Category Archives: School

Where was I?

I know where I was on September 18th 1990. I know where I was because my geography teacher – a man whose name I cannot now remember – asked all of us what day it was.

We were thirteen. Our teacher seemed genuinely angry and upset that we did not know what day it was. How could we? We had no means of finding out in 1990 without leaving the classroom. So he kept asking us. He was not a good teacher and I made a mental note that this method would not work.

He despaired, shouted at us a bit and put on a video. A VHS with a fuzzy picture and trippy colours on a hulking cathode-ray machine with clunky buttons. It was loud enough to wobble the tubular trolley. There was lots of sound and anger being performed at us. Some of us were a little scared. Our class watched in confusion as Jimi Hendrix performed guitar riffs with his hands and his teeth, on his knee and behind his head. There was certainly skill being demonstrated, but like a fine wine or a decent book we did not appreciate exactly what. We were thirteen.

Happy that he had berated us enough, our teacher told us that the date that day was exactly twenty years since Jimi Hendrix’ untimely death. We looked at each other. So now we knew. Some of us still had no idea who Jimi Hendrix was, so our teacher took it upon himself to tell us. It was not much of a geography lesson. I think this was the teacher who also tried to teach us how to make cocaine from the plant, should we find ourselves in South America. (It was not the best of schools but I learned a lot about how not to teach there).

I never became a fan of Jimi Hendrix.

I never became a fan of David Bowie either, but this week I have learned why.

I judged him.

I thought of him as a provocative and promiscuous glam rocker, caught in all the trappings of fame and success and one of many provocative artists – so what was new? I was not interested in music which broke the mould because much music does that. I felt the Bowie experience was hollow and unsophisticated. Also irritating and showy. And amoral. And broken.

I judged him, and today I have understood something about myself in that and why I need to stop judging. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive others. 

I have no right to judge. I did not even realise I was doing it. Here was a guy living out his life in full colour, whatever my own feelings were about those colours. It is not for me to judge him. I can like or dislike his music, his opinions and his actions, but it is not for me to judge them. The difference is important. Do not judge others and you will not be judged.

I still do not identify very much with Bowie and I still don’t warm to his musical styles, but I have made a small step forward. A moon-step, if you like. He, like me, was only human. And sometimes all of us, as humans, recognise that we have limits. And we do ourselves all a great favour if we refuse to let our differences divide us. When we look closely, we find that we have more in common than we may have realised.

 

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The Taking Part

It’s the taking part that counts, right?

Not the success? Not achieving a personal aim? Or becoming highly proficient in some skill?

Taking part – that’s the thing. Right?

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I heard two seven year olds sparring today. One was adamant that taking part was the main point in sports events. The other’s daddy had told him that taking part wasn’t enough if you didn’t try and win. And he agreed with his daddy and was not going to talk about it any more. The first lad returned to scratching stones out of the dirt in front of him and creating an interesting collection, avoiding all eye contact and clearly humbled by his fitter and more confident classmate. He did not try to win the point.

But he had just taken part in a tournament. He had managed to get through eleven sweaty tennis activities on a hot morning with no shade. And his team had not won. Oh, I know that feeling well. I have never achieved great things in sports. I came last in sports days every year. I had to learn to swim with small children at nearly 6 foot tall. I didn’t get picked to play for my college football team – despite the captain being my room-mate. Even my form group came last each year at sports day. Taking part didn’t wash with me. Taking part was rubbish. Taking part meant being vulnerable and inadequate in public. Not just the Not Winning, but Not Managing. Not managing to catch a ball and being the kid who chased after it twice every time – once in the general direction (it would never normally go that far!) and a second time when it rolled out of reach or some stray foot of mine made contact wrongly. Taking part in sports days was choosing to be humiliated in skills we had not been working on. Skills which favoured the naturally talented, those who liked an audience or were happy to sit in fields stewing with grass pollen and the few who had remembered sun cream.

Winning was even less of an option. I registered the probabilities and was prepared to concede the fight before even beginning. Taking part meant taking the high moral ground, because it certainly wasn’t going to achieve anything for me. Taking part meant allowing others to prove themselves though their legs were shorter, their language cruder or their times tables wobblier. Taking part felt patronising. Like being taken apart. Like some twelfth night twist. In summer. In infants and junior groups. In bright primary colours with odd names, whose allegiances was sudden and sincere and stupid because my team Never Won.

And in the 1980s if you did not win, you went home empty-handed. Or you competed against yourself. One year – trying my utmost – I did worse than in the previous year, but still got a certificate. I wished I could have refused it. Receiving no certificate would have been a better reward. My efforts had not been successful and I did not want patronising, which I decided devalued other achievements.

There are arenas in which you are not born to win, yet you are compelled to make your best endeavours – perhaps even in full view.

That stinks.

Many times in life winning is just not an option. Managing may not even be an option. Taking part carries baggage. Taking part is utterly unfair if winning is not an option. Taking part means creating a pedestal for the few, which the many uphold merely by their presence.

Most participants at most sports events lose. Is this the lesson we spend a dozen summer days lining up for in primary colours?

Most participants at most sports events have chosen to be there and have worked hard, with a goal of personal success and new best scores.

Taking part cannot be enough if you are not trying to win. So I agree with that boy’s daddy. You have to put your best into it. You have to give it everything, accept defeat graciously if that’s your lot and use your victories – if you get any – for the good of the team, the school, the nation or the almanack writers.

But I also agree with the stone-scratcher. Taking part takes real courage when you know you cannot win. Taking part takes tenacity and a willingness not to think too highly of yourself. Taking part can (and should) mean encouraging others. Taking part can open your eyes to new ways of looking after your own fitness. Taking part means seeing yourself as part of a team, and not merely as an individual who needs the kudos of standing on others’ losses for personal gain. Taking part challenges the normal hierarchies and routines of academia. Taking part can be part of a pattern of humiliation, which makes you want to scratch a hole in the dirt and gather stones.

There is a time for gathering stones. To cleanse, withdraw and reflect.

And a time to scatter them. To say how it is and how you feel, even when it makes a mess.

Lily has been involved in two competitions this month. The first involved a national search for a child to represent English Heritage. Someone passionate about history and willing to dress up as their historical hero or heroine. She did remarkably well and got through to the final 35, but the competition was very strong and she didn’t win. What struck me, more than her confidence and knowledge at interview was her resolution to do her best and to be content whatever the outcome. She understood that not everyone could win and that it was unlikely she would. She wanted to win and therefore wanted to take part to have the chance, but her sportsmanship was touching. That is what made me so proud of her. She didn’t refuse to take part (as I would most probably have done these days) – she refused to let the competition dominate her.

The second competition was today’s meet up of year two children from three local primary schools at the local secondary college. Teenaged sports leaders directed twelve groups of brightly coloured children around a circuit of throwing, running, batting and catching games. I was there to be an extra pair of hands and eyes. Our small team were not always the fastest or most accurate, but we were told to enjoy Taking Part. And that there would be only one measure of success – the team who encouraged each other the most. Sportsmanship.

My dormant competitor recognised something. Here was a talent anyone could master. All of the children could take part in Encouraging. And the act of encouraging others was to be encouraged. So I cheered the team on and they cheered each other on and we got through the heat and the running after the tennis balls (twice) and the water bottles and at the end we all sat near some shade and waited for the results. And I wanted to encourage everyone and say ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter whether you won or not; well done for encouraging each other so well guys!’ but that would have been wrong.

And finally the results came in. There were joint second place teams from Lily’s school and another school.

There were joint fourth place teams from the two other schools. And the winning team, by just two points…

…was Lily’s team.

Seriously.

I joined in the victory cheer and suddenly the thrill of victory made sense. It was the winning that counted for most. But of course it was not only the winning that counted. Or even the managing.

And I wish I had sat with stone-scratching-boy and told him what he needed to hear. That he was right. And also to keep his head up. And to keep trying. And to find arenas to excel in. And that he could encourage others too. And I hoped others would encourage him, because he needed it more than a lot of the others did.

The Bishop of Bombay

I met the Bishop of Bombay today at the post office.

‘Bonjour,’ I smiled, allowing the sentence to linger Englishly beside the empty bubble-wrap envelopes. No response.

The Bishop’s wife touched his elbow and he turned around and saw me. His little eyes lit up Gallicly and his cheeks filled out. Although I always thought he looked old, today he looked much older. Deeper. Sadder.

‘M. Mercier?’ I continued. ‘You used to teach me; it’s Lucy’ I said, mixing my tenses as proficiently as ever.

He grinned and I recalled how he always used to address us in class: ‘Now, ma leetle missionarees – when ah waz ze Bishop of Bombay, let me tell you somesing – what ar you doing zere?’ He always spoke like that. He played to his strengths, with a strong warm French accent and a passion for the perfect tense with être. We played to his weaknesses – some smoked under the tables, while I got fed up with arriver and partir and spent lessons with my head in my dad’s copy of Teach Yourself Swahili. Moja, mbili, tatu, nne, tano and all that. As he got older he got louder. Everyone knew who M. Mercier was, and what his class were learning that lesson if you were on the top corridor. Our school may not have been great for sending folk to Oxbridge, but it was rich in Life.

There was one time when the Bishop of Bombay took me to the local A&E as I’d fallen in the playground – almost certainly from copying the rest of the second year girls and attempting to do gymnastics on the wooden bars outside the drama room. I asked him why he said he was the Bishop of Bombay. He actually twinkled his eyes and explained in broken English that he wasn’t really. I knew that, but I wanted more information. I said that since I’d been seven I’d wanted to be a missionary. After that he always addressed us as ‘my leetle missionarees’.

‘Aha, zee firrst female Bishop of Bombay’ he pronounced, waking up the rest of the post office. The lady hoping to check and send her passport application had been checked and sent away to collect the rest of the requisites. The Bishop’s wife moved forward to the vacant teller. She smiled at me. ‘You were always one of ze very best’ M. Mercier went on. This was clearly untrue. Even my Swahili was sketchy. But I knew what he meant. I didn’t misbehave and I tried hard. I wanted to say something to encourage him.

‘I’m married now, I have two children.’

‘Oh, zat ees good.’

He had hearing aids in. From experience with older folk I knew better than to ask someone with hearing aids if they are well, especially in public with no time to chat. So I told him I had studied more languages at university. He smiled as if he hadn’t heard me. I smiled as if he had.

And then it was time for me to move on to the next vacant teller. The Bishop and his wife both said goodbye to me and walked on, and I was left calculating the value of postage and of words. I didn’t learn much French at school, malheureusement, but I did learn about giving a much better education – that of positive words.

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mercierBishop of Bombay, circa 1993 (c) R.Spall

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Father I place into Your Hands

Today I discovered that I could not apply for the school places for Joseph out of county quite as readily as we had hoped. We cannot apply through Cambridgeshire if we do not live there, or have two applications open. We can apply to out of county schools through the Suffolk application website, but only if they list them. All three we preferred were not on the (extensive) list of primaries.

And having made two (count them…. two!) phone calls to numbers beginning with ‘your call is important to us’, I emailed Suffolk for advice.

It wasn’t simple: we need to apply online as we are away on the results day and may need to action Lily’s school place or house move details immediately, or make decisions about the second round applications. We are trusting that God is calling us to a specific area. We have already visited some schools and have plans to view more of the area this week. And the deadline is in 8 days.

I got an out-of-office reply stating that Suffolk were away and might take ten working days (count them… ten!) to reply. This could indeed affect our chances.

We’d already stepped out of the boat in faith. We’d already taken risks. There’s no Janus look-both-ways option here. If you try and run back to the boat you won’t stay up.

So I called on my friends, and my friends reminded me to call on Jesus. His Grace continues to cover me and carry me Outrageously. He lifts me, dries me, laughs. And 60 seconds before I’m supposed to be at school (count them… 60!) the phone rings. Withheld number. Might it be Tony, our regular wrong-number guy, calling for Peter, desperate for a visit? Or a company wishing to extol the virtues of government-encouraged schemes and am I in the 55-85 bracket? Or my sister, calling from colder climes?

Usually I ignore Withheld. Today I picked up. Today a lovely lady from Suffolk explained how she’d fixed the problem, approved of our pragmatism and was utterly professional. Their call was important to me. Thank you Marie Withheld from Suffolk. And thank you friends who remind me to face the right way when stepping out of the boat. And thank you Jesus for the outrageous grace – again.

 

Depression Toolkit #20: Blessing others

I am learning to re-introduce this one gently.

I love helping others out, even when it drains me. Maybe it is a deep-grained sense of duty. I like to see things fixed. I want to weep with those who are weeping and laugh with those who are laughing.

So the end of term is providing the opportunity to find a wonderful gift for Lily’s teacher, who has done so well in her first year of teaching. I found just the thing on Notonthehighstreet.com, and will also print out home-made thank you cards with her picture on for her teacher and classroom assistants. I am limiting myself to Lily’s immediate helpers this term for my sanity.

Then there is the exciting prospect of a new nephew or niece soon, and coming up with something to bless my brother and his wife and family with.

My husband and I are attending a wedding soon. And we are visiting friends in Albania, so lots of potential for finding lovely ways to bless people. And there are birthdays, occasions and times to focus on others.

It’s not just gifts. I love the idea of the five love languages, and learning to bless others in different ways, such as:

  • words of affirmation
  • acts of service
  • receiving gifts
  • quality time
  • physical touch

Apart from the planning element of gifts or written words, which I have to pace (early preparation is key here), most of these can be managed in the moment, and are more true for it. So although I am not keeping up with every event or birthday, I am hoping to be more of a blessing to others and to focus more away from myself.

The Lord gives strength to his people;
    the Lord blesses his people with peace

Psalm 29:11

 

Game boys and girls

The kids are sick. This is not modern youth speak indicating their coefficient of cool; they are actually sick. Joe is ‘nose runny again’ and taking out shares in his parents’ bedroom by night and Lily has been off school for a week and working on her amateur dramatics skills at every opportunity with her parents. In my opinion she still has a long way to go. Nothing big, exciting or clever in the illness department. They will recover and all will be well again. And in the meantime I am grateful for being able to grab a few hours today to make progress in a number of important areas as my parents have bravely stepped in.

I have not been able to interest the children in crafts or other messy activities and would not want to while both have the attention span of a goldfish in a forgettery. Parking children in front of a TV (short programmes only) or allowing them to play educational games on the CBeebies website has been particularly successful, but not the ideal situation. They are not in a useful state for helping with chores, sadly.

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So I raided my brain and realised that there were some other ideas. Back to Old School play.

My sister – the one who makes films – recently let me have her old Game Boy. Wow – that brought back a few 90s memories. I was so jealous of the kids who had these when I was younger. It was a very long ferry trip for the German exchange as one of the few 13 year olds not to have one. But they are good for heuristic technological play, as it turns out. My son can now play ‘Stack the Shapes into a Really Interesting Tower’ which – at Level Zero – buys me enough time to put a load of washing on. And his sister can practice her Being A Teacher and Telling Him All She Knows about technology from a previous generation. Because she loves history so much. And also how to make it start again.

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I expect it won’t be long before he is better than me, but I will not be publishing evidence of that, clearly. Then there’s the game of What Ancient Objects Can We Find In The House Which Can Be Used For Creating Music?

This is what Joe came up with when I found him amusing himself the other morning:

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He doesn’t really have an invisible left hand, that’s just his rhythm-copying. Educational? I should think so: international drums, music and history lessons all without trying too hard. I guess it goes to show you can always benefit from having a few things in the house that you don’t mind being hit by a two-year-old. Especially if they are not people.

And then I was feeling so nostalgic, and excited that Joe may be tall enough to visit Legoland this year, and enthralled to have discovered letsbuilditagain.com that I invited him to help me rebuild my Best Christmas Present Ever. Released in 1984, Lego Castle model 6080 is quite something. By this point Lily was back on the computer games, and I don’t blame her. What used to take an afternoon of sorting and building took three or four sessions with Joseph, much of which was spent explaining how to place things symmetrically and not to hurt your fingers or mix the wrong lego trousers and tops. Fashion, history, technology, maths… who needs school? I even had to get out two pairs of tweezers to rescue the lego string and had to substitute half a dozen pieces of highly hooverable shape from other sets of more interesting colour. This is proper lego. This lego actually weighs a serious amount. It smells of the mid 1980s. It makes me happy deep inside. All this was lost on Joe, who thinks it is a glorified drawbridge (it is a wonderfully glorified drawbridge in fact). It turns out several other female friends had the same set when they were younger. So perhaps I should shift the Lego Friends and pursue a more historical and adventurous agenda with Lily. When she gets off the computer, that is.

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Thoughts on Lily starting school

There are three days until Lily starts school. She is far more ready than I thought she would be. She has even decided where to go to college after, what her subject will be, and (because it helps to fill in the gaps) where she would like to go to high school.

Totally true. And, if you are interested: the local FE college, Art, the catchment high school, where we park for church.

I have ordered many labels and ironed in 19% of them, despite being told by a parent at the school that it won’t make any difference.

I have bought her shiny shoes, and will be helping her wear them in and prepare them. Not that they fit my feet (or likely ever did).

I have avoided instigating academic work with her over the summer (this is the daughter who begs to have friends over and then reads in a corner while they are here). Instead I have been making sure she is ready to take on new things, try new foods, carry things carefully and think about others.

We have had a full summer. We travelled to family, we visited interesting local places, we learnt a lot about flags, we learnt even more about guinea pigs and are now the proud owners of two more members of the family: Beatrix and Stripe. These wonderful little guys (yes) are still so young and shy that they do not realise they have an upstairs and a downstairs in the same hutch, and have to be moved each morning and evening. They really are incredibly loved by the children and are worth being allergic to hay for. I honestly think at least one of them has been trying to communicate in Morse Code (perhaps watching a programme about Colditz escapes was not the cleverest move before imprisoning cavies in the yard: who knows, they might even build a glider while we’re not looking).

(click on image for footage)

As the school deems it wise, Lily will not be starting until Thursday this week, and I am grateful for the extra time with her, but aware that she loves routine and wants to be at school so much that a staggered start taking two and a half weeks may drag on a little. She needs to belong in the school routines and make lots of new friends.

It will be good for her to be at school, and I am mathematically more than ready. Emotionally I am still waiting to see what happens as it all takes off: I want the best for her, but I also want the best for society, which I believe means sending her to the nearest state school and not packing her to a nice private option with all the consequences on us as a family.

In any case, these two at least will not leave to go to school. Beatrix is hiding under the stairs. Stripe is exploring the great outdoors. Within the confines of a guinea pig run of course. Although I am tempted to home-educate them. It would be far more convenient if they communicated in English, say.