A teacher is, first, a person

Packing up my house contents for the second time in two years means re-visiting the memory box.  It’s more interesting than Ebaying vintage die cast cars.  In my memory box, I found things I’ve kept since the age of 10.  My school projects (that my Mum did), cards and letters, and my signed Clarendon House Grammar School for girls blouse, covered in scribbles containing advice such as ‘watch out for the boys’ from when I was 14 and about to move to Milton Keynes.  I did watch out for the boys.  I bloody loved them.

Some excerpts from my diary age 14-16.  I feel they show my development:

Maths – ah oh!  More algebra – I HATE the stuff!

Pete’s got his eyes bandaged ‘coz of welding with no wotsit.

I’ll write out the Greatest Love of All now OK?  (and did)

PS I’m badly in love.  I’m only 14 but I swear to heaven that this is love.  Sorry, I don’t swear, but I’m positive that I’m IN LOVE.  AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

(in mirror writing) I’m going out with a boy called Jason.  He’s black. 

Last night Mum, Dad and I had a massive WAR over Shaun.

I love Wig more than I did Shaun, and if I love someone, I’m not just gonna give up.  It really isn’t so unreasonable at 16 to want a boyfriend.

In 10 mins I’m going!  Breaking out at long last – I can’t quite believe it but I think it’s gonna happen!  I’ll write back later.  I’ve written Mum a note.  She’s playing with Jonathan – I’ll slip out soon.  Man am I scared!!  Hi.  It’s 11.10pm and I’m back.  Wow I did it!!

Dad blah blah blah mum moan dad wants to meet Wig to tell him off dad don’t respect Wig cos he won’t finish with me no pocket money and they’re selling the piano.  Wow that did hurt.  The piano goes and my main life goes.  I’m not joking I’ll be depressed without that piano I need it it’s part of my life.

Hi.  All I’ve done today is talk to teachers.  First, Mrs Lawrence was persuading me to stay on the 6th form because she said I’m too intelligent HAHA and I’d be bored doing typing.  Thing is I really want to earn money and be independent.  I think in my situation that would be good.  Later on Mr Andrews said the same thing and we had a really long talk about Mum and Dad and Wig etc.  He said he’d come across very religious people in a Christian guest house who based their whole lives on the bible and so he could understand Mum and Dad.  I didn’t slag them down at all and Mr Andrews noticed that.  He said he’d heard me talking to Ceilidh and she’d said ‘Oh you just oughta tell them to ____ _______’ and I said ‘yeah but they mean a lot to me’.  So he said he wouldn’t know what to do. 

Every day I’m gonna say whether or not I stuck to my diet.  I did today.  Had 952 calories.  Exercise – walked in woods for ages and did some exercises to my fave songs for half an hour.  Cor Richard is nice.  I’m getting badly behind with the Bible and prayers and it is showing.  I am HARD and COLD again and at the mo I’ll fall in lust and be besotted and GIVE IN if anyone pays me any attention so I MUST pray hard and read the bible even when I don’t feel like it.  See I’m eyeing Richard up and I’m neglecting bible and those two factors make things very dangerous indeed. 

I’m in a bit of a mood.  Mr Mawer called me to this office in Maths.  Said about my denim jacket and I argued a bit and he arranged for us both to count how many people in leather or denim jackets.  He won the argument but he’s ok he was really nice and I like him now.  Then after that he asked me about the time Nicole offered me crack.  I didn’t know how he knew.  Paul takes drugs too and I say it’s up to him if he wants to. 

So it seems I liked my teachers and talked to them.  I don’t remember any of that.  I was kicked out of school half way through sixth form due to doing no work and spending most of the time skiving.  I hung out at people’s houses or on the field mainly.  I didn’t see the point of school any more and I started drug taking.  I think I was depressed.  I never knew it at the time, or for years later, or that I had a significant eating disorder.  It’s so obvious looking back.  I was troubled and anxious, eager to please and attention-seeking, upbeat and positive, and I wish I could talk to her, the girl in the diaries, whenever I read them.

I realise now that that’s what I do when I teach.

My latest set of cards, on leaving my current teaching job, will probably always move me.  I have so many cards from vulnerable kids.  This letter is a couple of years old and already getting tatty from being in my memory box.  So I’m going to write it out as for me it proves that my life has become meaningful and my early experiences have formed my understànding.

I’ve been seeing a counsellor for my diagnosis of what experts call “Being a miserable fucker” for going on 5 years.  When I finally mentioned it to Mr P, he was nothing but understanding and reassuring.  He told the rest of my teachers, and a few of them even went out of their way to awkwardly ask me if I was okay.  I appreciate their good intentions, but you were the only person who managed to say it and sound like a human being at the same time, and as you regrettably may know from your own experience, that goes an incredibly long way.  You were always a great teacher, but I can’t thank you enough for being able to show empathy to somebody that at the time, desperately needed it.  As it stands now, I’m both improving of my own accord and seeing a clinical psychologist, so fingers crossed for the future not being quite so grim.  If I told you that you made learning fun I’d be a liar, but you were and are still a real inspiration, if not in English or Critical Thinking, then as a person.  For a school that seems so full, it sometimes feels hard to find other human beings – for offering support, mercy and kindness when I needed it, you easily count for ten in my books.  I hope this letter can convey at least a fraction of my appreciation, and I wish you all the best in future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The inconsequential and the meaning of life

Little things over the years have included: my son jumping into my car to fetch his bag, accidentally sitting on the handbrake and rolling the car down the road, damaging the door badly (April 2014), me writing off a car because I drove it very quickly through a ford, for no logical reason (March 2003) and a car being stolen from outside our first house (1993).

These things were very stressful at the time, with phone calls galore, insurance claim wrangles and unexpected expenditure.

Bigger things have included negative equity (1995), moving to Japan for several months with two small kids (1997) and training as a secondary school teacher with three (2005).

The biggest things have been falling in love (1992 and 2015), having children (1994, 1996 and 1999), getting divorced (2015) and my daughter’s bulimia (dates are a blur).  The trouble is with Generalised Anxiety Disorder is that there is little difference in the stress levels between the levels of perceived threat like financial loss and practical inconveniences and the biggest, most life changing situations.

I had a moment today, though, when I got a blinding moment of clarity as I was driving home from Aldi.  I have these sometimes, pootling along through life, and BOOM there it is.  Sudden awareness and a spine tingling, tearful moment of pure joy and gratitude for the insight.

For the last four days I’ve been stressing (nothing new there) about my buyers suddenly announcing, last Tuesday, that they wanted me to complete decking as a condition of their offer.  They told me that the estate agent should have told me.  It wasn’t on the offer, nobody had mentioned it before, and the estate agent denied all knowledge.  I had promised ALL my house viewers, upon viewing, that if my buyer wanted decking I would do it, as the garden is half finished.  But she never said that she was going to offer, never mind that decking would be a condition of that.

I’ve got two weekends left in Leicester before going away to Scotland to get married and then, hopefully, completing and moving.  So it isn’t much time!  I told my solicitor that the buyer can have decking but will have to pay a further £1000 to cover the costs and the inconvenience.  She already got £13000 less than the asking price.  I haven’t heard back since last Thursday.  She texted me today to ask if everything is ok and it seems that her solicitors haven’t passed on any message.  I’m wondering if the sale’s going to fall through.  I need to move by September as my new job starts then, and blah and blah and yadda and yadda and the full screamo band of crappy nonsense was skadoodling around my poor, addled brain when I remembered, with a smile, an earlier phone call from my daughter, pictured above as a cute little babby.  She wanted to catch up about life and talked a while about her Summer job.

After completing her first two years of a degree course at the University of Durham, my girl has secured a Summer job prior to going to Germany then France for her year abroad.  She has just started work as a National Citizenship Service group leader, working with a group of 16 year olds.  She was tired and a bit frazzled after a weekend at an outdoor camp, and long working hours, but feeling engaged in the role, chattering enthusiastically about managing the youngsters and clearly enjoying their company, their talk, how they share their problems and how she might encourage the quieter ones to contribute more and be less dominated by the few noisy ones.  As a teacher, I knew how she felt and how rewarding she was finding it and I loved hearing about her experience so far.

When my baby was 15, she had anorexia.  She was brave and honest and told me just after Christmas how hard she was finding her obsession with dieting.  She went to the GP, got a diagnosis, and we waited hopefully for treatment.  Anyone who has a child with a mental illness, however, will know how naïve we were.  The CAMHS waiting list was long.  The most acute cases took priority.  The anorexia morphed into bulimia, accompanied by depression, anxiety and self-harm.  She got some interim CBT which didn’t help much.  I wrote letters monthly.  I quoted NICE guidelines.  My local MP, the wonderful Jon Ashworth, got involved and after a year, she received treatment and made a good recovery.

Any recovery from an ED takes time, patience, setbacks and triggers.  Going to university was difficult for her even after a year out.  Transitions are difficult times for people with mental health conditions.  I know that even more as I now realise that I have had similar mental health issues for years, although mine were more buried beneath layers of denial.

I’m not going to go into the hell of her ED.  It’s in the past and it’s private.  If you know, you know, and if you don’t, good.

All I’ll say is that my baby, my beautiful, innocent, precious child who I swore to protect and love forever, was hurting so badly that nobody and nothing could help her.  I felt guilt, frustration and deep, raw, gut-wrenching, soul-destroying pain.  Knowing that her pain was worse was only bearable because she needed me not to fall apart.  I learned so much from her.  Her courage and honesty led to mine.  She has become an advocate for the mentally ill and has promoted mental health in her role as president of Heads Up Durham.  She was determined, brave, even humorous about her illness.  She became my hero.

And as I drove home from Aldi, with my head full of decking, house sales, buyers, deadlines and completion dates, I suddenly remembered the phone call and I thought, ‘she is ok’.

And that – THAT – is a Big Thing.

 

Older and newer: embracing the grey

When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection. So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.

I have started this blog to document some of my thoughts and experiences relating to perimenopause, which is, for me, more than a bunch of hormones conspiring to age me beyond all recognition and turn me grey.  Far more than that.  And a million times better, too.  I feel as though I’ve been gearing up for this for years, starting at the age of 33 when I developed feelings for a man other than my husband.  That was the beginning of a process of reassessing my life, and it started with an infatuation.  I thought it was love, but it was really a glimpse into a multi-faceted world of opportunities: different people, places, conversations and friendships.  It turned out to be nothing; we were both married and he wanted an affair, nothing more.  I stopped seeing him and spent months agonising over what had become of my marriage.  When I told my husband that I thought it was over, we decided to go to counselling (Relate) and managed to negotiate some changes that suited us both and gave it another go for ten years.  But the unrest of that fling stayed with me.  It was the beginning of the end – or the end of the beginning.  And that’s what I think this midlife business is all about.  Whether we stay in a relationship for life or not, our relationships do change.  We change.  I started to want more for myself.

I was brought up brethren.  Plymouth brethren.  Strict parents, nothing worldly, long hair, a head covering in meetings and a skirt and never trousers.  No discos, no version of the Bible other than the good old King James with its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘sayeths’.  The meeting was a solemn affair and women were under what was termed ‘the headship of men’.   I married under that and we didn’t really stray far from the tree until I went to university to study English Literature at the age of 32.  Suddenly I had options.  I was getting good grades and realised I had a brain and over the next years I graduated, took my PGCE and became a teacher.  I left the brethren, got fit, ran two marathons, raised my three kids, kept an eye on my ageing parents and got grey hair.  I coloured it religiously, obsessively, red, purple, blondey, streaked, dark, covering the roots increasingly often, sometimes every three weeks.  I couldn’t afford hairdressing fees and did it myself using L’Oreal products and then, scared of carcinogenic chemicals, Holland and Barrett brands.  The greys grew in abundance.

My marriage ended, finally, in a fizzled out mess of empty abandonment.  He moved to London with his job and I got to spend all week raising my two youngest whilst holding down a job and dealing with the middle daughter’s bulimia.  They were the most heartrending two years of my life and certainly the most difficult and painful of hers.  Whilst he was away pursuing his dream job, I wrote letters, chased the NHS, called my MP, shouted a lot about the CAMHS waiting list and funding problem and finally she got treatment.  During her time waiting for treatment, she went from mild anorexia to full blown bulimia, characterised not only by binge-purging but also regular panic attacks, self harm and, on one occasion, after a relationship breakup, an impulsive suicide attempt.  He told me I was exaggerating her illness and he continued to return home later and later on Friday nights, we returned to Relate, nothing changed and I ended it.

For the next year, I battled depression and anxiety, took a course of antidepressants, learned to look after myself, started dating again, had loads of fun, and developed more grey hairs.  When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection.  So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.  His response, ‘Is that it?’ surprised me.  I still hung on to this idea that men do not fancy grey haired women.

Now, I’m a feminist.  Honestly.  A strong-minded, educated, mid-40s woman who believes in absolute equality, despises shallow frivolity and obsessions about perfection and considers our brains to be our biggest asset.  But I still want to be considered sexy and that, although I hate to admit it, equates with youthful.  I think we all do.  Men, too.  But lots of women I know struggle with the whole grey hair thing.  Although, I was talking about this with a colleague the other day and he said he reckons loads of men dye their hair secretly.  Loads.  Anyway, I toyed the the idea of going grey for some months and finally went to the hairdresser, asked them to chop out as much colour as they could, take it as short as they could without shaving my head, and went natural in one fell swoop  I bought a L’Oreal purple shampoo, which tones the remainder of the previous brassy overtones, and now I have silver streaks that are all mine.  People think it looks lovely.  I’ve had so many compliments.  My fiance loves it.  My kids think it’s cool.  My students have commented positively.  And I feel like my hair now matches the rest of me.  Older and newer.

My youngest is about to go to university, my house is on the market, I’m saying goodbye to the first half of my life: the day to day life of a working mother and the packets of hair dye.  I’m about to move away, buy a place with my fiance and say hello to the second half which is still brand new, with doors to be opened and memories to be made.

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