Sometimes you deserve a treat …

Saturday 25 September 2021

I did set out to have a dry month but, as I finish another demanding week of September 2021, I am dreaming of a G &T, a Sicilian lemon flavoured shot of deliciousness … and I decided to indulge and feel not a second or remorse. No, I think I deserve it! And here is why:

1) I survive teaching GCSE Spanish (in addition to my usual mathematics)

A deluge of staff having to take their own children for PCR tests, causes the teacher absence rate to rises rapidly and allows the dreaded “rarely cover” to re-appear on timetables. And so it is that I find myself directed, for a double lesson of Year 10 Spanish last thing on a Friday afternoon.

Now I have never learned Spanish, however, back in 2018 when I helped my Eldest revise for her GCSE Spanish speaking test, she put me through such a relentless schedule of practice that by the end, not only was she ready to shine but I reckon that I could also have scraped a respectable grade 3! So, I get off to a confident start in the classroom,

Wow miss, you actually sound as if you are Spanish!”

one pupils observes, as a I navigate through an opening activity with aplomb. Alas, as we get deeper into our translation skills my limitations become only too apparent. When I try to help one puzzled pupil by suggesting that “Enrique’s favourite activity is taking photos of a sacred family?” a very lovely, and linguistically able girl, calls me over and whispers “Miss, it’s The Sagrada Familia, a very famous church in Barcelona.” She then gives me a little shrug, as if to say, ‘Should we tell the rest of the class?’

Of course we should! I call the group together to look at pictures of Gaudi’s basilica, I throw in the tale of my friend and I being mugged in Las Ramblas, when I actually visited Barcelona in the late 80s, as several hands shoot up, I hear several other holiday and passport disasters. Thereafter it is agreed that, if other self-help strategies fail as we work through our questions, (familiar vocab; cognates, dictionary, working partner) and we need to ‘ask an expert’ that the expert is clearly not me, but rather several nominated pupils dotted about the room.

2) I converse civilly with the local anti-vaxers

As covid vaccination is now rolled out nationally to the under 16’s, this protest group, with noise, banners and pamphlets, migrate to the locality of English high schools. Our Head handles it really well. After conferring with local school leaders and hearing the cautionary tale of Headteacher who sent out the Senior Leadership Team en masse, whereupon they became embroiled in the confusion and, in the local media coverage, were presented as being part of the protest, we are far more low key. We are sent individually to politely greet any anti-vaxers we encounter, recognising their right to opinion and protest but gently reminding them not to put leaflets into pupils’ bags without their consent, nor to attempt to stop pupils who just want to get into the school building without talking to them. So far, so good… but I think this addition to our work duties may well last beyond the end of this calendar month!

3) I complete my ’60 running miles in September’

Gosh; so much harder than my January, ‘run at least a mile a day‘ quest. To keep up to date, I aim for 2 miles per day but, I discover that this means finding close to 20 minutes of daily ‘me-time’ and in September 2021, this has been a tough ask. So I push myself to finish early, with some longer weekend jogs, and feel overjoyed as the Strava clock tells me I’ve made it. I am full of relief to be free of the relentless demands of finding the time and route for a suitable 2 miler … as is my very sore right ankle. On the upside; I do feel good and pretty proud, plus all my pre-covid work clothes now fit me again. Who knows; by next week, where a staff social has made its way onto the calendar, I think there may be a fighting a chance that I’ll be able to fasten up my little black party dress too!

4) We make 4 journeys to the vets

Poor Boris has really struggled in September 2021 and is still not cured. We have now: clocked up over 80 miles of driving to and from the exotic pet specialists; spent over 10 hours, stuck in rush hour traffic, waiting in car parks or consulting with vets; administered many eye drops and other medicine and endured many many days feeling anxious and worried as he continues to look troubled and out of sorts.

5) I have missed first 1 and now 2 uni-girls for 23 days and only told them so once … or maybe twice

Yes, probably the biggest challenge of the whole month has been adjusting to life with two of the squad living in other cities….and that is a mission I’m definitely a long way from fully accomplishing but at least I’ve mostly managed to sound bright and breezy on our calls.

So all in all…I think I deserve a little tipple and in fact it is amazing that I made it this far without a small reward. But let’s not stop with me. Look back at your September, I’ll bet you’ll find plenty of reasons to treat yourself too!!

And then there were two…

Sunday 19 September 2021

There is another empty room now at our house, as Prom Dress Daughter heads to University in Edinburgh.

We actually drove her there a week ago and it was quite a drive. My Eldest hopped in at Newcastle to lend sisterly support. We all stayed over at a hotel in the Scottish capital. And, after helping to unpack, do a food shop, try to fathom the wifi, and hug out an emotional goodbye, we delivered my first born back to the North East, navigated around the Great North Run and my son and I finally pulled back onto the drive at 7pm; a full 34 hours after leaving.

So, I hear you wonder,

How does it feel?’ 

How does it feel to be just two… or three if you count our gecko? How does it feel to look at half emptied wardrobes and shelves with missing ornaments? How does it feel to wonder how our girl is coping: in a new flat, in a new city, in a whole new learning environment? Well I have to confess that for the first few days we are too exhausted and drained to feel anything. The new week cruelly dawns, after very little sleep or rest, and is a punishing game of catch-up: supermarket sweeps, frantic washing and ironing, and late night work prep. Then comes fraught back-to-back vets trips, as poor Boris continues to struggle and my days last from 6am to 8pm, before we can even think about food or … sitting down.

But eventually the weekend arrives. Saturday is a back breaking assault upon a house that looks as if a bomb has hit it. And Sunday … well Sunday is the day when I briefly allow everything to hit me. I am shuffling despondently around the supermarket with only half my trolley full, thinking ‘What on earth do I even buy?‘ and ‘How do you shop for only two?’ when a wave of sadness hits me and the tears begin to fall. I am tired, I am stressed and…I miss my girls, I miss the old certainties of family life

What a forlorn site I must look. Other shoppers avoid eye contact and push their trolleys past, with grim tunnel vision and all the speed those wobbly wheels will muster. Do I feel isolated? Unimportant? Uncared for? Possibly; it is certainly a moment when I wish I had a partner to turn to; someone to understand, to hear me, to pour a glass of wine. But I don’t. I am a single parent and I need to get it together. I have the magnificent Small Boy in the house, who doesn’t need a miserable mum moping about the place, rather deserves me to listen and prioritise his worries, concerns and plans for the weeks ahead. I take a deep breath, wipe my face on my sleeve, pull my mask a little higher and head to the checkout

Back home, however,it is that same Small Boy who comes bundling out of the front door, brushing aside my request for ‘help with the shopping‘ and instead waving a phone under my nose. I quickly see why… it’s a WhatApp group call with two very familiar faces beaming from the screen.

“Hi Mum – how are you?

Isolated? Unimportant? Uncared for…. maybe not after all; maybe just needing time to adapt to change? I just think it will take me quite a while to get used to my new normal ….

The IKEA uni shop…

Friday 13 August 2021

As I went into labour with my second child, 18 years ago, I do recall thinking.

Arghhh …. now I remember how much this hurts! Where’s my epidural?

And this week, as Prom-dress daughter gleefully drags me off to the aisles of IKEA for her ‘Uni shop’, I get a similar flashback to … can I say the pain… of my visit here last year, when my Eldest child also stocked up on her accommodation essentials.

Well, if not pain, it’s certainly a financial shock to the system! If we rewind the clocks back to 1980s, when I headed off to Higher Education, I pretty much took a few spare mugs and pans from my mum’s kitchen and the quilt from my bed. Not the case anymore … at least not in our house! It’s colour co-ordinated crockery, plastic plants, gin glasses, storage boxes and … and on and on it goes. One hour in and our trolley is stacked high, dangerously swaying and cheekily chinking and tinkling as we totter through the delights of the IKEA ‘Market Place’. None of it is particularly expensive but, as my mental calculator goes into over drive, it all adds up, and I find myself fighting the urge to grab one of the giant gin globes and pour myself a stiff drink!

I also have an emotional jolt, exactly as I did one year ago. As we are rummaging through the racks of bath mats and towels, my daughter’s face animated and happy, it suddenly hits me. Her excitement and haul of goods are not about her bedroom at my house. No, these are the trappings for a new room and a new life far, far away. Momentarily, my heart drops into my shoes and I have to fix a grin determinedly on my face and use every ounce of effort to stop myself shouting out,

I don’t want you to go…”

Because in that second I really don’t. What I want is for time just to pause for a while. I want a few more weeks of my trusty trio all back home, watching trash TV, laughing at in-jokes, sharing nonsense into the WhatsApp group. But, I am proud to report that, in trusty mum style, I pull myself together, for of course, it is not what any of us reallydesire. It is simply that change is difficult and sometimes painful.

Maybe too, I am also over exhausted with all this shopping! Yes, there are further things that are aching … my head, which is completely zonked and my feet which are screaming “Heels, today! Really?” To revive our tired legs and frazzled brains, we stop for coffee and review our progress. Prom-dress daughter works briskly through her pre-prepared list and cheerfully informs me that,

It will probably take another shop to tick off all the ‘essentials’

Well one the bright side, that is not for today. We hit the motorway and collapse at home with a chippy tea and some very large gins in the new glasses. Alcohol… possibly the epidural to get me through the next few weeks …

Exam Results 2021 …let’s make it about the pupils

Monday 9 August 2021

It’s the eve of A level Results day in England, with GCSEs following, hot on their heels. Always a tense time for so many pupils and parents but: throw in 18 months of  covid-chaos in our educational establishments; toss in the word ‘ teacher assessed grades’ and stir it all up with accusations of ‘grade inflation’ and speculation of a landslide of appeals and our scandal-seeking national media look set for a bumper week of headlines.

Is it unfair to suggest that the press and politicians and ‘joe-public know-alls’ sometimes forget that pupils lie at the heart of this…

Our house is on edge, anxiously awaiting A level results for Prom-dress daughter. Like many pupils in her position, this set of grades represent hard work and talent but even more importantly a whole ton of resilience and grit. Yes, it is remarkable that so many of these pupils kept going. Kept going through: home-learning, blended learning, lockdown, unlocking, mass testing, endless isolation orders  and … to cap it all an anxious assessment marathon, hastily cobbled together at the eleventh hour by an incompetent Department of Education. Let’s spare them headlines that make ill-informed shots at the validity of their grades; they deserve every success and every bit of praise their schools and families can lavish upon them. For those who don’t receive exactly the scores they hoped for … I think we know that they have learned how to pick themselves up, learned how to adapt…. I think they need to be reassured that they  will be okay.

For whilst my daughter and others collecting results are typical of most examination age pupils, there is another group whose story is even less likely to be told.  As we dispatched out Teacher Assessed Grades in June there were a small number of young people receiving no grades at all. And we are not alone. In July 2021, the TES in their article ‘Most teachers had GCSE evidence gaps‘ found that over 70% of teachers had pupils for whom they could not evidence a grade.

The article explores many reasons for this saddest of situations; mental health, bereavement, school refusal, the causes are numerous. There is an even more serious issue too, some of our pupils are actually lost. Lost to education and … missing. Quoted in a Times article, Anne Longfield, former children’s commissioner reported that,

” …the state had lost track of tens of thousands of pupils who had gone “off grid” during the pandemic…” 

Her fears for these vulnerable young people centre upon the threats from criminal gangs and the dark cloud of county lines that casts an ever present shadow over our school communities.

Is there a place for this cohort of pupils on results day? I’d like to think that there was … because I really believe in educational care. I’d like to say ‘come back to us‘ even if you haven’t gained a single grade. We have time for you too today. We’ll find you a path. We’ll help you take that first step. We are … still here. Because 18 months of a global pandemic has re-emphasised one thing so clearly to those of us privileged to work in our high schools and colleges, pupils are not just a set of exam statistics, and a list of grades, they are complete and unique young people. And they flourish with our amazing knowledge but also our care and encouragement that helps each one to see how much they matter and what the best version of themselves might be.

So please…  let’s make this week’s results days about the pupils… about all the pupils….

Turning 18…

Sunday 8 August 2021

This week Prom-dress daughter turns 18 … and, for the first time in quite a while, I wobble …

I don’t actually think it’s the birthday weekend itself. Celebrations, that start with a lovely family meal in a city restaurant and quickly become more raucous and merry as relatives give way to friends, fizzy wine and a hot tub in the garden, seem fun. Seem joyful. Seem happy.

I don’t actually think it’s the milestone either. Yes my middle child is now officially an ‘adult’ and, after 18 month of lockdown restrictions in this North West town, is more than ready to head out into town, brandishing her ID to make the most of newly re-opened bars and venues. But, let’s face, that’s just the fun part of being a grown-up. I am sure that I shall be parenting, financing, providing support and guidance … and being taken for granted for a few more years yet.

I start to feel emotional when I turn the clock back 18 years, to the traumatic days of her birth and think about that first week of life on NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). Although the experience, so far removed from the joyous picture you have of giving birth and bringing your new child home, adopts a surreal dream-like quality, certain moments and phrases still dance around my head, with chilling clarity, to this day,

come through to the family room, the consultant will be free to discuss this with you shortly”

” a number of seizures…. loss of oxygen to the brain”

“the next 48 hours will be critical…”

But, you meet some truly inspiring people in the NICU community. Heroic parents who have battled for weeks by the sides of those incubators … and never complain. Instead they wrap you, the dazed newcomer, in their love, support and camaraderie. The doctors and nurses, who so quickly learn your name, as well as your child’s, and take time to care and communicate, so that you feel like a person who matters and not just another patient on a lengthy list. And Prom-dress daughter herself, such an incredible little bundle of fight and fury that we only stayed for a week before being discharged, with a few more tubes, dressings and needle marks than the typical newborn, into outpatient care.

It is in this context that look at her now. She did make it through the next 48 hours; she made it through the 2 years of neurological check-ups and testing, … she made it to 18 and a brilliant 18. If I stop to think… it feels a little overwhelming. But, she is an August birthday and with examination results out next week, I also know that I may not have too much time to dwell. Praying that she gets the grades she needs, in less than a month Prom-dress daughter will be off to Uni. As my middle child, she is naturally the buddy of choice to each of the other two and they both adore her. She is a unique mix: super high maintenance but warm, accepting, funny and incredibly smart. We sometimes call her the heart beat of our household and suddenly I know why I’m wobbling. The 18th birthday has started the clock ticking down to the time when she sets out to make her own way in the world. She is definitely ready; I am just not sure that I am prepared to let my little ‘incu-baby’ go …

Show me to the flat pack…

Saturday 17 July 2021

Sometimes, as I am scooping spiders out of bathrooms, battling with the lawnmower, jolting around the estate with learner driver Prom-dress daughter at the wheel or shoulder-barging Small boy at basketball, I do appreciate that single parenthood equips you with skills you never foresaw when discussing your life plan with the school careers advisor. And this weekend, marks a true Everest of personal achievements….

After a few covid-19 delays, we are collecting my Eldest from her new student house in the North East for the Summer. She calls midweek with a request,

“Mum, could you bring a screwdriver and hammer on Saturday? I’ve got to make a chest of drawers.”

And so it is, that just after noon and a drive up the A1, I saunter into the student kitchen brandishing our family tool box and drill.

Oooh how professional! ‘ coos one of her housemates.

And it makes my day! I feel like some empowered, positive role model of female capability and follow my Eldest to her room with my head held high!

What the lovely students don’t know, but the rest of my household do, is that I only really have one professional piece of kit with me in the car… and that is my middle child. But in the searing heat of a third floor attic room, I have been inspired to play my part. Prom-dress daughter has the plan and gives the directions but, doing exactly what I am told: I drill, I hammer and I dowel like a trooper.

We stop for lunch out, in the vibrant and trendy cafe-bar area my Eldest now lives in and, then return to complete our mission. What a triumph! Never has a pretty basic set of drawers looked better in my eyes. The sweat, the plastic burns (long story), the occasional splinter … all worth it! It was, I have to concede, as a former scorner of DIY, strangely satisfying slots and fitting it all together. I celebrate with a murky cup of tea, from the student kitchen that has just run out of milk, and then we hit the road.

My younger pair share a Spotify Account, and we sing our way back down the motorway to their assorted play lists. Weary but happy, we arrive home midway through Saturday evening.

Have I morphed into some building stereo-type, I ponder as a I wave aside a gin and tonic and treat myself instead to a couple of cold beers? And possibly it is the beer talking as I announce that our next holiday project is demolishing the dilapidated old garden shed …. ourselves. Let’s see if I am still as enthusiastic after a good night’s sleep…

April ends…

30 April 2021

We survive 30 crazy days. I’m trying to fathom English Summer exam regulations as a teacher. Prom-dress daughter is stuck in the middle of it as a stressed and strained A level student. The goal posts change daily, the assessments seem never-ending. But we keep going and, out of the blue, we get our reward.

I am driving home from work on Thursday when an excited voice bursts through on the hands-free

Mum …I got into Edinburgh!”

Its her top choice and they have certainly kept us waiting! The UCAS form went in before Christmas, tomorrow it is May. But I push all this aside because they have finally given my little super star a (reduced) offer and she is over the moon.

We celebrate with wine and chips. We spend a joyful evening browsing Uni accommodation. And the change in my lovely girl’s spirits: her smile, her radiance, the light in her eyes…it is just beyond compare.

So farewell April 2021. You will ever have a place in our hearts…

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…

Just a call…

Tuesday 13 October 2020

It is 6pm. I am just packing up for the day when my Eldest calls. It’s been a hell of a day.

Another

We confirm a member of the school community has tested positive for Covid-19′ day

Another

‘We are diverting all staff onto emergency cover until half term’ day

Another

Teach your lesson; post your lesson; live stream your lesson; everything three times your lesson’ day

Another

Your fault. Follow the rules. Don’t blame test and trace. Schools stay “open”. We’ve given you three extra weeks, … We’re all in this together‘ day

I push it all aside and tune into my daughter’s bubbly chatter.

It’s true, she has blown month one’s budget in just over 2 weeks and a giggly, joyful voice takes me through the mis-calculations and ‘very valid’ reasons why ‘money’s running a bit low’. I hear crazy tales of cinema bookings for Newcastle-under-Lyne instead of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surprise of finding yourself in a screening of ‘Harry Potter‘ … instead of a romcom. I hear about mishaps with keys and the saga of a broken phone screen. I hear the cheerful acknowledgement that arriving in the North East with a suitcase full of crop-tops but no winter coat probably wasn’t her wisest move…

And I hear, life and laughter and happiness. And it makes me smile and at least for the rest of today, remember what living is really all about…

She’s leaving home …

Saturday 26 September 2020

On a bright Autumnal Saturday morning, Windsor’s suspension creaking under the weight of suitcases, boxes, pots and pans; two teens sandwiched into the back seat with pillows and duvets; my Eldest on navigation and me at the wheel, we set off to Newcastle Uni. My first child is leaving home…

It’s a happy journey. The two backseaters plug themselves into their phones whilst my Eldest and I, chat and laugh and harmonise along to songs on the radio. We arrive in good time and park in the city centre for a spot of lunch.

As is now the case anywhere in the UK, there are quite a few changes to city life. I am initially stunned by the contrast to the bustling Newcastle we last saw on a January interview; now transformed into a silent shopping centre where face-masked locals obediently snake along in a one-way system, socially distance on escalators and wordlessly queue outside busier shops. It’s a relief to get back onto the open streets, where following some track-and-trace scanning and hand sanitising we find ourselves safely in a Yo! Sushi booth with dishes whirling round to our table.

All three teens are completely at home in the new world of phone menus and remote ordering. I hand over my credit card and let them take over! Sitting back, with a smile, watching the trio laughing and joking their way through the dishes, I realise that I could be dropping any one of them off for a new life today. They all look so capable, so self assured and so ready to take their place in the world. The panic I thought I’d feel; that these fun, family times are coming to an end dissolves into pride. I just feel proud of the three, incredible young people I have raised and proud of our strong bond as a family. Things will be different from now on, but in all the ways that matter, we will be as close as ever.

After lunch we find the student accommodation. My Eldest hops out to pick up her keys and we see her chatting to other new students … many times, as the rest of us complete circuit after circuit in a fruitless attempt to locate a parking spot. As the car park attendant waves us by onto lap 4, I decide enough is quite enough and manoevre Windsor into, what is clearly an illegal spot, right outside the entrance to my daughter’s block. After that, we unload, smile at flat-mates and their parents, drive off to do a bit of food shopping and giggle as we return to find cones now sternly blocking our drop-off spot. As the sun starts to fade from the day, Small Boy and I leave the girls together unpacking for a last bit of sister-time before it is time to go.

Yes, there are tears at this point. And as we hit the motorway south with only 3 of us in the car, my heart begins to ache. I have so much confidence in my Eldest child. She is brilliant, she is unstoppable, she will make a great contribution to the world. I know that Newcastle Uni are really lucky to have her. But she is also one of my best friends, she has brightened my day for the last 18 years, and I am just really going to miss her …