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.