Poetry Blog: ‘As he fell…’

As someone who lives away from their home town and family home, I find it difficult to keep in touch. Sometimes that’s down to having quite a busy life. Family life can take over at times and then there’s work; having a job that is regularly the wrong side of hectic can mean that it’s tough to find time for a moment to relax, let alone time to think about who I need to get in touch with.

Sometimes though, I have to admit that my lack of phone calls home is just down to sheer laziness. When I finally get the chance to slump on the settee in front of some mindless television the last thing that I want to do is pick up the phone and make the inevitable and somewhat awkward small talk with my dad, asking and responding to the same questions that we always ask each other. A lot of our chats are just us counting down the minutes until we can tick a box marked ‘Chatted with dad/Graham’ and pass on the baton on to my mam.

A recent phone call got me thinking about the relationship I have with my dad though. Although I don’t think I’d ever describe us as being very close, my dad has always been a bit of a hero to me and always been someone that I’ve wanted to impress. My dad has always seemed invincible to me as nothing ever seems to really stop him in his tracks. He’s a typical Northern bloke, not given to outbursts of affection or praise and so it’s always felt like I haven’t really impressed him very much. That’s not me reaching for sympathy, it’s just the way things have been. I can’t say it’s ever stopped me from getting on with life.

There have been sporadic moments of affection and expressions of pride along the way but I think it’s best not to be greedy or needy. I’ve learnt to be happy with myself or proud of my own achievements and my relationship with my dad has been largely based around chatting about the football, something that I don’t imagine it’s unusual to build a father son relationship on!

A recent phone call led to my dad revealing that he’d fallen off a ladder and hurt himself quite badly. It was almost a throwaway conversation for him. No fuss, no need for sympathy, just very matter of fact. But it shattered my thoughts of him as being somehow invincible. He’d managed to hurt himself quite badly and had to go to hospital – of course he’d driven himself there – to get stitches in a leg wound and everything else checked over. He’s in his eighties now though and the incident and the way he reported it in our phone call made me think about him and I suppose his life expectancy a lot. And so, I wrote about it.

As he fell...

As he fell it was nothing that flashed before his eyes
and after the whump of the ground
and the surge of air that left him
all that remained was one, over ripe question mark.
Lying voiceless, his only thought formed as slowly 
as a child colouring carefully to avoid breaching the lines;
if this is how it all ends, was there ever really any point?

Flat on his back, doing whatever it is
one does when you cannot even manage to gasp,
he relaxed, rather than gave way to panic,
revelled almost in the moment that told him to do nothing,
prone in the hinterland somewhere between life and death,
looking serenely skyward while the now fallen ladder
balanced awkwardly across his chest
and wondered what was meant to happen next.

A faceless nothing seemed to silently gaze, take him in,
measure him up and contemplate his place in the world
before deciding that the time was not yet right
and placing him back carefully, like one would a
freshly unhooked trout spared the pan
and allowed to feel a freedom that would for now
be marked by the pain that besets the old fool
who overreached and fell from the ladder.

Breath returned, he gathered his thoughts,
dusted down his creaking bones
and swam tentatively back through the lake 
in search of not just sympathy and the inevitable scorn,
but a familiar face who would narrow her eyes 
and pass her shaken headed judgement ,before gently tending his wounds
and share not just his tale of woe and bloodied laundry,
but everything that life had, could and would throw at them
for their eternity together, and now for at least another day.

In order to write this poem I tried to imagine how my dad must have felt. All he really told me was that when it happened he lay there for a while to kind of gather himself before getting up and making his way slowly home. So for a bit of an uncomfortable while I had to try and inhabit my dad’s mind and think about what he’d have done, how he’d have felt and kind of join the dots about what had actually happened, because he’s very much an octogenarian of few words. Has been since he was about 40, I think!

He was actually in his allotment pruning a hedge and overreached. Subsequently, he lost balance and over he went. But given his time of life I imagined that he’d have felt quite bewildered by it all and having fallen from quite high up on the ladder I thought it might have knocked the stuffing out of him and left him not only in pain, but groggy, confused and possibly…possibly, even as a big tough, gruff Geordie, a bit scared.

Speaking to my dad that day he was resigned to more or less giving up on his allotment, admitting that it had gotten too much for him. He’s 82 after all! But there was a definite sadness in him about that as it’s something he’s toiled away at for probably well over 20 years now, since they moved from the family home to where they live now.

I ended the poem with a little bit about my mam. They’ve been married for around 60 years and it’s always funny to watch them together. For every small tender moment there seem to be a thousand gripes and snipes and they argue like, well like an old married couple. But I know that she worries about him and as an ex nurse, I know that she’ll have tried to clean him up and get him to just sit down and take it easy. There wouldn’t have been a great deal of explicit sympathy, but I think she’d have been scared by it all too. He actually managed to slice his leg open and only noticed a while later when his leg felt damp and he thought he’d had another kind of accident altogether.

I hope I’ve done them both justice with this poem. I wondered what must have gone through his mind as things failed him again. He’s always been so strong and just tough, so I think this latest age episode must have been strange for him.

As ever, I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment. It’s always good to read people’s thoughts, particularly when what I write is as personal as this poem.

Poetry Blog: Dad

I wrote this poem fairly recently and although the circumstances have changed for the better since then, the sentiment behind it remains very much the same.

It’s a poem about my dad, who at the time of writing, I hadn’t seen for 18 months. I hadn’t seen my mam either, come to think about it. Because they live together, which is usually the way when you’ve been married for 50 odd years. But it was speaking to my dad that prompted me to write.

Speaking to him shocked me a little bit, despite the fact that I was aware of probably a lot of things about him from the 18 months when I’d not been around him. I was also very much aware of his age and this should have been an indicator of the fact that he was getting old. And yet, speaking to him and hearing what sounded like a very old man on the other end of the phone, gave me a bit of a jolt. He sounded not only old, but frail, perhaps even ill.

It led me to sit, worrying, before then spending time reminiscing for most of the rest of the day. So having thought about my dad a lot afterwards, I sat down and wrote the following.

Dad

The drudgery of another working week done and I'm preparing for the next one
as my phone alerts me to the terror of a voicemail.
You sound urgent, but noticeably frail, more my grandad than my dad.
"When you get this, call. Straight away."

I sit down nervously, to return the call, pre-empt the bad news,
aware of hospital appointments, complaints, tests.
I needn't have bothered as the 'news' is nothing at all,
just a parent checking in. But still you sound different.

I'm reminded that, despite middle age, I'm still 'the bairn'
and continue to be wrapped in cotton wool, drip-fed information
on a 'he doesn't need to know' basis.
I can't trust your reassurance, but can't question it either.

You sound different; where once there was the toughness
of teak, now in its place squats a weakness as the ravages of
age take hold and remind me that you won't be here forever.
You're failing, ever so slightly, when I never thought you would.

That night, I can't escape you as you take root in my head.
The sound of you; segs on concrete, returning home with the paper.
Clearing your throat at 6am, tapping a razor on the sink, 
oblivious to those of us trying to sleep. Later you'd leave the car running
on the drive to warm up, just in case anyone hadn't yet been woken.

I see you emerging from the car after the Cup Final, crestfallen,
unwittingly signalling my own life of sporting misery.
Drunk on New Year's Eve, incongruously dressed in a kilt,
jiving with our neighbour on another package holiday; mesmerising.
Coming through the front door, hands black after another day running the yard.

Later, I feel you chasing me up the stairs, when my smart mouth ran away,
smell the sharp tinge of metal on your work clothes, 
the fug of flatulence as I open our living room door and the smell
seems to slap me in the face.

I smile at the pints we shared, the fish and chips, taste the 
cheese on toast you volunteered me for at the lull in Sportsnight,
hear your laugh, bellowing, a crude comment, a ruffle of my hair,
remember how you reduced me to tears telling your friends of your pride in me,
your son, the clever bugger. I see the picture of you
with your grandson and those tears burn my face again.

We haven't awkwardly hugged in far too long. 
I'm not ready for what inevitably comes next, even if no one will tell me
until the very last minute anyway.

The poem’s about just sitting thinking about my dad and the way I remember him. These are memories from along time ago and it seems obvious that he’d be very different now. So I suppose, it’s a poem about a number of other things too. Growing old, change, personality, perception. Certainly my perception of my dad has been that he’s invincible. While he wasn’t a hero figure growing up, he still just seemed to have a solidity about him. Speaking to him that a few weeks ago, he seemed to have lost that solidity.

I’ve since been able to visit my parents and although it wasn’t an upsetting visit – in fact it was truly lovely just to be able to be in the same room as them again – it was was a bit of a shock. The reality that my dad is now an octogenarian was unavoidable. And while that sounds silly, it was something that I hadn’t given too much thought beforehand. My dad was just my dad.

When I was younger my dad always seemed old. Anyone who’s been your typical teenager will recognise that feeling! So seeing him hit 60, retire and being the age he is now, didn’t feel like a big deal. He was old, just like he’d always been. It’s funny how just the sound of someone’s voice on the phone can shake you to your boots. Writing the poem helped me deal with how it all made me feel.

One last thing; the line about the sound of his ‘segs’ on concrete. That’s one that will mean something or absolutely nothing to readers. To explain, ‘segs’ are/were the little strips of metal that would often be on the soles of shoes and boots, I guess to protect said soles. They made a very satisfying noise when a person walked, a kind of scraping click. I don’t even know if ‘segs’ is the right word for them, but my dad’s shoes and boots always had them on throughout the 70s and 80s.

I hope you enjoyed the poem. Maybe it made you think about your own parents. Hopefully it provoked happy memories. I’d love to hear what you thought.

Poetry Blog: As yet, still untitled…

This is a poem I posted recently in the Lockdown Literature group that I helped set up on Facebook. It was a good way of passing the time during our first period of lockdown and it’s great that people are still posting in it on a fairly regular basis. This was the first poem I’d posted there in a while.

It wasn’t a poem that I was going to post on my blog. I’ve tended to steer clear of anything too personal on here, but having sat down and read through the poem again, I wondered how relevant it would be to others. At the time of posting it in the group it didn’t have a title and I wasn’t sure it was finished. It was about growing up in our house, but on reflection I began to wonder just how normal the things I wrote about were. I grew up in a house where shouting and various kinds of tension felt almost constant and fairly normal. I hated it. When my parents argued I felt like I was waiting for the inevitable to happen and for one of them to announce that they were leaving. Or I worried about whatever other terrible end it might have. It felt like nothing ever got talked about or discussed; everything was a battle. And not just with my parents; with my sister, with my grandmother…wow, especially with my grandmother! But adult life has taught me that maybe it wasn’t all that rare. Maybe that is just how family life can be sometimes.

As I mentioned, it’s not something I really like to write about, or at least post where it’s so visible, but having revised the poem a little bit and revised my thinking about it too, I thought I’d post and see what people think.

Mam and dad fought; to keep food on the table,
to keep a roof above our heads, to stay together.
So maybe there was nothing left in them to fill a home with love.
Maybe being there when they could was enough.

In a lucid moment, in quiet, in solitude
I think I understand that now,
have sort of come to terms with it, am almost at peace with it.
But while it's easy to say let go of the past, it's impossible not to always be reminded of the impact that it's had. The damage that it's done.
Dealing with what it left behind, 
picking up the phone more often and enjoying the life you have while it's still there still present a knot to be unpicked by stone cold fingers.
Maybe a nod, a smile, an isolated cuddle and the odd word of encouragement was all the energy they had left. Maybe it works both ways. Maybe we're all just like this.
Maybe there's a lesson to be learned.

A funny one this. I still don’t think it’s finished. I’m still not entirely happy with it and I still think it will be revisited. It’s a slightly different poem to the one that appeared in that Facebook group and definitely one that’s changed in mood with the tweaks that have been made.

The poem still hasn’t got a title. I wondered about calling it ‘Maybe’ but that word was only added in this second draft, so it didn’t quite feel right. Maybe I’ll revisit the subject matter, but not the poem itself. Maybe, like the subject matter, the poem just needs to left. As I said earlier, it’s a funny one.

As ever, feel free to leave a comment as I’m always interested to hear what people think. I’m never entirely sure when it comes to poems, but this one has really stopped me and made me think.

Things My Parents Used To Say

photo of a boy covering his eyes
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I miss my parents. There’s no panic, they’re both still with us and in fact are on the end of the phone should I need them. But the global Coronavirus pandemic and the fact that we’re in lockdown has meant that there’s not a hope of actually seeing them. I can’t visit as I live over 100 miles away and while the frequency of phone calls home has increased over these last few weeks, I still miss them. This is weird because, if I’m honest, the distance between us has always felt quite convenient before now.

The whole situation has made me think about them a lot more than usual. I guess, if I’m being honest, part of that is to do with having so much time on my hands. I certainly don’t normally think so deeply about my parents and for so long. In fact sometimes, with a busy work and family life balance, my parents can seem a bit of an irritation. And while I feel guilty typing that and reading it back, I doubt any of us could look at it and not think the same for at least some of the time. If you’re busy, stressed out, hitting deadlines ad trying to be a good husband and father, checking in with the parents can feel like a bridge too far.

My mam and dad are getting old now. My father is eighty and my mother, despite her dogged attempts to keep the actual number quiet, is in her late seventies. In short, they’re vulnerable to this virus. And so, worrying about them, thinking about them, talking about them and even almost succumbing to random acts of abandon like driving up to stand outside their house and chat to them have come quite naturally of late.

One of the things that I’ve thought about most – and one of the things that automatically makes me smile – has been the kind of things they say or more accurately, said when I was growing up. You see, parents speak a different language. As you grew up they seemed almost alien and even now, in middle age I can say that they still speak a different language. So let’s have a look – in no particular order – at some of their stock phrases and hopefully it won’t be just me who’s transported back in time.

  1. It’s reasonable to assume that every child will frequently ask ‘What’s for tea?’ (or dinner, if you’re posh or just plain wrong). My parents never seemed to tire of not giving me the correct answer. As a pair they seemed to have one stock, prepared answer each; a personal favourite, if you like. Firstly, my mam would regularly reply to said question with ‘Shit, with sugar on’. Often, if he was around my dad would then add to this nonsense by informing, in a posh voice ‘but divinely cooked.’ His own answer, for the times mam wasn’t around or found herself too busy to answer was to tell me that it was Dried bread , jammed in the door.’ Hilariously here, not only was the bread stale, but he was insinuating that the nearest I’d get to jam was to stick it in the door. I didn’t even like jam! It’s safe to say that I was often a confused child around meal times and as a fussy eater, disappointed too.  Why wouldn’t they just tell me the answer? And why, oh why give such a bizarre response. Frankly, if Childline had been around when I was growing up, I think I’d have had more than enough reason to give them a call.
  2. Closely linked to number one is the fact that because my mam didn’t like to swear in front of us (apart from when she was giving a witty answer to the tea question) she’d often substitute words for swear words, especially when exclaiming in frustration or anger. The stupidest I can remember is her habit of saving our delicate ears from foul language by shouting ‘Tish’. It’s a tough one, but can you guess what she was really wanting to say?
  3. A stone cold favourite, possibly in every house up and down the land next. Imagine the scene. You’re out in a shop, possibly you’ve been in many more than just the one. At some point you will have seen something that takes your fancy. Tired out, bored and probably fed up, you forget manners and exclaim ‘I want insert item here’. What were you told? Altogether now, ‘I want never gets!’ Every. Single. Time. And always said with total and utter enthusiasm and smug self satisfaction.
  4. Another that has caused much beffudlement over the years comes from a different source, but a parent all the same. This one comes from my wife’s late grandmother who was as Yorkshire as they come. When I first noticed her using this expression she had got to that age that some people get to where they no longer care what people think of them or what they’re saying and so this expression would come out in all sorts of places, to the amusement and sometimes mock embarrassment of my wife. I never knew what it meant or even, it transpires, what was being said. It was only in thinking about this blog and doing some loose sort of research that my wife explained it. The expression in question was ‘warn o’ my arse’. Warn would have been pronounced waaaaan, by the way. Apparently it means ‘worse than my backside’. So when someone would ask her what she thought of something, Nelly (the grandma in question) would often – just it seems for the fun of it – reply ‘warn o’ my arse’. So, for example a meal might be ‘worse than my arse’. Charming.
  5. A response to the question ‘What’s up?’ was always one that left me frustrated. It showed how desperately uncool my parents were. So to place you at the scene, so to speak, imagine a young lad asking his dad ‘What’s up?’ It may have been a question of concern or just one making a general enquiry. Either way, let’s see it as the intended starter of a conversation, remembering that it’s good to talk. So imagine the mounting teenage angst when the response to my ‘What’s up?’ was regularly, ‘The sky…do you want it down to play with?’ My response of a groan, a thousand yard stare and leaving for another room probably said a lot about my relationship with my dad!
  6. My dad however, provides the final two of the memorable things my parents used to say. This particular one is one I’ve to this day never been able to explain. My dad has explained it but it still makes no sense at all. Let’s try it for size, shall we? If you ever got something wrong and tried to explain your mistake away by saying that ‘I though it was…’ you’d be met with the following. ‘You know what Thought did, don’t you? Followed a shit cart and thought it was a wedding.’ Poor old Thought. Left with so many questions, not least ‘What on God’s green earth is a shit cart?’ And let’s not even think about the wedding in question.
  7. Finally comes a tale of short trousers. And by short trousers, I don’t mean shorts. I mean trousers that are too short. Half masters we call them. A boy on my street was notorious for his short trousers. He just never seemed to have jeans that reached down to his shoes. And so, whenever he walked past the window he was like a magnet for my dad and one of his favourite expressions. Dad never seemed to tire of telling us that Jamie needed to ‘put some jam on his shoes and invite his trousers down for tea.’ Much to the embarrassment of my own kids, I have adopted this particular phrase and still use it to this day.

So there we have it. Parents, especially mine, are a curious breed who at times have a language of their own that appears to be mainly made up of absolute nonsense. Feel free to leave any of your own parent’s sayings in the comments box or let me know via Twitter, where I’m @grahamcrosby and Middle Age Fanclub.

 

Crosby Academy: Adventures in home schooling.

flat lay composition with empty paper
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Having been teacher for the last twenty years I’ve experienced a lot of challenges in the classroom. From earth-shattering breaking news like the attack on the Twin Towers to teenagers breaking wind that could well have cleared the classroom out for the day. However, this week I’ve been facing up to perhaps my biggest challenge yet. Home-schooling my own kids.

Monday 23rd March 2020 witnessed the birth of a new place of learning as Crosby Academy opened its doors for the very first time. We’re a small school. Tiny, in fact with a cohort of only two pupils and two teachers. We’re also a bit of a through school with students in Year 9 and Year 6. And with school closures meaning that students may not return to their actual place of learning this academic year, it leaves us sat between two stools, so to speak. Our Year 6 boy could well have seen his last Year 6 action, leaving us wondering if we should simply be preparing for, and getting ahead with, his start at high school.

But enough of the boring details. Let’s get to the fun stuff.

Following a non-existent consultation process I installed myself as Executive Principal of the academy. No interviews needed; I am absolutely the man for this job. I have literally no experience of this level of management, but figure that having worked with various SLTs in the past who seemed under-qualified to collect the trolleys in Asda, I’d be alright. That said, I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to start collecting the trolleys in Asda. Especially that bit where they stop the traffic by wheeling about a hundred of them out in a big row. Never mind, I’ll tackle that in my pensionable years.

Our main aim at Crosby Academy is to make learning fun for our kids. That’s a genuine sentence by the way; there is no punchline. From my point of view, it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock for all of us – we’re all out of our comfort zones, so let’s make sure we can cover lots of the skills the kids will need, but try to relax and enjoy ourselves at the same time.

With fun in mind, we start the day by taking part in Joe Wicks’ live YouTube PE lesson – a kind of aerobic workout, but I’m guessing, designed to be little more child friendly. Our Year 9 student opts out, as she does with most exercise these days, but other than that the whole school – staff and students – are ready to workout. We take our places in the ‘gym’ – our front room – and tune in to Joe’s YouTube channel ready to feel the burn, as they no doubt still say in gyms up and down the land, while staring at themselves in big mirrors and thinking about muscles like abs, quads and glutes.

At 9am Joe is in position, all skin tight top and a pair of shorts. He is enthusiasm personified, which is normally a bit much for me to take, but I remember our school motto, “It’s like getting an education on the Vengabus.” and put it out of mind. I make a mental note to start writing a school song though. My life is nothing without a futile exercise that will amuse me and me only.

We start with a five minute warm up. Some stretches and stuff to get the heart rate going. I am so busy focusing on bending my body into unnatural positions that I forget the 5 minute part and when Joe tells us we’ve finished our warm up I let out an audible “Whaaaat?”, having already worn myself out. But there’s no time to feel sorry for myself because after wittering on about ‘shout outs’ for a minute or so Joe launches into the first proper exercise. I think I might have to employ a new PE teacher; one that just does football and doesn’t ask for shout outs and then do things like tell the whole of New York, ‘We love you, New York’. We don’t. I mean, you’re alright but there are loads of things I love before you, like chocolate, Sam and Cat on Nickalodeon, Army and Navy sweets and almost everything from Greggs.

Despite my post warm-up fear, the next 20 plus minutes is actually really enjoyable. We speed through various exercises, including things called Jumping Jacks and Climbing The Mountain and there is even more talk of shout outs. At one point I find myself staring in some kind of fascination at Mr Wicks, whose abs are clearly visible even though he’s wearing a t-shirt. It’s like his clothes have been sprayed on and sculpted to him. Meanwhile I’m wearing the kind of loose top I wear for running that should hide a multitude of sins and still my little pot belly is shamefully visible. No matter – I still manage to stumble through the exercises. We seem to do more squats than is humanly necessary and at one point I fear that we should have set up a safe word beforehand, but I get through it. We all do. It feels like the toughest PE lesson ever, but as Executive Principal, I feel like I’ve sent an important message to my staff and pupils. It may well be that lycra and strenuous exercise is to be avoided by a man of my age, but I’ve sent an important message all the same. I might have to go and have a lie down, just while I figure out what it actually is though, you understand.

I decide that we’ll keep Mr Wicks at Crosby Academy. In my head we have the conversation about it. I tell him, “Mr Wicks *then I pause for dramatic effect, because I’m a man of great power now* we’d be more than happy to keep you here at the academy” and he looks at me a little bit in awe but all the while really chuffed, and says something like “wicked” and then gets carried away and calls me “geezer” before apologising. I tell him it’s OK and laugh while I ask the kids and the wife to ‘give a shout out to r Wicks!’. I think we’re having a bromance.

After our PE lesson, as we’re yet to go into lockdown, we go out for a walk, just as a sort of warm down. It’s a beautiful early Spring day, we’re keeping a safe distance from the very few people we encounter and we’re trying to keep the fun in education, remember?

Once we return to school Year 9 settle down to do some Art, while I take Year6/7 up to the Key Stage Fluid Suite (Dylan’s bedroom) to do some English. My daughter is studying for GCSE Art and with a lot of encouragement from us is beginning to believe in herself. She’s in fact very talented and is nowadays happy to just sit and draw or paint. Me and the boy leave her to it.

We’re doing some creative writing so we incorporate some of the ideas from Dylan’s school such as starting with an IQ, which it turns out is some sort of question where neither of us understands what the ‘I’ stands for. This is a bit of a worry given that my Year6/7 student will have had a lot of experience of using them, but I tell myself, it’s OK and that ‘school’s out’, so none of it matters. Learning on the Vengabus, remember? We work out however, that it seems to be a kind of learning purpose, but in the form of a question, so we muddle on through and settle on ‘Can I use interesting vocabulary in my description?’ Secretly I’m thinking more along the lines of ‘Can I get through this next hour without throwing his books out of the window?’ but I don’t let on.

I try to bring a bit of a flavour of high school to his work by making sure his writing is planned and making him stick to a timeframe. I also mark it soon after he’s finished and give him areas for improvement; what we call EBI (Even Better If) points. I’m not sure he likes it, but I try to be as positive as possible, given the fact that he’s my son and of course the only student in the year group. I’m thrilled to see that his first effort is pretty damn good. He’s a little bit shocked to discover that he’ll be re-drafting his work in tomorrow’s lesson though!

Following our English and Art lessons it’s break time and I decide to head out on duty. Our Year 9 student is out in the yard (our garden) so I decide to go and check on her. I think it’s important as the most important person in the academy, who it all revolves around (it’s all about me, not the bloody students), that I get out and mix. However, when I look for her she’s not there and I’m sent into a momentary spin. I’ve lost an entire year group!

It turns out that she’s channeling her inner Goth and avoiding the outdoors because it’s sunny and therefore not the kind of place for vampires. She’s in the room we use for messy play. Actually, let’s just correct that – she’s in her own really messy room doing her best impression of a tramp, in amongst all of her worldly possessions strewn about a 9ft by 9ft box room. She’s OK though and her mostly independent learning seems to be going well.

I decide to do what good leaders do next. I go and check up on my staff. I’ve done plenty of learning walks in actual schools, but not one in a home-school environment. That said, my home-school career is only hours old. However, I feel, given her inexperience as an educator, it’s time to pop into one of my wife’s lessons! Maybe I can pass on a few tips? I’m sure she’d appreciate that…

Obviously, she’s thrilled to see me and spends almost all of the time that I’m in the room with a big smile on her face. Or is that gritted teeth? There’s no pressure here at Crosby Academy though. I simply ask her about 14 different questions about what she’s doing and then, when I feel that I’ve had the answers that I consider the correct ones, I leave.

I don’t do any of this, obviously. But I do pop my head around the door to see how things are going. I haven’t heard any shouting from upstairs so it seems to have been going well and when I enquire that seems to be the case. It’s been a good first day and we bring things to an end rather early in order to give everyone a break and a bit of space away from each other.

For the rest of the week I’m largely responsible for all of the learning at Crosby Academy. Our Maths and Science teacher, my wife, who gets to specialise in all the boring subjects in one go, has to be back at work. In fact, given what is now a lockdown situation, she chooses to work from home, utilising one of our learning hubs here at the academy to make for a home office. Or rather, after a day trying to work at the dining room table with our daughter, she gives up and confines herself to our bedroom for the remainder of the week.

This leaves me as the sole teacher and as a result I give myself a promotion, following a meeting of the school governor (yes that is singular and the meeting amounts to me having a bit of a think). My title is now Admiral of Education – grandiose you may feel, but I’m the fella steering the learning liner, remember. It’s only me that’s responsible for the course of this particular pedagogical pedalo. And thus, admiral seems an extremely fitting title.

For the rest of the week we cover quite a bit of ground. We’re disciplined enough to make sure that we have school every day. Every morning at least two of us join in with Mr Wicks’s PE lesson and every morning I feel like he might be trying to do me an injury. No matter, I manage to stay with it for the week and although it’s difficult, it’s a huge amount of fun too. It feels like a nice way to spend doing some father son bonding time with the added perk that by the time it’s all finished and we’re back to some sense of normality I’ll have buns of steel as well as the possibility of actual abs, rather than just a little pot belly made out of crisps, chocolate and beer.

Our Year 9 student becomes largely autonomous, although I make sure that I check in on her progress regularly. So regularly in fact, that I’m positively wowed by the amount of education one can get from one’s phone these days…

My son – our Year 6 maybe 7 student – needs supervision, however. And so as well as daily Maths and English lessons, we spend time learning Spanish, learning about lines of longtitude in Geography, tuning in to a brilliant live lesson from a World War II bunker in History and then doing some Art outside in the sunshine. My friend and Art teacher Helen has set up a self-isolation Facebook group designed to get people doing art every day and so after our Art lesson I post both of our drawings in the group. It’s to my eternal disappointment that Dylan’s two cartoons from the Dogman books get infinitely more likes than my drawing of a flower from our camellia bush. It seems everyone really is a critic!

As the week ends I realise that despite the sense of dread that I’d had about home-schooling, I’ve really enjoyed myself. We’ve managed to have fun – I’ve only had the one tantrum after all – and I’d like to think that both kids have kept up their learning. Friends on social media have helped with ideas and through sharing things like the World War II bunker lesson and the Facebook drawing group and in the end it’s been a success. So much of a success in fact that I’m considering knocking on my neighbour’s door over the weekend to ask them if they’d like to join in with Crosby Academy. I could have a multi academy trust on my hands by the start of April.

Does anybody know what the rank above admiral is?

 

 

 

 

Grassroots Football: The Gala Experience

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On Sunday 7th July I took my Under 11s football team to compete in the Wakefield Owls Soccer6 Gala, a tournament for various age groups across Yorkshire. This is our story. From previous experience I know that galas are a frenzied affair. There are teams as far as the eye can see, accompanied by parents, close relatives and coaches. And as an actual coach you’re attempting to be in several places at once, coaching your team, instructing subs, keeping parents informed, finding out what’s going on and where you’ll be off to next, as well as trying to stay composed and focused. This may well be what they term ‘mini soccer’ but at a gala it’s like the circus have come to town…and brought the auditions for Britain’s Got Talent with them. And on closer inspection, some of the under 7s do have more than a passing similarity to both Ant and Dec. Gala day begins early in our house as we need to be there to register our team by 9am. Having attended a family wedding the day before, this getting up early lark is not going to be easy. I struggle through a shower and make breakfast for the kids, while intermittently attempting to sort out my coach’s bag and footballs. We load up only the essentials today – first aid kit, bibs, etc and just the 5 footballs so that we can get some practice in without spraying dozens of footballs all over other people’s pitches; after all this isn’t the usual herding cats scenario that we know as training on a Thursday night, with 17 kids and footballs being relocated from anywhere within a half-mile radius. It’s strange how none of our boys can spot the bright yellow football that they themselves have just kicked onto a neighbouring pitch or a patch of grass 50 yards away on a Thursday! Away games can be chaotic in terms of travel. Despite living in Leeds for over 20 years I’m still not that well versed on its geography or that of the surrounding areas and so we’re often screeching up to pitches later than the majority of parents. But today, we’re early, negotiating the journey with no wrong turnings and easily managing to get parked. It helps that we’ve played here several times before, of course. I meet up with my assistant coach and his son. It’s not even 9 ‘o clock and we already have two players present, which is a relief. Just the other six to tick off now. We wander down to the clubhouse and meet some other parents and players before registering the team’s attendance. One of the mum’s makes herself the least popular adult with our squad by producing suncream from her bag and liberally lathering it all over the necks and faces of the boys! There’s an outcry that can probably be heard back in Leeds, but it’s better to be safe than sorry though, right? At this point there’s always a shared sense of determination and optimism. Football at this level is meant to be fun, but in truth, none of us have turned up today to lose while maintaining inane grins all over our faces. We all want to win and nobody is looking to be humiliated. It’s a nice, positive atmosphere to be part of and it’s even nicer to see the undisguised excitement of our boys. Before we know it, we have a list of fixtures and the excitement is ramped up a notch. There’s a managers’ meeting where rules and expected conduct are explained and in almost the blink of an eye we’re on our pitch, sitting the boys down to explain tactics, rules and teams. We’re feeling quietly confident; we have a good set of boys, all of whom can be trusted with the ball and all of whom have shown that they can hold their own against decent opposition. We’ve played three of the teams in our group before and again, never looked out of place. We do still have one nagging problem though. Our goalkeeper still hasn’t turned up. I’ve checked my phone and the text was sent on the previous Thursday, but not replied to. It’s looking increasingly like we’ll be re-arranging the team and start with one of keener outfield players in nets. It’s not ideal, but we’ll have to cope. And then, just as I call my new ‘goalie’ over to give him the shirt, I take one last hopeful look at the entrance to the gala. It’s a miracle. My goalkeeper is jogging somewhat dishevelled and shame-faced over to us! It turns out that they’d lost their door keys, but they’re here now and we can all settle down! Games are one half of ten minutes. It’s only six-a-side and there are no offsides. It’s generally quite hectic, end-to-end stuff and as a coach it can be quite stressful to watch. Usually, if there’s a mistake you’ve got plenty of time to try and put it right, but a game of just ten minutes puts the pressure on somewhat and you have to guard against casual mistakes as you might not have time to put them right. Our first game is against Allerton Bywater, a team we’ve never played. It’s quite an even match, but at the end I feel like we should have won it. Our boys look a little taken aback by the pace and despite warnings they’re fussing over corners and throw-ins, rather than just getting on with it. We snatch at a couple of chances, but defend well at the other end. It ends in a frustrating nil nil draw. We’ve got a point on board, but it could easily have been three. With five teams in a group we get to take a rest next as the other four play each other. It’s a baking hot day, so in one way the rest is welcomed, but it also means that we face three games back to back after this. With that in mind we’ll need to rotate. The rest does give a coach a little bit of time to think though. So I spend the next 5 or so minutes going round my players trying to stay positive, but also reiterating a few key messages and instructions. With that done and dusted there’s time to take in a little bit of the gala. It’s an amazing sight if you love your football. We’re surrounded by games going on and the sound of encouragement fills the air. A glance across at the under 7s brings a flash of nostalgia too and I think back to my son’s first games where he wore a kit that was more like a tent and he barely looked able to run, let alone dribble with or pass a football. The excitement across the site is tangible and it would be easy to get carried away and just wander off to take in some games, but before I know it we’re back to business and our next game. We play a Beeston side from the league above us next and again it’s close. I’ve brought our two subs in to start, the idea being to give everybody a rest, while also making sure that everyone gets a decent amount of football. We lose the game 1-0 though and again have enough chances to at least get a draw. But it’s not to be and if we’re going to qualify for the main trophy we’ll have to win at least one of our last two games. The change in format doesn’t seem to be helping our boys. The pitch is much smaller than we’re used to and the length of game much shorter. And yet, every time we get a corner we’re over-hitting them, lofting them into the air and out of play on the other side of the field. Similarly, when we get a throw in we’re fussing about who should take it or taking an age trying to be ever so precise about where it goes, rather than just getting it taken quickly, down the line as instructed. We’re making mistakes and piling pressure on to ourselves. And we’re yet to score a goal. This changes in our next game. We’re playing one of the host’s teams – Wakefield Owls – and it feels like we are dominant. It takes us a while – which is the very definition of things being relative with a ten minute match – but eventually we get our goal. It’s a scrappy affair, with the ball bundled in at the back post, but they all count. It feels like we can go on and win from this position, but within a minute we’ve presented our opposition with the ball and they’ve scored. Suddenly the tables turn and we’re under pressure, but we ride this out and in the end (again!) we’re unlucky not to grab a winner after we hit the bar once and slam a few chances narrowly wide. It feels like we’ve finally gotten into our stride though. The games seem to be kicking off at different times and so we’re left waiting for our final group opposition, which gives me a bit of time to go around the lads once more, passing on instructions. We eventually sit them down and give them the big pep talk. That’s pep as in building the boys up and trying to make them feel more positive, rather than being any kind of tactical genius with a Catalonian accent. This is a big game for our boys. Exactly twelve months ago to the day we played the exact same opposition at the exact same stage of the gala and lost in a bit of a bad tempered game. It meant that we didn’t qualify for the latter stages of the trophy and a few of the boys ended up in tears. As it turned out we went on to win the less prestigious cup that the teams in the bottom end of each group played for, so the tears soon turned into smiles. But we really want to win now! It seems churlish and perhaps a little immature to talk about revenge, but then again, if we’ve not come to win football matches then why have we even turned up? The game is close, but frustratingly – again – we have more of the ball. We’re fairly dominant, but again we just can’t seem to score. We force the keeper into saves and we hit the bar, but that ball just will not go into the net. I’m struggling to retain any sense of professionalism by this point and each time we go close I’m either sailing through the air ready to celebrate or dropping on to my haunches like some kind of over emotional teenager. But that’s football. I don’t go along with the theory that we’re better coaches because we stand there saying very little. And I don’t think that it’s a case of the more vocal the better. We just all have different styles. I can’t help but get involved. I’m not negative, but I’m not particularly quiet either. And at this point on Sunday I was struggling to maintain control! The game ends in a 0-0 draw. This almost certainly means that we will drop into the lower end of the knock out matches. After a few minutes of standing around I head down to the clubhouse to try and get some more information. This is a well organised gala, so it’s easy to get our finishing position confirmed. And it’s exactly what we thought. However, some games are running over and so we’re faced with an anxious wait to see who our semi final opponents will be. I say ‘anxious’ but it’s of no interest whatsoever to my team who proceed to spend the next ten minutes or so practising elaborate corner kick routines. They even devise a celebration to fit the corners! That’s the brilliant thing about football at this level. Yes, it matters, but the emphasis has to be on enjoyment and my boys are definitely enjoying themselves. It’s getting the balance right, again, that’s key. Meanwhile, I’m having no fun whatsoever, sweating over the team for the semi final and fretting about how we’ll react to the pressure! We play another side from Beeston in our semi final and in the end we make too many mistakes. We lose 2-1, despite some frantic attacking once we’d gone two goals down. We pepper the opposition goal and manage to scramble one in but we run out of time. And that’s it. We’re out. We encourage our boys to shake hands, but for some it’s a step too far. There are tears and sullen faces everywhere I look. We try to get around each player, staying positive, congratulating them on all of the good things that they’ve done today and reminding them that they should feel proud. But it’s to no avail. These boys care deeply about this team and I have to admit that this makes me feel even more proud of them. As I walk around the pitch I hear a distinctive sound. It’s the sound of one very upset little boy and it’s a sound I’m only too familiar with. Like many coaches, I coach my son and for now he’s devastated. Despite the fact that he scored our goal he’s blaming himself as he misplaced a pass in the lead up to Beeston’s second goal. So the coach has to be put to one side and dad takes over. I want to scoop him up like I did when he was much smaller, but I know that he’ll be mortified. So, I crouch down next to him, give him a big hug and talk to him, telling him that it’s not his fault, that it’s no one’s fault and reminding him what we all learn in the end; this is football. We decide to watch the final as a team at the boys’ request and again, like we’ve witnessed all day, it’s a brilliant competitive match. Again there are tears at the end, but thankfully not from our boys who by now, my son included, have moved on. Afterwards we make our way down to the clubhouse where our team are presented with medals; a lovely touch from the organisers. By now, all of my boys are smiling and have their team photo taken holding medals aloft proudly, like they’d won the tournament after all. And there’s that lesson again; this is football. One minute your as low as you imagine you can be and then next you’re flying high. Whatever you feel, it’s an utterly brilliant game to be part of. Thanks to Karen and all at Wakefield Owls for their hospitality and another fantastic gala. We’ll see you again next year!

Some Thoughts on Father’s Day

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Because nothing quite says Happy Father’s Day like fruit does!

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!

 

 

 

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