boys gives me indescribable pleasure and it is for this reason that I continue to make time for sharing a bedtime story with my youngest. This has always been our opportunity for spending quality time together (not to mention my best chance of managing a good old snuggle!) the only difference being that the rather simplistic picture books of early childhood have given way to gripping adventure novels whose chapters provide the perfect conditions for allowing the imagination to run wild.

And boy, does it run wild!

One thing that took a little time for him to grasp, however, was that words can be used figuratively. Indeed, it would often be several days before I’d realise that he had taken a particular phrase absolutely literally and then spent hours desperately trying to decipher its meaning. And, if I’m honest, I can see just how such confusion arises.

The English language is by no means straightforward – with seemingly many more exceptions than rules. Add into the mix our almost addictive penchant for using a range of metaphors (mixed or otherwise) and non-native speakers must frequently risk finding themselves in a linguistic minefield. I can see why the (not so humble) emoji holds such appeal! Furthermore, just as you think that you have found a saying that aptly supports the case that you are trying to put forward, some ‘smart Alec’ (rather infuriatingly) manages to come up with a gloriously contradictory one!

I seem to have spent the last few days ‘checking in’ with various friends, being all too aware of just how easily the busy daily routine can prevent us from nurturing our relationships with others. I have genuinely struggled to find the time to commit my thoughts to (virtual) paper of late either and this got me thinking… Would the absence of something to read (amongst my loyal followers at least) ‘make the heart grow fonder’ or would it simply be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’?

I concluded (rather grudgingly) that it is probably a case of the latter. After all, ‘Time (or at least the world of social media) waits for no (wo)man’ and anyway, (as Robert Half rightly observed) an ego trip is ‘a journey to nowhere’.

Outstaying one’s welcome

I’m not usually one for submitting a formal complaint, preferring instead to speak with the individual(s) concerned and see if a solution (or even a compromise) might be found. I am, however, a firm believer in giving praise where it is due, and offering thanks where it is justified, and I am always genuinely grateful when someone takes the time to formally acknowledge my contribution to a ‘job well done’.

Today though, I have decided to break with tradition and (rather publicly) lodge a series of complaints against that most insidious of uninvited houseguests…

‘Dear Covid’ by Gaynor Hall

The purpose of this missive is to state a few home truths,
I don’t suppose you’ll listen though, you’re renowned for being aloof!
The thing you need to understand, is your welcome you’ve rather outstayed,
And although we’ve tried to tolerate you, a reprehensible card you’ve now played.

You arrived here in 2020 and boldly knocked at our doors,
You ‘befriended’ not just the vulnerable, but the young, the rich and the poor.
You wandered the streets of our cities, closed all of our restaurants and shops,
Disrupted our kids’ education and caused foreign travel to stop.

And rather like a squatter, you insisted on extending your stay,
Disrupting another calendar year, refusing to go away,
Ensuring that plans (though cautiously made) were unceremoniously trampled
At will by you, mean spirited fiend, your path of destruction most ample.

I applaud you for your timing, disrupting half-term was inspired –
Preventing adventures further afield that had been (by us all) so desired,
But for every disappointment that you’ve ‘kindly’ sent our way,
There’s the hope of better times ahead that keeps the blues at bay.

So next time you target my children, and choose all our lives to disrupt,
Don’t expect any nicety of language – just a tone that’s both sharp and abrupt.
I’m hereby serving you notice, not withstanding the absence of rent,
That you’re really not much of a lodger and isn’t it time that you went?

I’m with Confucius on this one!

English Proverbs have long held a certain amount of fascination for me, and I used to love hearing my mum refer to a large number of them as she went about her daily tasks. Coping with six children cannot have been without its challenges, but she was incredibly adept at finding a saying that would put a positive slant on an otherwise demanding situation.

I’m quite sure, however, that in our case (my mum being constantly surrounded by a veritable gaggle of ankle biters) ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ might have been rather more apt than ‘Many hands make light work’ and this is possibly why she became a staunch believer in ‘Making hay while the sun shines’ – or at least before any of her ‘little darlings’ had had the chance to surface!

What I really love about all these sayings though are the many straightforward messages of wisdom and morality that they help to impart, in language that is rather less condemnatory than some of the statements found within the scriptures of the Old Testament. Take, for example, Proverbs 1:32-33 “For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm”. This is pretty uncompromising stuff! A case of ‘my way or the highway’ perhaps?

As with so many popular sayings though, it is usually possible to find another one that conveniently provides a ready-made counter argument.

‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ can neatly be substituted for ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ depending upon the mood of the protagonist. Similarly, ‘Great minds think alike’ can be turned upon its head with the maxim that ‘Fools rarely differ’! And, being an unashamed devotee of language, I often find myself marvelling at the astonishing power of words to empower or defeat, comfort or wound, entertain or reduce to tears.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and politician who was generally considered to be the ‘paragon of Chinese sages’. Born in 551 BC, Confucius lived until he was 71 and during that time, he gained a reputation for striving to make education broadly available, and for establishing the art of teaching as a much-respected vocation. His ‘golden rule’: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself’ would seem to offer a moral code fit for all and one that requires no further explanation. For this reason (and because I am still working my way steadily through a mid-life crisis of my own) I decided to find out what Confucius had to say on the subject of old age. The results were surprisingly encouraging…

“Old age, believe me, is a good and pleasant thing. It is true you are gently shouldered off the stage, but then you are given such a comfortable front stall as spectator.”

Perhaps it’s time to let the youngsters take centre stage, and for me to settle gratefully into my seat, with a substantial container of popcorn at the ready!

The Adolescent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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! 

Otter or Platypus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!