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.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Treading Softly.

I sat down at school supper last night, feeling refreshed after a couple of hours off which I had spent in the gym with a friend, followed by a nice hot shower (not spent with the friend), only to be greeted by ‘Wow! Matron! You look ILL!’ from the child sat opposite me.

This is just one small example of the way in which childhood observations are differentiated from adult observations by the noticeable lack of tact. The small cranial filter that sits somewhere in between the place where the thought first occurs and the place where it is verbalised simply hasn’t developed yet. The result is brutal honesty. Having been working with children for five months now, I’ve begun to learn how to grow a thicker skin and let these comments role off my back, rather than racing to the nearest mirror to see if I need to invest in a facelift, or at least better makeup. Nevertheless it remains somewhat galling when children tell you how tired you look, considering it was often them who forced that state upon you in the first place. On one particular occasion, a very sweet little boy asked me how I’d slept the night before to which I cheerily replied, ‘Oh very well thank you, Fraser, it’s just never long enough though, is it?’
He looked at me, thoughtfully, for a moment before declaring,‘Yes, I can see that on your face’.

            Often I have to remind myself that the children are just as blunt with each other as they are with me. I have two girls in the house who are constantly falling out. Lizzie, who is a prodigiously intellectual child, is in possession of the brains of Einstein and – bless her – the social skills of a gnat. Kara is the opposite end of the spectrum, being much less intelligent, but still endowed with a remarkable talent for rubbing the other girls up the wrong way. I was in the habit of laying the blame at Kara’s door for their spats, until I had the proverbial ‘little chat’ with them both. I explained that life is so much easier if you seek to be nice to each other and encourage one another, rather than bickering and irritating each other. The cockles of my heart were warmed later that evening when I observed Kara trying to broach friendly conversationwith Lizzie. ‘My favourite kind of fish is a starfish, Lizzie. What’s your favourite kind of fish?’
The cockles of my heart were rapidly cooled to absolute zero as Lizzie, without raisng her head from thebook she was reading, replied, ‘Actually, Kara, a starfish isn’t, in fact, a fish. It’s an invertebrate.’

Correction, when it comes as bluntly as that, can be hard to take, but the manner in which it is delivered doesn’t necessarily negate the veracity of what’s being said. One of the constant battles of my life is not to take things – whether they be comments or actions – personally. Being told you’re wrong is a hard pill to swallow, even when it’s administered with the recommended spoonful of sugar, but it is all the more unpalatable when the sweetener is denied you. However, the choice remains you own. Will you allow the lack of sweetness to turn you sour, or will you take the rough with the smooth and enable yourself to learn something? Perhaps one of the most important lessons that can be learnt is how to be tactful yourself when found in a similar position. It is a wonderful gift to be able to correct and encourage people in the right direction without them even realising it has happened. 

Lizzie, whose imagination sometimes runs away with her, went through a brief stage of speaking to me,somewhat sarcastically, as if I was the Queen. I asked her to tidy her area, to which she replied, ‘Yes, oh great Matron’. On requesting that she make her bed, I was treated to a curtsy before she responded, ‘Of course, oh mighty Matron of all dorms.’ She once even addressed me as ‘Matron whose name will rumble down the ages’. As I once overheard another child asking my boss if Matron was one of her servants, this made quite a pleasant change from the way the children usually see me. Perhaps I let it go to my head. Maybe I began to see myself in a Cinderella role, my royal gentility unrecognisable under my Matron’s clothing? However, with the extreme lack of tact only a child could muster, Charlie soon brought me back down to earth with a bump by informing me, ‘You’re not a Princess, you’re just a Matron’. And that was the end of that.

True it may have been, but, to quote W.B. Yeats, I would advise you to tread softly young Charlie, for you tread upon my dreams…