Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Where The Heart Is.

As I started to write this, I was sat halfway through the seemingly never-ending train journey down from Scotland to the south of England. If ever you wanted, as the song says, a thousand memories of heading home for Christmas, I could regale you with stories of the many eventful incidents, tedious delays and colourful characters that I’ve met over the past few years on this journey back and forth between north and south. For this trip, National Rail, in their infinite wisdom, had assigned me a seat usually reserved for a disabled person, in amongst the old ladies of the quiet carriage. When I politely asked the elderly lady adjacent to me if she wouldn’t mind if I moved her things from my seat in order for me to sit there, she became quite cross and wouldn’t let me take my reservation as I was ‘not an invalid’ and she might need the space to stretch her foot. I offered to sit elsewhere if it was going to upset her but unfortunately the train was so full I had to return to my original seat with a promise to her that she could keep her suitcase in my foot space in case she needed to stretch. She then proceeded to have several very loud conversations on her mobile phone, despite being reminded by the conductor that it was the quiet carriage.  Her phone calls were, however, very important, as she repeatedly reassured me. Personally I felt that the regular updates on the weather that she was giving her son could possibly have waited – especially as it seems to me that anyone who is so keen on observing the rules of the rails should also probably respect the quiet carriage.

It later turned out that she wasn’t even booked into the seat next to me and so, when the rightful owner of F9 got on at Derby, I had to help move her, her suitcase and her foot into several different seats until she finally settled. The journey rumbled on in this farcical manner with another old lady nearby forgetting which suitcase belonged to her, prompting a long delay at Birmingham whilst she instructed different National Rail employees to look for it. Unfortunately she told each one to look out for a suitcase of a different colour meaning it took rather a while – and one failed attempt by her to make off with someone else’s grey case – before the correct, navy blue case, was found. Usually I adore the elderly and their whimsical ways but in this instance I wanted to get my schoolmarm on and order them in my fiercest voice to pick a seat, pick a suitcase and stick with it! All in a long journey home…

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about home. Naturally in this season, people ask where you will be for Christmas and, without thinking, I reply, ‘Oh, I’m going home’. It’s true; I am heading home for Christmas, just as I have done every year since I was eleven. It’s what most people do towards the end of December. But what has puzzled me is what I really mean when I say this. Home, as a physical entity, isn’t so clear in my mind. This is partly because my Mother and Step-Father recently upped sticks and moved to the other side of England making this my first Christmas in our new house. Yet, if I’m honest, it probably hasn’t been clear where home is since my parents separated when I was about ten. ‘Home’, as I had always known it, broke in two and every year, regardless of which parent I was spending Christmas with, part of home was always missing. What’s more, since their separation, I’ve spent most of my life away from home; at boarding school, living in France, university, and now Edinburgh. I love these places which have often been the most stable constants in my life and so it seems odd to describe a place where I spend little more than a few weeks a year as home.

Every winter, as Christmas approaches, I'm aware of a mixture of guilt and sadness about this. Sadness as it feels like a certain set of co-ordinates are missing which I would otherwise use to locate myself and guilt in my knowledge that, despite all of this, I have far more of a home than many others. It is, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, as if I feel ‘homesick in {my} home’. Yet a couple of conversations with an older – and probably wiser, although he often hides it well – friend lifted me out of this. Firstly we reached a mutual agreement that Christmas, as a child of divorced parents, is rubbish. No more needed to be said on that subject. Then as we talked more about a real home and what that might look like, especially to those of us in our transitory twenties where residences shift like sand and there are few constant anchoring points, I came to three conclusions. The first is simple: that in order to feel at home I must practice gratitude for what I do have, being aware that it is only a shadow of things to come, a tent for me to live in whilst my real and lasting home is built. The second, paradoxically, is that I should not berate myself when the home I do have feels inadequate. Like a homing pigeon on the wing, I have an innate sense that I’ve not reached my destination yet and that there truly will be no place like home until I get there. If this is true, then the third thing that it leads me to remember is that home is not so much a physical building but something that I carry with me. Just like a snail, my home travels wherever I go: it is part of me. People talk of being a homemaker, but this feeling of at-home-ness is not one I have made myself. It is one that I have been generously given so that I might extend it to other strangers, pilgrims and any travellers lost upon their way.

Especially at Christmas, when I think about the reason why I am travelling home, enduring the tedium of the train journey, I am reminded of this hope which allows me to sing, somewhat tunelessly, with the illustrious Bono,

“Home...I don’t know where it is, but I know I’m going home”.

Photo credit: Sasha - in whose lovely presence I feel at home.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Living the Dream.

Onions and I have what you might term a love-hate relationship. Gently cooking in a pan, bathed in olive oil and crushed garlic, I’ll grant that they produce one of the most mouth-watering smells. Yet the necessary chopping that precedes this stage is, without doubt, my nemesis. I realise that I’m not the only person to tear up whilst slicing onions, but I know of few others who cry such genuine, large, snot-inducing drops, the kind that roll down your face and plop from your cheek onto the chopping board below. I was once sent out of Cookery class at school to pull myself together having cried to the point of sobbing whilst preparing onions to add to my pizza-pitta. I’ve tried most of the tricks and old housewives’ tips to stop the effect the little lachrymatory beggars have on me. I’ve held water in my mouth, chopped with my tongue sticking out and even nearly sliced fingers off attempting to cut through half-frozen onions. Nothing doing. Pride dictates that I’ve never quite reached the level of wearing swimming goggles to chop, but I do occasionally put my glasses on in the hope that they will form some sort of barrier between the onion gasses and my eyes. This, however, is as about as effective as wearing deeply unsexy old sweatpants as a contraceptive. It might slow the process down a tad, but when it comes to the crunch point they provide very little protection.

Sometimes, I kid myself that I don’t really need onions in my cooking. I lie to myself that they’re not that important. When was the last time you heard someone taste a dish and say, ‘Mmm, those onions are delicious’? Never. People comment on the meat, or the sauce or the herbs and spices. Onions go unnoticed. Unnoticed that is, until they’re missing and something tastes slightly bland. All the important bits are present, but there’s a base layer, a foundation that’s lacking. I could leave out the onions in my soups, bolognaises and tartiflettes in an attempt to grant my tear ducts some respite but it just wouldn’t quite be the same. 

I was talking to a friend recently and she mentioned how brave she thought I was, moving up to Edinburgh just as all the friends I used to know here moved away. She said she was in awe of the way I’m having to put myself out there and attend things on my own, pushing through those awkward but necessary first conversations. I was amazed to hear this from her. She’s just given up a secure job to set up her own business making wedding cakes, which has been a passion of hers for a long time. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to take such a risk, no matter how much I liked baking. Yet as we talked, and as I’ve walked around the city the last few days, I’ve become more and more aware that actually what we’re both doing is living out the desires of our hearts.

Before I moved up, I was both encouraged and surprised at the number of people who commented on how great it was that I was doing what I’d always dreamt of. In all the kerfuffle of applying to the university, finding a flat and securing a proper job, not to mention the nervous energy that coursed through me this summer as I prepared, I’d forgotten how much I’d wanted this. Not just to live in Edinburgh, but so many icing-on-the-cake added extras; studying at the university which was originally my first UCAS choice, taking lessons at the fantastic dance school with incredible views of the castle, eating in restaurants I’ve always wanted to try, becoming part of the church whose values I’ve found so inspiring as I’ve listened to their podcasts over the years. I can even go and stare into the eyes of my favourite Rembrandt self portrait on my lunch break if I choose. These desires were all placed in my heart a long time ago and they’re now coming to fruition.

So in answer to my friend, yes, it does take a lot of courage to do what I’m doing. I have to give myself little pep talks as I go to attend another new thing with the fear rattling around in my brain that I might not know anyone and find myself alone in the corner. Yet every time I push through that fear and force myself to do it anyway, I find the fear grows a little less demanding. In fact, it often transpires that it was completely unfounded. Like cooking with onions, I need to lay a foundation for my life here, no matter how uncomfortable that might feel at times, nor how much it might also make me want to cry. If I don’t, then my dreams will never be all I dreamt of, they’ll never have the same fullness of flavour. I take great comfort from this when I feel as if I’m drowning in a sea of small talk in this new place, or worry that it will never feel completely like home. Yet it will, and it will taste all the better if I follow the recipe properly and don't skip out the hard parts…

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Chasing Pavement.

When you move house everything is new. It takes a while to get your bearings, to work out where your nearest supermarket is, how you turn the new oven on, which transport to take around the city. One of the first things I do when I arrive in a new place is to work out some running routes. I hate to admit it, but I like to run. It gives me time to think, to rearrange my head. It also fills me with those good old happy chemicals, endorphins, which I like to think makes me a more pleasant person. In all honesty though, I run because it allows me to eat as much cake as I like.

When I first started running, it used to be more of a scuttle down the road under the cover of darkness so that no one could see me. Now that I’ve improved slightly and no longer resemble Phoebe’s infamous jogging scene in Friends, I’m getting bolder as I search out routes, seeking challenge rather than ease and anonymity. On arrival in Edinburgh, Arthur’s seat was calling to me through my window, laying down the gauntlet, defying me to attempt such a feat. The sun was shining and I hadn’t been for a run in a few days. I gave in, googled a rough route plan and pulled my grotty old trainers on.

All went well for the first 25 minutes, until I began to doubt that I was still on track. Eventually I gave up on my nice circular route and went back roughly the way I had come only to find out later that I had been on the right road and had come about seven tenths of the way before I turned around. Undeterred and ever the sucker for punishment I attempted the same circular route again the next day. This time I made it further before my doubts set in and I found myself wondering if I was lost.

I once knew of a chap who, on his study-abroad year, refused through stubborn pride to ask for directions to the local supermarket. In the end, he sat out on benches, watching for streams of people with carrier bags of groceries, before following the stream in reverse to find the store. I remember thinking how silly it was that he should let his pride stop him from asking for simple directions, but now I found myself in the same position. I’ll admit this was less due to pride and more through fear that my dulcet, almost-RP tones wouldn’t be so well received in the area of town I found myself in, but all the same I continued to run on with no idea as to which roads to take or when the end would be in sight.

Eventually inspiration struck as a bus drove past me that I knew would be stopping outside my flat. Surely we were travelling in the same direction? I began to run after the bus. Of course, this was a short-lived endeavour as busses travel significantly faster than me but I soon found that Edinburgh busses are frequent enough that it wasn’t long before another bus appeared on the same route. And so I spent the final ten minutes of what was now feeling like a marathon chasing after busses in a most unseemly manner in the hope that they would guide me home.

As I ran, I thought about life and how similar it feels sometimes. I know where I’m headed – home – but I often don’t know the route or how long it will take to get there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, it forces me to pace myself as I go, not knowing how long I need to keep going for. If I attempt a sprint finish thinking that the end is just around the corner, then I’m scuppered when it turns out that I still have several more blocks to go. Not knowing the way, or what might be around the next corner means I have to trust that some sort of direction will be provided in due time. It might not take me the whole way, but it will get me where I need for time being. 

Saturday, 1 June 2013

This I Swear.

Growing up, as I did, in a cloud of innocence, I held an unshakeable belief until about the age of 11 that the 'F-Word' was 'fart'. People talked of this elusive and illicit word beginning with ‘F’ and I, having been forbidden from using the word 'fart' by my mother who deemed it uncouth, put two and two together and came up with about 0.3.

This is sadly no longer the case. Just as the media love to trumpet the sad fact that children are becoming sexualised at a much younger age, so too are they exposed to verbal profanities far earlier on than I was. At first I was horrified at the words used by children, all of whom are under the age of ten, when they think I'm out of earshot. Now I have become more used to it and - dare I admit it - even find their childish use and understanding of adult words quite amusing.

My first experience of this came this time last year when I spent three days at the school shadowing the incumbent matron in order to learn the daily routine of the boarding house and meet some of the children before I started in September. One of the nights I spent there, my predecessor and I sat on the landing outside the girls’ dormitories waiting for them to settle down to sleep, when the tiny little face of one of the smallest Year Three girls appeared at the door.
‘Matron,’ she whispered, conspiratorially, ‘just thought you ought to know, Rosie swore...’ she paused before adding as an afterthought, ‘and said something that made Georgina cry.’
‘I see,’ said Matron, ‘and what was it she said?’
‘The C-Word,’ said our little informant, matter-of-factly.
I was taken aback. How could this possibly be? I hadn’t become acquainted with this most vulgar of terms until my mid-teenage years. Was a seven-year old standing before me, telling me that ten-year olds were bandying the word about as if it were any other common-or-garden playground insult?
Matron, from her years of experience, knew better though.
‘Do you mean the C-R-A-P word, sweetheart?’ she whispered back to the child, who took a moment to work out what had just been spelled out to her.
‘C-R-A-P?’ she spelled it off on her own fingers as she mouthed the letters, stringing them together into a word, ‘yes, yes, that was it.’
Crisis averted. Although stern words were, of course, had with Rosie.

One year on, I found myself in the same position. As we left the dining hall the other week, a little girl tugged on my hand and informed me quietly that one of the boys in the year above had used a swear word.
‘A least, I think it was a swearing word,’ she reflected.
My experience has taught me that what the children consider to be swear words can range from the most ugly insults to a simple ‘shut up’ or ‘buzz off’. The little girl in question was from a very well brought-up, polite family and she was often easily shocked by the behaviour of those around her. I decided to draw on the wisdom of the previous matron to determine the strength of the offence.
‘Is there any way you can tell me what he said without using the word itself? Do you think you could spell it for me?’
She nodded. I crouched down and she cupped her hands around my ear to whisper the vile utterance, as if even spelling it aloud could pollute the air around us.
‘B-I-R-C-H… I think.’

Oh dear. Repercussions would have to follow if he really had used the female-dog word. Yet a small part of me was relieved it was only that. Far worse would have been the outcry had his insult of choice been the unforgivable ‘F---  Y-E-W.’ 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Acronyms & Emer-gin-cies.

‘Who even needs ice-packs?’ the school librarian muttered to me as we tried to squeeze a tub of Ben & Jerry’s along with some ice cubes for our G&Ts into an already stuffed freezer compartment. Apparently children do. About every ten minutes if my experience this year is anything to go by.

When I was a child, an accidental whack on the head or a scraped knee was rubbed or kissed better. If it was very serious it might have merited a plaster. Protocol now dictates that any bump on the head must be iced regularly, no matter how insignificant it might seem. The result is that the children see ice packs as a chilly cure-all for any ailment. I was once asked for an ice pack by a little girl who had accidentally had her hair pulled at break time, whilst others have wanted plasters to go on bruises, or temperatures to be taken when they just feel a bit tired. The placebo effect is alive and well in the British boarding school system. As a doctor’s daughter I had to be dead on the doormat to even have a chance of a day off school, always being fed the lie that, if I had a go until lunchtime, ‘Mummy will come and pick you up if you still aren’t feeling well.’ At lunchtime, the response would come that it was now only a few hours until home time, so I could probably manage a bit longer. As such, I have limited patience for all this Drama Queenery regarding medical issues, even though the aforementioned protocol insists that I adhere to policy.

For the children, the Holy Grail of medical treatment is a trip to A&E. To those of such young years this is a mystical place which only features in the equation when even the adults think the malady might be serious. A few weeks ago, during the unseasonal spring gales that April brought with it this year, an incident with a falling cricket sightscreen merited an A&E dash for one of the little girls. As the adult who stayed behind with the remaining children, I was met with a barrage of questions from the youngsters.
‘What does the A stand for?’
‘What does the E stand for?’
‘Do you get your first visit free?’
‘No, Sweetie, thanks to the Labour government and the Beveridge report, you get every visit free!’

Despite the sightscreen’s best efforts, the injury turned out not to be serious or lasting yet the fascination with A&E remained tangible amongst the children for the next few days. Every bump, graze and snotty nose was presented to me with the hopeful question, ‘Do you think I need to go to A&E?’ Eventually the furore died down and both the children and I forgot about it until, a week later, one of the little girl looked at me and asked, ‘Matron do you need to go to AA?’
‘Oh help,’ thought I, ‘she’s found where I hide the gin.’

And then it dawned on me that she’d muddled her acronyms.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

A White Blank Page

I returned to school for the Trinity term to find an email waiting in my inbox wanting to know if I am ‘linked with anyone at present,’ in order to finalise invitations for the staff garden party at the end of the year. Although the email was profusely apologetic for the intrusion into my private life, I found myself strongly tempted to reply, ‘In this job? You must be joking!’ After all when would I meet other, likeminded, twenty-somethings? Between 9am-12pm on a Monday morning when I enjoy some time off whilst the rest of the normal world works? I also wondered how the school files such information: hopefully under S for Single, rather than N for No-Hopers? And, I pondered, how does one inform them of a change in ‘personal circumstances’? Or is the garden party really a big rouse, providing an annual cover under which it becomes acceptable for the school to update their current information on the staff’s private lives?

It turned out that my employers are not the only ones trying to marry me off like a Russian bride. On the children’s return, it wasn’t long before one of them enquired as to whether I had ‘managed to get married over the Easter Holidays yet?’ When I responded in the negative, a look of sympathy flashed across her eight-year-old face as she quietly filed me under L for Lost Cause. A great start to the term.

Interestingly, I’ve come to believe that the way each child greets me at the beginning of every term presents a microcosm of my overall relationship with each individual. In those first few fleeting moments I catch a glimpse of the way they really see me. Take, for example, the ten-year-old boy whose tennis ball I confiscated on the last day of the previous term, who responds to my cheery hello with a gruff, ‘Oh you’re still here’.
Tennis ball clearly not forgotten. Or there’s the incredibly bright little girl, suspected of being slightly further along the Aspergic spectrum than most, who exclaimed, ‘Oh, Matron, how marvellous to see you. Did you know they’ve found philosophical proof for the existence of God?’
Oh marvellous indeed. The absolute chart topper was Milly (of tortoise fame) who flung herself into my arms shrieking ‘My Matron!!’
As I hugged her close and told her how nice it was to have ‘my Milly’ back again, I suddenly realised that she isn’t, in fact, my Milly at all. At the end of the year, along with all the others that I’ve come to love, I’ll have to hand her back into both the far more capable hands of her parents as well as those of the next matron who replaces me. I tried, churlishly, to comfort myself with the thought that I also get to hand over those whom I perhaps haven’t developed quite such a natural depth of feeling for, but I felt that only put a negative spin on things.

As I came to contemplate leaving and all the things I would miss as I moved on to pastures new, I was assaulted by another email wanting to know what I was moving on to and where I would be living, so as to include the information in the trustees report. As I am still awaiting a decision on my Masters application I am unable to answer the former, whilst the staggered house-move currently being attempted by my parents leaves me, as the French would say, sans domicile fixé once I move out of my school accommodation. As a friend and I mulled over the hard facts of the case – that, as of July, I am unemployed, potentially homeless and without a life partner – she helpfully pointed out that I was in possession of all three of these things when I started work at the school. Once again, I found myself having to resist the temptation to reply with an email pointing out this fact so they can put that in their trustee report and smoke it, yet I feel that a negative spin is not the answer in this case either. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I see this set of circumstances as a blessing rather than something to bemoan. When I finish my job here, I give back what was never mine to keep and am handed a clean slate, a tabula raza if you will. With nothing to tie me to a certain place or profession the opportunities are endless. What’s more, the fact that I have no specific thing to prepare for or ‘look forward to’ means there is nothing to distract me from making the absolute most of my remaining time here, enjoying these last few precious weeks of being ‘their Matron’ and having them as ‘my children’.

You may, however, need to gently remind me that I filed all these thoughts under P for Positive in the week before half-term when the tennis ball has been re-confiscated and my philosophical facts pertaining to the existence of God quota has been filled to overflowing. My mental filing system often gets a bit muddled at that stage of term…

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Spills and Thrills.

Some things are never going to happen. One such thing is the completion of a whole mealtime without a child in my care spilling their drink. Honestly, it’s impossible. I remember being their age, when the knocking over of my beaker of orange juice was a rare but traumatic event. My parents would leap up from the dining table like scalded cats, trying to stem the flow with napkins, calling out in exasperated voices for someone to bring them a cloth. I would stand there uselessly, whilst they flapped about, waiting to see if their exasperation would develop into anger, or if, like the juice, it would ebb away as quickly as it had appeared. I now understand my parents’ frustration.

Some mealtimes the children don’t even make it out of the starting blocks as the obstacle course of the cafeteria serving area proves too much for them. The juice hits the floor before we’ve even sat down. Other times it’s the placing of the tray on the table that opens the floodgates and the liquid goes flying. Sometimes a mere cup of spilt milk doesn’t quite make the desired statement and so they’ll go the whole hog and spill the entire jug. My heart sinks every time I hear one of the children asking another to pass the milk for their cereal, or worse, observe them leaning precariously over another person in order to reach it for themselves. You know it’s not going to end well. On the odd occasion, I’ll make it through to the end of breakfast or supper with no juice-slicks in sight. Although calm and composed on the outside, inside I’m performing joyful cartwheels. At least, I am until the inevitable happens and someone trips and sends the dregs of their drink flying through the air on their way to the tray clearing point. The worst bit of it all is the way that the culprit will sit and stare blankly at the rapidly spreading patch of orange as if, by sheer force of will, they can stop it running over the table’s edge and dripping down to the bench below. Not for a moment does it cross their mind to do something about it. Oh no, that’s Matron’s job.

It’s got to the stage where I no longer naively hope for a spill-free breakfast. I’ve come to accept the ignominy of my daily trip to the paper towel dispenser as other staff share knowing smiles with me which, whilst expressing their sympathy, don’t quite serve to cover up their relief that they don’t look after the junior boarding house. Little do they know that I’m now running a scoring system: one point for a tray-spill as the damage is contained within the plastic edges of the tray. This increases to three points if the child manages to incorporate a plate-spill as well, thereby ruining their meal. Five points are awarded for an across-table-spill with an extra two points to be gained if it actually flows off the other side. There are ten points for an own-lap-spill and a generous fifteen for a neighbour’s-lap-bull’s-eye. The real Brucie-bonus comes with a whole-jug-spillage as this can often affect several other diners at once. I’m quite tempted to suggest it as an Olympic sport for Rio 2016. I already have the perfect team in mind to lead Britain to medal success.

The realisation is slowly dawning on me that another thing that is never going to happen is perfection. Up until recently, I laboured under the illusion that if I worked hard enough, prayed hard enough, loved hard enough, I could lead my boarding house into a brave new world where bickering ceased, bumped heads were a thing of the past and peace and harmony reigned uninterrupted. In my head, if I was there all the time for the children, nothing could go wrong. This, of course, proved rather tricky as omnipresence was never a strong point of mine. It also proved to be rather destructive as you simply can’t be all things to all people in all places. Attempting to do so doesn’t lead to peace and harmony but exhaustion and guilt. It also prevents the children learning for themselves. In the same way that giving them a sipper cup to prevent spillages - as I am sorely tempted to do on many an occasion – would really only prevent the children from learning how to drink normally, trying to be there to defuse arguments, intercept rogue footballs, and ensure fair play actually serves to impede the children’s ability to live and learn for themselves. Perfection isn’t available in this lifetime, but redemption is and so I’m learning, slowly (as ever!) to live more with a relaxed yet realistic reactive stance than in a perpetual state of neurotic pre-emptive perfectionism.

Brene Brown, a ‘researcher-story teller’, talks about the power of vulnerability. Her research prompted her to change her world-view from ‘Life’s messy, clean it up, organise it and put it into a tupperware box’ to one which accepts and even loves the glorious messiness of life. For me, letting go of my attempts at perfection makes me feel quite vulnerable and, worse, can cause me to fear that I’m leaving the children vulnerable and unprotected too. However, her words on the danger of attempting to perfect children ring challengingly true:
“When you hold those perfect little babies in your hands, our job is not to say, ‘Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect, make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what, you’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’ Show me a generation of kids raised like that and we’ll end a lot of the problems we see today.”

Last week, I came back into the boarding house after a couple of hours off to find Milly, one of our littlest girls, crawling around on her hands and knees with a large slab of cardboard box strapped to her back which she had fashioned into a tortoise shell. She desperately wanted to paint the cardboard so that it would look like a proper shell. I was reluctant. In my mind’s eye, I could see the whole project getting out of hand. Others would come into the room, see Milly painting and want to get involved. Their artistic vision for the tortoise shell might not match Milly’s and arguments would break out, never mind the increased possibility of spillage which several open pots of poster-paint and a jar of water for brush cleaning would bring about! I couldn’t stop her though and soon the aprons were on, the paints were out and the brushes were being wielded. I held my breath, waiting for trouble to descend. But it didn’t. Each child chose a section of the shell and covered it in their own design. The result was far from perfect, but it was beautiful. Milly was delighted with her amazing technicolour dream-shell and all ended far better than I could ever have imagined…

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Lose Some, Win Some

There are some situations in life which are, by their very nature, lose-lose. One that springs to mind is that of playing hangman with 7-10 year olds. A game where having the correct letters in the correct order is fairly fundamental can only present a minefield when attempted by those who grasp of the English language lies somewhere between the levels of beginner and intermediate. Some games never quite make it off the ground:
‘Do you want to go first, Sweetie?’
‘Yes, please! You can guess. The topic is films.’
‘Fab. Here’s the pen, off you go.’
‘How do you spell Ratatouille, Matron?’

Others make it further, yet require some creative guesswork on the part of the player to determine which particular film is being referred to. The Dark Knigt Rises was one particular little-known gem or, on another occasion, GR _N/UPS turned out to be Adam Sandler’s Gron Ups. This was confusing on two levels as not only was there only one space left for two letters, but my opponent had repeatedly reassured me that there were definitely no vowels(!) in the first word. A change of category doesn’t necessarily help matters. I found myself faced with a word from the animal category which, after several guesses, I’d managed to narrow down to _ I _ _ . It wasn’t ‘pigs’ as the letter P has already brought me one step closer to the hangman’s noose. With my life hanging in the balance I decided to try a little subtle questioning. ‘So it’s an animal? Definitely an animal?’
‘Yes, Matron.’
‘A real living one? Not an imaginary or extinct one?’
‘No, Matron. A real one.’
‘Hmm, a real, living animal with the letter ‘I’ in the middle. Can you give me a clue?’
‘It has wings and can fly.’
‘Ah I see, is the “animal” by any chance a bird…?’*

Amongst all these words and letters which have been flying around, the children found themselves in the middle of World Book Day. The aim of this venerable institution is to promote reading and the written word, all the more pertinent in the past decade since the advent of all these gadget-y, beep-y, flashy forms of entertainment that we struggle to drag them away from. The children were warned that they should have a book on their person at all times or risk incurring the wrath of the ‘Book Police’. The Head of English, flanked by a couple of other teachers dressed in police uniforms, performed spot-checks on the playground to ensure that all children were in possession of a book, could give a rough outline of its contents and were enjoying it. I took the two five year-old boys from the Pre-Prep School who I look after in the mornings over to meet the Book Police. Little Ben, once he’d got over his sheer terror at being in the presence of a real policeman (which was surprising considering his utter lack of respect for my authority – perhaps it’s time to invest in a helmet and truncheon?), threw himself wholeheartedly into the proceedings, asking me what would happen if the Book Police arrested you. I explained, very solemnly, that you would probably have to go to book prison. His eyes lit up. ‘Maybe my sister could go there? That would be amazing! And my parents too…then I could play on the Wii all the time!’
I can only be thankful that the Head of English wasn’t in earshot, given the enormous amount of effort and imagination he’d put in to giving books back their appeal. Further proof, if more was needed, that some situations are simply non-winnable.

When people ask me why I’m not staying on for a second year in a job I’m enjoying so much, I explain that I love the children I look after, and am so grateful for the wonderful people I work for and with, but try as I might, I just can’t love the lifestyle. Even the very word ‘lifestyle’ seems a bit of a misnomer, as style went out of the window around the same time that the Matron’s uniform entered my wardrobe, and any form of ‘life’ as commonly recognised by those in the 20-25 year-old bracket swiftly followed. In my darker moments, I’ve found myself muttering to myself that I’m looking forward to ‘getting my life back’ next year as if it were something I had lost or misplaced. This all seemed quite reasonable to me until I remembered that somebody somewhere had once said something about losing your life in order to find it.  Suddenly being stuck in those lose-lose situations didn’t seem quite so terrible after all…

*Since publishing this, a helpful person has informed me that birds are, in fact, a type of animal. This lie that I have clearly been living under is merely another reason why I always lose at hangman. 

Saturday, 2 March 2013

In and Out?

There are some principles in life that can generally be relied upon. They may not be hard and fast laws, but as a rule of thumb one can generally trust that what goes up must come down, what goes forth will come back and what goes in must come out. My belief in the latter, however, has been sorely tested this year.

One particular incident springs to mind when considering the reliability of this principle. It all started during breakfast when one of the little girls got up from her seat and started prancing around as if possessed of the proverbial ants in her pants, a pained look etched across her face. ‘Matron, Matron, I really have to go to the loo.’
I gave the required permission and she scuttled off. Ten minutes later the whole scenario repeated itself, at which I raised an eyebrow. When the curtain rose on the same drama a third time, I began to get suspicious.

Being equipped with a mere Art History degree I sought advice from someone further up the medical food chain, before quickly escorting the little girl over to the doctors. Having been instructed by the nurses that she would need to have drunk plenty beforehand in order to provide a urine sample, I took a water bottle with me. The nurses sent her off to the bathroom to provide her contribution. No joy. ‘Matron, I can't do a wee-wee in the cup.'
'Yes, you can, Sweetie. Just hold it underneath you as you go.'
‘Oh, oh, oh, but what if I miss it?’
‘You won’t, just give it another try.’

A minute later she reappeared, still unable to produce her pot of gold. By this stage I was unsure whether it was the suspected bladder infection itself, the pressure of having to aim at a target - a feat that does not come naturally to us girls (nor some boys for that matter…!) - or the sheer fact she'd already been to the loo three times during breakfast. Whichever the cause, it was time for me to provide a solution. And that, dear reader, is how I found myself crouched beside the loo, with a water bottle in one hand being directly administered to her mouth, and a plastic cup in the other hand, at the other end, hoping to catch the first fruits of the endeavour. Working on the afore stated principle that what goes in must eventually find its way out, I decided that the simplest plan of action was to treat the child as if she was a giant version of a Baby Wee-Wee doll. I don’t know if your childhood was blessed with one of these toys, but back in the good old days you simply squeezed the dinky toy bottle into the doll’s mouth, the water trickled down a concealed internal tube and then made its presence known at the other end. I am reliably informed by Google that, as with all our simple childhood pleasures, the Baby Wee-Wee has evolved and not only yelps at you when it needs to go, but is also now designed with much more “vividly” realised nether regions. In fact, I was horrified to find out that with one mutation of the Baby Wee-Wee, the Paul Drink&Wet, you are required to squeeze the tummy of the doll in order to produce the piddle. Do spare a thought for the poor real children of girls who were given that little number to play with when it comes to potty training time!

In my humble opinion the simplest toys are always the best, and in this instance I was proved right. Both you and the Child Protection authorities will be relieved to hear that no tummy pressing was required as the water squirted in at the top end did eventually make its way out of the bottom end and into the cup. However, I still can’t quite see the principle as infallible. Many will tell you that the extent to which you give or put in to an endeavour dictates how much you receive in dividends. Indeed, one of my mother’s favourite and oft-quoted maxims is that you reap what you sow, yet I’m learning that this doesn’t always naturally follow in quite the way I’d like it to. If I’m being truthful, I’ve found myself really quite disheartened on occasions where I’ve put a lot of time and effort into fun activities with the children only for none of them to appreciate it. There’s nothing that quite kills your inner warm and fuzzy feeling like a good whinging round of, ‘Why won’t you let us do it for longer?’, ‘How come he got a bigger slice?’, ‘Why do you never read us more than a chapter?’ I often think to myself that a simple “thank you” would suffice and my sense of well-being would be easily appeased, but a simple “thank you” is not always offered.

A friend recently recounted to me how he had helped a girl he knew only slightly move house. It ended up taking him far more time than he had anticipated and he admitted to me that, despite her effusive gratitude, he didn’t feel that the level of benefits received was anywhere near the amount of effort put in. This got me thinking that it must take more than registered thankfulness on the part of the beneficiary to make what we do in life feel worthwhile. In fact, it probably has nothing to do with the reaction of the beneficiary and everything to do with our own attitude to giving. If we take the Karma-esque view that we will receive in direct and obvious proportion to what we give, as soon as the benefits fail to materialise we will give up on the giving of ourselves. However, if we choose to find our cosy sense of inner satisfaction in the knowledge that what we did needed doing if the world is to be a better place, then perhaps we won’t be so disheartened when the world itself doesn’t recognise this.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Hold on, Hope.

Children are tenacious little critters.
Exhibit A:
7.38 a.m.
“Matron, I accidently got the wrong cereal and I really don’t like it so can I go and get some toast instead?”
“Why don’t you try and have a few bites of the cereal first for me? Just so it isn’t wasted. Then you can have some toast.”
“Oh but Matron, it’s really giving me a tummy ache.”
“Hmm, really? It’s just normal cereal, Poppet, I think you’ll survive a couple of mouthfuls.”
“But the sugar on it really makes my teeth hurt.” (Side note: Never have I ever heard of a child complaining that their cereal had too much sugar before.)
“Right, I see. Is there any part of your body that it’s not affecting?!”
“Well, actually, now you mention it, I do have a bit of a headache too…”
Needless to say, she got her toast eventually.

Exhibit B:
10.28 p.m.
Knock, Knock.
“Matron, I can’t sleep.”
“Oh dear, Sweetie. Why don’t you snuggle back down into bed and think about which Disney princess you’d like to be? Sometimes when you try too hard to fall asleep it can make it worse so it’s good to have something else to think about. Hope you get back to sleep soon. Night, night.”
11.36 p.m.
Knock, Knock.
“Matron, I still can’t sleep and I miss my Mummy.”
“I know you do, Lovely, but you’ll feel much better in the morning if you get a good night’s sleep. If you’ve thought all you can about Disney Princesses, why don’t you think about your top ten favourite animals. That should help take your mind off it, and you can tell me which ones you chose over breakfast. Sleep well, night, night.
12.25 a.m.
Knock, Knock.
“Matron, I still can’t sleep ‘cos I’ve got a song stuck in my head and it keeps going ‘round and ‘round…”
As you can imagine, I’ve had special training in getting songs out of children’s heads, so it was a good job she woke me up to tell me this.

My favourite incident of this childish ability to hold out against the odds happened at supper one evening. There’s a little boy in my boarding house who is in the fortunate position of being unbearably cute. He has a round little face, impeccable manners and a tiny Manchester United onesie to sleep in, the sight of which would melt the hardest heart of even the staunchest Manchester City supporter. This propensity for rotund cuteness has earned Jack the nickname of ‘The Bundle’ amongst us staff. He’s usually relatively quiet and doesn’t often volunteer conversation with adults. However, this supper time was different. Just beforehand I’d been tasked with the daunting prospect of rehearsing the National Anthem with the children ready for Remembrance Sunday. As I’m about as musical as a cow and the children can be unenthusiastic about House Prayers, I realised that, like the Americans in the Vietnam war, I was going to have to focus on winning hearts and minds, before I dropped the bomb on them. I sat down at supper in between Jack and Graham with a great big smile plastered across my face and said, with no small measure of forced eagerness, “Boys, you should be very excited as I have something super-fun planned for House Prayers this evening!”
            The Bundle dropped his fork in glee, “Great! Are we getting a dog?”
            “Er, no. Not quite.”
            “No, not that either.”
            “A dog and fireworks?”
            His hope simply refused to die. How could I tell him that it was just going to be a few strained verses of God Save the Queen?

People often talk about ‘holding on to hope’ when life goes pear-shaped. Everything from self-help books to inspirational fridge magnets implore us to hold to hope, Mumford & Sons amongst others have sung about it, and I have even heard the word ‘hope’ used as an acronym, standing for ‘Hold On, Pain Ends’. This is all very well, but what do you do when hope slips from your grasp? When the cords of the lifeline you were holding onto fray and split, what keeps you from drowning?

In seeking to answer these questions, it has become apparent that I, along with many others, have misunderstood the tenacity of hope. Although I have, thus far, lived a relatively charmed existence, occassionally I've found that neither cheesy mnemonics nor my own attempts to be positive really cut the mustard. It seems that it is only when things go utterly tits up and holding on to hope is no longer a possibility that we learn how tightly Hope is holding onto us. Just as a child may think it is holding on for dear life to its mother, you can be certain that the mother is holding on much more securely to the child. The child may be distracted and let go, or grow tired and loosen its grip, but the mother’s hold is sure and strong. So it is with hope. 

And so, when the big mean Matron in the boarding school of life has nothing to say but ‘no’ to your hopeful suggestions, don't exhaust yourself further by trying to hold on to the impossible. Trust that hope, like sand, will slip through your fingers if you try to grab it, but place your feet firmly upon it and you'll find that it can more than hold your weight.

Friday, 15 February 2013

A Valentine's Confession.

I'm going to let you into a secret. I love St Valentine's day. I know this isn't the customary position for one who is as single as I am, but I find something rather lovely in the sight of men strolling down the street clutching large bouquets of roses to present to the lady in their life. Feminists everywhere would be horrified, but being quite a traditionalist when it comes to courtship, I side with Helena from a Midsummer Night's Dream, 'We cannot fight for love as men may do, we should be woo'd and were not made to woo.' As such, men in possession of posies speaks to me of everything being right in the world, the natural order of romance being observed, and delighted wives and girlfriends being treated as they should be.

I do sometimes wonder, though, is this the only day of the year which these men bring flowers and appreciation to their women? Once the wooing is complete, do they continue to pursue the heart of their lady, or are the flowers that are brandished on February 14th the one perfunctory display of affection for the year? Considered in this light, Valentine's perhaps becomes the enemy of couples rather than singletons. If one romantic day a year is successfully observed then can one get off scot-free for the other 364, without so much as a whiff of a rose?

I spent some of Valentine's day this year with a good friend. We discussed the idea of love a lot: our friends who are in love with each other, past loves of our own, the reason why neither of us is in love with anyone at present. We came to the conclusion that he should tell the male race to stop being badly behaved, whilst I would inform my fair sex to be less complicated.

This, however, is a terrible conclusion. One which must be halted in its tracks before it spreads its poison further abroad. It allows both sexes to demonise the other and expect the worst from them, regardless of whether that is warranted or not. It is precisely this type of thinking which ruins my quiet joy on Valentines day, and causes me to cynically question whether these men have bought their bouquets in order to express to their girlfriends that they really love them, or as a disguised apology for being such a terrible boyfriend the rest of the time.

Working with children has taught me that if ever there was a false dichotomy between human nature and human behaviour, it is that of categorising other people. Human nature is such that no person is bad in their entirety, yet instinctively we box and label people as being either a 'goody' or a 'baddy' and treat them as such. Recently, the Year 4 girls have been at constant sixes and sevens with each other. Only the other week, an argument took place outside the door to my room, in which one impassioned little girl could be heard shouting, 'You'd rather be friends with HER, the NAUGHTIEST GIRL IN THE SCHOOL, than ME?'
I didn't even have to look outside to see who she was referring to, as I have the very same child labelled as the naughtiest girl in the school too. Since then I've had to stop and check myself to ensure that, despite her bad behaviour, I don't see this girl as being without good in her. Often I'm at risk of missing her redeeming qualities that, at times, shine far brighter than the label I've given her.

I'm no proponent of Eastern Mysticism but I think there's something to be said for the philosophy that in everything bad there must also be something of good. Perhaps it's time we stop categorising people, whether they're members of the opposite sex or badly behaved children, and instead make it our mission to seek out the good in everyone, however well disguised it may be. If we cease to label people and spend the time getting to know them instead, we may find a far richer and better world out there than we could have ever dared hope for.