Me and technology …

Saturday 16 January 2021

Is it only me, or are teenagers not the most tolerant as their mum tries to cling onto the rapid pace of technological change in the 21st century …

Okay, I’m not as quick or slick as anyone else in the house when it comes to texting, scrolling and scanning on the mobile phone. Admittedly, I can whirl around the electronic ether in bewildered circles trying to connect to a friend on Zoom. Yes, I do accept that my failure to ever load more than 2 songs onto the i-pod did, in fact, condemn us all to Robbie William’s ‘Candy and ‘Moves like Jagger‘ on endless repeat during one very long (and tense) car journey to Wales. But the palpable embarrassment, the eye rolling and the mocking laughter from my offspring really does not help. At my lowest, it make me feel old and flustered. And the irony is that I used to be pretty good. I was even whole school ICT trainer about 20 years ago! It was, if the truth be told, three maternity leaves, yes the arrival of the trio of doubters themselves, that threw me off course. By the time I made it back into the workplace, the world has moved on and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Most days I can see the funny side. Nonetheless, I resolve not to tell the teens about my electronic exploits at work…

My first major foray into the wonderful world of Microsoft Teams comes in November with the Year 11 Mocks. A week out from the start of our exams, thirty pupils are sent home to isolate and I take the decision to concurrently run mocks remotely for those not in school. Knowing that I’m not the most confident with new technology, I compensate by being over-prepared and arriving very early to start each session. And all runs smoothly. Numbers wax and wax further as ever-more covid cases hit pupil attendance, but I rise to the challenge. So much so that by the start of week 2, I become a bit blase and that is where things go a little pear-shaped.

It is a ‘double-mock’ day. English Lit runs like a dream and I allow myself the luxury of going to lunch, nonchalantly popping back with only 2 minutes to spare for the start of the Science exam. I find the Teams chat already a flurry of activity,

Miss we can’t get in; 10 of us are stuck in the lobby”

Has the exam started yet Miss – I’ve been trying to get in for 5 minutes?

To my horror, I find that I can’t get in either! Not only that, but I cannot even see the lobby! Battling rising panic, I tap out a reassuring reply.

Hi everyone. There’s problem at our end, Give me 5 minutes to work it out!

I hit the edit key and scour my invite like a crazed hawk trying to work out what has gone wrong. Then another message pops up

Where is everyone? Five of us are in an exam but Miss isn’t here? It does say ‘English’ though, not ‘Science’?”

I gaze in shock at the screen. Where on earth are … any of them? Could I go down in history as the first teacher ever to have pupils floating around lost in the electronic ether? By now I have over sixty pupils doing mocks at home, and, in increasing numbers, they all seem to join the chat with queries and questions. In the growing chaos, one poor trusting soul even types,

Don’t worry. Miss knows and is sorting it all out.”

Well she had more faith in me than I do at this moment!

And then suddenly, from somewhere, inspiration strikes. My strained eyes notice that I have sent the meeting invite out as a face-to face meeting. I click a button to switch it to ‘Teams Meeting’ and … boom, problem solved! Pupils’ face flood onto the screen. I instruct the famous five sitting in the English exam to leave their exam and re-join us in Science and we are ready to start. I smile, in glorious relief, at the gathered ranks and decide to dodge the blame,

The school wifi !” I fib , with a helpless shrug of the shoulders, “Thank you all for being so brilliant and hanging on . Anyway. Science. Have we all got our equipment ready …?”

Thereafter, I go back to arriving 20 minutes early for every exam.

One upside of my mock exam adventures is that when we do shift all lessons online, in response to, pupil cases, staff shortages and then Lockdown, I am feeling pretty confident, even proud of my middle-aged voyage on this steepest of learning curves. Until that is a message from a Year 10 pupil pops up at the Leadership Team meeting

Miss – why is tomorrow’s lesson at 5:30pm?”

Yikes! ” I confess “It should be at 2. I’ll change it now

OK Miss. Thanks -no probs

Well, on the bright side, at least my pupils are a lot kinder than my own children…

Home for the hols…

Tuesday  22 December 2020

One of the most shocking stories, in a weekend of dramatic news, is the closure of the Dover-Calais crossing which leave thousands of lorries and passengers stranded, for days, on British motorways. Closer to home, with Christmas only days away, it also fuels fears of food shortages on our supermarket shelves. Amidst reports of ‘panic-buying,  I contemplate the best time to brave the aisles for the annual yuletide shop. Someone else has other worries on their mind,

“Gosh – could it lead to an avocado shortage? That would be terrible!”  exclaims my Eldest.

I reel around. Prom-dress daughter splutters on her coffee. Small Boy is frozen, his cereal spoon midway to his mouth, then turns to stare too. My lovely daughter, just smiles at us all,

What? I’ve just got a great new recipe for smashed avocado and chilli…”

Yes, my first-born is back from University for the holidays!

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this first home-return. Several decades ago, I recall being an utter pain and, more currently, several witty articles warn parents to ‘brace’. But my girl has been an absolute delight. The old adage says that ‘education broadens the mind‘. Whilst some may challenge this, the recent interesting study by Jessika Golle of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, finding that it was not that University broadens minds, rather that work ‘narrows them‘, my daughter is noticeably more open minded…and not only in terms of her culinary choices! Her views on environmental issues, mental health and well-being, the value of money and so many more issues have all developed and deepened since she left our homestead 3 months ago. 

She also brings a refreshing independence into the house, which supports, rather than challenges my weariness and working hours. I arrive home to meals on the table. She does all her own washing.  She encourages the other two to be a little more self-sufficient. And all requests, to do any activity or meet anyone, are delivered with a courtesy and respect I find astonishing. Don’t get me wrong, we have always been close, but towards the end of Summer, she was clearly ready to strike out and make her own way in the world. And occasionally this lead to friction and resentment at having to follow someone else’s rules. Teenage brains are, after all, programmed to rebel in the important quest for independence (Blakemore et al)

So, whilst I steeled myself for a bumpy ride with student vacation number one, it has been a joy. My daughter seems completely at ease with herself and all of us. Is it meeting new people? Is it having a clear sense of purpose once more after the long months of Lockdown? Is it a reflection of her happiness with life? I am not sure. What I do know is that she lights up the day and that her visit is a huge boost for everyone in the house. The odd crazy food request… a quirk we can all accommodate!

With a smile, I add ‘avocados’ to my lengthy shopping list, accept my Eldest’s cheery offer to come with me and we head out together to re-stock the cupboards

Let’s hope those horrendously caught up in the chaos and gridlock at Dover make it home for Christmas too…

Give a little love …

Sunday 13 December 2020

You give a little love and it all comes back to you
La la la la la la la
…”

Bugsy Malone: Paul H. Williams

Looking back, I would probably highlight motherhood as, if not the first, then most definitely a significant induction into the the world of human kindness. As word spread of the arrival of my daughter, the gifts and small parcels flooded in, from all corners of the land. Friends and family, neighbours, the cleaner at work, the window cleaner, distant acquaintances of my parents and my in-laws parents … it just went on and on. I was utterly overwhelmed that so many should take the time and trouble to think of us. And into that same moment of dawning realisation, about how lovely most people actually are, came the sudden guilt about all the births I’d failed to mark with the thoughtfulness of a posted baby-grow or little pack of bibs. And I’ve tried my utmost to make amends every since. For that it the beauty of small acts of kindness; they spread!

Yes, the domino effect of thoughtfulness and goodwill is one of the unexpected joys of living, and in a miserable 2020, has seemed more important than ever. A couple of months ago, some of our neighbours were caught by ‘the virus’. I sent a text offering to do their shopping, whilst they endured isolation, and this week, upon hearing our news, they dropped in with bags of groceries and a tray of donuts. As we finally emerged back into the world this weekend, I wiped the sugar coated crumbs from my lips and made sure I offered to nip to ‘Big Tesco‘ for a workmate, who went down with corona a few days ago. And so the baton passes on.

Sometimes, I am humbled to say, these gestures have been far from ‘small’. In the bleakest moments of life; the death of my father, the breakdown of my marriage, the (thankfully small number of) serious crises for my children, the love and support of those around me has been so incredible, that I’ve often wondered that I’ll ever be able to repay them. Whilst I may always feel deeply indebted to some of my dearest friends, what I have been able to do, in honour of them, is this. When meeting others facing challenges or sorrows, I have now found the time and words to offer them the care and understanding I’ve been shown. And perhaps ‘passing on the baton’ is the best way to ‘repay’ my friends and family. Perhaps that’s why no act of kindness, be it small or large, is ever wasted…

Blinkin’ Technology..

Friday 13 November 2020

As we sink onto the sofa to enjoy Friday night’s takeaway, I feel a sense of harmony return to the household after a week of technological dramas …

The xbox is the first casualty, exiled to the boot of my car on Wednesday evening, as Small Boy, in obnoxiously rude mode, finally pushes me over the edge. My response, in trusty parent fashion, is to go for his most prized possession! He boldly eyeballs me to shrug this off, but his mood quickly blackens further. I leave him stabbing angrily at his homework on the PC and steel myself for a tense few days.

Next day, the Fifa 21 (for xbox) guys and I head out to work. A hectic morning only gets more frantic as I pop back to the office at break to discover that my work laptop is gone. The bag is there, the charger is there, the xbox (thank the Lord) is there but, mysteriously, the old battered computing machine is not.

A hasty retrace of many steps proves fruitless quest and I resolve to face the music and report it missing. (My files are all backed up and password protected, they do store a lot of data.) The boss mutters about; times being ‘hard‘ and ‘hungry kids in search of a quick bit of gear to sell’ . My work besties are less convinced,

I don’t mean to be rude Becky’ laughs one, ‘but this is you! You’ll have left it somewhere crazy!’

It’s a fair point and after asking the site staff to keep their ‘ears to the ground’, I carry on with the day.

At 2:30pm, as my Year 10 class are discovering the delights of the ‘magic multiplier’ in compound interest calculations, one of the cleaners sidles into the room looking excitedly conspiratorial.

A laptop … ” he hisses through his face-mask, “….has been seen in the Reprographics room’

And there I find it, sitting innocently on top of a photocopying machine. I apologise, thank all concerned and beat a rapid and sheepish retreat.

By the time I make it home, cook a meal, lock horns with an unrepentant son and devote 2 hours to some school work, I am exhausted. At 10:30 pm, one hand on the whisky bottle, I am poised to tune into ‘Corrie‘ on playback when a whirlwind of weeping hysteria bursts into the room. It’s Prom Dress Daughter, holding a very broken laptop in her shaking hands.

The screen – it’s all multicoloured. My EPQ! My History coursework! All my Lockdown lessons! My UCAS form! What am I going to do…?”

I try to think of something positive to say but we’ve all been there, sobbing in despair as years of our life’s work vanish into the electronic ether, before we finally learn to save and back up every thought, deed and word in least 3 different places. In frantic denial, we turn the sorry machine on and off endless times and scour the internet for crumbs of advice and salvation. At midnight I put in a call to the PC world help -line. The advisor only appears to be concerned with wriggling out of any warranty, joyfully informing us that a ‘screen mishap‘ is not covered. But when I do press him on the issue of rescuing the files he actually sounds confidently optimistic, outlining a plan involving, the laptop, a HDMI cable, the TV screen and a memory stick.

You can see the light of desperate hope in our eyes as we race around the house to gather the parts. If only one of us knew a how to hook the whole ensemble together? Well we may not … but we know a man who does! At half twelve, a dazed, groggy Small Boy is dragged from his bed into the lounge and in a matter of minutes his abandoned xbox cables now attach his sister’s laptop to the TV screen and … boom! We are in business. Hordes of files are triumphantly transferred to portable hard drives and any, indeed, functioning machine in the house. We are all ecstatic… and, moreover, a team once more.

No-one gets much sleep and the morning arrives far too soon, but before I head off to work again, I do find time to get the xbox out of the boot. And when I get home, my son gives me a hug and, with a smile, announces that curry (which he doesn’t like but knows is my favourite) is on its way. And so the week ends, all crises solved, olive branches exchanged and, for the moment at least, a happy homestead again …

6 months down…

Sunday 28 June 2020

Half the year has gone…

6 months down

January, February, March. It began so well. It began so eventfully. We got Boris the Gecko. We got University offers. My eldest turned 18. Small boy chose GCSEs, cemented his place on the Basketball team and got his first girlfriend. Prom dress daughter rehearsed for the college production, completed Duke of Edinburgh walks and dashed of brilliant essays on Kant, Hegel and Descartes. I played Beethoven and Bartok. I ran. I wrote…posts for this blog, posts for an American blog.

Then came Covid 19. And it all stopped. March became April became May became June. Suddenly, half the year was gone. Stalled. Vanished. Wiped out. That’s how it feels some mornings. On better days, I’d soften to ‘Different‘ – a chance to slow down and reconsider values and priorities.

Thinking back, I can still picture the final Friday I drove home from full-time, face-to-face work. I can recall how I felt, what was on the radio, who was in the house, what we ate … I can remember every detail. The next 14 weeks? That all becomes far hazier.

No, that’s not entirely fair. Whilst much of it is an indistinguishable blur, my very own version of Ground Hog Day made duller without Bill Murray, some events do stand out, and there is a common theme. The high points have been about people. Faces on the screen Zooming or WhatsApping or Skypeing in for a call. Faces on photos bringing memories from the past. Cheeky bank holiday wine with the neighbours and wonderful socially distanced beers in the park. Lockdown forced us to stop racing around to achieve our usual “important stuff “and, in the space, magical moments came from the time to listen properly to friends and family. Maybe I know them and appreciate them even better than before?

So have we been cheated out of life over the past quarter? I’ll confess, I still worry that we have. Because our “important stuff” still is incredibly important. I worry that the gaps; in learning, in opportunity, in personal growth, will be impossible to bridge and may have consequences for years to come for my lovely trio of teens. But maybe I am unduly pessimistic. The psychologist Maslow, would doubtless say so.

Maslow’s hierarchy of need

Near the base of Maslow’s pyramid is safety, the level Corona virus forced upon us as a nation. As we paused, did we find more time to value friends, family and relationships? Missing people. Missing company. Missing being together. It was undoubtedly the theme of countless radios debates and social media posts. If Maslow’s motivational theory is correct, it suggests that the personal accomplishments, that characterised the beginning of 2020, can drive us again but will only benefit from first tending to more fundamental foundations; recognising the human need to love and be loved.

It is an attractive notion. There will, in time be evidence too. Several studies have been commissioned to examine the effects of the UK Lockdown, including one, at Strathclyde University, focused on the positive aspects of staying at home. In the meantime, for my kids and for me, here’s hoping the optimists are right!

Did it…

Friday 31 January 2020

Another January draws to a close, but this is no ordinary opening slog of dark and dreary endurance. It is one where, just as I pause to proudly cheer “I did it!”, I find myself bowled with joy because my eldest really and truly ‘did it’! She went and got herself that University offer…

I did Dry January! Today I reach the end of a 31 day alcohol-holiday for my body. Tough times at first – bottles of white wine gleaming like exotic jewels of temptation on the supermarket shelves. Turning the key in the lock after a late night rehearsal but not relaxing with a glass of whisky. It all felt very dull. Was it worth the perseverance? Absolutely! From the middle of the month, I rediscovered a natural tiredness and slept like a baby most nights. And today, as I prepare to wave goodbye to total abstinence, my skin is clear, my stomach settled and water, how I crave H20, seems far more refreshing than … anything. Above all however, I have fallen a little bit in love with my clearer, fresher mind. This old brain won’t ever revive the glorious romps of my 20s, I know that, but without doubt, it is sharper and speedier this month than in the previous 5 years. Alcohol, yes it was difficult to give up, but for me, giving up fog-free thinking, now that will be impossible. I think my drinking habits are reformed for ever. “Eek!

Today also marks ‘done it’ for my course of antibiotics. My finger still looks pretty awful but it is usable again. I can write once more. I can turn on light switches. I can rummage for keys on my bag. And I can at long last, return to playing my oboe – hip hip hooray! But it doesn’t quite end there. This is Friday, which means that I ‘do’ a run! It’s a gruelling and windswept ordeal tonight, but my run buddy drags me around the muddy course. By the end, my mood is high; and it is about to go stratospheric.

I am just collapsing into my car when the mobile rings, it’s my eldest,

“Mum, Nottingham have given me an offer!!!”

Joy, pride, relief, incredulity, all these emotions and more flood the system. So much hard work, so much stress, so much waiting, but suddenly it all seems worth it. My girl, against all the odds, has ‘done it’, and she edges ever closer to her medicine dreams. I am completely over the moon. Forget your fizz and cocktails; this feels like a high that will never end.

So I bid you a fond farewell January 2020 … possibly the best January ever!!

Family meetings…

Sunday 12 January 2020

Small Boy slides into the kitchen, his face alight with excitement…and hope?

“Mum, can I have a corn snake for my birthday?

Well that’s a conversation stopper… at least for a moment! But we are all there. It is Sunday after all, the one day of the week when my culinary skills extend to breakfast. Prom-dress daughter breaks the silence with a simple ‘Whaaaat?’ My eldest starts Google-ing facts about corn snakes and their living habits. Small Boy waves pictures of ‘cute‘ snakes at us. I take a swig of my tea (wondering, not for the first time, why I thought Dry January was such a good idea) and soon something resembling a ‘family meeting’ is in full flow. But I think there may be a family out there that needs a meeting even more than we do today…

Although only one full week in, world events have seen 2020 explode into the annals. Australia continues to battle bush fires that have devastated the ecosystem on a terrifying scale. Tension between the USA and Iran, following the death of General Qasem Soleimani, has been intense and, at its height, the press did debate the likelihood of a third world war. In the UK however, the story that has dominated the news reels has been the decision of Harry and Meghan to ‘step back’ from their roles a senior members of the British royal family.

I am not a major ‘royalist’ but I do have a theory on the national fascination with The Windsors. To my mind, it stems from them being family. They do things that our familes do: they marry, they have babies, they get their first jobs, they celebrate landmark birthdays. The difference is that they do much of it publicly, with the ceremonial glamour and style that wealth and privilege afford. And in this light they become a family we all watch, discuss and debate (and because we all understand families, we all have something to say.) Is it a step to far to suggest that, for centuries, we have had our very own brand of the Kardashians in residence at Buckingham Palace?

More seriously, if we look back to the abdication of Edward 7th, less than 100 years ago, we see how rapidly the royal family have since adapted, reflecting the changing views of society on the family and other issues. Their role, in signalling acceptance of today’s more varied family unit is a really important one for me. The Queen, who has (nominally) ruled our land for 67 years, should also be admired for allowing the younger royals freedom to branch out and work on issue close to their own hearts. Princess Dianna shaking hands with an AIDS patient in the 1980s, Prince Harry more recently speaking out on mental health, both illustrate the power of the younger generation to challenge prejudice, to remove stigma and to make progress. Elizabeth 2nd is a true matriarch and I am sure she will be able to steer the family through their current dilemma, (which appears to be, an admittedly complex twist, on the age old problem of one son deciding that he doesn’t want to ‘join the family business’). In her long reign, the Queen must have dealt with far greater quandaries.

Could she spare some advice for me on the issue of the corn snake I wonder? My eldest announces that they ‘eat mice’. Prom-dress Daughter says ‘no way!’ I venture to ask if ‘any reptiles are vegetarians?’ Small Boy agrees to look into it and we head off to make some enquiries about non-mice-eating pets at the local pet store….

Christmas carols, Christmas chaos….

Monday 16 December 2019

The last few days have been a hectic mix of the familiar; traditional Christmas carols concerts, parties and drinks, with the unfamiliar and definitely less festive challenge of University interviews for my eldest.

Friday takes us to Yorkshire. The University grilling takes almost 3 hours. The drive home, along a flood hit M62 even longer. The alpha-mothers in the parent room, whose knowledge of UKCAT scores and entry criteria for every Medical school in the land is encyclopedic, have left me feeling like a total failure as a mum. I am agitated by the motorway queues and lane-closure confusion. And my lovely girl is clearly deflated by her interview. Nonetheless upon our return, she summons up the energy to don her party dress and step out for the evening, and I rally enough reserves to drive Prom-dress daughter to another social gathering and feed Small Boy, before heading gratefully to bed.

My eldest gets to sleep somewhat later than this. She is home not long after midnight. And I am sure of the time because she stumbles into my room upon her return, a little the worse for wear, switches on the light and slurrily gushes ,

I really, really love you mum!”

I reciprocate the sentiments, persuade her that now not the best time to go and visit her brother, and steer her off to bed.

To her credit, by 10am on Saturday morning, both she and Small-boy are at Victoria Station in Manchester to play 2 hours of Christmas carols and songs with their local band. Quite a few of my family gather to listen, over cheery cups of Costa coffee and a catch -up on the latest news. It’s a lovely event that stirs the heart and replenishes the seasonal community cheer. I stay in town for a number of afternoon/evening drinks with friends and, as Sunday dawns and my eldest and I now pack our bags for a trip to University interview number 3, I have only a mildly banging head to contend with. We hit the motorway again and are checking into our hotel by 5pm.

Our Monday interview starts at an astonishingly early 8am but again it is 3 hours before my eldest emerges. This one is ‘the worst yet’ and feeling pretty sad and despondent we slink back to the car and set the satnav for home. I feel that sickening terror that every parents knows of wondering how we will cope with the disappointment if all the hard work, and I’d make that 3 years of hard work, ends with rejection and the end of my daughter’s dreams. But today it takes me less time than usual to shift this paralyzing dread. Because… she is such an amazing, driven and talented girl. And that means lots of alternatives, lots of choices and lots of ways to have a bright and happy future. Hey, at least when she’s tipsy, my girl ‘really,really loves her mum‘, I’ll make sure of it !

Even if I hadn’t cheered myself up, back home the usual chaos is enough to distract anyone. Prom-dress daughter and Small Boy both have a Christmas concert to play in … at 6:30pm. In a last minute change of plan however, Small Boy has also been selected to make his debut on the school basketball team, in another venue…ending at 5:30pm. Fortunately it’s Monday. My mum arrives for piano lessons. We shelve these and she agrees instead to feed the girls and drop Prom-dress daughter at the concert hall. Without stopping for food, I head out to the basketball tournament to cheer on my tall, gangly bean of a boy. It just so happens that the venue for this sporting spectacle is about 3 minutes from my mum’s house…and I have a key. At the final claxon tolls, at 5:45 pm, I whisk him, off to mum’s. She is not there, because … you’ve got it … she is at my house! Small Boy changes with the speed of Clark Kent himself, I thrust 2 packets of crisps and a bottle of Lucozade at him and we speed off to the concert.

We arrive with moment to spare. Small Boy’s grinning face races off to take his place in the orchestra. Prom-dress daughter, already in situ, gives us a smirk and a wave. I sink gratefully into my seat and the carols begin. ‘Silent Night‘ … how lovely … and if only….