If It Aint Broke…

Happy at school

Happy at school

We had my daughter’s parents evening this week, just to add some extra fuel to the fire of my schools dilemma. Oh my goodness.

We knew she was doing well, that she has considerably more merits than the other children, and that she enjoys reading and numbers. What we didn’t realise is how well she’s doing in every area, including social. I took the fact that she doesn’t have a close friend, and is clingy at drop off, to mean she hung out with the teacher all day. Apparently she did in the beginning but now she’s off playing with this group and that.

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion if it aint broke don’t fix it. We have the same issue on a wider scale (with a similar division of opinion between me and hubbie) with regards to the local schools generally. Our local council currently operate a 3-tier system, with kids going to primary school ages 4-8 years, middle school aged 9-12 and upper school from 13 to 18 years old.

I went through the same system, albeit a different primary and middle school to the ones my daughter will attend, and I like the system. I like that those tricky pre-teen years are experienced separated from the young children and the almost-adults. But there is no doubt some of my school concerns involve not wanting to send my daughter to the upper school I went to. There is also some difficulty, if we do decide to go private, at moving her at 11 when she’ll be half way through a school rather than at a natural transition point.

When news of the consultation came in, therefore, I was supportive. Then I started reading the anti-change literature and felt the arguments had merit. Hubbie went to the consultation meeting and he’s all for it. He thinks the academy status and cash injection will be brilliant, and moving to a bigger, newer building will only be beneficial for our primary-aged children. On the other hand, I see more congestion at two already-busy sites and terrible upheaval, particularly for our son who will start school in the year of the change.

Then today I watched a promotional video for the middle school and was blown away. The eloquence of the head of site and the headmistress (pilfered from our primary school to sort out a dodgy Ofsted rating), the passion and humour of the children, the lovely middle school building (which I’ve never been inside) were all much better than I could have anticipated for a school currently struggling to achieve a ‘good’ rating. It just shows the power of video (although in general I never watch them because I prefer to read stuff on the internet).

So now we have a division in the family: one for, one against a move to private, one for, one against a shift to a two-tier system. It’s all pretty good humoured, because most of it is out of our hands and the rest is irrelevant while our daughter continues to thrive in her current school. What does it matter if she doesn’t have access to a wider range of subjects, a posh new building or gourmet lunchtime food? She’s happy, she’s learning, she’s doing well. That’s good enough for now. And all the rest? Time will tell who is right. 🙂

The Perfect School?

Sudbury Valley School

Sudbury Valley School

Almost as soon as my nephew was born, my sister began to speak about sending him to a particular school in America. A free school, a democratic school – run by the children for the children. A place where a child could ride their bike or play video games all day, everyday, if they chose.

I scoffed. My parents rolled their eyes. I’m an academic at heart, with straights As and a first class degree and a Masters (we won’t mention the B in A Level General Studies – after all it wasn’t a ‘real’ qualification – it was only about life and that’s not important to a student who wants to succeed.)

Over the years, my brave, courageous, determined sister never let go of her American dream. Her husband’s sister’s children went to the school and her desire grew. I never got it. Three years ago, after untold hours of effort, my sister and her family emigrated to America to live near my brother-in-law’s family, with a view to my nephew and now niece going to the school.

The school run for my sister

The school run for my sister

I still didn’t get it. School is about learning and classes and exams and school uniform and all that, and my children were going to love it. There were going to be reading and counting to a hundred by the time they were five, they were going to be top of the class. After all, I was, and that made me happy, didn’t it?

My daughter started school six months ago, and my confidence began to waver. School seemed so regimented, especially for these tiny four-year-olds looking so serious and adorable in their smart uniform. The school run was chaotic and emotional and full of stressed parents snapping and snarling (particularly me).

To begin with, my daughter loved it. As suspected, she thrived on learning and was reading and counting to a hundred by her fifth birthday. She loves the community of school, idolises her teacher, and adores singing, reading and PE. But, here’s the thing: after spending a whole year desperate to go to school, my bright, academic, sponge-like learning child doesn’t want to go anymore.

“Mummy why do we only do PE once a week, I love PE.”

“Mummy, I love singing, is it singing assembly today? Is it?”

“Mummy, we didn’t get to do reading today.”

Drumming with his sister (click for video)

Drumming with his sister (click for video)

Then, yesterday, I watched this video on the Sudbury Valley school my sister has set her heart on. And I cried. Oh my. I want that for my children. I want them to be able to play piano for three hours straight if they choose. I want the calm, majestic, green surroundings, the rocks and the lakes and the books and the teachers there to facilitate enthusiastic learning. I want my children, my artistic children who often spend hours playing in their band, to have that.

Who cares if they meet some government-decided tick box of success. I want them to know what makes them passionate by the time they’re fifteen, not fifty.

Already, in six months, I’ve seen my daughter lose her edge. Become less able to find things to do without direction, become more concerned about breaking rules than having fun. She gets some of that from me, but where did I get it from?

I read a post yesterday written by the talented and successful writer, Kim Bongiorno, who wondered if the fact that she didn’t finish college would affect her own children’s desire and ability to go to college. She wondered whether she was a good enough role model for them. This was my reply (before watching the Sudbury Valley video!)

“I think you are being a better role model by not having finished your college degree. I don’t think university is for everyone. I went to university because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. For people with vocations, like doctors or teachers, of course university is essential. However, if you’re not academic then it’s a way to run up huge debt and be no nearer to a job at the end. Certainly that’s true in the UK.

Fifteen years ago I graduated with a first class degree and it marginally improved my chances of getting a good job. Which I did. But I hated it and had a breakdown after three years. The next job was no better except I lasted five years before realising I don’t handle office stress well and I need to be creative.

And I AM academic, I loved studying. What about the people who don’t learn through lectures and essays? My sister struggled for four years to get a 2:2 in a language she hated, and graduated with massive debt, great pool playing skills and a love of Jack Daniels. Since then she’s started from scratch, building up her own businesses and finding what she loves and is good at.

In fifteen years time, when my daughter would graduate, I suspect a degree won’t be enough to compete. She’ll need a Masters, maybe a PhD. Years more of study and debt, for what? She wants to be a writer like her mummy, my son wants to be a racing driver (he’s three). I truly hope I’ll be strong enough to encourage them in those desires because happy is as important as well paid.

There is a great lecture I watched http://new.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity all about academic inflation and how university is really only good if you want to be a professor. I have long debates and worries about education and making sure it’s right for my children and this lecture consolidated some of them.

If your children want to go to college, the fact that circumstances outside your control prevented you completing your course shouldn’t stop them. And if they don’t want to go, you’ll be the best person to show them that – with hard work and determination – they can be a success without it.”

Daughter drumming - stuff she can't do at school

Daughter drumming – stuff she can’t do at school

This all sounds like I’m upping sticks and moving my family to Boston, doesn’t it? Oh I wish. But I don’t want to live in America, not even for an amazing school. For all my angst and depression, I’ve travelled the world and found myself home. But it does mean I can now say,

“Sister, you are the bravest, smartest, strongest, kick-ass person I know, and well done. Sorry I didn’t always understand.”

And I can keep looking for a better school for my children, and give them space at home to be children. To be themselves and to be happy with that. It’s taken me nearly four decades to achieve it, and I’m only partly there. In the meantime, I hope more schools look to the Sudbury Valley model and at least take some parts of it away. Watch the video and tell me you aren’t just a teeny bit impressed.

Why School is Important (In my opinion): 2013 365 Challenge #352

My daughter as she is with me (good and placid)

My daughter as she is with me (good and placid)

Yesterday I went to my son’s nursery so he could get a gift from Father Christmas, and then in the afternoon we went to my daughter’s school to attend story time.

Both visits were an opportunity for me to spend a length of time in the place where my children go when they’re not with me. It was quite an eye-opener. Even taking into consideration that the events meant it wasn’t ‘business as usual’ there were still elements of both that concerned me.

At the nursery I saw how hard it was for the staff to rein in the exuberance of the excited boys, who were throwing toys and being boisterous. Without being about to shout (which is probably a good thing) or give time outs and so on, it seemed hard to find the balance between play and potential danger. Even with four adults in the room it felt like a place of stress and unhappiness rather than fun.

My daughter in silly mode

My daughter in silly mode

I also saw that it was a difficult environment for boys with energy: the bouncy children I watched were pulled up long before I would have stepped in at home. With other people’s children I guess you can’t be too careful. But there doesn’t seem to be much space for them to let off steam safely without being reprimanded.

It was similar at school, during story time. Most of the children sat nicely on their bottoms, but one or two of the boys were quite disruptive. I’ve noticed them in the mornings, too, and I guess every class has them (I suspect my son might be one of them, in a couple of years!)

At home I would have sent my son to the trampoline to burn off energy, but a school doesn’t have that opportunity. I also noticed my daughter wriggling and not paying attention at times, and I wanted to say something (but didn’t!) because I want her to be one of the good children that listens to the teacher.

Son doing good listening at fencing

Son doing good listening at fencing

Wherever I am, when I’m with the children, I expect a certain level of behaviour and I will step in, even if they’re in a class (if I’m close enough to do so without being disruptive). So I’ll tell my son to listen at gymnastics, or I’ll reiterate instructions at fencing. Because they’re my children and I want them to be good.

But as I thought about it all last night, while streaming with cold, in that befuddled place your brain goes to when it’s ill, I realised that it’s important that my children go to school and nursery. Not just because they can get away from shouty Mummy (yesterday wasn’t my best day!) and spend time with different adults, and learn and have friends and all that. It’s also good that they spend time with people who have greater perspective.

Because compared to the boisterous boys, my daughter is an angel, and I know I’m too hard on her. I’m hard on her because my parents were on me. I’m hard on her because I have no perspective (and quite often not enough sleep). I’m hard, but I’m not consistent and sometimes I’m not fair. Poor child. I want to be the perfect parent, but I most certainly try too hard and I most certainly fail much of the time.

I wrote a while about about the importance of learning to fail. Of learning that it doesn’t have to be 100% all the time and that 65% is enough. But it’s hard, as a parent, to give a child that room to be themselves. At school, at nursery, where there are lots of other children contending for attention, all with different strengths and weaknesses, it’s a space where a child can learn to succeed and learn to fail and get the same reaction from the nearest adult.

A Vist From Father Christmas

A Vist From Father Christmas

I read a great cartoon on Facebook today (I was going to buy it to use on the blog, but it was £8.40, so visit my Facebook page to see the cartoon!) of a mother saying to her daughter:

“Honey, when you grow up I want you to be assertive, independent and strong-willed. But while you’re a kid, I want you to be passive, pliable and obedient.”

It made me laugh and cringe, because it’s too true. I want my kids to be confident, but I shatter their confidence a hundred times a day, just because I’m stressed, tired or grumpy.

School is a place where they might not have attention all the time, they won’t always be hugged when they’re sad (but then, they won’t get shouted at either); they might be bored, sad, lonely, hurt, naughty, wriggly or annoying. But they can be all those things without anyone trying to make them perfect. They can breathe. They can learn who they are away from their controlling parent (moi?) and find space to just be. Hurrah.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire rested her head against the back of the wooden garden seat and gazed at the sky. From here it was easy to imagine the rest of the world had dropped away, leaving only a tiny walled garden and the endless azure heavens. She knew she should call Conor, but the silence replenished the emptiness in her soul. After the weekend with Kim and Helena – despite the happy conclusion – she felt drained and tearful.

Why am I not happy? I have a gorgeous man who seems to care for me, my friend is on the road to recovery and reunion with her husband, and I’m close to finishing my report with time to spare. What is wrong with me?

It felt ungrateful to the universe to be unhappy on such a gorgeous evening. She had spent the last few days wandering around North Devon, furthering her findings, talking to hotel owners and shop keeper and chatting to tourists. The weather continued to smile on her endeavours and she’d even managed a cheeky surf late one evening as the sky turned pink.

Now she sat unencumbered and alone, with a cup of tea wrapped in her hands, while an invisible artist painted golden stripes along the horizon.

She rested the mug on the bench next to her and turned so she could kneel and face the sea behind her. The shadow of Lundy Island beckoned in the distance – her destination for the morning – and the rainbow of sunset colours deepened to peach and rose.

The buzz of her phone broke the stillness, and she sighed. I could always ignore it. He’ll call back, he always does.

She smiled at the always. They’d only been together for just over a week. Aren’t I meant to still be giddy and excited in week two? Answering the phone with trembling hands, ready to talk sweet nothings for hours? Is this what dating in your late twenties is like? No magic.

Flashes of the afternoon she had spent with Conor, after Kim and her sister left, filled her head. The magic hadn’t been lacking.

Then what? That old cliché it’s not you, it’s me? Or it’s not the right time? Is there ever a right time to fall in … She stopped short. I am not falling in love. I barely know the guy. Lust, maybe.

The phone continued to ring and eventually she picked it up, not recognising the number.

“Hello, is Susan there, please?”

Claire frowned for a moment, confused. Then her brain caught up. “Sorry, no, you have the wrong number.”

Her peace shattered by the call, and the sneaky relief that it hadn’t been Conor, Claire was about to drop the phone onto the bench when she noticed a new email had arrived. Clicking on the message, she realised it was from Maggie.

I didn’t even know she had my address.

Puzzled, Claire opened the message, wondering what Maggie wanted. Although she had only met her a few times, Maggie felt like a friend; a steady force in a shifting world.

Hi Claire

I hope you don’t mind me emailing you – I found your address through your blog. I noticed that you’ve been travelling round the south west recently, and I wondered if you were still there? We are bringing the Guides on an adventure holiday next week and it would be lovely to see you.

We’re booked into the Exford hostel in Somerset. I know it’s a bit away from where you’ve been recently, but if it was on your route it would be super to be able to catch up. We will be there all week and we have booked the whole hostel but as I am organising it, I believe I can find you a bed.

Do let me know if you are free. I have been following your journey with interest and would love to hear the parts that don’t make it onto your blog.

Kind regards

Maggie

Claire’s face stretched wide in a smile of genuine pleasure as she finished reading. Without hesitation she tapped out a response in the affirmative, before she could worry what Conor would think.

I’m sure that widening the remit of my report to include Somerset isn’t too far off brief. Besides, an association like the Guides is perfect research, and who better to interview than Maggie.

Glad to have something to look forward to, Claire pocketed her phone and headed back into the hostel to eat.

***

Difficult Decisions: 2013 365 Challenge #313

A plethora of school options

A plethora of school options

I’ve been awake since 5.30am, thinking.

It happens sometimes (especially after the clocks have gone back, and the children’s body clocks are still adjusting). Today, though, I’ve been worrying about schools again. This is a frequent topic on this blog, as regular followers will know.

We are in the (possibly) fortunate position that there are over fifty good schools in a twenty mile radius of our house, all offering different things. We thought long and hard before choosing the school our daughter goes to, and mostly we’ve been happy with our choice.

Our problem, though, is that she isn’t happy. The friendships we thought made the school an obvious choice are proving to be a double-edged sword. Previous relationships are making it hard for her to forge new friendships and people she’s known all her life are behaving differently in the new environment. She’ll be fine, but it is a worry when she complains she’s ill and doesn’t want to go to school. No parent wants that.

My anxiety has been exacerbated by having the first preschool parent evening for my son last night. It wasn’t bad, but it was a completely different experience to the ones we used to get with our daughter. I think that’s actually part of the problem. Our son’s preschool teacher kept comparing him to his sister: saying that, unlike her, he is easily led into trouble and needs a firm hand to keep him behaving.

Green spaces essential

Green spaces essential

Some of that is boys vs girls, I guess. Some of it is because he’s a second child and is used to following the stronger person (usually his sister) into doing things. I can mostly trust her not to lead him into things he shouldn’t do, but unfortunately a pack of three-year-old boys don’t have the same discretion.

Even though our son doesn’t start school for two years, I can already envision the walk of shame, when the Reception teacher walks out to the parent at home time to ‘have a chat’. I’ve seen it happen to others and I don’t want it to be me.

I understand more and more why my sister moved her family to America so she could send her children to a specific school there whose ethos she completely buys in to. I don’t have such strong views, unfortunately. I want a good education for my children, but I also want them to have the freedom to be children: to get mucky and run around screaming and play sports and have new experiences. My son is also complaining about being bored at preschool. In the winter they spend most of the day indoors in a small room, with an equal mix of boys and girls. I know without seeing that he spends the whole day being told to stop running, calm down, behave (I know because I say the same at home).

What’s the answer? Right now I feel I’d have to start my own school to get anything close to the balance I want: the right mix of learning and lessons and free-flow play. My school would have a giant atrium in the middle of the school with leaves and trees and places to curl up with a book. There would be a trampoline for boys to go and work out their energy when they’re antsy. There would be plentiful healthy food and an outdoor classroom and loads of switched-on teachers (male and female) completely enthusiastic about their subject, but fewer tests and worries about passing exams. Ah, utopia how we dream of you!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire tapped her foot and tried not to swear in irritation. The queue inched forward as young children ran around between the legs of grumpy grownups, yelling and screaming. Next to Claire a harassed mother tried to keep her twins in line, while balancing a baby on her hip. As the time ticked by, Claire felt her sympathy going out to the woman as the baby began to grizzle and the twins threatened to knock the waiting tourists over like skittles.

“This is ridiculous,” she muttered eventually, unable to contain her frustration. “It’s not even the weekend.”

“You should see it in the school holidays!”

Claire turned and saw a rueful pair of brown eyes smiling at her. She smiled back at the grey haired lady standing behind her, holding the hand of a bored-looking child. “I came with all the grandchildren, once, because they put on extra activities at half term. But, oh my goodness that was a trial. We were in the queue for over an hour: the little ones were ready to burst by the time we got in.”

“What’s causing the delay?” Claire peered over the heads of the milling crowd but couldn’t see the hold-up.

“Gift Aid,” the woman sighed. “If you’re a tax payer they can claim gift aid, but they have to get your address details from you. Even those with pre-bought tickets don’t get in any quicker. It’s a farce.”

Claire’s irritation evaporated as she realised she’d been handed something concrete to put into her report. She’d done the gift aid thing before, when she’d visited attractions with Sky earlier in the year, and she remembered it did take ages. Surely there could be a better way to claim the money back. Maybe some kind of national gift aid scheme, where you got a card from the government that could be scanned.

The time passed quickly as Claire followed the shuffling feet, her brain whirring with ideas. At last it was her turn and she monitored the procedure carefully, itching to make notes about it as soon as she could find a quiet corner to write into her phone.

All work ideas evaporated as Claire entered the site. She hadn’t really known what to expect. Although she knew the project was about education – about showing the world the importance of plants – she hadn’t appreciated just how big the place was, or that half of it was outside.

A little blue train trundled past and Claire went to get on board. It seemed the easiest way to get a feel for the place, as well as giving her a chance to take some notes. After a short time, however, she got off. The alien domes called to her and she couldn’t wait to get indoors and see what the fuss was about.

Claire entered the Mediterranean biome and her heart sank. Craning her neck, she gazed up at the sunlit hexagons snaking overhead. The structure was impressive, but all she could hear were the noises of the busy pizza restaurant in the centre.

She wandered along the walkways, where endless beds of vibrant flowers filled the air with clashing scents and painted the floor with rows of bright colour. Dotted among the plants were sculptures and displays, like a living museum, while all around there were people chattering and calling to each other.

With her critical head on, Claire couldn’t see much evidence of education. There didn’t seem to be that many signs or displays, although she decided that might have been because they would detract from the view of the plants.

After a while she decided to head for the rainforest biome instead. It was the one everyone thought of when they planned a visit, and she hoped maybe the magic was hiding there.

The heat and humidity hit her as she entered. Despite its size it was still a greenhouse. She could see mist rising above the trees, almost like real clouds indoors. The sound of rushing water pulled at her, until she reached a waterfall stretching high above her. Making an effort to block out the busy tourist sounds, Claire could almost imagine herself back in the New Zealand bush. It was breath-taking.

*

The wooden walkway curled through the trees high above the people. Claire had retreated up to escape the bustle. She’d contemplated climbing up to the roof platform, despite the height, and was a little disappointed to discover it was closed due to the heat.

Probably just as well. Knowing my luck I would have got dizzy and fallen down the steps, knocking out half the visitors at the same time.

Claire stood leaning on the rail, taking in the beauty beneath her. It was hard to believe the place used to be an old clay pit. It was amazing what could be created with some vision and a lot of effort.

What a shame the experience is spoiled by the shambolic entrance and the tourist traps every five minutes. Do they really need stalls and restaurants and an ice rink? What does that teach the children about the world? That there’s commercialism everywhere? That trees alone aren’t entertainment enough?

Her mind full of profound thoughts, Claire stood and let the view sink in.

***

School Comms? 2013 365 Challenge #302

Maths Homework

Maths Homework

I sat down with my daughter today to do her homework, as it’s half term. She was mostly happy to do it and we had fun. However, I have to say, I’ve been generally surprised at the poor communication between school and parent since my daughter started in September. I did my best but I didn’t really know what we were meant to do or how often: it was all rather vague. It also came as a shock as I wasn’t expecting anything to be set this early on in her school career (she’s not even five years old yet).

As far as school-parent communication goes, I’m the optimum parent: I drop my child off every morning and pick her up every afternoon. I browse the messages posted on classroom walls. I read the newsletters and emails and I trawl through daughter’s book bag every evening to fish out the paperwork. I read and write in the reading diary and I attended parents’ evenings and lunchtime reading meetings. And STILL I have no idea what’s going on half the time.

I don’t understand their merit system, even though I went to the celebration assembly. We have requests for things that need to be made for the Christmas fundraising fayre and I don’t understand what they’re asking for. I resort to asking the mums who have older children at the school and even they don’t have much of a clue.

I know it’s a tough job being a teacher, and I’m not criticising them at all: you couldn’t pay me enough to do their job. But the school has a duty to communicate with parents if they want to engage them and get their help. Our school has the infrastructure but the content is vague and confusing. it makes me want to volunteer to review their comms, except it would be a full time job and I have zero capacity. Having been fighting off a cold all day, just the thought leaves me shivering in horror! But it might be time to add my tuppence worth to the parent feedback forum! After all, communication goes both ways!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Alright, Claire, I’ll bite. What happened to your face?” Conor’s tone was a mixture of amused friend and disapproving parent.

Claire looked up from her starter and grimaced. “Damn. I hoped you wouldn’t notice.”

Conor laughed, his eyes lighting up like a sunlit sea. “You look like you rode downhill on your bike with no hands on the handle bars and hit a pothole. I did that once, and my face looked something like that.”

“That’s not so far from the truth.” Claire ducked her head and let her hair cover her face completely. “I slipped, on the coastal path. I thought I was going to fall off the cliff. Thankfully I managed to stop at the edge.” She shivered at the memory. “Unfortunately I left some of my skin behind.”

“It’s not just your face?”

Claire mutely shook her head, and waited for Conor to laugh some more. When he didn’t speak, she looked up again and was surprised at his expression. His face contracted in a tight frown, reminding her of Michael for a moment. She bristled in defence, but his eyes widened and he smiled.

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t fall off the cliff. I went to too much trouble hiring you to have to find a replacement.” The lightness of his tone belied the sympathy in his gaze.

Unsure what to make of it, Claire turned her attention back to her food. She was glad he hadn’t laughed, as Josh might have done, or told her off, which would have been Michael’s reaction. This mixture of business-like detachment and compassion wrong-footed her. Her hands shook slightly as she raised a forkful of salad to her mouth, and she lowered her arm quickly, hoping Conor hadn’t noticed.

“So, aside from trying to kill yourself at Salcombe, how has your trip been so far? How is the report coming along?”

Claire inhaled and took a shaky sip of her drink. “Good, thanks. I’m beginning to get a feel for it. I had a long chat with the hostel manager, and spent some time in Torquay. It would be useful if you had a template or set of guidelines for me to work to, just so I can make sure I’m delivering what you’re expecting.”

Conor nodded. “Of course. There are some standard templates and previous reports on the laptop. I realise we haven’t given you much to work with. I’m surprised you haven’t been more demanding, to be honest.”

With a deep flush, Claire realised she wasn’t living up to her role as a consultant. Conor obviously expected her to be more proactive, to request information and guidelines. She had been so wrapped up in her drama with Kim and getting a car, she hadn’t taken the job very seriously.

As if reading her mind, Conor cleared his throat. “How is Kim?”

“I haven’t spoken to her since leaving her at her mum’s. I’m been caught up in my research.”

“Good.” Conor seemed to realise that sounded harsh, as he laughed uncomfortably. “I meant good that you’ve cleared your head to get stuck into the project. I confess I was concerned that your mind wasn’t really on the subject. It is important, you know? Your contract extension depends on the quality of the report.”

His words made Claire’s stomach constrict. As she analysed his tone, though, she realised he wasn’t telling her off. It was almost as if he was urging her to do well, so he wouldn’t have to sack her.

All the spent adrenalin from her earlier fall and the race to get to the hotel, combined with the ideas roiling in her brain, left Claire feeling dizzy and disorientated.

Why do I always feel like there are two or three different conversations going on at the same time when I talk to Conor? His face says one thing, his voice another and his words something completely different.

With a gulp of wine, Claire suppressed a sigh and hoped she would learn to read her boss soon, before she went mad.

***

School: Who is in charge? 2013 365 Challenge #292

Happy school

Happy school

We had our first ‘learning conversation’ at school today (parents’ evening in the old language.) Our daughter has only been at school a few weeks, so there wasn’t much to discuss except is she making friends okay and how can we support her burgeoning desire to read? (She’s wanted to read for ages but wouldn’t let Mummy teach her! When she read out simple words like Pat and Mac this evening I wanted to burst with pride.)

It was the conversations in the playground that I found interesting though. We have a little book that is meant to be our means for communicating with the teachers, when it isn’t possible to catch them in the morning, and aside from the ten minute learning conversation slot every few months.

I happened to mention that I wrote something in the book about my daughter’s phonics and was disappointed that it wasn’t responded to – and that one of the assistants made the same point two rows below. (I confess, I scrawled in red pen “please refer!” and drew an arrow up to our comment. Okay, I’m a child!)

Some of my parent friends laughed at me, and I couldn’t understand why. Was it because I was pushing my child too hard, or that I had enough time to read through her homework diary (I know I’m extremely fortunate to have that extra time, that working parents sometimes don’t, and I was concerned that I was rubbing it in.) Hubbie was with me and I asked him what he thought I’d done wrong. His view surprised me: he thinks they laughed because I challenged the teacher with my comment. And it got me thinking – do some parents see it that the teachers are in charge and they have no role to play in their child’s education? Do I?

Playing after school

Playing after school

If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said of course they are. They’re the professionals, what do I know? I would no more home-school than I would home-dentist. But now I have a slightly different view.

Of course teachers are better informed in how to get the best learning experience out of a child, and I intend to leave as much to them as possible. Particularly because my daughter doesn’t want to learn from me and I can’t help but get frustrated when she can sound a word out perfectly – say C.A.T. – and then read it as “dog”. I mean, really? 😉

However, am I prepared to leave it entirely to the teachers, and not want to know the details of what she’s learning, especially at this early stage? No. Not any more. Teachers are human just as I am. I made mistakes in my job, I took the wrong things seriously, I did my best and it wasn’t always perfect. I’m not saying teachers will make mistakes, but they are only human. Plus, even with the assistants, they’re still on a 12-1 ratio. And, ultimately, no one will understand or care for my child as I do.

It’s difficult to do things that get laughed at. I remember now laughing at one of my other parent friends because she checked her son’s merit chart every day to make sure he was getting merits (think gold stars). I felt she was a bit pushy. How wrong I was. She was just interested and keen that he did well. It’s so easy to judge from the outside, but none of us can know how we’ll react until it is our turn! So, yes, I’ll be the pushy parent, the pain, the one questioning and asking and not taking it all for granted. Up until now I’ve left the professionals to it. But not any more!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Hello?”

“Ruth, hi, it’s Claire.” She held her breath, waiting for the tirade. There was silence, and she imagined her sister’s mouth hanging open like a fish as she tried to decide how angry to be.

“Hi, sis, how are you? How was New Zealand? The pictures on the blog looked amazing.”

It was Claire’s turn to hesitate. The warmth in her sister’s voice and words momentarily froze her brain.

“Er, it was lovely. Bit cold, in the south. It’s good to be back in the UK. Um, sorry I didn’t stop by when I got home.”

“That’s okay, Mum said you had some problems with Kim or something. I hope she’s okay?”

Still the uncharacteristic mellow tone. Claire felt like she was talking to a stranger.

“Yes, Kim’s been, um, poorly. She was going to come travelling with me but we decided she needed to stay with her parents for a while.”

“I’m sure that’s for the best. Have you started your new job? Didn’t I read on the blog that you were working for Dorset tourism or something?”

“What? I mean, yes I started work this week. I’ve got three months to prove my worth.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage it; after four months on the road you must have a pretty good handle on what tourists want. And at least you’re not working for that silly man any more, or a faceless corporation like Happy Cola.”

Claire shivered. She’d never known her sister to show so much interest in her life before or to talk for so long without saying anything about how awful her own life was. She felt like she’d woken in an alternative reality.

“How’s Sky?” That would be safer territory.

“She’s great. She’s spending time with Chris at the weekends, so I’ve had a chance to get some rest, catch up on reading and housework, that kind of thing.”

“Huh? I thought you said she’d see Chris over your dead body?” Claire’s head reeled with the change of direction.

“Yes, well, it nearly came to that, didn’t it?”

Ruth’s matter-of-fact tone didn’t fool Claire, but she was glad of it. She wasn’t sure she could handle any more lachrymose languishing. Even so, the idea that her sister was willingly making contact with the ex-husband she swore she’d never see again was too much to take in.

“Blimey, I’ve only been away a month and the world’s on its head. What made you change your mind?”

“Sky. She kept asking to see her dad and her new sister. At first it made me cross, with her and you.”

Claire braced herself for the attack she knew was coming. “I’m so sorry about that. I didn’t mean to bump into him.”

“It’s fine. You’ve done me a favour. We’ve agreed that Sky will spend every other weekend with him, and Bryony and Eloise of course.”

That was too much for Claire. “Hang on. Sorry, I can’t get my head around this. Bryony? Not that woman? What the hell happened, Ruth?”

“It was time I forgave him. I didn’t make life easy for him, when Sky was born. I see that now. And family is important. Sky probably won’t have any other siblings through me; she should be allowed to know her sister.”

A suspicion crept into Claire’s brain, only to be dismissed. Something about the way Ruth spoke, her measured tone and air of calm forgiveness, made her sound like a missionary. As if hearing Claire’s thoughts, Ruth’s next words confirmed it.

“I’ve started going to a new church on Sunday. They made me see that life’s too short for grudges. You should come, Claire, next time you’re home. They’re wonderful people.”

“Sure, I’ll do that,” Claire muttered. Part of her felt relieved that Ruth had found a new focus in life, but another part of her worried that Ruth had been brainwashed by some cult.

I watch too much TV. A church in the midlands isn’t going to be a brainwashing cult.

With a wry smile, she pushed the foolish thoughts aside. “I have to go, Ruth, but I’m so glad to hear that you’re getting on well. I’ll give you another call soon. You take care.”

As she hung up the phone, Claire’s mind whirled with new emotions.

***

Let the Kids be Free: 2013 365 Challenge #275

Inventing ball games in the play room

Inventing ball games in the play room

The kids had a day off school yesterday, in our school at least, because one of the unions was on strike. I’m not here to talk about the politics, largely because I have conflicting views: I studied the nineteenth-century industrial revolution in history and I know how important unions were in ensuring safe and healthy working conditions and fair pay for workers. How unions work now I’m not so clear on.

I know teachers work impossibly hard – my friend, who has three children under six – doesn’t see her kids much in term time as she’s at school until 9 pm most nights and then marking until midnight.

I do know that it rankles that the school can close for a day with little warning and no compensation, forcing some parents to take a day’s leave or pay for extra childcare, but if I take my child out of school in term time I pay a £60 fine. Hmmm

Anyway, I said I wouldn’t discuss the politics. What I found interesting was how people chose to spend that day. My daughter is in Reception (I think Kindergarten in the US?), in her first week of full time school, so I knew it was going to be a down-day: one where she could do what she wanted, without worrying about rules or getting her uniform dirty or anything.

Playing shops

Playing shops

We hung out with friends, went to the park, baked cookies and did painting. My only rule was that she wash her hair (it’s long overdue) and even that resulted in tired tears. (To be fair, we’re all tired. Hubbie and I are dipping down into depression and the slightest thing sets me off sobbing. I feel like we’re all broken!)

That aside, I’ve learned recently that I’m more of a hippy parent than I ever knew. Because I want my child to be free as much as possible. I don’t want to do after school clubs and classes: I want her to be home, running with her brother, being as loud and messy as she wants to be. Plenty of time in the 6.5 hours of school five days a week to stick to the rules.

I’m sure, as she gets older, the balance will change. I want her to do well at school and in exams, as I did, although I want her to have more to life than just her education. For now, though, it makes me feel warm inside to see her playing ball games with her brother, or – as she did this morning – to sit quietly in her room for an hour playing doctors with her teddy bears while the rest of the house slept.

There was a woman in the park yesterday bringing (I’m guessing) her 7 or 8 year old grandchild for a play. It was around 2 pm and she proudly told a friend of mine that they’d already done flute, numbers, writing, piano, swimming, French (I can’t remember the exact list, but something like that) and now they were ‘burning off energy’. It made my soul ache.

Preparing for a rainy school run

Preparing for a rainy school run

Each to their own, and I’m trying really really really hard not to judge other styles of parenting than my own. But a whole new world has opened up to me, now I have been blessed with watching how my children interact and play when left to their own devices. How they comfort each other, sort out their own problems, find new games to play, take turns, share, apologise, teach and learn.

I loved school, I think my children will love school. But for the social aspect, as much for learning. We don’t come from a big family – their friends are all from school and nursery.

We went to the school curriculum evening recently and I have to say I wasn’t that thrilled with what’s to come for my children. Not the teaching – that all looks grand – but the building, the resources and, in some cases, the teachers. The building is old and dark, the classrooms dated and cluttered. The teachers seem rough and grumpy (and not one introduced themselves by name apart from the Reception teachers, who we already knew).

There aren’t so many alternatives round here. I’m going to the fee-paying school open day on Friday, but I’m pretty certain it isn’t what I want: I think there will be more rules, more activities, more expectations, fewer chances for down time, grazed knees, torn clothing, dirt and fun. Homeschooling isn’t the answer, because it’s the social element that’s important. Sigh.

I just have to remember that, whatever choices we make, the kids will be fine. In the meantime, we battle the rain, the parking fiasco, the chaos and commuter-like experience of the school run and hope we’re doing the right thing.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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Claire regarded the airport through heavy eyes, expecting it to look different somehow. Surely the world had shifted on its axis during the long weeks she had been away?

Around her, people greeted loved ones, hurried towards men holding name cards, or – like her – shuffled head down through the waiting crowd, knowing no one was there to meet her.

Why would they be? No one even knows I’m arriving today.

Claire adjusted the straps of her rucksack and looked around for signs to the train station, hoping she could catch a direct train to Cambridge. Her first priority was getting to Kim.

Through every minute of the thirty-two endless hours it took to get home, concern for Kim had kept her from sleep. During the stopovers at Sydney and Dubai, with no iPad for company and no money for food, she had sat cradling her phone praying for news.

There had been just one text from Jeff, telling her that Kim was scheduled to spend a few days in the hospital so the staff could ensure she didn’t make a second attempt on her life. Jeff had had to fight to stop her being transferred to a secure facility.

Poor Jeff. Poor Kim.

That was as far as Claire could think. Her own role in her friend’s drama ate at her like a cancer, until she too felt an eternal sleep might be preferable to continuing to live every painful day.

Hanging in the limbo of a long-haul flight, lost to the world and unconnected to anyone in it, it wasn’t difficult for Claire to imagine what drove her friend to her desperate act. Anything to make the emptiness go away.

The darkness pursued her now, as she shouldered her way through the happy faces. A lump lodged in her throat and she longed for solitude, so she could break down in peace.

“Claire!”

The voice brushed at her back, but she refused to turn and realise it was not her being hailed. Footsteps ran along after her, and she jumped as someone touched her arm.

“Claire, wait! I can’t believe you came through just as I was getting coffee. I thought you might like this.”

Turning slowly, Claire’s eyes opened wide as she took in the reality of her boss standing in front of her holding out a giant cardboard cup.

“Conor. What are you doing here? How did you know I was landing today?”

Thoughts and emotions crashed in her mind like waves in a stormy sea. With numb fingers she accepted the coffee, the aroma seeping into her fuddled brain with all the comfort of home. When did she last have a proper latte?

“I follow your social media. Someone called Jeff wished you a safe flight home, said he’d see you today. It wasn’t hard to figure out which flight you were on, there aren’t so many from Christchurch.”

Claire stared mutely, wondering if it was her destiny to be surrounded by stalkers. The last person to track her down through social media had been Michael. Honesty forced her to admit that her ex-boyfriend’s tenacity had proved useful, rescuing her from a night passed out in a dark lane with a bump to the head. And now her future boss had come all the way to the airport from Dorset, on the strength of a Facebook update.

“Are you for real? What are you doing here?”

“You said that already.” Conor grinned. “Come and sit down, you look bloody awful.”

The words hit Claire like a blow, and the tears began to pour out as if the force had broken a pipe. She felt Conor guide her to a bench and sit her down, taking the coffee from her limp grasp.

For a while they sat and Claire rode out the wave of sadness and humiliation. At last she became aware of a tissue being offered underneath her curtain of unwashed hair. Accepting it, Claire dried her face and blew her nose.

“Sorry. I wasn’t expecting anyone. You broke down the barrier, damn you.”

“What happened? I thought you were having a great craic in New Zealand. Your blog posts and texts were all about sky diving and rafting, getting drunk and all that. You look like you’ve been in a concentration camp. Did you forget to eat?”

Claire shook her head, unsure whether Conor was berating her or trying to make her feel better. She couldn’t think. She wanted him to go away, but didn’t want to be alone. Feeling the tears building again, Claire dug her nails into her arms, wishing she could rip her skin off and fly into oblivion.

As if sensing Claire’s distress, Conor patted her knee. “Come on, let’s get you out of here. Where do you need to be? I am at your service.”

“Shouldn’t you be at work?” Claire’s voice sounded heavy, the words hard to speak. Suddenly she just wanted to sleep.

“It’s Sunday afternoon, I don’t have to head back for a few hours. Where can I take you?”

“Cambridge. I need to be in Cambridge.”

Claire saw Conor’s nod through her curtain of hair. He rose abruptly and tugged her to her feet.

“Cambridge it is. Here’s your coffee. Drink it, you look like you need it. And a shower.” He sniffed, dramatically. “You definitely need a shower.”

He grinned and, through the numbness, Claire managed to raise a smile.

***