Day Five of Home-Schooling: teachers, you are busted!

I saw a lovely thing on Facebook last night from a school up in Surrey. It told its parents that what we’re doing right now isn’t home-schooling. Home-schooling is a choice where you considered things, planned for it, and were ready – this is more like distance-learning. But in reality, it’s trying to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, but are not trained teachers, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the garden, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about, because these are exceptional circumstances.

And it said that it’s impossible to facilitate distance-learning with a primary-aged child and work from home at the same time, so if you’re doing that, stop. Your primary focus is your job and your survival. You’re not a superhero. They’re not expecting miracles.

I thought it was great. Very insightful and reassuring.

Then I got an email from the headteacher of my school down here in Dorset sharing some of her thoughts. She said that home-schooling is a choice, whereas this is more a necessity. She said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the dirt, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about. And she said that if you’re working from home and juggling home learning at the same time, STOP – you’re not superheroes. Your focus should be your job and survival.

Sound familiar?

Looking on Facebook, it appears that many headteachers up and down the country have had the exact same thoughts as each other at exactly the same time. How weird!

You know when every kid in the class copies from the same book and they put it in their own words so they don’t get accused of plagiarism? Teachers, you are busted!

Now, I don’t mind that they’re all copying from the same source. It’s a good message and it deserves to be spread far and wide. But don’t pretend as though it’s something that just occurred to you. And perhaps next time, don’t use many of the exact same words!

Day One of Home-Schooling: cosmic yoga, maths and biology

I was cooking dinner today while my wife was ‘teaching’ my four-year-old in the lounge. The teacher has given us homework to do, one of which involves watching the yoga videos they use in class.

Seems okay, I said. Helps you stretch and tone your body, teaches you how to breathe. Daddy used to do yoga.

‘It’s cosmic yoga,’ said my daughter.

Oh. You don’t sing Kumbaya and sit in a circle knitting beanie hats, do you?

‘What?’

Never mind, I’m sure it’s all fine.

Back in the kitchen cooking, a few minutes later I heard something on the TV and stuck my head round the door.

Did I hear that right? Did she really just say, ‘Be the pond’?

‘It’s wonderful being the pond,’ said the TV, ‘because you can watch all of your different feelings just swimming by.’

What the shit is this?!

‘Every feeling is welcome. You be the pond and let the fish be the fish.’

I couldn’t help bursting out laughing at the seriousness with which this was being said.

This isn’t like any yoga I’ve ever done.

‘Shhh,’ said my daughter.

‘Except sometimes,’ the TV continued, ‘we might stop being the pond and find we’ve become a fish, like the angry fish, and when that happens we might find ourselves saying or doing something that hurts other people.’

Ah, I see. It all makes sense now. I’m an angry fish when I should be the pond!

‘Be the pond.’

‘Be the pond,’ said my daughter roboticly.

Kill the Malaysian Prime Minister.

‘What?’

Never mind. I had no idea this is the kind of stuff you do at school.

‘Just say to yourself: be the pond.’

‘Be the pond,’ my daughter chanted again.

Wow. This is some Manchurian Candidate level bullshit right here.

‘Go and cook,’ said my wife, and I left them to it.

Okay. I’m all for mindfulness – live in the moment, notice what’s going on around you, try and detach from your thoughts and feelings, if that’s even possible – but is this really the kind of stuff they foist on our kids in mainstream education? This isn’t yoga, a westernized form of exercise mostly stripped of its esoteric underpinnings, this is mindfulness meditation, an esoteric eastern religious philosophy inseparable from Buddhist tradition. She even talks about the Zen Den, for crying out loud. What next? Ending every sentence with ‘namaste’?

I’m not sure how I feel about this. As someone who isn’t religious, if I discovered the school was making my kids go to confession, I’d have something to say on the matter; same as if they were practising Wudu (Muslim ablutions), or Transcendental Meditation; so why does Buddhism get a free pass?

Maybe I’m just a rube, out of step with modern cosmopolitanism. Or maybe I’d prefer more scientifically-minded programming like the proper way to wash your hands over airy-fairy feelgood fads. Watch it and judge for yourself by clicking this link.

Of course, a few minutes later my wife pushed it out of my mind when she shouted through to kitchen, ‘We’re doing maths and I’m having a mind blank. What’s 0 + 1?’

Are you sure it’s a mind blank and not a stroke? I replied. They tend to present the same.

And then my two-year-old burst into the kitchen, pointed an accusatory finger at me, and said, ‘You got a belly-button!’ before storming out.

How many more months of this do we have?

School gate politics

Since we live our lives surrounded by other people, I follow one simple rule to avoid complications: be distantly polite. Say hello, ask how they are, keep the conversation to mundane topics like the weather and how your kids are doing, and then leave. Not complicated, is it?

Unfortunately, this seems to be a minority viewpoint. I’ve mentioned before how women with kids can be incredibly petty (Millennial mothers: Grow the hell up!), and nothing I’ve experienced in five months of the school gate has convinced me that I’m wrong. If anything, I think I underplayed how obnoxious people can be.

Just before Christmas we had a new girl start at school from a couple of towns over. She hadn’t been getting on at her school (or I’m inclined to think the mother hadn’t been), so she transferred to my daughter’s school. No probs, no foul. The mother’s a bit full on – you can’t get a word in edgeways – but hey ho, we only see her at the school gate, though her and my wife had liaised about setting up a playdate since our daughters hang around together at school. So far, so normal.

Then yesterday, my wife got a text from her. A very nasty text, accusing my wife of gossiping, spreading dirt, and trying to turn the other mothers against her, saying that she hadn’t gone to the effort of switching schools to be judged by such a spiteful person as my wife, and telling her to stay away from her and her family in future or things could get ugly. To which my wife’s response was: what the hell?

The mother then texted to say she’d seen screen captures of messages my wife had sent, and that she wants nothing to do with us, she’d hoped we could be friends but not anymore.

Now, I know my wife isn’t perfect – she’s irresponsible, stubborn and impulsive – but she’s also helpful and generous and desperate to be everyone’s friend, and calling her nasty and judgemental, and accusing her of spreading gossip, is a gross misrepresentation of her character. Only last week, my wife was telling me how excited she was at setting up a playdate and making a ‘new friend’ – this woman – so it infuriates me to have her so maligned.

Since she wasn’t receiving any coherent responses from this woman, my wife contacted a mutual friend from school, one of the other girl’s mothers, to say that she’d received this nasty text and had no idea why. And then we got the explanation.

My daughter told us one day that the new girl had wet herself at school, so she’d been extra nice to her. It’s no biggee – they’re four, most of them have had accidents at school. When my wife met up with her friend the other night, she happened to mention this in conversation, which I figure is a pretty normal thing for parents whose kids are in same class to discuss – like that one of the girls fell over and skinned both knees, or that the Polish kids all hang out together speaking Polish. I mean, when the only thing you’ve got in common is that your kids are friends, what else are you going to talk about other than your kids and their interactions with their friends?

Well, this ‘friend’ mentioned the girl wetting herself to the girl’s mother, who immediately demanded to know who told her. So the ‘friend’ pointed the finger at my wife, and then showed this woman a text message my wife had sent on the very first day they’d met her, saying, ‘Wow, she’s a bit full on,’ because the new mum had blurted out her entire life story to them at the school gate, warts and all.

Those are the two times my wife has ever mentioned that family to anyone else. A text message from almost three months ago saying, ‘Wow, she’s a bit full on,’ and mentioning in passing that our daughter had been extra nice to the new girl because she wet herself. From that, she’s been accused of running a campaign to turn all the other mothers against the new woman, of being cruel, vindictive, spiteful and judgemental. Even though the ‘friend’s’ daughter has wet herself, like, five times! Who cares? They’re kids.

The way I see it, if this woman is so sensitive about people knowing her four-year-old wet herself, she’s the one with the problem. She’s clearly paranoid about being judged by the other mums, and while I don’t know what happened at the other school, she’s come to this one looking out for any sign that she’s being mistreated and totally overreacted to the very first perceived slight. Which makes you wonder if anything really did happen at the other school, or if this is all in her head. I wonder how many other people she’s going to attack and call it self-defence? Or how long before she pulls her child out of this school because of perceived mistreatment?

I composed a very pleasant response to this woman saying that we didn’t judge her at all, we’re all just trying to navigate this very difficult time in our lives without messing up, and it was never our intention to make anybody feel ridiculed because that’s not who we are. And that’s the truth. But we’ve had no response.

Now, however, I do judge her – I think she’s a bit of a psycho. I’d like to say that I can understand her response and I’m trying to see things from her point of view, but really, all I can see is somebody lashing out and accusing people of things that simply never happened. For someone who doesn’t want to be gossiped about, attacking another mum (who is, I am proud to say, rather popular at the school gate) is hardly a good way to stop gossip; indeed, it’s probably the best way to start it. Because, after all, if you’re a paranoid person the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

I’ve told my wife to watch out for her ‘friend’ too. I mean, who shows someone else a text message about them? Who, when someone is cross because she thinks the other mums are talking about her, pours fuel on the fire? What was her role in all this nonsense? It’s the school gate, not the bloody playground!

And now I shall leave it there, because I’m still angry about how this has played out and I’m feeling the petty caveman building up in me once again. Attack me? Fine, I’ll take in on the chin. Attack my wife and kids? You’d better bring your A-Game, baby, because my dictionary doesn’t go up to B.

I await a rather awkward Monday morning at the school gate. She doesn’t want anything to do with my family? The bloody cheek. I want nothing to do with hers.

But if pressed, I will be distantly polite. If everyone behaved the same way, none of this aggravation would have happened.

Bullying: An Undiagnosed Aspie at School

My little (neurotypical) daughter is now three, and by January we have to select her schools. I had thought that this would be easy – have a look at them, decide which is best, and apply – but what I hadn’t counted on was how much my own experiences of school would colour my thinking, or how this process would stir up all the unpleasant emotional and psychological shit that has lain buried inside me for twenty years.

There are two schools in particular that we’re looking at, one small and with more of a personal focus, the other big and more academic. Both of them fill me with dread.

At the big, academic school there’ll be plenty of kids for my daughter to make friends with, but the environment is less supportive. In the small school, she’ll be better looked after, but if the other kids turn on her and she’s the one who’s the outsider then there’ll be nowhere to hide.

In all honesty, I don’t care about the academic standing of either – I care about my daughter’s happiness and emotional wellbeing, and the damage that can be caused by making the wrong decision.

As you’ve probably inferred by now, I hated school. I found the other children silly and immature. I couldn’t relate to them or their games. I preferred hanging around with the teachers and the dinner ladies. Sometimes I took teddy bears to school and played with them instead because they were easier to understand. That’s when I wasn’t collecting insects or classifying all the trees, or crying all the time at the slightest provocation.

When I was seven we moved house and I changed schools. I decided that I didn’t want to be known as a crybaby, so every time I got upset I forced the feelings inwards. I hated sitting with the other kids in lessons, preferring a seat by myself while all the rest were chatting and playing. At breaktimes I’d join in with the games, but mostly I’d keep up a stream of narration, pretending I was a commentator observing the people around me. Always separate, even when I was part of the whole.

I always preferred my own company. If it was a wet break I  could stay in and draw a picture or read a book – infinitely better than mixing with others. People made fun of me for my interests and good behaviour and excellence at schoolwork, laughed at my complete lack of sporting prowess. I had spiky hair, goofy tooth, and massive plastic glasses. Whenever somebody called me names or wouldn’t let me play with them or tried to force me into being naughty, I inwardly wept.

Being told off by the teachers – normally for things that other people had done and blamed on me – was an indignity I dwelt on for days. That was when I wasn’t correcting their spelling, pointing out mistakes in the maths textbooks, or telling them every intimate detail of my life.

Every morning I’d tell my mum I had a funny feeling in my tummy, and every morning she’d say, ‘Just go and see how you feel. If it gets worse they can always ring me to come and pick you up.’ But of course, they never did.

I always knew that I was different. I was constantly moody, constantly confused and just wanted to be left alone. But none of that really bothered me until I was ten, when I started to want friends but realised I was unable to have them.

My brother always seemed to have it easier. He just drifted through school without any struggles. He could make friends with anybody, and normally did. He was always out on his bike, off to the cinema, heading to parties. Sometimes my parents made him take me along, something he hated only slightly more than I did – I had my pride.

I often asked when I would have friends like my brother did. ‘When you get to secondary school,’ my mum used to say. ‘You’ll make plenty of friends there.’

My father was less optimistic. He constantly stressed how I needed to learn how to get on with people or else I wouldn’t cope with life. I think they were terrified that I was different and desperate for me to be normal. They started sending me to Christian boys’ camps in the summer, hoping I would build my character and somehow learn to socialise. They were abject lessons in just how incapable I was of functioning in a group of my peers. I came home from them bruised and scarred and even more aware of my utter ineptitude.

It was when I started secondary school at age 12, an institution of 1500 kids that taught you your only value was in your grades, that everything went to hell. Lessons were bad but survivable – people would steal my pencil case, snap my rulers, stab me with compass needles and squirt ink on my shirt, but there was never a shortage of people wanting to sit by me so they could copy. It was the breaktimes that broke me down.

I hung around with people I’d been to middle school with – people who hadn’t actually liked me for the past few years and now, to impress their new friends, showed off their disdain at every opportunity. I was the guy to push, the guy to throw things at, the guy to trip up in the mud; I was the guy to call names, to run away and hide from, to spread rumours about and laugh at. I wasn’t handsome or cool or popular – I was what they called a ‘gorm’, short for ‘gormless’ – a nerdy, geeky swot, teacher’s pet, loser. Sometimes they’d take turns spitting on me – thick, snotty loogies on my bag, on my back, even in my face.

If ever I stood up for myself, which was rare, I’d make threats I had no possibility of following through with. They’d simply threaten to beat the crap out of me, so I did nothing, and let my pride, my dignity and my self-esteem sink into the earth beneath my feet, where I wished I could curl up and die. Looking back, I’d have preferred them to beat me – those wounds heal. The wounds they gave me can last a lifetime.

Those twenty minutes a day killed me.

Luckily, we lived opposite the back gate of the school so I was able to go home for lunch. That was my lifeline. Without it, I don’t know how I’d have survived. I sat by myself, ate some lunch, recharged my batteries to face the afternoon. And, most importantly, I didn’t have to mix with anybody else.

I put up with this crap for a year. One whole year. Until, one week before the school year ended, I started hanging around with a boy that I will call Judas.

I don’t know how it came about that we hung out together. We sat next to one another in most of our classes, and I thought he was pretty darned awesome. He was intelligent, like me, but he was also sporty, which made him well-liked. For whatever reason, we hung out together at morning break, and then the next day. The following day, I even stayed at school for lunch, and the next, before we broke up for the summer holidays. For four days I had a friend.

My God, I was happy. If this was what it meant to have a friend, then I now knew everything I’d been missing out on, and everything that everyone else seemed to have. In the rain-drenched misery among the bullies at boys’ camp, I looked forward to the new term, not with horror and apprehension, but with a sense of anticipation, because now I had a friend!

The first day back at school, Monday morning, second period – art. I sat next to Judas like the cat that got the cream. I was so excited to catch up, so excited for the future. It felt so good to be normal.

When the bell went for morning break, I almost burst with excitement. He turned to me and said, ‘See you after break,’ and walked out of the room.

I thought it was a joke. I followed him at a distance, and when he stepped outside I jumped out at him.

‘Ha ha, surprised you!’

He glared at me. ‘I said I’d see you after break.’

‘Yeah, funny,’ I said, still thinking it was some kind of joke I just didn’t understand.

He stopped walking. ‘No, I’m serious, Gillan,’ he said. ‘Just piss off. I’ve got some new friends now.’

And he walked on.

I followed him again, unsure just what was happening. He walked up to a group of lads – football lads. He’d made new friends over the holidays and they didn’t include me.

I don’t think I have ever felt so alone.

Near where they stood were my old ‘friends’. I wouldn’t go back to them, no way. I was desperate, but not that desperate.

I saw a kid I’d known at middle school – Lucifer, we’ll call him – with a group of kids I didn’t know, and decided I’d try to hang with him, just for today, just so I wouldn’t have to be alone. In truth, he was a bully and had been the scourge of the middle school, but he’d always gone easy on me, possibly because there was no fun in beating on the developmentally disabled kid, albeit undiagnosed, and possibly because the one time he’d tried to put me in a headlock, I’d panicked and in a flurry of punches knocked him on his ass.

Anyway, Lucifer and his friends were all eating slices of pizza from the cafeteria. I was caught in the midst of despair, and not having a clue about how to approach people, I simply walked straight up to him and said, ‘Lucifer, can I have some of your pizza?’

He reacted as though I’d asked to sleep with his sister. I’ve never seen a face show such disdain. With an evil, mocking sneer, he hissed, ‘You fucking skank,’ and with a wall of expletives he ripped a chunk off his pizza and threw it in my face. His friends laughed, and some smiling, some sneering, ripped pieces off their pizzas and threw them at me too, shouting and swearing and laughing.

Everybody turned to look – my old friends, Judas and his new friends – everyone.

I did what I’d sworn not to – I cried. But I hid it well. Holding my head up high, I turned and strolled away from the mockery, bits of tomato sauce on my cheeks, pretending I wasn’t humiliated and utterly heartbroken. I headed for the nearest toilets and cried my eyes out. (Years after this, whenever this group saw me they’d throw things at me and call me a skank. Once when I was 17 they came upon me in the street, shoulder-barged me into the road and threw cigarette lighters at me).

After break, I went back to art and Judas sat down next to me as though nothing had happened. ‘Why can’t I hang around with you at break?’ I asked.

‘You wouldn’t fit in,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t like you.’

And that was that.

The rest of the week, I hid in the toilets, hid in the bushes – I didn’t want people to see that I was entirely on my own. One day I even tried to join the group regardless of Judas’s warnings. They couldn’t physically push me out, could they? It turned out that they could. After being frogmarched across the playground, I decided not to repeat that indignity.

It was with a heavy heart, leaden legs, that the following week I walked up to my old ‘friends’ at breaktime. ‘Oh, you’re back,’ they said. And things resumed as though I’d never been away. Because being bullied was better than hiding in the toilets.

About ten months later, the school decided to build a new block and new playground. Because of all the builders on site, it was thought prudent, for health and safety reasons, to shrink lunchtime from one hour to just 25-minutes. As a result, they revoked all the lunch passes. My 20-minutes of hell each day was going to be 45.

Unable to cope with being bullied 3 hours and 45 minutes each week, I spied on the other friendship groups, found one I thought I might be able to join – a mixed group, some of whom were in my classes – and after a week trying to build up the courage, I approached one of the members and asked if I could hang out with him and his friends at breaktime.

‘Sure, whatever, I don’t care,’ he said, and I was in.

Things didn’t go exactly to plan. I was so desperate to fit in, so terrified of being rejected, that I lost the ability to speak. It was weeks before I managed to say a single word. I stood at a slight remove from them, waiting my chance. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, this little voice in my head screamed, ‘DON’T SAY THAT THEY’LL THINK YOU’RE WEIRD!’ and I clamped my lips together. Sometimes I managed to think up something decent, but by the time I worked up the courage to voice it, the conversation had moved on and it was already too late. So I stood, in silence, like the number one buzzkill, so afraid they wouldn’t like me that I guaranteed they wouldn’t – the dictionary definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Within the first week I realised it wasn’t going to work. While not as bad as my old ‘friends’, my new ‘friends’ didn’t exactly make me feel welcome. One told me to my face, repeatedly, that she hated me because I was so weird and she wanted me to go away. One used to stuff her rubbish in my shirt pocket as though I was a dustbin. They loved telling me I wasn’t actually part of ‘their group’. I was the butt of every joke. I smiled, as though I was in on it, when in fact I knew they were mercilessly mocking me.

I knew from the start that it wasn’t going to work. I hung around with them for a year and a half. Breaktime and lunch. Forty-five minutes a day. Because I had no one else.

You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know what that kind of thing does to a person. My self-esteem, self-identity, my confidence – my very value as a human being – they all went away. It got to the point where I was too afraid to put up my hand in class, even though I knew the answer, because people would look at me and I couldn’t bear their judgement. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t become a statistic, if you catch my meaning.

And throughout this time, Judas still sat next to me in every class we had together, and listened sympathetically as I told him of my loneliness, and made all the right sounds and facial expressions when I told him I was being bullied, and watched as I shrank into a shell of my former self, and he did nothing. Except, that is, on the days when I couldn’t face them and so wandered about alone – he’d always be sure to tell me he’d seen me wandering around on my own, and that if he’d noticed I was being a loner then other people would too, and perhaps I’d better go back and hang out with the bullies again. Because, evidently, it’s better to be bullied than have no ‘friends’.

I asked him repeatedly if I could hang out with him at breaktime. I begged – I told him I wouldn’t even have to say anything, I’d just stand there so I didn’t have to be alone. His answer was always the same. ‘You wouldn’t fit in.’ For a year and a half.

What hurt the most was that he was my best friend in the classroom. He was my lab partner, my vocab buddy. Every project we’d do together, every history assignment, every book report. Art, music, craft, IT. But other than those four days in our first year, outside of the classroom he wanted nothing to do with me.

I loved that guy for three-and-a-half years, right up to the moment I realised that I hated him far more than any of the bullies, and stopped sitting next to him in class. He never spoke to me again, even though we went to the same VI Form. I was amazed by how quickly and easily I was replaced, though it should have come as no surprise. I clearly meant nothing to him.

About the same time, I decided I couldn’t go on anymore as I  had. I spent the last six months of my time at that school hanging out with the band geeks who congregated on the benches at breaktime with their inhalers and head braces and vocal jazz stylings. I didn’t particularly like them, but it was all about survival by this point, and they weren’t really in a position to bully anyone. Luckily, by this time, the block was built and I could go home for lunch again, because all of them had orchestra, and music lessons and choir practice at lunch.

And so I survived, in body if not in mind. I left school, and I buried these experiences and haven’t spoken to anybody about them for twenty years now. I wonder if all the tattoos and piercings I got in my late teens, and all the challenges I undertook in my early twenties – rock climbing, bungee jumping, parachute jumping, scuba diving, tall ship sailing, backpacking – were a way of trying to work through all that anguish and self-hatred. To punish myself and see if I really mattered.

I thought I’d got over. Thought it was left in the past. Until I’ve had to start looking at schools for my little girl. And I realise I’m not over it at all.

I can think of my best friend telling a thirteen-year-old me to piss off because he’s found new friends, and it still hurts. I can think of reaching out to another for help in my lowest moment, only to have him literally throw it back in my face, and I still cringe at the way he looked at me. And worse, I can think of repeatedly begging a friend to save me from my bullies only to have him refuse because I ‘wouldn’t fit in’, but instead of the despair I felt at the time, now I feel only anger.

I never dealt with any of these feelings. I live my life looking forward, not back. What’s in the past no longer has the power to hurt you – or so I thought.

So perhaps you’ll understand why I don’t care about the league tables my mother-in-law sends me, and why I don’t care about the Ofsted reports, and why I don’t care if every one of the school’s pupils fails their SATs. The only thing I care about is if my daughter will be happy at school. Because if she’s not, all the league tables and Ofsted reports in the world couldn’t make me send her there.