All Change 

I’m picking up her last-day-of-the-summer-holiday clothes from the bathroom floor. Greyed with fun and carelessly crumpled. Today she is wearing her brand new crumple-free uniform for the start of a new term at a new school. From oldest in a primary school to youngest in a secondary school. The stress and expense of the new uniform has plagued our lives for weeks. 

The anxiety and excitement of so much change kept her awake most of the night. Fuelled by adrenalin, her eyes shone as she said goodbye to me, keen to leave, to see her friends and share this first day with those who would understand. We, after all are not going though this as she is…. Little does she know…  I am sad and nervous and proud. This morning she had to get up and be out of the house a good 3-4 hours earlier than she’s been stirring on holiday days. Throughout this coming week there will be belly ache and a sore throat and we, her parents, will suffer the brunt of her tiredness in her efforts to cope. 

I am grateful for mobile phones and social media and all the messages passed between jittery friends in the last couple of days: “Are you wearing short or long sleeves?” “Are you getting a locker?” “Do we need our PE kit?” “Are you wearing socks or tights?” And last night: “I can’t sleep either. I’m too nervous.” This morning a phone call from someone keen to have a companion to catch the bus with. A huge thing to have to travel to school by bus for the first time after years of a five-minute walk. 

There is no doubt secondary school will change her. In what ways I can only guess for now. There is no guarantee she will be happy or unscathed, there is no certainty of anything other than this knowledge that change starts in a big way today and she will have to change to cope, and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. 

Storm SATs and the fright in the night 

shutterstock_356510603Last night Storm Katie rattled the roof tiles of our house in the small hours, clattering them like plates in the kitchen of a busy restaurant. It was disturbing and troubling. But I was far, far, far more troubled and disturbed that the final 4 months of my youngest child’s experience at primary school will be overshadowed by the anxieties of testing, unrealistic expectations and hideously wonky ideas of what getting the most out of schooling are. Her curious mind, her clever word play, her creative soul, her amazing observations; her beautiful choice and use of words in writing to set scenes, evoke emotion, create dialogue, and take the reader to another world. Her thoughtfulness, her wonderful sense of right and wrong and of fairness. None of that will count. She will be judged on technicalities, on her memory of rules, on her speed of taking up these rules and applying them in stressful exam situations. She will feel less able and intelligent than she is, she will feel pressure to perform on behalf of people she has never met and she will feel her worth and ability diminish. She is already frightened and I am having to take measures to deal with her anxiety.

‘What if I fail?’

‘What will happen to me at secondary school?’

I do what I can to tell her her strengths, to praise her, to show her I do not believe in testing for primary age children, and I do not trust these tests – now more than ever. But I can’t give her back these last four months and I can not change the way it means she will be judged by strangers and future education systems because of this.

Childhood should be great. It should be fun. It should be as diversely approached as possible by all of us responsible for the care of children. It is not only wrong but cruel to see it as preparation for work and adulthood. But cruelest of all is this idea that you can set strict standards for developing minds when development in children is so spasmodic and varied from child to child. Squidging all kids through sets of judgements with the very narrowest and limited of definitions of success and therefore creating massive scope to feel failure is like trying to shove a huge great, tangled multicoloured ball of fishing ropes through the eye of a tiny sewing needle. So so much will not fit and has no hope of doing so. And why should it? Why should they?

Why the hell should they?

It’s time to take back childhood.

Bugger the tests. Yes. Bugger them.

 

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Seize the Calm

IMG_5574It’s ten-thirty in the morning and she’s standing on the step stool at the sink in the utility room in her mismatched pyjamas: the top is age 7 to 8 and the bottoms are age 9 to 10. I don’t get to choose what she wears these days. She hasn’t shown any interest in eating yet, but she’s only been awake for half an hour so there’s no hurry. She’s humming to herself as she cleans out her painting stuff. She does this unprompted now. The cough she had at school last week has nearly gone and there’s a gentle, wholesome, restful feel to the day.

I ask her where she is on the contentment scale. I don’t know if she’ll know what I mean. I don’t even know why I asked – well, I do know, I’m just wondering why I asked in that way. I guess it seems less intrusive. It’s become an instinct not to pry too much and instead wait for information to be offered.
‘Seven point nine,’ she responds, taking it surprisingly seriously and providing me with a proper thinking face.
‘Oh. What’s bringing that number down?’ I want to know.
Apparently there’s some crusty stuff in her nose that’s bothering her. She can’t pull her chin right down and completely stretch out her face – like that: I get a demonstration. That’s all that’s wrong. She needs to wash her face with warm water, I offer. But it’s not bothering her that much apparently.

I’ve spent all week feeling guilty that we don’t take family holidays when everyone else does, that we don’t organise play dates every week, that we don’t have any kind of plan or itinerary to get up early and traipse around a country pile or a theme park, a museum, a mountain or a cycle track every day, or even every other day, for the whole of half term holiday. There are no long car journeys, no trains, no planes, no boats planned. No foreign shores, foreign foods or foreign sounds to experience. I feel guilty for being me, for being us, for having a business that can’t be left in school holidays, for having anxiety, for not driving, for struggling with the phone, the doorbell, and the pace of life other people seem to keep. My guilt is endless and repetitive; my comparing myself with others comes back time and time again even though I’ve told myself it’s wrong to do this to myself.

And it is wrong. It’s not necessary.

Because right now, right in this moment of peace and quiet humming and trickling water sounds; watching that face in concentration, feeling the planning and the self-organisation going on in that small body, I wonder why all the guilt?

Is she not loved?
Is she not well-rested?
Is she not warm?
Is she not well-fed? (she had breakfast five minutes later)
Is she not calm?
Is she not content? (seven point nine)
Does she not get to make decisions for herself?
Does she not know her own mind?
Does she not have freedom?
Does she not laugh and joke?
Does she not get fresh air and sunshine?

She’s an autonomous girl with some great creative skills that need the quiet and space we provide. Whether we always provide that peace through necessity, circumstance or out of choice, it suits her. She has grown calm and thoughtful and imaginative.

And it’s not like I didn’t try all the other stuff. I spent years thinking the best thing for our first two children was to be busy, busy, busy. It turned out I was wrong and I had to scale down all the constant activities. It turned out they didn’t want or need ballet+gym+football+tennis+swimming+musiclessons+dance+horseriding or even activity-packed family holidays. They were much nicer and calmer and easier to communicate with when they enjoyed a far greater chunk of more unorganised, unscheduled time. And they slept better too. It isn’t fact that a big, deep sleep follows a crazy-full day.

It’s almost as if people have become afraid of being at home these days and I had let myself get sucked into that fear. And yet when I don’t let myself get dragged into the latest habits of the modern world I find being at home is amazingly good. Keeping your kids close and chilling out is super-rewarding and leads to superbly restful sleep.

Mostly I find myself feeling glad I don’t drive, glad I am forced to keep my own rhythm. I’m mostly happy with the pace of life we have settled into. We take our busy days when we feel it’s a good day to be busy. We can’t completely arrange ourselves around the weather, the mood in the air, our health, our guts, our inclinations and our children’s spirits because of the laws around school attendance, but we have found something close in this crazy world of routine, clock and calendar slavery.

If my guilt is associated with comparing myself to others rather than measuring our own happiness then it’s pointless: a wasted effort, and time I could have spent feeling blessed for what we do have.

In two days’ time, the law says it’s time to get your children up in the cold early mornings again and kick them out of the house for six and a half hours. When they come back tired, cold, grumpy and hungry they will no doubt have homework or after school clubs and will be well on their way to the next virus, sulk or temper tantrum but for today life is brought to us by pale green paint and an easy-going vibe.

Lucky me.

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Light and Seeds

IMG_1451This afternoon we have to go and see our youngest daughter’s teacher for a parent-teacher mid-term meeting/review thing.

I’ve been a parent for nearly twenty years and had my children assessed and summed up, and I’ve listened to many different approaches and opinions about their educations and development, about their attitude and their effort over the years. It’s not been consistent and, like most parents, we’ve learnt from the experience and ended up making up our own minds about our children. We are grateful for any information, we appreciate any praise, we smile politely at any advice, and we take what we can from it and discard what we believe to be misplaced or misjudged. We can see how we are not all always seeing the same child when we talk about one of them. In the past I’ve heard a couple of adjectives applied to my children by teachers that have really surprised me and which I’ve known to be false.

 

But this is the first time I will go to a parent-teacher meeting knowing that I have Asperger’s and knowing that my child may well have inherited those particular genes. That knowledge throws a whole other very significant ingredient into the mix that is our child – and perhaps our other children.

 

My children will carry my autistic genes. Of that I am sure. Any or all of them or none of them may have their own version of autism. They may simply carry some genes. Without formal testing I may never be one hundred percent sure about any of them. For now, all I have is a big bag of new knowledge and my powers of observation, and one heck of a lot of information under my belt after an incredible amount of delving, reading and paying attention to the world of autism. So far our middle child (our son who is 17) doesn’t seem to have my anxiety or my fears, but both our daughters have shown signs of inheriting my anxiety and some of my sensory processing difficulties and they have all three thrown up some interesting questions about the ease with which they can be squeezed through the narrow tube that is conventional education. It’s too late for me to discuss our elder daughter’s education with anyone now that she is nearly 20 years old – all I can do there is let her know that she carries my genes and has a chance of possessing many of my traits (which are not all bad, I’d like to point out!) but it is not too late to consider what part (if any) autism might be playing in our nine-year-old’s education and childhood.

 

What I’m wrangling with today is just how far that considering goes, and with whom to consider it. Do I wait until a problem becomes too great, until some sort of crisis occurs? Do I keep quiet and hope she “gets away with it”, “pretends to be normal” and hope she learns to shrug things off? Do I assume her father’s non-autistic genes have watered down mine sufficiently for her to be pretty “normally-wired”? Will she muddle through until fifteen until suddenly one day a teacher calls her “difficult” or “impertinent” or another child bullies her and by which time it may be too late to discuss Asperger’s and she may hate me for trying to? I remember how I felt about being told I needed glasses at fifteen. I really don’t think I would have coped with being told I had Asperger’s at that age. I’m sure I would have rejected it and hated anyone who tried to discuss it.

 

From my experience, nine is about the age difficulties begin to trickle in for a high-functioning autistic/ Asperger’s child, and it might be when differences start to be less forgiven by other children and even by teachers. I also know that outsiders can often be quicker than a family to spot differences – after all we are used to our own children. It’s also about the age we notice differences in ourselves, and that can cause us to crave to fit in and therefore become quite secretive about our worries. Fitting in and not being noticed are extremely stressful and hard work and I worry about the long-term effects not just of that fitting in but also of the repeatedly being misunderstood. My gut instinct is that my child has enough of my traits for her to find certain areas of life a bit more of a struggle than other children and that this might become distressing in her teens but that she hides them well now and will never have serious enough problems for teachers to think to consider autism without knowing it is a possibility. I also feel that if it is going to be discussed, sooner is better.

 

So today I am planning to plant a seed. I intend to merely mention to our youngest daughter’s teacher that I have Asperger’s. I’m actually quite scared because I hate talking about myself.

I want, while our daughter is at a school small enough and far enough away from the stresses of more serious formal learning in the future, for her school to know about the genes that she comes from and be ready for any challenges or fears she may face. I can’t guarantee their knowledge of autism will be vast enough to know what they are looking for. I can’t guarantee it will mean as much to them as it does to me. I can’t guarantee they will use Asperger’s as a potential lens to view any troubles or concerns (if indeed there are any). And I can’t guarantee that I will ever get her a diagnosis if one is needed in the future. But a huge wave of meaning came over my life with my own explanations of my difficulties and it would be unfair of me to deny my children that opportunity. And not only my own children but the people who are in a position to provide support. Maybe they’ve already struggled to fathom my child and this will throw new light on their understanding of her.

 

Learning is not a straight line

shutterstock_128134913This is a biggie. I don’t know where to start or stop with this. Where does a discussion around education begin or end? It doesn’t. It just goes around in loops and swirls, wrapping around and weaving through life. You can’t get away from it even if you’re not at school or employed in education.
It’s like all those big things people might be heard to say aren’t for them: politics, feminism, environmentalism. It’s funny because all of those things are for them, about them, to do with them and involve them, but people may be so alienated by language, systems and ideas that they don’t feel involved. And yet we talk about our lives, schools, hospitals, transport, children, energy bills, playing fields, planning permissions, personal struggles, parenting and uneven relationships all the time. We are completely involved in politics, women’s issues and the environment whether we think so or not.

It’s the same with education. We probably feel we are either in it or out of it. We get to a certain age at which we are legally allowed to reject education or draw a line underneath it for a while. If we think we’ve had enough formal institutionalised learning we can get on with earning or living or child-rearing or growing a business or growing prize-winning turnips or travelling the world. Education comes as a construct we are led into and we step out of and then we are not doing it anymore.

“I just don’t want to be in education anymore,” our eighteen year-old daughter said to us yesterday, a day after getting her 6th form college results. No university, no foundation course, no access course, no nothing. She’s had enough learning. Or has she? Has she just had enough of the particular way her education was going?

Learning is not the same as education though – as I am repeatedly reminded. Education is wrapped up in systems, languages and traditions; institutions, instructions and rules; masters and students, lessons and exams, while learning is just something we do all day every day. By stepping outside of the systems of education we don’t choose to stop learning. We choose a different life style.

Despite knowing all this, I’m struggling with our daughter’s decisions. I’m not caught up in any academic or intellectual snobbery, I’m not concerned for her to earn vast sums of money or even avoid being “lumbered” with kids at a young age. I have no problems with any of those things. But I am concerned for her decision not to walk the expected line of education and find she never has the guts to get on it again only to find her ambitions are scuppered through that missing qualification. What I have to separate out in my head here is how much of this is my problem, how much of this is society’s problem and how much of it is her problem? And what do I do or say? Silence can mean so much, sometimes too much. It can signal disinterest – disapproval even, so I can’t say nothing.

So why can’t I just say I love her and I’m proud of her and I’ll be happy whatever she decides?

Well, I have said that – or words to that effect. But I’ve also asked her to think, and to have dreams; to imagine where/how she’d like to be a few years from now and to try to make some choices and set some wheels in motion based on that.

Life choices are difficult at any age. They are difficult for parents too. I can’t tell our daughter she must stay in full-time formal education. Well I can but she’ll just say no. I think I’ve just got to the stage where I can never ever tell her what to do again and that’s scary. Bloody scary.

It’s not a fact that a good education and a degree guarantee you a good job (discuss “good job”): certain educations give you a certain advantage in certain areas. Looking at the people with the most influence over the way our country is run in 2013, a good education is no guarantee of being a great person either. It’s not good having a degree if it didn’t teach you how to think. Many people do seem to use education in a straight, measured way, get what they want and step off. The rest of us want to relate it more to real life and find the conveyor belt system rather unrewarding. It seems in our daughter’s last interview for an art course she didn’t feel, as an artist, her particular taste style and needs would be accommodated for. Instead she would be made to fit.

So maybe, just maybe, learning for our daughter will continue without formal education. Maybe our proud moments will come without a badge, a certificate or a ceremony. Maybe her job interviews will be based on skills and experience or just being a nice, bright person. Maybe her artistic skills will land her a job without a degree, maybe she will go back to college one day and acquire a completely different set of skills. Who knows…? We still are, and will be, proud of her.

I’ve just taken a phone call for her as I was writing this. She applied for a few jobs yesterday and someone’s offered her an interview for a job as kitchen staff. If it’s what she wants right now I hope she gets it and it goes well. All I know is it’s not up to me anymore.

Whatever happens now, she’ll learn something from it – that’s for sure.

I’m still learning that learning is not a straight line for parents either!

Good luck to our first baby on her first year off the conveyor belt.

I might be crying a bit now…



One SPAG fits all

– Why I think even I know more than Michael Gove

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I believe I’m a good people-watcher: one of the best. I’m the first to admit my failings – of which there are many, and I rarely boast, because I really am pretty unfocussed and inconsistent when it comes to absolutely everything else in life, but I do have one thing that I think I’m good at and that is observing my fellow humans. In fact, I am so busy taking in people’s behaviours and mentally recording and reorganising them that I’m pretty socially inept. And I can’t even write or read in a public place because I’m “on the job” of people-watching. (Oh – if only that were a job!). I may not be talking to you regularly, but I promise I am thinking about you all the time!!

I believe our opinions are mainly the result of our experience. But, if our experience is limited only to ourselves and not to observing others then it is very limited indeed. Our experience of our own life, plus what we have witnessed is our own unrecorded (okay, so maybe you’ve recorded yours) scientific study. What we have seen and thought about matters a great deal. I often think it matters more than tables of statistics. But only if it attempts to reach widely.

Take for example my recent arguments with my mother about grammar schools. She was a very bright, capable student, whose future was saved (for want of a better word) by the presence of grammar schools. She passed the 11 Plus, she went onto grammar school; because of her academic abilities she avoided being taken out of school and put into domestic service and was therefore able to go to university, get a degree, do teacher training, meet my dad, and live in a far less impoverished background than she had been destined for had there not been the option of grammar schools. She sees how that system worked for her and could work for other poor, but bright, kids. She thinks the reintroduction of grammar schools would provide that academic option, if you like, for less-advantaged kids in today’s society.

Okay. Stop. But what about all the kids it didn’t and wouldn’t work for? I agree with my mother on most things these days but her argument for grammar schools is based purely on her own experience. That’s not enough. It ignores – even writes off perhaps – all those intelligent kids who are not good at sitting tests, who are not great spellers, even those who deliberately fail because they want to stay with their friends. And it suggests that there are two types of people, and the ones that don’t pass the test are somehow less worthy.

Michael Gove likes where he is today (please don’t think I am in any way comparing him with my wonderful mother though). He likes who he is. He likes his memories of his childhood education and what it gave to him. He thinks he is a success, his education was a success and therefore his experiences should be rolled out across the country.
He and others seem to see people in two camps: those who are academic and those who are not. So simple. Isn’t that just the best and simplest way of looking at things? Hoorah for simplistic thinking!
So. We put everyone through academic tests: If you do well in them, you are academic; if you don’t, you have the option to work harder and try to fit this made up definition of “academic”, or you can resign yourself to the fact that you are not academic and therefore you belong to the pile which, for the purposes of this blog post, I will label “manual worker”. You – the less-academic folk who couldn’t pass the specific tests will feel uncomfortable at school; you will wait impatiently for it all to be over so you can apply to be an apprentice with the hope of being a “manual worker”.
You – the more-academic, who, for the purposes of this blog post , I will call “high achievers” and who could fit the narrow definition of academic, will feel like a success throughout school. You will spend the next few years, studying, knowing you can avoid “manual work” and are perhaps destined for top, managerial, advisory jobs. You are more likely to be well-paid and well-respected. And if you’re not already in them, you can join the top social classes.

That’s everyone sorted. Good and tidy.
Well done Mr Gove.

Bring on the tests!

Schooling over the years has been subject – to a greater and lesser degree – to heavy streaming. Gather up the tests and pop each child into a group according to his or her results. Now I found school easy in the earlier years. This was mainly because it involved putting lots of words and numbers on pieces of paper. I was good at that. I loved writing. My brain was designed for that. I got streamed into top sets, and although I was never the very cleverest in school, I was always up there in the classes with the children perceived to be the cleverest. This made me assume that the “others” in lower groups were less clever than me. And not just less clever: some of them were downright thick. They had to be: they couldn’t write or spell well. “Manual workers”, right?
So I grew up, not only with a distorted opinion of what made people fit the clever and not so clever categories, I also grew up with an opinion that people who worked in ordinary or “manual” jobs were somehow mentally inept. I am very happy to tell you that I don’t think like that anymore.
The trouble is, many people still do.

If you really watch people and listen to them you can see how some amazingly bright people have overcome the stigma of the “squeeze yourself through a pinhole”-style academic testing and have proved their intelligence in other ways. Years later I came across people who I had been at school with – and had had nothing to do with at school – and found them to be incredibly intelligent and interesting despite being in the lower academic groups. I also noticed how some people who were very good at squeezing through the pinhole never quite got over their snobbery of thinking they were somehow superior. Now that’s not very clever, is it?

In my teens and early twenties, I became a “manual worker” for a few years. I didn’t continue or use my education in any way. I worked as a barmaid, as a waitress, as an unpaid housewife and mother (that unpaid stuff is the hardest). I finally started teaching piano for a while and began to observe the different ways children learn. Some of the brightest, most interesting kids, I noticed, simply cannot sit still and listen. And sometimes their handwriting and spelling is appalling. Interesting. Very interesting. I had to redesign my ideas about how you should teach music – and in particular music theory.

I hope he won’t mind me mentioning this, but my husband cannot spell well. He doesn’t remember grammar rules and he hates writing. He is also embarrassed by his own handwriting and he thought for years that he wasn’t very clever. He is actually very clever.
Our first child came along 18 years ago and since then I have been observing my own children not just other people’s. Child number one fitted the pinhole really well. She could have glided painlessly through the SPAG tests – and would even have enjoyed them. She reminds me of my father: an almost photographic memory, a fast reader, an accurate speller. A bit of a pedant, if I’m honest. She’s what you would call bright, academic, clever, intelligent, high-achiever, all of those things associated with getting through tests successfully. The way her brain is arranged just happens to suit the narrow definitions.
But when you sit and talk with any of my children there is nothing to say that she is more intelligent or insightful than the others.
Our second and third children are not pinhole-shaped. Their brains are arranged differently from their older sibling. They struggle a little with spelling and grammar, and writing neatly. They are drawn to different areas of education and, if it were available today, I’m not 100% sure they would pass the 11 plus. Maybe they would. I don’t know. I don’t see them as less intelligent than their sister. In fact, I know they are not less intelligent. But if they were repeatedly rated on their ability to write and spell well I feel sure they would begin to feel less intelligent.

Unless he is stopped, Michael Gove will be testing our 8-year-old on her spelling and grammar in 2 years’ time.

I don’t want him to.

She’s intelligent, inquisitive, interested and loves reading and writing stories. I don’t want anyone pointing out their made up faults and threatening her faith in herself. Through her reading and writing she is finding out why it’s important to make yourself understood and recently she has worked on her handwriting on her own in her room for her own reasons.

I tweeted about this on Twitter this morning. It’s difficult to make a point in tweets, so I’ll be careful what I say, but a couple of people joined in and one point made was that if spelling/grammar isn’t taught in schools then it makes life difficult at university. I agree that any university professor’s life must be made very difficult by under-prepared students, but teaching based on tests prepares none but a very few for anything -especially at a very young age. It’s not fun, it doesn’t provide a reason for learning according to a young person’s logic, it’s time-consuming, and it’s demeaning for those who don’t fit. For those who find spelling and grammar a slower process, the emphasis must be on content. It must be on content for all of us, surely? Spelling is a part of the education process, sure, but there must be a line drawn on how much it’s allowed to take over a child’s life.
Someone else pointed out that once children had “got over” the tests they could then reap the benefits of what they had taught them. My concern is that the very testing itself may not be a problem getting over. It may be the importance placed on them. It’s a little young to be dealing with issues of failure. Show them the words, show them how to use them, why make them sit tests? Make words fun instead. Make them mean something. We can’t have people growing up being afraid of the written word. It’s tragic.

On The Button

I’m celebrating 2 years since my first attempt at flash fiction by sharing that first story from July 2010 (which is in fact more like a short story than a flash)
(Isn’t it funny – and rather worrying – how only 2 years ago I thought of sponsored academies as fictitious)

‘Zophar, listen.’ Luna crouched before him on the pavement. ‘You can get out whenever you want, okay?’
Zophar nodded, looking past his mother to the others. His body was poised in politeness towards his mother but in anticipation of other children, his eyes looked ahead to his new schoolmates and he willed her to say goodbye.
‘Did you Anti-Germ your hands?’
Another nod.
‘Where are your disposable toilet seat covers?’
Zophar patted his backpack.
‘And mask? Remember which pocket?’
More nodding.

His father opened the driver door of the car and the airlock was released with a Clop. Shhhhhhhh. He stepped out carefully, holding a green canister, spraying into the air as he approached.
‘Another squirt of Pollute Repel for luck.’ He misted the air around Zophar’s head and tiptoed back to the car, as if trying to avoid making contact with the ground. ‘One last button test, perhaps Luna?’ he called, slipping back into the car and sealing himself in.
‘Yes. Quick button run-though,’ said Luna. Tell me again.’
‘Emergency Back-Off spray, emergency water purifying tablet.’ Zophar’s fingers ran downwards over the buttons on his blazer at speed as he rushed through the list. ‘Emergency anti-viral pill, emergency contact button, emergency detox spray button.’ He touched his cuffs next. ‘Panic buttons. Now can I go?’ The five-year-old jiggled impatiently.
‘Anytime at all, if you are worried,’ continued Luna, ‘if someone touches you, if someone coughs near you, if the toilets are dirty. Any reason. You hear me? We’ll get you out straight away. Just press those cuff buttons. And when the car brings you back remember: shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off, then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer and don’t touch the cruise control in the car on the way home. You hear me?’
‘I know, I know, you said. Now can I go?’
‘Okay.’ Luna kissed the air, not touching Zophar. ‘Go baby. Take care. Remember: buttons!’ She mimed pushing buttons as he ran off. ‘And don’t run or you’ll fall and touch the ground and I’ll have to take you home!’

Luna clasped her hands in front of her chin. ‘Good luck. Come home safely,’ she whispered.

Zophar scampered up the steps as fast as he thought he would get away with. He was more happy and excited than he could ever remember being.

This was better than birthdays. There were other children here.

The entrance was massive. It took up one whole side of the building.
‘Prevention Pharmaceutical’s Academy of Learning and Science welcomes you all and asks that when you enter the building, you do not share a door pod with anyone else,’ came a voice from within the walls.
Robotic eyes shifted around and each pod spoke instructions through hidden speakers as one hundred children at a time were allowed to enter the first segment where they were instantly separated by screens that held the children in stalls as they were scanned for identification and viruses.
Immediately three boys were locked in and a voice told them to wait until cars arrived to remove them.
Some newcomers were familiar with screening and airlocks. They stood patiently while the eyes and scanners moved around them. But the others, from older housing out of the city had not experienced Entrance Pollution Prevention.
Zophar could hear cries of ‘I want to go home,’ ‘I don’t like this,’ while others sobbed and tried to back out.
Luna had told him about the entrance and how other boys weren’t used to it. ‘They’ll soon get domesticated,’ she had said. ‘Everyone learns eventually.’

Next they were filtered into a huge glass cube. It was one of six on three levels. A voice told them to wait for the professors to collect them.
In this mix of trained and untrained five-year-olds, the difference was obvious to Zophar: the untrained boys had less shiny clothes and they didn’t have emergency blazer buttons. Zophar worried for them. But they didn’t look bothered. A few of them started talking to each other and they even tried to talk to the trained boys. Luna had said to keep away from untrained boys because they weren’t treated. He wondered if it would be safer to hold his nose then he wouldn’t be sharing their air. He held his breath for twenty seconds and gave up.
An untrained boy had been watching him. ‘I can hold my breath loads longer than that.’
‘Ludo’s the best at holding his breath. He swims underwater,’ said another boy.
‘He goes swimming?! Wow…’ Zophar stared.
‘Ye-ah, loads of us go. It’s really good for you.’ The boy threw off his blazer and mimicked breaststroke. ‘Gives you strong muscles. My dad said so.’
Zophar, Ludo and some others took off their blazers too, giggling as they ran in circles pretending to swim.

‘Why are your buttons so big?’
Zophar turned to see Ludo wearing his blazer and fiddling with the cuff buttons.
‘No! Don’t!’
The airlock opened and a robotic sensor promptly identified Zophar’s blazer. Ludo was shunted gently towards the door pods.
‘Please wait until your car arrives,’ said a voice.

From the door pods Ludo was directed into Zophar’s family car and within minutes he was lowered out at Zophar’s house.
A woman’s voice from a wall speaker said he could try school again tomorrow and she was glad he was home. ‘And remember:’ she said, ‘shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer on.’

Luna waited outside the bathroom with clean towels. She stared; horrified at the sight of the strange, untreated boy and then she hyperventilated.

Zophar’s father left Ludo in the entrance while he arranged his collection. Then the house and car were treated before the car was sent to collect the right boy this time. It had all been too risky and too stressful – Luna would home-school Zophar from now on.


This story is now published as an e-story from Ether Books:

(N.B. Thanks to Norman Geras – @normblog , who very kindly supplied me with the inspired prompt word: “prompt” when I asked on Twitter!)

How to Be a Successful Modern Family Woman

This is one end of our hall. The other end is even messier. There are five of us making this mess. Six, if you include the dog. (He’s responsible for making the carpets permanently filthy.)
Sometimes I look around me and think that it looks more like twenty people live here, we have that much clutter and footwear.
I often wake in the middle of the night and think I am failing as a woman/wife/mother because I am not keeping things tidier (I promise you it’s not all about the hall). But deep down I know that tidiness is not a representation of any sort of success in those roles.

So I thought about how I could get through the days (and nights) without beating myself up over every little imperfection.

And this is what I came up with:

Add “Look tired” to your list of desired achievements for the day. (TICK!)

Make “Emergency ponytail” your favourite hairstyle.

Make “Teaching daughters about feminism” your reason for having breakfast dishes on the kitchen table all day and a confusion of clean and dirty laundry strewn around the house

Add “Check Twitter” to every even number on your “(AS LONG AS IT TAKES, OKAY!?) To-do” list.

Add beguiling entries to said list, such as: “Read that thing I have to read”, “Google that important thingy”, and “clear out underwear drawer”. Tick them and put list on fridge for all to see. This turns the guilt of time spent reading, web-browsing and having no clean underwear into achievements.

Wear a “Period Pains Hurt!” t-shirt once-a-month – or anytime you need people to sod off and stop asking you to do too many things.
(“The Menopause Is No Joke!” “Ask Me When I’ve Had Enough Sleep” and “The Most Productive People Take Breaks” are also useful for sending an important message)

Get “Superwoman Doesn’t Exist”, “Oh, Sod it!” and “All the best people are a bit smelly & messy” magnets for your fridge.

Have a partner who is a partner and not a stereotype.

Before anyone can ask you about all the things you haven’t done tell them all the things you have done.

Every time anyone says anything about how much better things used to be when families were more disciplined, mention the mass, hidden, domestic, mental and physical abuse of women and children of the nineteen fifties and the inequality and fear of the patriarchal figure that stinted the potential of many people for many years and still fuels the guilt and perceived (= made up) duties of the twentieth-first century woman.

Know that the best people trust you and like you a lot more when they know that you are not perfect

Never allow chores or household appliances to remain an enigma. Repeatedly marvel at how fun and easy the dishwasher/washing machine/cooker/vacuum cleaner are to use instead of being truthful about how depressing housework is. (Now that I’ve read this through I want to point out that what I mean by this is other household members should be allowed and encouraged to do more)

Don’t be a domestic goddess because your daughters will think they have to be a domestic goddess and your sons will expect their wives to be a domestic goddess and you don’t want that do you?
DO YOU?!
Well. I don’t.

Dear Children…

Dear Children,

Despite some things you might be told or you might hear or you might read about always trying your hardest, trying to be the best at what you do, and making choices in early life about how you might live your adult life, I – as your loving mother – see things slightly differently.

You see, I’ve thought a lot recently about this being the best thing and what I’ve noticed is that while people are trying to beat everyone else they are not necessarily being the best and nicest person they can be.
I’ve noticed too that constant testing makes children, parents and teachers anxious about performance. Performance? Isn’t that a word for the stage? For car engines? I don’t think you should expect yourselves either to act a certain way or drive yourself a certain way as if you are a machine.

No. I want you to be yourselves.

Over the last 2 years, the system which has taken over your childhoods, has made me worry that my youngest child hadn’t learnt to write and spell by the age of six (six?!), that my middle child was “lazy” because his handwriting isn’t neat, that my eldest child might suffer under the strain of having to choose a university and future career before she’s finished growing.
The system made me think for a time that always doing one’s best, always working hard was important.

Why?

So I stopped. I thought about this and I thought about you three and I thought about myself and I thought about those “at the top” status-wise, power-wise, money-wise, fame-wise, in all sorts of different areas of life and I thought, ‘Is that what my children want? Is that what I want?’
What do I want from you and for you? I wondered.

Well. I want nothing from you. That is my gift. It came when I gave you life.

But what I want for you is happiness, I want you to live, I want you to know about what is real, I want you to look around you and see other people and wildlife and the world you share with them. I do not want you thinking you are better than other people or lowlier than other people. I do not want you always striving for status, money, power or recognition. I do not want you worrying about performance but about reasons and enjoyment when you choose to do something.
I want you to remember that life is short and can sometimes be shorter than we expect.

I want you to remember to watch sunrises and sunsets, to listen to birdsong, to follow the waxing and waning of the moon, to fall in and out of and back in love. I want you to cry at the suffering of others not at a C instead of a B. I want you to be out of the range of judgement but because that is impossible I want you to know how false all judgement is. I want you to appreciate what you can do because it gives you pleasure not be constantly comparing yourself with others – or worse still a fake set of standards about what is better.

Striving for positions, for power, for a big bank balance, for notoriety, for the “top” always comes at a price. Being a good, genuine, caring, life-embracing human-being comes with rewards.

There are different types of respect that come with the different paths one can take in life. I can’t tell you which ones to take but I’m certainly not going to push you down one that gives you pain.

You were born with five senses and big brains on a beautiful planet surrounded by other creatures that could do with a bit more respect. I hope you come to realise that the rest is less important.

Don’t be fooled by what others – who are too caught up in made-up stuff – tell you is good and bad. Be happy, be good, be kind, be open-minded, and think of life not as giving, taking, and succeeding but as being for a while. Being you.

Enjoy.

All my love, always,
Mum

PS Please stop leaving the lid off the peanut butter

What’s Your Cup Size?


Mine is a short, wide, china cup, bought from the well-known supermarket that rhymes with ‘pains-worries.’ The cup is as wide as the top of a classic old-fashioned teacup but nice and broad all the way down instead of being cup-shaped. So perhaps it’s a mug…? It’s the perfect width for a teabag to move around in freely and also a good shape and size for a frothy coffee. China also seems to be perfect for herbal tea. This cup/mug is pale blue with swirly flower patterns. I’m a big fan of swirls, curls, twists and spiral shapes. It is also nice and light. I’m not fond of big chunky mugs. I seem to prefer a thin rim to drink from. The lovely wide handle is hand-huggable and I also like the fact that it is not too delicate or feminine. I do use other cups/mugs but this is my favourite. It suits me.

The diminishing acceptance for difference in our society is my biggy bugbear. I think about, write about, and discuss it a lot. I am reminded of it every day when I listen to news and discussion on the radio, watch TV, hear what my children have been doing at school…etc, etc… and I wonder what sort of future we are mapping out where everyone is put into boxes and made to fit, made to follow a certain route and made to suffocate their own individuality. I think if we worked on accepting difference more easily, loosening what we consider “normal” and “successful” and made childhood and schooling more varied and free then we would create naturally accepting and tolerant adults. I could go on and on and on for days and travel down many different avenues discussing this.

I think that if we could be easier with ourselves and stop trying to fit or all be the same then we could shorten the time we spent navel-gazing and get on with just being us. Limited goals, routes, criteria, set standards of achievement within life and education cannot possibly incorporate everyone who is genuinely useful in our society, and I wish we could get away from this feeling of one route to success.

I’m rather concerned about an emphasis on financial productiveness, labelling some school subjects as more worthwhile or important than others, and less support for arts and creativity coming from our current government, and suggestions in the media that some options are ‘soft’ or less valuable. People that have come away from school, with less so-called ‘academic’ subjects under their belt, are not broken, they do not need fixing. It’s about who they are.
Bright people within arts, media, literature, constructive jobs, catering, horticulture, farming, design, (feel free to add your own), make all those areas well-run, successful, and worthwhile to all.
In my opinion, it is an important aspect of human evolution that we all feel we have different skills, talents, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses and even habits. We don’t all need to be brilliant at maths, we don’t all need to play a musical instrument, we don’t all need to know how to raise and kill a chicken, we don’t all need to know how to design a building, plough a field, make a table, sew curtains, hold our breath for three minutes, gut a fish, chair a meeting, rescue people from a fire in an office block, teach science, split an atom, design an uplifting environment within a children’s hospital, write a book, (feel free to add your own). What we need is encouragement to go our own way so that there are people successfully doing all of those things.

I went the one-size-fits-all way in the eighties, and saw how many people it didn’t fit – including me. I was told what was considered academic and what not, what would make me look more successful and less successful. That route lead me straight to a job in a pub for three years. (Not that there’s anything wrong with people who work in pubs – I just stopped doing all the things that made me me in those years)

By the time I’d dusted myself down and started again I was thirty. By the time I was comfortable about who I am I was… errr…. Well, I’m getting there at 2 days away from forty-two.

The reason I am getting there is because I followed new routes, explored, experimented, experienced new ideas. I found out that it’s not a disaster – in fact it’s okay and very cool – to want to write, to want to learn, to want to be a quiet person.

Imagine if we were all competitive chicken-killing mathematicians with a fixation on financial success…

While I’m at it, I may as well mention again how worried I am about the Open University’s planned extortionate fee increases. I would be lost if I had to start my self-discovery now.

I think the government is getting education all wrong.

Support difference, you mugs!