A few weeks ago now, I passed through another milestone as a father. I didn’t do anything special and there was no great effort on my part. In fact, I did nothing at all. What happened was that my daughter left high school.
Now if you’re sitting reading this as a non-parent or a parent of a much younger child, then you won’t bat an eyelid, as they say. It won’t seem like much and describing it as a milestone may seem strange. If you have younger children, you might acknowledge this landmark moment, but feel safe in the knowledge that for you personally, this is ages away. Well, don’t. Because it isn’t. It happened to me and I almost didn’t see it coming.
My daughter was born at home in our bed. She’s part of the reason that we still have the same bed, as my wife can’t bear to get rid of it. It’s a good solid bed as well though. We’ve always been reluctant to move house for the same reason. But the fact that she was born in our house makes her a particular kind of special too.
If I close my eyes I can still still see her clear as day, in those first few minutes and hours of life. Tiny and while not quite fighting for life, not quite ready for it either. The pregnancy was full term and yet she had to have premature baby clothes as she was so small. Back in those moments nothing seemed at all certain and the idea of her growing up to be the smart, capable cookie that she would be at sixteen would never have crossed my mind.
What I do remember is that very early on in her life I worked out how old I would be at certain landmarks in her life. Thus, I knew that I’d be 50 by the time that my daughter turned 16. So, given that my 50th birthday was earlier this year I should have seen this one coming. But I guess it seemed so very far away when she was so young.
I won’t lie and paint a picture of my daughter as a bundle of joy her whole life. Even though she’s an amazing kid and I’m extremely proud of her, she hasn’t always been so nice. In fact, there have been some pretty awful times along the road to sixteen. But then again, I won’t lie about my opinion on myself as a dad either. I’m better now, but like many I’d say I struggled with things like patience and probably all of the other skills needed to be a dad. For years I just felt like I wasn’t making a very good job of it all. And yet, here we are; the school leaver and her father, with what I’d describe as a lovely relationship.
As a teacher, I’m well aware of how quickly year 11 seems to pass. I tell my students all the time that before they know it the final exams will be upon them and their time at high school will be almost over. So it’s an odd thing that until a couple of weeks before her final exams, I hadn’t really given the actual fact of her leaving school much of a thought. I’d fretted about exams and her revision, kept everything crossed for every exam, attempted to boost her confidence and helped with revision, but the end product of it all (or at least one of them), that she’d leave the cocoon of high school on the verge of adulthood, hadn’t really fully established itself in my head.
And now, weeks later, I’m left still somewhat reeling at it all. There’s no more watching her squeal with delight at simple things, no more being cool dad by letting her walk through streams in her wellies or holding her hand while she walks on the top of ‘high’ walls and no more slinging her up on to my shoulders when we’re off on a walk. My little girl is, in many ways, no more.
Of course, I subscribe to the dad friendly logic that she’ll always be daddy’s little girl. But deep down, now that she’s left high school and is taking those first tentative steps into a much greater independence afforded by the much more adult way of life that further education brings, I know that she’s not that little girl anymore. And it all feels like it happened in a heart beat.
I’m sure these next few years will bring fresh adventures and exciting experiences, as well as the kind of traumas that us parents don’t want to face up to. There’s already a boyfriend and although he seems like a lovely lad, I’m watching like a hawk! Whatever other new experiences we get to go through though, they’ll be different to ones we’ve had before.
So, if you’re a parent reading this I’d say savour every last moment that you get with your kids when they’re little. Before you know it…well, they’re not anymore.
I’ll warn you right now that if you are in possession of a heart, this will be a difficult film to watch! If you’re a parent you’ll be in trouble too. And then you find out that it’s based on real events! ‘Nowhere Special’ is easily one of the saddest films that I’ve ever watched, but it is nothing short of a masterpiece too and I would implore you to watch it, safe in the knowledge it’s likely to stay with you for a while.
John and Michael live in Belfast. John is a single parent, bringing up son Michael after his wife just upped sticks and walked out on them shortly after Michael was born. We’re never given a real reason as to why. Michael though, is perhaps the cutest kid you’ll see all year and he clearly loves his daddy, which given the set up of the film, makes it all the more difficult to cope with. The love they have for each other is very clear right from the start, but as we’re drip fed more information, it becomes apparent that all is not well. Prepare yourselves for tears and what is very much an unhappy and uncertain outcome!
James Norton plays John, a single father and a window cleaner, who struggles every day to protect his young son Michael from the harsh realities that the both of them are faced with. As the film moves on we are slowly allowed into John and Michael’s world as the truth about John’s future becomes clear. It’s obvious from fairly early on that something is wrong, but we’re left guessing as to what exactly that is. Whatever it is, Michael is at the heart of John’s thinking in the matter simply because he isn’t going to be able to be there to protect Michael’s future.
‘Nowhere Special’ is a beautifully crafted film. We focus on the love between a father and son while becoming ever more conscious of the distance that will be cruelly put between them. Because of this, as an audience we almost can’t fail to be affected and wholly invested in the characters. It could be argued that you’ll want to protect Michael just as much as his father does, but ultimately it’s something that none of us will be able to successfully achieve, such is the sadness and inevitability of the situation.
The film deals with a truly horrible and emotive subject matter with a particularly light touch, so that while ‘Nowhere Special’ is a tear jerker, there are never the in-you-face moments designed to elicit tears. The camera may linger on a facial expression or the dialogue may hint at what is going to happen to both John and Michael, but there’s never any outlandish attempt to shock or sadden the viewer. The actual identity of John’s problem is never fully revealed and Michael’s fate is drip fed to us by a series of scenes where he, John and a social worker spend time with unfamiliar characters, who it turns out, are all strangers to John and his son.
I’d thoroughly recommend watching ‘Nowhere Special’ but with the proviso that you prepare yourself for the sadness that ensues. A heart-breaking story, but a simply brilliant film. I’d give ‘Nowhere Special’
If you’re a regular reader of my blog you may well know that I coach an Under 13s football team. I volunteer; it’s not my actual job and really the only reason I got involved was that my son plays for the team. Around 5 years ago now the club decided that they weren’t happy with the efforts of the previous coach. Coincidentally, I’d just stepped in to take the team for 3 games while he was on holiday and after those games I was asked if I’d take over. As one of a number of parents who were unhappy with the previous coach, I more or less had to say yes. And so, a bit of an obsession began…
This season, we’ve moved to playing 11-a-side games on full size pitches, so it’s been quite a big step up. We’re also working without an actual goalkeeper – our keeper is now one of the squad who stepped up and said he’d do the job. Having struggled at one point over summer for numbers in the squad, we finally managed to get 18 players, but unfortunately that number features several players who’ve had little or no experience of playing football. In fact one boy had never kicked a football before when he turned up to train with us. So, this season was almost set up to be a struggle!
We started quite well, beating our first opponents 5-2 in a home game and managing to involve 16 of the squad, some of whom were getting their first ever taste of competitive football. There were things I noticed in that fixture that alarmed me somewhat though and I was conscious of the need to work on specific areas of play. So, despite the win, I didn’t walk away kidding myself that we’d perhaps cracked it.
And it turned out that I was right to be so cautious. We lost our next four games, conceding 29 goals and scoring just once. I took heart from the fact that in 3 of these games we’d been competitive until late on, before just getting overwhelmed by stronger and fitter teams. Our lack of experience and fitness was really starting to show, but also I think it’s only natural to throw in the towel when you’re 12 and your team is getting a bit of a thumping! It didn’t change the fact that we had a big, big problem though.
The problems have continued. There have been several games where we’ve struggled to get a team out, as kids have been either ill or away. I guess it’s just that time of year and of course there’s Covid, which has affected a few of our group. And of course, getting beat week in week out probably doesn’t make kids want to turn up either. But we’ve battled on.
Sadly, we’ve only had one more win this season. It was a brilliant occasion as we were playing a team that were above us in the league and were 2-1 down at half time. But we knew we could win. And even with a team affected by illness and other absenteeism, we knew that a real effort would blow our opponents away. So we encouraged hugely them during that half time talk, telling them that the game was there for the taking and when they took to the field with a huge cry of ‘C’mon lads!’ at the start of the second half, I knew we were in with a chance. Thirty five memorable minutes later, we’d won 6-2 and it was a thrill to see my son scoring a couple of goals and winning the Man of The Match award.
Since that point though, we’ve suffered again with absence of players on match day and have lost games when exhaustion has set in because we have regularly only had one substitute! It’s difficult to operate like this when your opposition turn up with 4 or 5 subs and can rotate players every 10 minutes or so to keep legs relatively fresh.
Going into our game last Sunday we only had 9 players on the Saturday! I was forced to call up the two lads that had barely kicked a ball just to make up the numbers. These were two players who I’d said were best off just training with us for the time being. With no experience of playing football I didn’t want to throw them into games and find that it was some terrifying experience. I wanted them to feel comfortable with a ball at their feet before then drip feeding their experience of games as substitutes. It turned out that this was no longer an option.
We managed to get another of our players making themselves available and so thought we were going into the game with a full team and one substitute and although that would mean fielding some really inexperienced players, I felt that we might just have enough quality to snatch a win, as we were playing the bottom team. On the morning of the game, however, another player dropped out, leaving us with no substitutes and 11 players faced with 70 minutes of football and no chance to give anyone a break!
I suppose it was reasonably predictable when we got beat. Our opposition were able to rotate players as they had 5 subs, whereas we had to rely on our 11 and just keep them going. We were always in the game and I genuinely think that with a little bit more luck we could have won with the players we had. Sadly though, tired legs took their toll and we were missing a couple of our more important players too. Even more sadly, our opposition being the team below us in the league meant that their win took them above us in the table.
There’s a long way to go in the season, but I’m quite worried that we’ll end up finishing in last place in the league. We won’t deserve that. Even this season coaches have gotten in touch after games and praised our passing and movement and I can honestly say that there have only been two games where I’ve been genuinely disappointed as we’ve let ourselves down.
I felt low after Sunday’s game though. I was disappointed, not in their performance, but that they didn’t manage to get anything out of the game. We were obviously up against it, but I still thought that we could sneak some kind of result. So, it left me frustrated that things had gone the way they’d gone. But I guess this is what grassroots football can be like; it’s not always the best team or the team playing the more attractive football that wins. Which of course brings up the question of whether winning is important at this level. It is to me, but I also want to combine that with enjoyment and the feeling of being part of a team for my lads. The sense that we support each other and that we’re all in it together is really important, in my opinion. But of course, winning helps with all of that!
So now we’re left picking up the pieces. There’s part of me that can see us winning no more games all season and of course this would most likely mean that we finished bottom of the league. No one really wants that.
It’s clear that some players have lost confidence. We’re quite a small team and have been up against some teams where the players look like grown ups, so it’s easy to be fearful when you’re 12! I think some are doubting their ability as well though and where before, when we’ve been doing well, they’ve wanted the ball now they don’t. Some of the lads are happy to pass on responsibility to someone else, so we’ll have to work on getting that confidence back.
We don’t have a fixture this weekend, so I’ve decided to offer a training session instead. I’m testing levels of willingness and enthusiasm in one way. Those that show up, early on a Sunday morning are demonstrating their commitment to the cause, their need to get better. Those that don’t? Maybe they’re confirming what I already know, in that I can’t rely on them. We can’t rely on them. And it seems churlish to write that given that this is Under 13 football, but it is exhausting organising things like training and matches and so when it feels like I’m not getting much back, it starts to grind me down. When you’re spending large chunks of your Saturday glued to a phone making calls and sending texts, just to get 11 lads on a field, it’s frustrating as there are other things I could easily dedicate my time to.
So, this Sunday is really important. I’d like them to know my fears and what they’ll be up against for the rest of the season. In short, nearly everyone we’ve played have hammered us. While we may well have been competitive for long periods of time in games, we’re not picking up points. In fact, we’re just picking up beatings.
While I need to get a serious message across, I also need to keep spirits up. My team know that they’re a really capable bunch, but they need to know that as coaches, we have the belief that they can do better. They need to know that although things are going to be difficult – let’s face it, every team we play can see how many goals we concede and will expect to beat us easily – we can overcome it all. So Sunday will be hard work, but by the end of it all I’ll hopefully have an even better idea about my squad and know the direction that we need to move in.
I’ve got no doubt that our next few months will be very difficult. Not only do we have league games to play – and currently every other team will feel they’re better than us – but the spectre of cup games lies ahead in the new year too. With cup games comes opposition from higher leagues and therefore, much bigger challenges. The question is, can we rise to the challenges ahead? Can we get more points on the board? And can we lift ourselves off the bottom of the table? Well, we’re about to find out!
It’s been a ‘helluva’ week. I know that’s not the correct spelling or grammar, but it’s how the cool people would have put it, I imagine, so I thought I’d give it a go.
So let me tell you all about it…
Firstly, we’ll cut to the chase (cool language again, I know). On Wednesday night my 11-year-old son tested positive for Covid-19. Then, feeling poorly overnight, my wife took a test on Thursday morning and also tested positive. Now, I know they’re not the first people affected by this. It’s been quite the big thing, as I recall. But it’s never got so personal until now and it’s kind of disrupted the week! The thing we had feared for over a year finally happened, just when it looked like there wasn’t much chance of it happening anymore!
It’s now Saturday, so for three(ish) days I’ve been running around trying to look after the poorly people in the house as well as my 14-year-old daughter. I’m knackered. They’re knackered too, obviously.
Chronologically speaking, we started the week on Monday. Not just us, by the way. You too, dear reader. Everybody. I’m definitely not claiming any exclusivity on Monday as the start of the week. As it is, Monday came and went quite well really. I did a day at work in a job I love, taught two of my favourite classes and then had a reasonably early finish and headed home. I suppose there was a sign of the week to come when the student teacher I’m mentoring didn’t come into work and neglected to tell me she was absent. Damn my psychic powers. They obviously don’t kick in until Tuesdays when you get a bit older. Positively though, we had fish fingers and chips (and beans, as you ask; you have to have beans in that particular mix) for tea and selfishly, my son showed no signs of Covid. Clearly he hasn’t heard of the idea that forewarned is forearmed.
So undetected were his symptoms that he played a full game of football for our team on Tuesday night. This was another negative moment in our Positive week. It absolutely threw it down with rain. We were playing the team that are currently second top of our league and who had previously beaten us 7-1 earlier in the season. Inevitably, we lost. We were absolutely magnificent and perhaps could have won it, but we lost. And we all got soaked. Despite wearing 5 layers on my top half and two on the bottom (steady on ladies…and gents…it’s 2021 after all) I was soaked to the skin. I assume everyone else was too, but it seemed like too much of an intrusive question to ask. And to re-iterate, my probably Covid carrying, yet no symptoms son ran around like a mad thing for an hour, getting pushed and kicked every few minutes by members of a very physical opposition.
He felt tired and sick the next day – no Covid symptoms though – and so when we did our lateral flow tests that night, it was quite a shock to see his read as positive. He’s tiny. He’s eleven. He had contracted a virus that kills.
And so began a whirlwind of activity. Myself and my wife – herself now starting to feel tired and sick – rang, texted and interneted (I don’t know if that’s a verb, but if it isn’t, I’ve just invented it) and organised a PCR test for my son, as well as informing the school of the positive and several parents that their kids would be most likely be isolating for the next ten days. It all felt great. (That’s sarcasm by the way. It actually felt shit.)
I slept on the floor that night with just a duvet and some blankets for a mattress and some dressing gowns for blankets, having forgotten that our blow up mattress was in the shed. I’ve slept on the floor – albeit with the mattress – since (organise my medal now someone; I have been a very brave boy). Each night, when I’ve woken I’ve headed upstairs to check on my two patients, such is the worry that this while thing brings.
On Thursday morning, feeling very unwell, my wife did a lateral flow test and, surprise, surprise, it came back positive. We promptly organised a PCR test to confirm it, but couldn’t get the same venue as for my son’s. Heads spinning – not literally; don’t worry it doesn’t do thatto you – we headed out to get to the first test. And in yet another positive, we ended up at three centres after the first one was shut for use as a polling station for local elections and the second one couldn’t fit my wife in (to their schedule, not their room, she’s tiny). So we headed for an entirely different town, getting lost in the one way system first of all before eventually, hours after we’d first set out, my wife and son were able to take their tests.
At a couple of points on Thursday I went to check on my wife to find her literally collapsed on our bed, like she’d been sitting up, but passed out. On one of those occasions, such was her body shape, that all it would have taken was a chalk outline and some stripy police tape to make it look like a convincing murder scene. Scary stuff. Friday was much the same. Oh and I had to make dinner and tea on both days, so could someone organise another medal for me, please? I mean, I’ve been forced to drink beer every night, just to cope…
So caught up in it all was I, that on Friday night, I forgot that my football team were playing and only tuned in to watch about 25 minutes after kick-off. Excuse my language, but we were fucking wonderful. However, when each of our four goals went in, I was forced to completely subdue my usual loud celebrations for fear of hurting the poorly heads of our two positives. Whoever’s organising the medals, get me a trophy as well.
And now, it’s Saturday. It’s throwing it down with rain again and no one’s had any fresh air as a result. The other three members of the household are occupying themselves in various ways, so I thought I’d write this. I hope you enjoyed my week a bit more than we did.
This is a poem I wrote a while ago now, late August in fact. It was around that time that we were preparing my son – our youngest child – for the step up to high school. In the U.K. schools had been closed for months, but he had gone back to primary school for the final half term, as the government opened them up again to Year 6 students in a bid to make transition to high school that little bit easier. It didn’t work, but that’s besides the point.
I happened to be looking through some photographs and found one that my wife had taken of our son at the start of primary school, as he headed to his first day of Reception class. She’d stood behind him and having let him walk a few steps further down the path and – no doubt crying – had taken a photo of him as he walked off. Every visible piece of uniform is just too big and his backpack takes up his entire back. He looks tiny and vulnerable and not ready for school at all. Suffice to say that while the image always makes me smile, it still makes me feel sad too.
At the time, we’d briefly debated not sending him to school. We genuinely didn’t feel he was ready for it at all and so we’d even gone as far as tentatively researching moving to Scandinavia where children don’t start school until later. I think (my wife especially) we just didn’t really want to let go. In the end, we relented and sent him. But every time I see that picture I can’t help but feel we made the wrong decision!
As I looked at the photograph last summer it brought the memories flooding back, but it also made me think about how quickly both my children seem to have grown up. Within a few weeks of that moment they would both be high school students and essentially a large chunk of their childhoods were over. And specifically where my son was concerned, my precious little boy was no longer the tiny child in the photograph. With time on my hands, I wrote the poem you’ll find below.
That picture will stay with me as the summers fade into autumn. You, walking ahead of your mum, in a uniform that you’d grow into eventually and an over sized backpack straining at your shoulders. Your jumper a red light telling us to stop and let you go into a bright new adventure.
We’d thought to avoid this moment by moving somewhere where the monster didn’t want you for another couple of years, but stayed, defeated by normality and a system that we did not like; school became an enemy that we felt we couldn’t fight.
Your mother returned to her car and cried that day, her body inert as the tears tumbled silently down her face, mourning the loss of her sunshine. I spent the day thinking of the three of you – my big, brave boy, his sister there, determined as ever to look after you and your mother; robbed, cheated, bereft. How could I protect you all?
For years from this moment you’d tell us, ‘Did you know?’ tales at the table, your new found knowledge taken, processed, committed to memory, worn like a brand new suit and then shared generously like your cuddles. Parents’ Evenings revealed what we already knew; everybody loved you, fell under your spell, like insects stuck in a web.
Years later, and a day after my heart broke down, I sat weakly watching you perform in your school play, expecting to cry uncontrollably, but instead mesmerised by your voice, your courage, your talent, and as our eyes locked I wondered if my wounded heart might now burst with pride.
Now, you prepare yourself to face new questions, leaving your cocoon to become a magnificent butterfly one day. Your mother has already shed the expected quiet tears, sought solace by burying her head into my chest, while I held her tightly without possession of the balm of words that might soothe.
Before we know it there will be another photograph and it will hurt to look at that too, You, in a new uniform that still won’t fit, walking headlong into the next five years of your future, stoic despite the nerves, wiser and still eager for more ‘did you knows’.
I will fret daily until I know you’re safe, drift off thinking of you and your new experiences and race home nightly to steal a kiss or lie beside you, clutching your shoulder while you let me in on your brave new world.
I have watched, awestruck as you’ve grown, felt my heart ache as you blushed at your achievements, daydreamed about the impact you might have on the world. Now, I urge you, with every ounce of strength I have, to conquer new worlds, open yourself to those new experiences and grasp at all of the future offers that may come your way.
My son didn’t seem ready for high school, unlike my daughter who three years previously had been desperate to move on. I worried about them both though, fretted through minute after minute of my working day, desperate to just walk back through my front door and see them, ask them how it had all been.
Both have had interesting ‘rides’ through high school thus far, as probably any kid does. They’re doing well though and both survived those first days! As did their parents! My son isn’t quite so full of wonder as he had been at primary school and is perhaps finding the transition quite tough. We suspected as much, given that he missed nearly all of the last 6 months of primary school and Year 6 and didn’t get any real transition between the two schools due to Covid-19. So all the worry that is conveyed in the poem wasn’t misplaced.
It’s a very personal poem and although I talked about him heading to high school quite a bit with my wife, my son and some friends, this was my main way of opening up about it all and probably where any actual emotion came out. I think my wife showed enough devastation for both of us at the time, so it felt important that I stayed strong. I can’t remember too much about it all now, but I imagine, writing late at night that I must have shed a tear or two. It’s such an emotive photograph!
I hope that if and when other parents read it they’ll perhaps recognise their own feelings and experiences in there too. It’s a longer poem, but I’d like to think that’s alright, given the subject matter. I won’t explain any intricacies of the language in there as some of it is personal to both my wife and son and their relationship and it’s probably not my place to share so fully. On a similar note, I’ve not used the photo that I tried to build the poem around, as again I don’t think it’s one that needs to be shared with the world (or the few people who’ll read this!). So the child in the image accompanying the poem isn’t mine! He just looked small enough and vulnerable enough to represent the subject matter!
Most of all, I hope you enjoy the poem. I hope it doesn’t bring back too many traumatic memories in any parents who read! When a child moves up to ‘big school’ it really is quite the event and I felt it was just too much to deal with unless I got it down on paper. Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.
So let’s start with a confession. When I found this book in one of my ‘To read’ boxes in the loft, I had little recollection of buying it. And for the life of me I couldn’t really think why I’d bought it. I knew it wasn’t a gift though and was sure it had been one of my own purchases.
In a remarkable coincidence though, a Facebook memory popped up soon after and I was informed that I’d bought it 3 years previously in a book splurge at a discount shop called The Works. I still had to work out what had attracted me to it though, but a bit of perusing did the trick. Turned out I’d made a very good choice.
‘Love Anthony’ is a novel about friends, and love, as well as the challenges of autism and family life. It tells the tale of two families; Olivia, David and their son Anthony and Beth, Jimmy and their three daughters. The first family face the enormous challenges of their son’s severe autism and the heartbreaking feeling that they’ll never be able to ‘get through’ to Anthony as a result. Meanwhile, Beth and Jimmy face their own challenges despite everything initially seeming to be pretty much stable with their lives.
The action takes place on Nantucket, which was almost certainly one of my reasons for buying the book. (I have a cousin who lives there.) The stark beauty of the island definitely adds something to the story and it’s on Nantucket where we find new arrival Olivia who’s life and marriage have fallen apart. The beaches of the island unwittingly bring Olivia and Beth together and yet their lives continue on seperately, despite everything they have in common. Their brief meeting has a profound effect on Beth, who when her own world seems to be falling apart, falls back on the memory to begin writing.
Only later do the two women become entangled in each others’ lives. There’s another meeting on the beach, this time through a family photoshoot, booked by Beth and to be undertaken by Olivia, now a family photographer. Memories are jogged, favours asked and when Olivia finally reads Beth’s book, lives are changed seismically.
‘Love Anthony’ is a great read. Heartbreaking at times as we read about Olivia and her desperate attempts to engage with and protect her son, Anthony, but life-affirming at others, as likeable characters triumph in adversity. There’s an element of the feel good factor about the book, despite some traumatic events, but then there are a number of twists which are sure to leave you racing through the pages. Hearts are broken, lives are shattered and then rebuilt and throughout it all you’ll find yourself rooting for characters like Beth and Olivia in their pursuit of a small chunk of happiness.
A wonderfully written book that deserves your attention.
It’s undoubtedly been a funny old year. I don’t think I need to give you some kind of encyclopedic explanation as to why. However, recently we managed to get away for a week’s holiday in the UK, something that we felt wasn’t going to be possible and another thing to fall victim to the pandemic.
Initially our holiday had been cancelled and then we received an email letting us know that it was once again possible. Somewhat hesitantly we agreed that we’d go, our reasoning being that a different four walls might be just what we need. We never imagined that we’d be able to go to our favourite beach.
It was that thought that led to me writing this poem. I was just sat one night, thinking about the upcoming holiday and previous ones and remembering the feeling of heading to our favourite beach. Whenever we’re there we’re relaxed and happy and so it really is like a slice of heaven to us, hence the title.
You clamber up the steep path, weighed down by a day’s food, drink and entertainment, round the last curve of the dead end street, stalking the low wall that snakes along the cliff edge and catching a first glorious glimpse of the sea. Soon, your feet will feel the first crunch of gravel. You glance right and see the bench where you all first huddled during a gale stricken picnic, because that was what families must do for a sense of adventure. The memory fades, just as you do, engulfed by hedgerows as you crest the first hill and disappear from sight, furtively glancing back, relieved that no one follows to discover your almost secret. The path narrows and curves, dips like the lasts wallow of summer before turning to sand, just like the feeling of life before this place. Your progress now covered by the tree line, you tramp steadfastly on, gasping for breath a little, still weighed down by explorer’s provisions. You remind yourself of what awaits as you stagger to the top of an Everest-like rise with nothing now between you and the sky. Deeper sand, a rickety bridge and then you creep down steps steep until you sink into pristine sand at the bottom and moonwalk exaggerated stpes across the cove, finding the perfect spot and spreading out your things just a little too much to hint that no one should come too close. Seconds pass and you remove layers of clothing, while simultaneously discarding a year’s worth of work, stress, life, before collapsing onto a perfectly placed blanket and gazing, awestruck, through sheltered eyes at the rest of your day. The estuary with its strong currents, where if you time it right and challenge the tide you can wade out through ever warmer water until you find yourself on a sand spit that feels like another planet, cut off from all other human life. You remember his hand clasping yours as he trembled, trying to be, desperate to be your big boy, as the water lapped at his chest and with every step he sunk deeper into the sand beneath. Eventually you picked him up, daddy’s got you, and bury your own trepidation until you made it onto the ever-fading island and let him run through the rock pools while you sat and took pictures with your mind that you knew you’d cling on to forever. Later, you’d watch them both playing on the rocks, best friends for once, keen to be grown up adventurers; the elder doing whatever it took to keep the younger happy. Their happiness shrieked its way across the sand so that even when you drifted off and lost sight of them, you could find them easily again. Beside you, the love of your life lies on the blanket, no longer propped up on elbows, book still stuck to fingers, headphones still in ears, but breathing a little too heavily to feign being awake. While the sun beats down, you leave her be, safe from the demands of everyday life; the phone calls, spreadsheets, meals, entertainment. You turn your eyes seaward, touch hand to head and feel the heat absorbed by dark hair, as if somehow this is an unexpected comfort. Your eyes catch the shimmer in the ripples of the sea and you imagine yourself one day out there, gliding back and forth on a paddle board, hair a little less dark, but mind a little more relaxed, in the autumn of your days. This is where we come to relax, reflect, to dream, to escape, to forget.
Not a lot of explanation needed here, really. It’s a poem about our favourite beach. You have to take the cliff-top coastal path for about ten minutes, until you get there. I think that puts some people off as it’s quite tiring if you’re carrying a day’s worth of beach gear for everyone. It’s worth it though.
The cove is on an estuary and when the tide goes out you can have adventures on the newly exposed sand, but you might have to wade out for a while to get there. My children love this.
In short, it’s somewhere we love – we’ve considered buying a holiday cottage there, we love it so much – and it’s a place where I think every one of us is able to relax.
Feel free to let me know what you thought of the poem in the comments. I’m always interested in hearing what people think.
At the end of June another chapter of my parenting journey came to a close. The baby years have gone and the toddler times flew by. Then we tackled life at primary school and all of the hurdles that would bring. Next, double figures happened and the end of the primary years, which was all too quickly followed by the challenges of high school. And now, it seems we’re to be in possession of one of those teenagers.
In the most stereotypical kind of truth, my daughter has been a teenager for years. Or at least she’s acted like one. And I know that not all teenagers are the same…but for the sake of a good read let’s stick to the stereotypes. I’ll write this with a caveat though. For all of her faults, my daughter is a sweet, caring and loveable kid. I’m very proud of what she is and what she’s becoming and, despite the fact that we clash and no doubt find each other equally irritating, I adore her. That said, if what’s gone in the previous 12 years is any kind of guide, then these teenage years promise to be interesting to say the least.
As the teenage years begin I guess I have to face up to the fact that my little girl – for that’s what she always will be – is going to turn into a woman. This is a tough reality for me, as I’m sure it will be for the majority of fathers. But it’s a reality that begins with those dreaded teen years. As many girls of her age will, she’s already moving on with her interests. She’s never been particularly interested in boys, viewing them as some kind of necessary irritant. However, just a few weeks ago I was present when she declared that a boy was ‘fit’ and a little bit of my heart broke, never to be repaired. The words were enough, but the delighted smile that spread across her face was the killer. The boy in question happened to be Zac Effron, so at least I can comfort myself with the fact that they’re very unlikely to meet and thus she can’t begin to explore what ‘fitness’ means and leads to.* Big sigh of relief. But it confirmed to me that my little girl is, in many ways, well and truly gone. And I feel sure that this side of things will go rapidly downhill now that the age of thirteen has been reached.
She confided in my wife that in Year 7 she’d had a boyfriend, but this had only lasted for a day! So there’s good and bad in that – bad = boy, while good = her boredom at him following her around like a lap dog. However, her choice of ‘boyfriend’ had been appalling – a ridiculous name, seemingly always in trouble at school etc. The kind of choice that was never going to impress her school teacher father, hence confiding in her mother!
I fear that this is the kind of choice that she’ll continue to make though. As teenhood – have I just invented a phrase – approaches she seems to label any boy who does any actual work or shows any sign of intelligence as a ‘geek’ and therefore untouchable, which for now is fine, but in the long term I’d rather she was going for the hard-working geeks than the ridiculous, half-witted bad boys that she seems to be attracted to. For now though, she seems a little behind the times in terms of her interest in boys. I teach kids of the same age and lots of them appear far more advanced than my own darling daughter, – goodness me I hope so – especially the girls. You only have to be on a corridor with them and you’re sure to overhear something that you really didn’t want to hear and that means you can never look them in the eye again. I sincerely hope that my nearly teen daughter isn’t thinking along the same lines for quite some time to come!
One thing that she is definitely advanced with is make-up. This is one that is very much against our wishes as well. I say ‘our’ wishes, but I suspect that my wife is ever so slightly in cahoots with my daughter on this one. I’ve been there when one of them has unintentionally mentioned some make-up that my daughter was going to get or had been promised, so the rules have definitely been relaxed without me knowing anything about it! My daughter also went through what can only be described as an out of character phase where she was regularly making her bed, hoovering her room, putting washing away etc, in order to gain pocket money. Now despite the incentive of money, she’s never been particularly interested in this before. But then, all of a sudden she’d be pointing out that her bed was made, or leaving the hoover outside her room to indicate that she’d been busy ridding her carpet of small animal carcasses or whatever disease had festered there in the years since the last time she’d hoovered. (And if you think this is unkind there’s an open invite to pop round and have a look at her room – enter at your peril).
It turned out that what she was doing was earning just enough money to go out and buy the odd bit of make-up in order to supplement the small amount that she already had. And as a result of this she’d also decided that she could walk all over the rules – a much more regular occurrence for her – and come down plastered in make up for no apparent reason. We’ve managed to curtail this to a point, by repeating the message that she looks so much better without it, and image being so important to a girl of her age, she’s listened to an extent. Still though, if we’re going out she tends to disappear for much of the afternoon, before emerging early evening looking like she’s wearing some kind of tribal mask. I expect this very much to continue as she moves through her teen years and the mask to get more and more colourful!
For as long as my daughter has been able to express an opinion she has done so, forcefully. Now, as she enters her teen years, I fear that her level of perceived expertise is going to see her opinions go into a potentially dangerous overdrive. Don’t get me wrong, on important issues like race, sexuality etc she has formed good, liberal, accepting opinions. She’s against no one (well apart from the aforementioned geeks and me) which is not only good, but a lot less time consuming than if she was forming dangerous opinions. In fact, she’s more likely, if we have an opinion against anyone or anything, to defend them, however unreasonable. As a staunch Newcastle fan I’ve found it quite disheartening and disturbing when she’s routinely defended Sunderland fans. Maybe she’s just incredibly chilled out – she’s really not – or maybe she’s just wrong.
As she enters her teenage years though, the one thing she has strong opinions on seems to be style. Now given her formative years, this is quite the surprise – many’s the time she’s come downstairs in a variety of colours and styles that simply didn’t match – reds, yellows, pinks, spots, stripes, you name it. But now my daughter has developed some kind of style. She likes nice clothes and is constantly telling us how she’s ‘planning an outfit’. I suppose that this is to be expected, especially when she’s not paying for said outfits! But the worrying thing seems to be that she has installed herself as some kind of fashion expert. And this is where her opinions come in.
Recently she’s decided that she must have her bedroom decorated. Grey and pinks, dahling, don’t you know. And such is her sure and certain belief in her status as some kind of style guru that she literally won’t listen to anyone else’s opinion. The fact that she currently resides in a room that look like squatters must have invaded years ago doesn’t seem to occur to her at all. She simply cannot keep it tidy. And I won’t embarrass her here by detailing the levels of untidiness, but suffice to say, you need to take your own ideas and multiply them by around a million to even get close.
We recently went on a shopping trip – a speculative one where we were more looking for ideas than actually buying anything. We found countless grey items, probably in even more than fifty shades, and yet she rejected them time after time. And this is understandable for a short while, but when it becomes clear that this is just because she is adamant that she knows better than you do on every subject ever, it gets a little frustrating. And again, I can only see this getting worse as the teen years advance. I imagine we’re leaving behind the years of buying her clothes from George at Asda that’s for sure, which will leave me as the only one in our house still wearing stuff from that particular designer!
Which brings me nicely onto clothes. As a self identified style guru my teen daughter has also decided that it’s perfectly within her remit to be openly critical of what her family are wearing. In fact, she seems to be making it her business to pass judgement on the style decisions of almost anyone and everyone, family or not. The ‘wrong’ t-shirt will instantly – and loudly – be deemed ’embarrassing’, while she herself is wearing something like a crop top with a coat over it…on the hottest day of the year. But it gets worse. She sees no problem, no lack of simple manners even, in declaring an item of clothing ‘ugly’. And why? Well, because teen wisdom seems to dictate that she must know so much better than anyone else.
Worse than the loudly proclaimed opinions is the choices that she wants to now be making. As a toddler and even as a primary school kid, we could get away with sticking to a budget and to an extent dressing her head to toe in clothes from a supermarket. But then she began to grow out of this. And we tried to accommodate it, but it’s quite a balance trying to buy your kid the ‘right’ clothes while also attempting not to bring up a spoilt brat. So now we’re told (and she really does tell as opposed to asking), ‘I need a Tommy Hilfiger top’ or ‘We have to get me a pair of Adidas leggings’. And this becomes a problem for me, personally. I was brought up in a household where the things that I wanted were often out of reach of my parents’ pockets, so to speak. So I became used to not getting most of what I wanted and I quickly realised that there wasn’t much point in asking, but also that it was a bit unfair on my parents to ask anyway.
As such, my daughter’s demands cut no ice with me. I want her to have the types of things that I didn’t have, but I also want her to appreciate them. And her teenage way of demanding stuff can be quite difficult to live with. So again, it’s going to feel like an eternity seeing her through these next 6 or 7 years!
I hope that seeing my daughter through her teenage years will be a largely enjoyable and ultimately rewarding experience. I know that there will undoubtedly be trials and tribulations along the way. But I hope that she begins to see that we’re not the enemy and that she simply doesn’t have all of the answers. That way harmony lies. Let’s wait and see!
Just in case your reading this, Zac Effron, should you ever turn up on my doorstep, asking for my daughter, you’ll be given very short shrift indeed. Take your fame, your Hollywood riches and even your impressive pecs, and nick off.
As the father of two young children I look forward to Father’s Day every year. I’m lucky; I have two great kids – lively, thoughtful, caring and loving. Granted, they’re not always like this and like many parents, I assume, I spend several hours a week quietly calling them names under my breath and wishing they’d leave me alone! This isn’t being unkind, just honest. Sometimes, my lively, thoughtful, caring, loving kids are complete pricks. And despite loving them with all of my heart, I can’t deny it. But they never let me down come Father’s Day.
Now I suspect that we can attribute a lot of the credit for a succession of successful Father’s Days to my wife. She loves to plan. She explores ideas, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of the perfect gift. And she has a way of making the kids think that this particular idea was there’s all along and that this gift choice was the kind of thing they meant when they told her that they thought I needed more socks. Don’t get me wrong, I know for a fact that the kids themselves – my daughter can be particularly thoughtful – have come up with some great gift ideas, but they still often need the wife’s guiding hand. And that of my Amazon Wishlist! However, the gift is just a part of why I love this particular day.
Both of my children are capable of terrible behaviour. Both struggle to control their emotions and tears are commonplace in our house. I suppose, for their age, in some ways they’re just a little bit immature, like their dad. It can be frustrating, but I’d rather this than a pair of emotional vacuums, holding everything in. They’re typical kids and I feel sure that as they grow they’ll learn to supress their reactions while retaining that emotion and knowing how to deal with it. And this is part of the reason why I enjoy Father’s Day so much. My kids both seem to make a conscious effort to behave. It’s usually payed back ten-fold on the following day, but on that particular Sunday, they suddenly learn to breath and reign their emotions in somewhat. As a result, Father’s Day seems peaceful. An island of calm waiting to be battered by a storm of emotion for most of the rest of the year. There have been exceptions, when one child has decided that they couldn’t possibly not speak up or cause a commotion, but largely speaking Father’s Day is fun.
Another reason to enjoy Father’s Day in our house is because my kids still haven’t lost their enthusiasm for it. Myself, I switched to just giving or sending a card decades ago. Me and my old man get along, but he sees no great need to be showered with gifts – or affection for that matter – and I see no great need to keep buying him stuff he won’t really appreciate now that I’m an adult. I sat through years of Christmas, birthday and Father’s Day present giving with much the same reaction – ‘Aye, that’s nice. Thank you.’ *Puts present on the floor by the side of his armchair – he’ll make it disappear later*. Eventually there seemed little point in the gift side of things. If I was doing it seeking some kind of love or affection, it wasn’t forthcoming and if I thought my present was going to change my dad’s life, then that idea was quickly shot down by his reaction.
My own children, on the other hand, excel at showing their enthusiasm for Father’s Day. The routine is always the same. We’ll decide when they’re going to give their gifts and then they’ll go out to retrieve them. The gifts are always ‘hidden’, adding to the excitement (they’re in the hallway, I’m just not allowed to leave the room). They will then re-enter the room, with their gifts still ‘hidden’ behind their backs. And here’s where the absolute joy of this day kicks in for me. They can’t contain their excitement. Both faces are plastered with wide grins. They can’t stand still, even though they’re lining up as though they’re about to be inspected. And they both have a present held, and usually only partially hidden, behind their back – there are probably others, hidden in plain sight this time, in a gift bag on the floor. Every year I pretend that I can’t see any of them.
They take turns in giving the first gift. Each year they start with something small, usually of their choice; something they’ve generally bought to make up the numbers a little bit. This is where Disney dad takes over, although it’s never a difficult role to adopt. By now I’m genuinely thrilled at what’s going on. My kids are practically quivering with excitement, almost unable to contain themselves and I am the focus of their attention. Brilliant!
After each gift or card I get hugs. If they’ve added kisses to a card – and they always do – I indulge myself, forcing them to give me every last kiss that they’d drawn on their greeting. If the kiss is in any way more of a glance I’ll not count it, just to get more. We squeeze each other tightly and even with my general fear of hugs I could stay like this all day. Even though I absolutely love a present, this is the best part of Father’s Day and the main reason why I love it. We may argue and fall out throughout the year, but for this 10 minute period we have all the love in the world for each other.
On the subject of gifts, over the years I’ve had some memorable ones. I still have a bar of chocolate that’s wrapped in personalised packaging, telling me that I’m the best dad in the world. I think this makes it official. I can’t bring myself to eat it, because of course it’s much more than just a bar of chocolate. I’ve also had brilliant books and CDs – yes, some of us still live in the past – as well as the obligatory pack of socks, because everybody needs socks.
The most memorable gifts though have both come from my son. My daughter has given fantastic gifts too, but the ones that will always stick in my mind just happen to have come from my son. He’s always been a thoughtful boy. Since he could read properly he has taken the time to scrutinise greetings cards so that he finds just the right message for the recipient. And he’s always given lots of thought to his presents. Both gifts, although very well meaning, undoubtedly fall into the category of ‘quirky’. The first one that springs to mind was a banana. Not a bunch mind, just a single banana. I got other gifts too, but the one that he was most excited about was the banana. He was about 5 at the time. He knew that this was a fruit that I liked, so it was definitely appropriate. However, his reasoning was slightly more complex than this. Apparently, he’d told my wife that he had to buy daddy a banana ‘to make sure he’s healthy’. Given my heart problems of last year, it may be accurate to wonder if he’s actually some kind of wizard. Maybe he had watched his dad snaffling one too many chocolates or bags of crisps and thought, ‘this bloke’s out of control, here’s me being force fed fruit my whole life and my dad seems to be working far too hard cultivating a belly that he’s going to really regret in a few years time.’ Whatever the thought process, it was a gift that made me smile and one that I’ll remember forever.
The other most memorable gift though was a bible. No really. As ever, Louise checked and checked that this was really the present that he wanted to buy, in the hope that he’d change his mind, but no; he was adamant. The reason he wanted to buy me a bible? ‘Because that way God will keep daddy safe’. He was only about 6 at the time and of course that’s not an age when you question God, but either way it was incredibly sweet. So although it was a gift with a limited shelf life, when you consider the old maxim about it being the thought that counts, it was lovely.
I didn’t realise that bibles could cost quite a bit and apparently with this in mind, my wife and son trawled around the local charity shops so that they could buy a cheaper one and still have money left to spend on me elsewhere. Maybe I was being upgraded to a whole bunch of bananas, I can’t remember. In the end they settled on a hardback children’s bible with shortened versions of all the stories and some pictures to boot. So you can probably imagine my confusion when I opened it up!
As a matter of course we would then spend time reading it together, at Dylan’s request. We’d lie on our bed, cuddled up and read after his shower at nights, with me rationing the amount of stories, so that we’d get more times reading together! This really was the Father’s Day gift that kept on giving. And an even bigger bonus was that sometimes Dylan would fall asleep on me as we read and so we’d then just lie there for a while longer, warm and cosy with me content to just cuddle him in and listen to his breathing. So in the end, perhaps it really was a blessing that he bought me such a leftfield gift!
Behold below a conversation that I overheard a few years ago between my then 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
Daughter: I’ve got loads of boyfriends.
Son: Have you?
Daughter: Yeah. I had more, but I broke up with some.
Son: Oh. So who do you go out with?
Daughter: I mainly go out with Ryan.
Son: Ryan? Oh.Do you kiss him? Do you kiss him up the bum?
Now ask yourself the question in the headline for this blog. I dare you to answer no.
If you’re a parent this is the kind of nonsense you’ll have heard a thousand times before from your kids. In fact, the chances are that you’ve heard a lot worse or a lot stranger. If you’re a parent who also works with kids then this type of thing is probably an hourly occurrence. There’s a reason for that and there’s no escaping it. Kids are weird.
Just over twelve years ago, as I looked down on my newly born daughter lying on our bed – she was born at home – there were many things I imagined. This beautiful, scrawny little thing was coming with me on a myriad of adventures. We’d be best pals, laughing and joking, I’d be there for her dark moments and I’d share in her many triumphs. That much was sure. She’d be a straight ‘A’ student – because back then no-one had had the 0-9 grading brainwave – she’d be imaginative, friendly, bright, good-humoured, sensible. She definitely wouldn’t be weird. And yet, nine years on she’d be discussing her loads of boyfriends with her brother, who in turn it seemed had become some kind of pervert after only six years on the planet. And why? Because kids are weird, that’s why.
Think about it. Every parent will have marvelled at their kids talking to themselves or holding conversations with something imaginary, or even tangible, like dolls or cuddly toys. And they’ll have done this for ages as well. Cute right? No. Weird is the word you’re looking for. Face it, half of that conversation isn’t actually happening is it?
And then there’s the drawings. As a parent you’ll have received hundreds of well-meaning gifts in the form of drawings or paintings from your children. All handed over with a certain level of expectancy, and of course you manage that expectancy by reacting in a ridiculously positive way. This drawing or painting is literally the best thing you’ve ever seen and it’s so much better than the last amazing one they presented you with all of twenty minutes ago.
But in reality, these drawings are almost always bizarre. In our house – and I’m sure in many others – they seem to regularly feature penises. My son especially seemed adept at drawing me as an actual cock. A family picture where mummy is recognizably small and dark-haired, his sister, slightly smaller, lighter hair, but again quite human and Dylan himself, probably holding mummy’s hand as the smallest of the family. And then daddy, drawn as an enormous phallus with two feet attached to the bottom of him that inevitably look like balls.
To add to this artistic madness he once also did a family drawing where everyone was present and again, recognizably human, while I was not only todger-like, but I was also having a poo. He even triumphantly announced, ‘…and look, Daddy’s having a poo!’ And there can be no other explanation for this type of behaviour than the fact that kids are weird.
We capture this weirdness too. Keep it for posterity. Preserve it on cameras, USB sticks and clouds, thinking that we’ll go back to it and remember how cute our kids once were. Well, look beyond the cute and I guarantee you’ll find that they’re all just weird, freakish and beyond our comprehension.
Recently we were transferring some videos from a phone to a laptop in order to clear storage space. We found ourselves watching them again, as you do in a kind of ‘aaw, do you remember this’ kind of fashion. And we sort of did go ‘aaw’ and we sort of did remember those times too. But we also found ourselves wondering what on Earth we had brought into the world!
Two of these videos stand out. The first was filmed furtively over the top of a bedroom door after my wife had asked my daughter to brush her hair, ready for school. She was about 6 at the time; my daughter, not my wife. Of course, despite several enquiries as to the progress of the brushing, she wasn’t brushing her hair at all, hence the filming. But what was she doing? Well, she was perched on her window sill, singing a song to herself about having a party in her tummy, of course. I can still hear her now, out of tune as always, repeating the inventive line, ‘Party, party in my tummy’ in a kind of weak American(ish) accent. Weird.
The second video will always be cute. When my son is a strapping hulk of a man with children of his own, I’ll still be able picture him in this video. I’ll hear him too. For all but the last seconds of the film he’s as cute as a button, singing along with a talking teddy bear, who when you told it your child’s name, was able to put it in a song. He sings along happily, with the odd coy look at the camera or a giggle until, as the song ends, inexplicably, he makes the noise ‘Booooooooow’ (rhyming with ‘no’) before acting as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened and trying to grab the camera from his mum and demanding, ‘Lemme see!’ But, for the love of God, what was that noise? We’d never heard it before and have never heard it since and despite being immeasurably cute and endearing it can’t be denied that it is simply plain weird. What enters a kid’s head that informs them, just make a noise now?
My son especially, has provided lots of strange moments throughout his childhood. He went through quite a long phase of cutting up wiggly strips of paper and tucking them in the back of his trousers so that he had a tail. This was a phase long enough for it to be suggested that this might be some kind of obsession; almost like he thought of himself as some kind of animal. He was probably only two or three at the time, but the fact was, he seemed to do this on a daily basis and for an unreasonably long time. And there was no trotting around to accompany his tail, like a tiny horse. He would just make sure he had a tail and get on with the business of the day, like making weird noises in videos and asking his sister inappropriate questions.
Further standout memories of the weird in our house also include my son once asking me, ‘Will you leave mum?’ with no context at all as we sat eating our tea. Had he picked up a hint of marital trouble, despite there not being any? I wasn’t sure, but for a while I was staggered. I had no idea where it had come from, but boy, was it weird.
And in every household there’ll be a child who deems it appropriate to dress up as a super hero or a Disney Princess for a trip to the supermarket or insists on having some sort of strange order for eating food or refuses to eat without their favourite knife and fork. As a kid, I even had a cousin who went through a years long phase of adding food colouring to his meals. So you’d go to his house to find him eating blue eggs, green chips and maybe purple baked beans. And while I understand that it’s just kids being kids, it’s also undeniably because they are all very, very strange little humans.
As I work in a school, I’m subjected to lots and lots of examples of kids being weird. I should have enough anecdotes to write a book, but unfortunately either never wrote stuff down or wrote it down but never in the same place. However, from memory, geography seems to be a great source of weirdness in kids. Again, I understand that it’s just knowledge and that these are things that we simply pick up as we go along, but sometimes the strange way of looking at simple geography that kids have, can be absolutely staggering.
In the past I’ve taught Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ to thousands of children. And great fun it was too; putting on the voices, walking around like a big bear to mimic Lennie and trying to act like a flirtatious young woman while pretending to be Curley’s wife. There have been times when I’ve expected a delegation from BAFTA to burst through the door and yet here I am, writing a blog about strange kids, my acting still criminally ignored. In order to teach it though you have to give a class some idea on the background to the story – so The Great Depression, The Wall St. Crash, dustbowls, California, that kind of thing. And it’s here that the weirdness of kids has shone through time and again.
It would appear that there are many, many children out there without the slightest clue as to where America actually is. So before the history stuff I’ve often found myself drawing a whiteboard sized map in order to show where the USA actually is. Now if that wasn’t bad enough, once you’ve got some sort of approximation of where it actually is, you’ve sometimes then also got to go to the lengths of pointing out the East coast and the West coast, in order to show them New York, for Wall Street and then California, where, if you don’t already know, the story takes place.
Now, I’m sorry, as a teacher I totally understand that there are all manner of different abilities out there in children. Believe me, I know that work has to be differentiated in order to make it accessible to all. I also get it when kids are strong in one subject, but maybe not others. But, for the love of God, how can you not know where America is? Firstly, it’s enormous. Secondly, it will have had some significant level of influence on your life, culture, beliefs, the TV you watch, the music you listen to, at some point in your lifetime. And thirdly, why have you never seen a map of the world? I’d predict it was because you spent too long doing drawings of dads that looked like penises, that’s why! Surely this lack of basic knowledge says something about just how weird kids can get?
A few other instances of this general knowledge weirdness immediately spring to mind. The first one coincidentally links to Of Mice and Men, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand the dark depths of the mind that it came from. For context, if you don’t know me, I’m from the North East of England. Happily, I’m from the world’s greatest city, Newcastle, and as such I speak with the accent of those from the city. We’re known as Geordies and we have a Geordie accent; it’s quite distinct and reasonably well-known. Or so I thought.
A few years back a colleague came to tell me a story about what a kid – the weirdo – had asked them in class. Apparently the child had flummoxed my colleague by asking the name of ‘that Californian teacher’. That Californian teacher was me. Where I’m from isn’t even on the same continent, let alone country. I couldn’t sound less Californian if I tried. Even the weather is incomparable. And yet, said child had identified me as such. There is no link. There is no explanation, other than the fact that kids are weird and on this occasion, almost too weird for words.
Over the years this weird geography curse has struck again and again. Notable examples have been when a kid asked ‘Sir, where’s Bradford?’ Answer, it’s literally less than 10 miles away – and also when I got asked where Australia was. On this occasion I patiently pointed out that it was thousands of miles away on the other side of the world; I think I also drew a very basic map on the board thinking that it would help. It didn’t help though because the child still looked puzzled. Finally, she revealed the source of her bewilderment, crying, ‘Eh? But I thought it was in France!’ In France. Not near or bordering – which, by the way, would have been equally strange – but actually in France. It’s rare that I’m lost for words, but this occasion left me unable to answer!
While a lot of these weird anecdotes have been prompted by the behaviour of toddlers, my final few pieces of weird evidence have come from the mouths of kids old enough to know better. Both anonymous, but both very recent. Firstly there was the food advice given by a child to someone who was considering a radical dietary change – they were thinking of cutting out dairy, including milk. To my utter exasperation the following question rattled around my head and indeed the room for what seemed like forever, while I tried to figure out just where it could have come from.
‘Could you try chicken milk?’
Seriously, let that sink in. But while it is sinking in digest the next piece of child weirdness that I have to offer. Just this week I had a class writing an analysis of a poem. We’d taken a couple of lessons to study it and the class were interested and eager throughout. They had enjoyed the poem and after a brief chat about the kind of language features they’d need to be analysing in order to answer the question, I set them off writing. The silence was tangible. The ‘sound’ of a class just working, thinking about their response to a piece of literature. Wonderful. And then a hand went up and when I asked how I could help, they uttered the following question?
‘Sir, what’s empathy? Is it when you put yourself in somebody else?’
No. No, that in fact, is something very, very different.
As a final footnote, even today a child of 16 has asked me if I’m Scottish. This despite someone prior to the question asking me if I was from Newcastle (which if you don’t know is firmly in England). He repeated his question several times after being told that ‘no’ I was from England. And then as if this wasn’t bad enough the discussion moved on to all things Scottish, including the revelation that kilts were somewhat classed as national dress and, much to the amusement of the boys, were a bit like a big skirt. But this wasn’t the height. No. Not even close. A boy then asked this incredible question.
“Do they play them massive trumpets?” As a stunned silence engulfed the room the penny slowly dropped with me. I thought I knew what he meant by “massive trumpets”.
Bagpipes. He meant bagpipes.
Kids are weird. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.