‘Snow Day’

Since it was first published in 2014, ‘Snow Day’ by Richard Curtis has been a firm favourite within the Hall household. For those of you who haven’t read it, the blurb states that: ‘When Danny arrives at school, the last thing he expects to find is a deserted school and his LEAST favourite teacher. But that’s exactly what he does find. And what starts as the worst day imaginable ends as the most magical day of the year’. In essence, it’s a tremendously heart-warming story about finding friendship in the most unlikely of places – and my boys (and I) absolutely love it!

Over the past few days, much of Derbyshire has (once again) been shrouded in snow, and this inevitably brought back many happy childhood memories. However, as my husband and I regaled each other with various snow-related anecdotes, we were both suddenly struck by the harsh realisation that ‘Snow Days’ (complete with days off school) have effectively become a ‘thing of the past’. Courtesy of COVID (and the associated national lockdowns) the chances of a child being allowed to simply enjoy the snow are becoming increasingly slim. Remote learning is fast becoming the ‘norm’ and the teacher who finds himself unable to travel to work (owing to hazardous driving conditions) is now simply expected to calmly trade their ‘Toyota’ for ‘TEAMS’ and continue with their teaching. And so, it seemed only right and proper to pay tribute to that much hallowed (albeit largely obsolete) institution – ‘The Great British Snow Day’.  

Ode to a Snow Day

That shroud of white that doth appear
Forsaken by children, once held so dear.
Nor from the garden beckoning,
Her icy fingers languishing.

‘Tis time to draw a veil o’er thee
And venture towards technology.
The snowman spurned, the sledge bereft,
With hours upon hours of tuition left!

Those halcyon days, so free and guileless,
(Listening for school closures on the wireless)
So cruelly displaced by video lessons
And daily commutes that last mere seconds!

Oh, how we pine for those simplest of pleasures,
(Instead of fractions, or other measures)
The crunch of snow beneath one’s feet,
A well-aimed snowball yielding victory sweet!

My wintry companion! My childhood friend!
You afforded such joy for hours on end,
But now those adventures have drawn to a close,
Just another sad symptom of COVID, I suppose.

So long, farewell!

As this calendar year finally draws to a close, I’m fairly confident that most of us will be extremely glad to see the back of 2020. There have been challenges aplenty, moments of anxiety and despair, and my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19; a virus that shows no mercy and seems intent upon wreaking havoc for some time to come. However, it is my firm belief that better times lie ahead and that this ‘new and silent enemy’ will eventually succumb to the fortitude and ingenuity of the human spirit. May the Lord ‘bless you and keep you’ until then.     

The Uninvited Guest

I don’t wish to sound ungrateful; I don’t want to seem unkind
But you’ve rather outstayed your welcome and taken up too much time.
When you crept up upon our communities, silent and somewhat shy,
None of us knew quite how potent you’d be – we hoped that you’d pass swiftly by.

You entered our homes uninvited, invaded our children’s schools,
You attacked the fit and the vulnerable, no thought for obeying the rules.  
You cancelled our hobbies and interests, you sabotaged parties and treats,
You even scuppered our festive plans; the latter was no mean feat!

And just when we thought that we’d found a solution – two vaccines quickly invented,
You chose to mutate, re-group and persist, local lockdowns circumvented.
You ripped through our cities, our towns big and small, without any sign of stopping,
Case numbers rose (as did hospital admissions) the death rates were truly shocking.

So, forgive me if I’m not a huge fan of yours, ‘Master Covid’ you cruel imposter,
You’re made yourself known through sadness and loss, and managed much fear to foster.
You’ve won a few battles (I’ll grant you that) but you’ve certainly not won the war,
With family, friendship and faith on our side, our spirit is sure to endure.    

The sands of time

2020 has not been an easy year for anyone. There has been uncertainty and loss in abundance and trying to juggle work with home-schooling (during lockdown 1) certainly tested the parenting skills of even the most adept of multitaskers!

However, venturing out for local walks and bike rides (during the permitted daily exercise slot) became our way of looking after our emotional and physical wellbeing, and I found myself feeling immensely grateful for those precious family moments and (by association) the many opportunities for self-reflection that they afforded.

Being a Sagittarian, I have just ‘celebrated’ another birthday (groan) and I have to admit that my natural instinct was to dwell (rather unflatteringly) upon the ‘sands of time’. After all, feelings of frustration, a loss in confidence and (to some degree) a sense of inadequacy are incredibly common in women whose career path has (understandably) been re-routed in order to accommodate the raising of children.  However, I have tried instead to acknowledge some of the aspirations that I held when I was young, whilst also being mindful of the ‘bigger picture’. Let’s hope that I can carry this (frankly rather uncharacteristic) brand of positivity into the next decade – when the time comes! 

Another year older

When I was but a tiddler, I dreamt of being a teacher,
(My brothers said my bossy streak would be a useful feature!),
I’d line up all my teddies and issue clear instructions,
Or take a crafty polaroid of their end of term ‘productions’.

When I moved up to ‘juniors’, I thought I’d be a dancer –
Not Ballet (requiring elegance) but ‘Tap’ the obvious answer…
I had an excellent memory for dance routines straightforward,
I just lacked poise or presence, and looked extremely awkward!

As I approached my teenage years, I decided to become a swimmer,
(I’d entered a single gala and been proclaimed an ‘almost’ winner!),
I joined a club and practised hard – the lengths offered time to think,
But a lack of pace (or stamina) caused my dreams to quickly sink!

When I was in my twenties, my love for music flourished,
Spending hours at the piano and keeping my soul well-nourished.
I rattled off countless ‘études’, ‘rhapsodies’ and ‘sonatas’,
And still I lacked the confidence to really raise the rafters.  

When I was in my thirties, I yearned for far-off lands,
The type you see on postcards – turquoise waters, golden sands.
I set about visiting heritage sights, monuments great and small,
Sampling different cultures; in truth, I had ‘a ball’!

And now that I’m in my forties, wondering what’ll come next,
I find myself re-evaluating, and feeling truly blessed,
I may not have ‘set the world on fire’ – but perhaps there is still time…
But I’ve found my soulmate and borne two sons, and I’m proud to call them ‘mine’.

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!  

Reading between the lines

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

Reading between the lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I could teach you anything

In a world where the desire for possessions and status often belies the value of priceless commodities (such as decency and integrity), I found myself wondering what it was that I would wish to tell my children – when they are of an age to be a little more receptive!  The following is written very much from the heart:

If I could teach you anything

If I could teach you anything, I’d urge you to be kind,

It doesn’t really cost that much to keep an open mind.

And every time you choose to give the ‘benefit of the doubt’,

You might just be affording someone the confidence to strike out

Into a world offering something good, to all who walk her path:

From the fiercely inquisitive toddler, to those in the aftermath

Of grief and disillusionment, where loneliness abounded –

Where the air grew dense with silence, though laughter had once resounded.

If I could teach you anything, I’d ask you to show love,

It’s surprising how such a simple thing gets passed down from above.

By showing someone tenderness, or a modicum of compassion,

You’ll help them healthy relationships to build, sustain and fashion

Into something all encompassing, a possession to be cherished –

Where once a sense of self esteem had very nearly perished.

With love you ‘pay it forward’, through deeds both great and small,

It needn’t be a luxury; it’s the right of one and all.

If I could teach you anything, I’d strive to give you hope,

I’d deliver the gift of resilience and tell you not to mope!

Things tend to have a curious way of working themselves out,

If you can just stay positive, and not succumb to doubt.

For every lesson painfully learned – obstacle or mistake,

There’ll be fresh opportunities, a new direction to take.

Just re-evaluate your goals, and craft your dreams anew

The most important message here is ‘Just be true to you!’

And when the ‘Day of Reckoning’ finally arrives,

I’m certain that our Maker will look with kindly eyes

Upon our life’s journey, our achievements big and small,

And tally up the times we chose to help those who’d otherwise fall.

“No man is an island” as stated by John Donne,

And when we leave this ‘mortal coil’ (our battles lost or won),

Remember that I loved you, far more than any other,

The most remarkable privilege, that of being your mother.       

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!

Is honesty always the best policy?

As a parent, I frequently find myself beseeching my children to be honest, but this is undeniably something that they still really struggle with. Despite my best efforts to reassure them that an honest account of what has taken place (rather than an elaborately woven web of deceit) is less likely to incur my wrath, limited progress has been made to date. In reality, they’ve simply transitioned from blatant ‘skin-saving’ lies, to an abject evasion of the facts!

Progress in the loosest possible sense then…

But as much as I wallow in feelings of inadequacy (and torment myself with the notion that I have obviously failed to earn their trust) I have seen ‘honesty’ from the other side too – and it does have its drawbacks.   

I had just started teaching, and so I was undoubtedly at the driven (i.e. utterly uncompromising) stage. Things were very much ‘black or white’ and (not yet having had to juggle kids, work, marriage etc) I expected 100% commitment from my pupils – and their parents!

The first concert of the academic year was looming, and all three choirs were to be involved. I had sent out letters (outlining the arrangements) and painstakingly worked out the seating positions for all concerned. Mindful of the fact that young children often require quite a lot of input (in terms of stage management), I had largely used the final rehearsal to (rather laboriously) practise filing on and off the ‘stage’ – to the point where even the most ‘distracted’ of characters knew exactly what was expected of them.

Having dismissed the children, I was just packing everything away when one little boy came hurtling back into the chapel, looking extremely agitated. (Such was the keenness of his discomfort, that I dispensed with the usual teacherly chastisements about running and / or remembering that we were in a place of worship!) Once he had caught his breath, he told me that he wouldn’t be able to make the concert, because his Mum had said that she wouldn’t be able to get him back to school in time. Well, to say that I was unimpressed would have been an understatement. All parents had had plenty of notice, after all, and what could be more pressing than hearing one’s son performing with his friends?

I fixed him with a Paddington-like stare and asked (rather acerbically) what his Mum would be doing instead. He promptly informed me that she was booked in to “have her bikini line waxed – at 4pm” and that he was “sorry“. Rather churlishly, and despite being momentarily wrong-footed, I grumbled that his Mum had chosen an unfortunate time to have this done. Not content to stop there, I also took it upon myself to point out that the concert didn’t start until 5.30pm and so it might still be possible for him to take part.

His response was priceless.

He looked at me (rather incredulously) and said, “Have you seen my Mum, Miss? It won’t be a quick thing. She’s got more hair than a Yak!”

I rest my case!

Divine intervention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’d be a parent?

I woke up just this morning, determined to be bright,

And headed for the shower before the morning light

Had fully cast its splendour, on all things great and small,

But then I heard a rumpus, beyond the bedroom wall.

The sound of toys being flung about – with large amounts of force,

Doors being slammed and insults yelled until their throats were hoarse.

You’d think a nation’s army had just been redeployed,

Rather than a ‘fall out’ between two headstrong boys!

And so, I ventured forward, much wisdom to impart,

My plan to help them rationalise, polite exchange a start,

And yet the scene unfolding was enough to make you faint –

A room in utter disarray, both children mid-complaint.

I tried to be the grown-up, all calm and in control,

But as the volume rose again my eyes began to roll.

With every accusation, a counterattack ensued –

My blood began to boil and yet the cause I still pursued.

I tried asking questions, to establish facts or fault,

But every time that someone spoke, it led to fresh onslaughts!

I prised my youngest’s fingers from around my eldest’s neck,

Yet still they were connected, but where? I’d have to check.

A punch was thrown, their nails dug in – it really wasn’t pretty,

And still the insults flew about, all moist and terribly ‘spitty’!

I used my strength to separate the writhing angry bodies,

All the while making futile threats to do with cancelling hobbies.

I sent them to their bedrooms for some quiet self-reflection,

And set off, once again, a calming shower my intention.

I let the water shroud me as the tension ebbed away,

There was still a tiny chance that we could salvage our day.

Once dressed and dry (with breakfast served) I spoke of the morning’s folly,

They ate and drank (half listening) no sign of guilt or worry!

I expected some reaction, some words, a gentle nod,

But all I got were sideways glances, a silent path they trod.

They left the table demurely as I tidied their things away,

And headed out to the garden, on scooters and bikes to play.

But before any time had passed at all their ‘friendship’ (recently mended)

Hit further subtle obstacles and the ceasefire promptly ended!