Monday, 24 December 2012

The Giving of Gifts...or the Gift of Giving?

'Tis the night before Christmas,
And all through the house, 
In my largely heathen family, little attention will be paid to, or gratitude felt for, the greatest gift of all this Christmas. The main preoccupation is presents of a more tangible nature, which can be felt and squished and poked as they lay tantalisingly, yet verboten, under the tree. 

If I'm honest with myself, I'm pretty excited about the presents too. I tell myself that I hate the commercialism of Christmas, which I do, yet in reality I'm not adverse to the fringe benefits that come with it. I enjoy fondling the packages in the run-up to Christmas day, trying to work out what lies underneath the thin, crispy wrapping paper, regardless of whether they're intended for me or not, and I relish even more the tearing off of the thin, crispy wrapping paper to get to the good inside.

My mother tells me it was ever thus. The idea of Father Christmas always held such a fascination for me that I was endlessly trying to get to the bottom of the mystery. Here was a man who brought me more presents than the rest of my relatives put together, yet didn't require a thank you note. This was too good to be true. I set my first test for him at the age of five. No attempts to film or capture him for me, I waged my warfare on a far more psychological level. I asked him for the one toy my mother told me she would never buy me, as she deemed it far too vulgar and tacky: a My Little Pony. Lo and behold on Christmas Day, a My Little Pony appeared in my stocking. Not just any My Little Pony but a My Little Pony Princess! In going against her ideals of motherhood and good taste, my mother had bought my silence for a good few more years. So convinced was I, that the next year I made a Birthday card for Jesus which I left by the chimney for Father Christmas to deliver. After all, Royal Mail might do next day delivery but they don't offer a magical flying service.

There was only the odd wobble in the years that followed, such as the Christmas morning when I innocently pointed out that it was odd that Father Christmas should use exactly the same wrapping paper as we did at home. I mean, who knew that the North Pole stocked the same stuff as WH Smith's? After that there was a very clear distinction between Mummy's wrapping paper and Father Christmas's wrapping paper.

If that wasn't enough for my mother to juggle, my insatiable desire for presents caused problems for the rest of the family too. One year, I simply refused to go to sleep - not because I was seeking further proof of the elusive St Nick, but due to my extreme excitement about the presents that awaited me the next day. My poor frazzled mother was desperate to go to bed herself but unable to creep into my room to leave our stockings at the end of my bed, as was our tradition. In despair, she eventually left our stockings by the fireplace instead and crawled into bed, only to be awakened a few hours later by a thump, thump, THUMP. On investigation, she found my little brother, thumb in mouth, whacking himself repeatedly against the side of his bed with a disconsolate look on his face. 'Father Christmas hasn't b-b-been,' he sobbed, pointing at the stocking-less foot of his bed, where he expected the stocking to be. As this story comes up every Christmas I'm not sure if my mum, or my brother (now aged 21) have ever quite forgiven me. 

In my defence, I do also love giving presents. Particularly when you know that you have just the thing for that person. There, the anticipation of the gift being opened is far greater than being the receiving party. I experienced this from the other end recently during our Boarding House Secret Santa at school. All the children and staff take part, with a £2 limit. I worked out pretty quickly who'd got me as one little girl kept trying - unsuccessfully - to ask me subtle questions. 'Matron, what kind of things would you like your secret Santa to get you?', 'Matron, will you want to know who your Secret Santa was after you open the present?', 'Matron, do you like knowing what your present is before you open it?' She was clearly dying to tell me what she'd got me.

An hour or so before we were all due to open our presents, she turned round to me and asked archly 'Matron, what's your favourite hair colour?' 
It all fell into place. We'd taken all the children Christmas shopping the day before to choose their presents and I'd seen the girls cooing over some violently pink clip-in hair extensions. I wasn't sure how they would look in my reddy-auburn hair, but forewarned is forearmed and I prepared myself to squeal delightedly as I opened them. When it came to giving out presents I was handed a box, rather than the long, thin flexible package I was expecting. Nonplussed I peeled off the wrapping as the children watched. Inside was not the clip-in pink tresses I'd been expecting, but this...
Happy Christmas. Now Change.

I remain unsure as to whether this was fully intended as a joke, or whether the child genuinely believed that the best gift she could give me was an end to my redheaded locks. Maybe it's just to cover all the grey hairs the children seem to be giving me! Whatever her reasoning, she was definitely more blessed in her excitement at giving than I was in my receiving. However, I thought I'd pass on the blessing by, hopefully, giving you a good chortle this Christmas Eve. Wherever you are and whoever you're with, may your Christmas be overflowing with blessings, whether given or received, material or spiritual, expected or unexpected...

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Eeeuuww Matron!!

WARNING: Not to be read by the faint-hearted, the squeamish, or those eating supper. (Especially if it's risotto). 

 People’s response, on discovering that I’m spending this year working as a Matron is invariably the same: ‘Ooooh Matron!’ The words of the classic line from the Carry On films roll seductively off the tongue, the suggestion being that working as a Matron has a titillating quality to it. It would be rather irritating if it weren’t so amusing that titillation couldn’t be further from the truth. Being one of a few people contractually obligated to clean up vomit isn’t as hot as you might think, whilst dealing with nits, worms and snotty noses also successfully puts a reasonably sized dent in your sex appeal.

            Before I started, I knew that such treats were bound to await me, but what I hadn’t bargained for was the sheer amount of poo I was going to have to deal with. My first encounter with the brown stuff occurred at a theme park where we had taken the boarding pupils for a weekend trip. We started off on the more gentle rides, before moving on to the dizzying heights of the Ben 10 rollercoaster. As we skipped merrily from there towards the swinging Pirate Ship, one of the little girls nonchalantly informed me, ‘Matron, I think I pooed my pants on that last ride’. The tone of voice in which it was delivered threw me and for a moment I was unsure as to whether this was just a vulgar way of expressing how petrifying the Ben 10 ride had been, or whether she was casually letting me know that she had just defecated in her underwear. Considering the first was unlikely, I quickly realised it must be the latter. If I was one for hashtagging, I’d sum the situation up as #no1thingyouneverwanttohearatathemepark.

            I naively believed that this was just a one-off and that, in dealing with this incident, I had now paid my dues where excrement was concerned. Wrong. Later in the term, a confused looking child informed me that she kept ‘doing wees out of my bum’. Others had more eloquent ways of expressing the sensation of diarrhoea, with one child cheerfully telling me that her most recent poo had been ‘like risotto’. Cue a pause whilst I mentally removed said rice-based dish from my list of favourite meals, before donning the rubber gloves. Then there was the case of the phantom poo-er in the boys changing rooms. I just happened to be the lucky matron on call when the summons came, and so it fell to me to clean it up from the floor. The culprit was never discovered.

            I tell you these stories, not with a view to gaining your sympathies, or in order to paint myself as a saint who tirelessly deals with these things on a daily basis. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that any reward stored up for me in heaven is long gone, so much have I moaned to my colleagues that this kind of thing never happens when they are the matron on call. No, I tell you these stories partly because it is good to laugh about them, even if one does feel like a teenage boy chortling at flatulence, but more because in the past few days I’ve been struck by how far people will go for the children in their care. We’ve all heard how several of the teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school died attempting to shield their pupils from a gunman. I can’t help but ask myself whether that would be my instant reaction should one of the children I look after be under threat. I hope to goodness it would be.

            The writer and teacher Oswald Chambers often stressed the point that the human spirit was remarkably well equipped to deal with crises, but that it took a far greater measure of grace to live well in the drudgery of everyday life. From my point of view, I can’t see the sacrifices of the teachers of Sandy Hook as anything but enormous acts of grace and selflessness, but I am aware that we are not all put in that position. We are, however, daily given opportunities to choose to become small and live in the service of others. I can’t help but believe that if we live in this way whenever we can, being disciplined in the minutiae of life, we train our minds and our hearts to more readily take the self-sacrificing position of the Sandy Hook teachers.

After all, if I can’t cheerfully wipe a few middle class bottoms, how can I begin to claim that I would lay down my life for a cause greater than myself? 

Friday, 7 December 2012

Questions and Answers

I get asked a lot of questions in this job. They range from the banal and repetitive - 'Matron,where are my games socks?' - to the amusing; 'Matron, are you thirty-six?' 'Matron, are you married?' 'Matron, are you in love with Mr {insert name of male teacher they've most recently seen me talking to}?' 'Matron, do you have babies?' 'Matron, does your family live in your room?'

Sometimes it's tempting to go along with their overactive imaginations. 'Why yes, children, I am in fact nearly forty and married, but currently having an affairwith the music teacher. I keep our illegitimate babies in the laundry cupboard as there's just not enough space in my single room accommodation.' It would certainly give them something to think about and possibly stop their questions for a while.

I have, however, noticed a common thread in these questions. The children seem to think I'm a grown up. Goodness only knows where they got this mad idea from, as it's certainly not one that I've promoted! In fact, even after a term here, when things go wrong my natural instinct is still to go and find a responsible adult in the hope that they might sort it out. My heart sinks every time when I remember that, to all intents and purposes, I am said responsible adult.

Being mistaken for a grown-up takes some getting used to. There are perks obviously, such as cutting in at the front of the lunch line and crossing the hallowed threshold of the staff room to find out what really goes on behind the door (it’s all rather disappointing, for those of you who were wondering – although there are often biscuits!) However,the role of responsible adult comes with some pitfalls, the main being responsibility for oneself. What am I going to do next year? The year after? For the rest of my life? Who’s going to take care of me when things go wrong? Who’s going to answer all of my questions?

This was highlighted to me a couple of days ago when one of my youngest girls piped upout of nowhere, ‘Matron, who are you going to marry?’
Did I detect a note of despair in her voice? I wasn’t sure. I considered my response carefully. ‘Do you know, I’m not actually sure. Who do you think I should marry?’
After all, every good Rabbi answers a question with another question. However she was undeterred. Without missing a beat, or even looking up from what she was doing, the child replied, ‘David Beckham.’
‘Hmm,’ said I, ‘I’m afraid he’s already married, Sweetie. Plus he’s a little too old for me.’
‘Justin Beiber then,’ was the instant proffered solution.
‘Perhaps a little too young?’
At this point my young charge put down her sewing and gazed knowingly at me.
‘Yes, I suppose you really do need someone in their late twenties or early thirties, don’t you?’
Problem solved.

I was glad that one was settled, but it got me thinking firstly about how life as a child is simple. Thought processes come in either black or white: there are no shades of grey. Secondly, it made me realise that often I want my life to be like that conversation. I want instant answers along with the assurance that, if I don’t like the response I’m given, I can ask again and again until I get a reply that is more to my liking. Yet I know it doesn’t work like that and that my questions are quite likely to be met with silence until it’s good for me to know the answers.

In all of this the key is to remember that, whilst I may be cunningly disguised as a responsible adult, I am in many ways still a child. A child, no less, of one who tells me not to worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. For who by worrying can add any more enjoyment to the blessings that already surround them? 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Waiting for Christmas...

A few weeks ago, this appeared on my boarding house prayer board, written by one of the children...

Of course this is childish innocence and it did make me giggle. Everyone remembers the endless wait for Christmas morning, wishing the day, and the presents that come with it, would come faster. I was the same as a child, but as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to really dislike the earlier and earlier start to Christmas. I shudder when I see mince pies in October – or was it September this year? – and November Christmas music in shops makes me want to cover my ears and shout ‘LA LA LAAAA’ loudly to block it out, as I run from the establishment to take my custom elsewhere. 

I know what you’re thinking. ‘She is, in fact, Scrooge incarnate. Or perhaps the Grinch who stole Christmas. Where does she get her make up from to hide her green skin?’ However, none of this is because I hate Christmas: it’s because I love Advent. Advent is one of my favourite times of the year and it saddens me to see it subsumed in the headlong, glittering rush for Christmas day.

I fully understand why this Christmas mania occurs. In our Northern hemisphere, the period around Christmas is dark. Dark, dreary and cold. Christmas offers light and joy and warmth at a time of year when these seem to have died under a sharp frost, but in trying to artificially manufacture these qualities before their due time, we lose the poignancy and quiet hopefulness of Advent.

Advent, which means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’ particularly of one who is expected, is the time of year when we remember the seemingly endless 400 year wait of the Jewish people for the promised Messiah. For those who trusted in God, they must have been long, dark years. The prophets had ceased to speak and even God Himself seemed to have fallen silent. During Advent, we remember the wait for the Messiah and are reminded that we ourselves must also wait on God. Wait for answers to prayer, wait for sorrow to be replaced by joy, wait for light to shine in the darkness. When we give in to the instant gratification of Christmas sparkle before the fullness of time, we forget how to wait on a God who has promised to shine His light into our darkness and chase it away, if only we will let Him.