Friday, 25 February 2011


“I could have cried Alice”, she said, pouring a hefty slug of chilled white wine into one of my nicer glasses, “I mean, really cried”. I wanted to be sympathetic. I wanted to share the bottle, put my feet up and agree, that yes, all men are bastards. Thing is, not only did Hubby rise to the occasion and pre-order me a personalised Valentine card from, but I honestly haven’t got time to ponder the misgivings of thoughtless husbands. So, whilst poor Mags described her mortification on receiving, with great excitement, an enormous box of flowers from the postman, only to realise they were for the woman next door, I chewed my pencil and intermittently made sympathetic noises.
I was concentrating hard. I raked my fingers through my hair and bit the rubber off my pencil, jumping feet into the air as though electrocuted because the metal underneath had made contact with my fillings.
“Bloody hell”, I winced, rubbing my jaw.
“You can say that again”, added Mags. I’d forgotten she was there. I had hoped that, had she not been given the attention she craved, that she’d have downed her wine and gone home, unfortunately she was still tamping mad with her husband’s floral disappointment, so she stayed put to help. The point is, unless you are maths teacher trained to work with students with special needs you can’t assist me because I only respond to specialist help. In the end, I just had to be blunt.
“Mags, my love and dearest, bestest friend, whilst I fully sympathise, nay empathise with your disenchantment in the male species, I have a maths test in a couple of days time. You know as well as anyone how utterly useless I am at it and yet I have to pass this ruddy test or alas, no matter how hard I work at teaching and planning and assessments, targets, behaviour management, global dimension and safeguarding of the little darlings, I will not qualify. Therefore, I need you to go home that I may give changing decimals into percentages my utter devotion”.
“Well, if that’s how you feel”, she said, sticking her chin rather defiantly into the air, “Then I won’t hinder you another second”.
“Mags love”, I soothed, “Please don’t take umbrage, but it’s ok for you and Hubby and all the youngsters on my course who can simplify to the lowest common denominator with impunity. Trouble is, I never got it when I was five and I still don’t get it now I’m forty five”.
“Well what’s so hard?” she asked, adjusting her pashmina.
“All of it Mags, all of it”. I’d resorted to raking my hair again. And, like all those before her who have absolutely no grasp on what it is to be numerically challenged, she kissed me before airily adding, “Oh you’ll be fine”.
The door shut and once again I turned my attention to my book: QTS Numeracy Test, Pass First Time. I’ve been having private tuition since September by a local maths teacher and in fairness to the lad, he has been patient, kind and has enlightened me on many aspects of previously, nightmare inducing sums and yet, processing certain aspects of arithmetic, eludes me still. To genuinely struggle with a subject that most people can do on two hands, literally, is a horrible feeling. It makes me feel dumb and stupid, not helped by having often been the butt of jokes. Some so called friends have found it a spectator sport to goad me by throwing unreservedly random problems in my general direction. I have sat at dinner tables or in bars when the topic of my apparently hilarious handicap has reared its mortifying head and the company therein have found it highly entertaining to shout, “Go on Alice, what’s seven times eight; what’s eight times nine?” and I’ve had to mentally trawl through my tables searching for the correct answer.
“What’s twenty three per cent of seventy three?”, they titter, knowing I have no capacity whatsoever for finding the correct answer.
“Um”, I start, “Well, 20% would be, um, let me see, er..” They give up on me at this point, smug in their consensus of opinion that the woman in their midst is a thicky. Do you know what really gets my craw? Were I dyslexic they wouldn’t be half so cruel. I very much doubt they’d throw multisyllabic words at me and wait for me to stutter and stumble. They would never chuck a book at me demanding, “Go on, read it”. Why then is it ok to take mick out of my maths?
I’ve brought the subject up at Uni and all they can do is wave at me dismissively and advocate practise. It’s frustrating to say the least. Surely they want me to pass my course? They are helping a fellow student with dyslexia and what really cheeses me off is not the fact that he gets extra time to sit the literacy test but the fact that he gets recognition. I’ve heard staff speak to him in muted, gentle tones, offering all manner of ‘extra sessions and coping mechanisms’.
It could of course be argued that unless we can pass the basics in numeracy, literacy and ICT then we don’t deserve to be teachers. I disagree. Given time, I’ll eventually get an appropriate educated guess at an answer that isn’t too from the correct one. I would concur that for primary teachers, it is obviously essential that they know their times tables off by heart but when I am let loose in the classroom with John Donne and Andrew Marvell for example, I can never foresee an occasion when I say, “One moment whilst I get my calculator”. Similarly when I’m in Monsoon and there is 75% off a dress, I know I am getting a bloody bargain.


There is an old saying, which we are led to believe and which, like many sayings penned over the years, is a load of old cobblers, that is: children keep you young. Balderdash. Their very existence is a daily reminder of your own immortality, your straight ways; the values you realise never knew you had, but lo and behold, which you actually hold dear to your heart and which when discussed amongst the mocking youth of today, are it seems, hilarious.
Never have I been made to feel more of an antique, a relic from bygone days than I have this week. It started off innocuously enough, chatting to the lovely Kat, who has been a Godsend in coming to the house early in the morning, taking the youngest girls to school and them reversing the process in the afternoon. She is only 18, and I have known her family for years. Over a coffee one afternoon, I asked her if she was courting. I might as well have been talking to one of my past, international student lodgers. Kat just looked at me blankly.
“Sorry, Alice”, she said, “I don’t know what you mean”. Luckily, my teenage daughter, who has finally finished her sponsored silence, offered her assistance.
“It’s ok Kat”, she soothed, “My mum wants to know if you are going out with someone”. They both giggled. Not because I’d intruded into the secret life of teenagers but because I’d used such an obsolete expression. Kat had genuinely never heard the word, ‘courting’ before. I was as astounded.
“Really? Never?” I asked her.
Still giggling, she shook her head.
“Well what does you mother ask you then?”
“She just asks whether I’ve got a boyfriend”. I was astonished. My daughter could tell and was a bit cross with me.
“Not everyone lives and speaks as though they are residents of Downton Abbey you know mother”.
Indeed. “Just answer me this then, what on earth do you think William said to his father Charles, after a succession of ‘dates’ with Kate? ‘By the way dad, I’m seeing this girl’? I can’t imagine that”.
“Mum, for heaven’s sake, you cannot hold up the way the House of Windsor may speak to one another as a modern example of family discourse”. She is a bright one to talk.
Kat was looking increasingly confused.
“So, courting is when a boy and a girl are going out?”
“Yes”, I replied.
“And what’s that thing when someone has to go with you every time you want to see your boyfriend? That’s really old-fashioned too, ‘shepherding’ I think it’s called”. I rolled my eyes.
“Chaperoning. Kat, my love, unless you are gypsy or from any other ethnic minority , I doubt it is something you need to worry about”. It was enough for me; I picked up my coffee and left them to their contemporary, and in my opinion linguistically undernourished domain.
The following day however and you must pardon the expression, but for literary emphasis it must be employed, the modern world literally grabbed me by the short and curlies. I was at Uni. It was lunchtime and we were in our room, chatting. Three of the group have already been for interviews and have secured jobs for September. They were sharing the horrors of being interrogated by a student panel when one of my fellow female students tore the foil from a packet of Ibuprofen and gulped down a couple with a few swigs from her Pepsi Max.
“Are you ok?”, I asked, “Nasty headache?”. She let out a feminine belch, “No, off to get waxed after Uni. The pain-killers help”.
Turn away now, anyone who may be squeamish because what follows will be a shock to some, but, here goes. It is now deemed fashionable, no, I’d go so far as to say, de rigeur for any young woman, or in fact any woman who finds herself back on the market, to have to remove all bodily hair, ‘down there’. When I say remove, I am not talking about a nice trim, lest you should horrify fellow swimmers at the local baths with an unruly mane escaping from your swimsuit elastic but a full on excisement of all pubic hair. I forget how this torturous approach to depilation came into my consciousness I only remember being so shocked that I felt the need to share it with my son. The conversation went something like this:
“Very soon now you may come into close contact with a young lady’s parts. If you do, you must be very appreciative of it and hold it in reverence and whatever you do and whatever you find down there, be it hairy or be it not, just be grateful for it at all”. The idea of him recoiling in horror because she had not felt the heinous peer pressure to follow ‘what everyone else does’, very much concerned me.
And so, it seems, this fashion is now the norm. When I mentioned, that lunchtime, that I favoured the more natural method and tucked any stray hairs into my bathers, I was met with cries of disbelieving horror.
“That’s disgusting”, shuddered more than one.
“You have hair there?” asked another, utterly amazed. Now, although by the end of our ‘sharing’ session we had laughed so much we had tears pouring down our faces, it’s not actually funny at all.
To be honest, I find it depressing and ultimately deeply distressing that years after ‘women’s lib’ did their damndest for us, is to realise that it can only be the preponderance of easily available pornography that has led a generation of girls to now routinely visit a beauty salon to suffer almost intolerable pain in the name of being sexy and normal. Worst of all? That for a grown-up, sexually active woman, normal and sexy is looking like a little girl. Germaine Greer, it seems you burned your bra in vain.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Human Rights.

My daughter mumbled something utterly incoherent from behind zipped up lips, stamped her foot and flounced out of the kitchen.
As is often my wont, I slumped onto a kitchen bar stool and sighed deeply. Having been around teenagers for many years, whether rearing them or teaching them, their behaviour rarely shocks or surprises, but boy does it wear me out. I thank God, or indeed my innate mothering skills for having raised young people who are, on the whole, socially acceptable darlings in whose company I am very fond. There are times however, that I find the causes young people take to heart, whilst terribly worthy, are also be terribly irking.
There are moments for instance, in the past, when my eldest daughter has flown the flag for any number of organisations and charities, which, as a family we have been pressganged into supporting. I have an extra large Leprosy t-shirt which is hauled from my knicker draw every time I need to bleach my hair; a very colourful Gay Pride one, which I wear to festivals (I’ve been to one) and a very small Greenpeace one that I shrank once and now use as a duster. As a family we have been more than generous. From my dad to my brother to various aunts and uncles, we have unanimously opened our purses or wallets; signed sponsor forms or cheered from the side-lines, whatever in fact it was that was desired of us to demonstrate solidarity for this child’s selfless and unstinting act of charity.
This last campaign though has found me, and I quote my 15 year old, “demonstrating a profound lack of patience”. In turn I can only nod my head because for 120 hours, she has taken a vow of silence.
Undoubtedly to most, the idea of a silent teenager is most appealing and I cannot argue that when she is out of sight and mind, it poses me no problems at all until I attempt to communicate with her. Then, for instance, calling up the stairs to inform her that dinner is ready and being met with silence drives me to distraction as there is nothing for it but to huff and puff up the stairs to make sure she is there. I am not overjoyed on being confronted by an extremely cross young woman, murmuring something along the lines of, “I heard you the first time: there is no need for you to barge in here”. I assume that’s what she’s saying anyway. It could be worse.
It’s a bloody long 120 hours, we are only half way through it and I have lost all empathy for the work of Amnesty International.
“Just tell me what you mean?” I demand as she tries to write a sentence in the air, “I don’t read oxygen”.
“Hmm-um-mm”, she replies, eyes flaring, voice deep and growly.
“For God’s sake, you sound like there’s something mentally wrong with you. JUST SPEAK! I won’t tell anyone. You can still have your sponsor money.” Once again she shakes her head emphatically and furiously scribbles, ‘I have moral integrity’ on a scrap of sticky paper.
“Suggesting I don’t, I suppose?”. With that infuriating insouciance of the young, she just shrugs her shoulders.
“Can you not understand how maddening this is?” I shout after her as, once again, she stamps her foot in fury and flees. I continue to shout:
“I’m telling you now young lady that I cannot tolerate one more bloody mumble, mutter or Post It note”.
That is where I slumped onto the kitchen chair.
My son walked in on me as I sat, there, heart pounding, tearing the lilac Post-It into itsy-bitsy shreds.
“What’s occurring ma?”, he asked, helping himself to some very expensive, Fox’s biscuits, “You’re looking stressed”. As he had no real interest in my health or well being, but instead needed an excuse to walk into the kitchen and pilfer chocolate biscuits, I was less tolerant that I would normally be of his between meals snacking, especially as he had no intention of eating one or two but secreting the whole box to his room for me find in a few weeks time and ultimately clear away.
“Given your level of involvement with your sister this week, you may or may not have noticed that she is mute; that muteness is causing me some consternation”.
“Rave on ma. Don’t sweat it. She gave me a cool badge and a groovy sticker and this”, he removed from his school blazer a bright pink pamphlet and handed it over to me. It was a passport, only not just any passport; this was a, My Rights Passport. I guffawed at the irony. Apparently all human beings are born free and equal.
“Until they start having kids”, I yelled. Alone, I flicked through the booklet. It contained the universal declaration of human rights. Of the 30 articles one or two seemed particularly pertinent. I sighed again.
I filled the dishwasher, scrubbed the pans that wouldn’t fit in, swept the floor; heaved an overflowing bin-liner out of the bin, tied it together, put it outside, Dettoxed the floor where baked beans had escaped from a hole in the bin liner into a gooey, cold, lumpy puddle on the kitchen floor. Then, with pen poised and Post-It notes at the ready, I opened my Human Rights Passport and wrote: ‘Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude. Nobody has the right to treat anyone as their slave. Not even teenagers’.
Evidently I added the final caveat before climbing the stairs and adhering both Post-its to the very surprised foreheads of my teenage children.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Origin of the Species.

And the week had started so positively. I hadn’t expected it to. Being sent by Uni, back into the depths of Cornwall, this time to a primary school, I couldn’t see the point. Hubby was most unimpressed.
“I hope that they are going to reimburse you the petrol costs”.
“They are not”, I answered emphatically.
He was cross, “Well then, why can’t you go and observe at the girls’ school? It’s only up the road”. I had wondered that too. It did seem a little mad to have to travel over 70 odd miles, when surely, I could have found the same information locally, but, as I have learnt from experience, there is little point arguing. It gets you nowhere in education: they just see you as a belligerent trouble maker; instead I accepted the gig, packed my bag and drove.
It was wonderful! Truly wonderful! The school and children made me feel so welcome, but apart from that, it utterly revised my opinion on how children should be taught in their first two years at secondary school. How can a child be expected to go from a nurturing, positive environment where they have a close and warm relationship with one teacher and where, every forty minutes or so they change the topic of learning into, an alien school where, all of sudden, they are at the bottom of the heap, lost, out of their comfort zones and in some cases, expected to sit through 100 minute lessons? It’s barbaric. That could be the reason it dawned on me, that the attainment levels at Key Stage 3 drop so dramatically. These little darlings still desperately need the same secure, environment that they have known for the last six years in which they can flourish and garner confidence, before nasty teachers like me, start to ‘assess them’ and make them work solidly for an hour and forty minutes on a topic that, should they find challenging, makes their self-esteem plummet. If we lose them then, their interest and enthusiasm for learning is a dead loss.
Michael Gove would hate me but I’d relish the opportunity of a chat. And now, before I become disillusioned and beat. When I still have the energy to give him what for. When I can explain to him that in Year Two, there are six year olds in pith helmets, exploring a school, pretending for all their worth that they are on HMS Beagle and accompanying Darwin as he discovers the world around him. That they wander around the corridors pretending to be seasick, unearthing (carefully planted by their teacher) octopuses and coral and ants and heaven knows what and that the children are enthralled and fascinated by the whole experience. I want to say that on our return to the classroom the teacher told them that Darwin had been ‘exhilarated by his first observations’. The teacher then asked the little sweeties, what they thought exhilarated may mean. Now, not forgetting that only weeks before I’d been picked up for using the word ‘na├»ve’ with students four years older than them, I was astonished. On several counts. That a) this delving into vocabulary was encouraged and b) that so many kids gave it a go. “Extremely happy”, said one; “So excited”, said another. Darwin wasn’t the only one exhilarated. I was euphoric.
There it was. Proof, that at a very tender age, if children are encouraged to have a go and they in turn don’t feel intimidated or ‘thick’ or overwhelmed or switched off or whatever it is that happens to them when they go to big school that they learn without thinking about it. Surely it begs the question therefore that we should do as they do in America and in some counties of the UK – and provide a middle school education?
The literacy and numeracy levels of the 10-11 year olds that I met was impressive. Nothing had put them off. They were just encouraged every day to be fabulous. Why, when they move school should their rewards be stopped? A sticker in a planner cannot compete with the whole class giving them a rocket. A rocket was when the teacher and classmates made ‘blast off’ rocket noises and punched the air in triumph to recognise excellent work. I for one, would relish receiving a rocket at the end of the day. It would raise my self esteem inestimably.
And so it was that I waved goodbye to Year Six and returned to Uni. Within hours I was thoroughly depressed again. We spent the day trawling from one workshop to another being lectured by experts whose expertise was special educational needs. We were told again and again that it was our RESPONSIBILITY to ensure that our classrooms were inclusive; to ensure that we value diversity and are prepared to teach in increasingly diverse classrooms, thus ensuring that our SEN students are engaged and happy and will ultimately achieve economic wellbeing. I don’t need to be told that. I’m going to be a teacher. These are my hopes and aspirations for all my students. I do however need to be advised on how to achieve the impossible. How can one ordinary woman and oft harassed mother of four who can only work for so many hours a day, ensure that from the Gifted and Talented, to those on the autism spectrum; visually or hearing impaired; dyslexic, dyspraxic, discalculic; EAL or ADHD let alone all those in the middle get a properly inclusive, differentiated lesson?
So I asked. Someone had to. Apparently the ‘government underpins a move to inclusive education’. Thought as much. Like I said, I want a chat with Mr Gove. Now.