When you know it’s time to go.

My dears, I was pointed to this blog recently and wanted to share it with you. I had to give up as School Governor last year, and my experience was not dissimilar to this writer’s – although obviously I was only involved for a shorter time (9 years in fact), and not as a classroom practitioner.
I cannot say how the current national approach to teaching hurts. I prefer not to get very political usually, beyond my bleeding liberal tendencies, but today I am in the mood.
Namaste.

Love Learning by Debra Kidd

I’m leaving my job. Not right away – I’d never leave children half way through an academic year – but I’ll be off in July. I think back to the post I wrote on teaching forever and I blush with the charge of hypocrisy, though, to be fair, after 22 years I think I’ve probably earned the right to say I did my bit. And hopefully I will continue to do more bits, but not again, I don’t think as a full time teacher in a school. So why? Well, it’s complicated.

It’s not because of the kids…

But they’re not easy. Last week one pushed me pretty hard and told me to fuck off. He’s vulnerable and floundering. We used restorative justice to talk through the situation and I got one of the most heartfelt apologies I’ve ever had. He beams at me in the corridor now. I’m not…

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Bloggers4Peace: Children

Kozo set the Bloggers4Peace challenge for April to focus on children.I will be honest my dears: I have struggled to write this post this month – because I can’t solve the problem. This is my fourth attempt and I have decided that time is running out so here it is. You see…

I know what I want to say about respect and dignity and broad horizons and love and hope.

I know I want to talk about children observing that the actions of adults are reflected in the words they speak; that my children see me walking the walk, or not; that those of us who claim to be for peace genuinely have to live our testimony to peace and justice and environmental awareness.

I know I want to quote helpful and inspiring people like the Dalai Lama on building world peace by teaching all children to meditate. (I think that’s right – if not, it should be.)

Oh my dears – I so want to say those things. But the hollow truth is that I don’t live up to those ideals, and all I can do is share my struggle. I have no answers to the difficult questions children ask about bullying and hitting and fighting and war. I can only say I don’t agree, and sometimes I can say why, but often I cannot even do that.

While the Offspringses were growing up we focused on peaceful actions and words, and attended Quaker meeting. We read about the awesome Ferdinand the Bull and avoided stories where violence was presented as a solution. We tried to live peace and sseriously explain war when they saw it on the news.

But school and TV and friends intervened. There’s a moment when your child leaves you to go to nursery or school and then returns a different person. Suddenly all the games are good guys vs bad guys and shooting and shouting; parental intervention is boring old news. I was glad of a classical education so that I could compare myself to Sisyphus. There were days it felt that bad.

Of course I don’t have to worry now. They have grown up and left home. Oh, who am I kidding? Of course I still worry; it’s in the job description!

My children do not appear to be psychopaths, so that is a good sign. They are articulate and rational, so that is a good sign. As parents we cling to such signs of hope.

I believe they have to discover their own truths, not just repeat mine, but I have made clear they can pursue any career with my blessing except a military one. It’s my line in the squelchy, North Yorkshire ground. So even my love appears conditional, although I have tried to explain I would still love them if they signed up, yet simultaneously be very, very disappointed. I’d have the kind of disappointed face you see on a small child who discovers Santa is not real and the puppy he thought he was getting for Christmas is actually a pair of socks knitted by Aunty Gertrude, who appears to think he is bilaterally asymmetric. Imagine that face. It would be mine if one of the Offspringses announced their new career in the machine of death. Honestly, they could even be an estate agent, I could cope with that.

So who am I to teach children peace? All I can do is admit it’s hard.

I’m just not sure where that gets us. Read these other posts for more constructive ideas!

Namaste.

Counterintuitive can be Counterproductive

Fiction is a mirror of the collective soul, and so the narratives we choose to tell and to read present an agreed version of reality we decide to share. Our shared version of reality becomes actuality, and we find it uncomfortable and inconvenient when other versions intrude. Sometimes those versions, underpinned by science, become submerged in the groundswell of opinion holding to our selected consensus.

In this week’s Prompt for the Promptless, Rarasaur suggests writing about counterintuition.

Counterintutition is a seemingly simple concept– it represents a truth that is contrary to common sense or the expectations of intuition.

Some examples of counterintuitive situations: You burn calories when you’re sleeping, flailing around is exactly the wrong thing to do when drowning, and beautifully speckled dart frogs can be poisonous to the touch.

On the same day, I read a guest post by Elizabeth Bear on Charlie Stross’s blog about how we think we know certain things, but it turns out we don’t. It was a prime example of how we have rewritten reality and made it counterintuitive as a result.

You probably think you know what a nuclear explosion sounds like.

You’re probably wrong.

The first footage released of hydrogen bomb tests was silent. A foley was dubbed in, using a standard explosion or cannon sound effect repeated to form the familiar continuous, ominous rumble. (If you think about this, it’s pretty obvious that the footage most of us are used to is dubbed, because audio and visual are simultaneous–and these films are shot from miles away from the blast site.)

Collectively we have made the world of known scientific learning one of mystery and furious, opinionated debate. It irritates my Inner Pedant that space battles on TV are chock-full of explosions. They claim in space no one can hear you scream, and they are right. They just don’t demonstrate it so everyone carries on thinking space and vacuums transmit noise just like air.

Equally it’s a guilty pleasure to watch a space battle where not all the ships are oriented the same way up.

More importantly though, if we make scientific discovery a matter of opinion instead of an accepted best description of reality (until we get a better theory – because that is how science works), then we end up with creationism and climate change deniers and all kinds of crazy.

Fiction is a fantastic escape. It’s a means of exploring other possibilities, of examining the human condition and sharing emotional connections. It is not a text book for how the world works. Demarcation, people!

So while certain truths may be counterintuitive, that may be nothing more than a failure of current understanding, When it is caused by conscious manipulation of known facts about the  ‘verse then I call it out as fabrication and mythologizing, and demand quality of imagination.

The universe is amazing enough, and has mystery enough, without us compounding our ignorance on purpose.

<Steps down from soap box and shuffles aside>

It’s a beautiful Reality. Enjoy it as it is, without the face paint.

Namaste.

How not to be Wu Wei

The wondrous Rarasaur has created “Prompts for the Promptless” to expand minds, share ideas, and — equally importantly find something about which to blog.

This week, Rara has presented us with Wu Wei as the topic.

Wu wei, or non-doing, is a Taoist practice involving letting one’s action follow the simple and spontaneous course of nature rather than interfering with the harmonious working of universal law by imposing arbitrary and artificial forms.  In other words, it is the action of non-action.

They say, by which I mean someone once said to me, that when you are learning to drive you know you’ve got it when you stop thinking consciously about the gears and the clutch everything, and you just drive. Eventually through perseverance and practice learned behaviours appear natural. They are performed unconsciously. They flow.

I think the definition of Wu Wei is not quite that, though. It’s about being natural. A human being does very little that is natural. Look at a new born baby. It can breathe, excrete, feed, sleep and cry. After a relatively short space of time, once its eyes focus, it smiles unknowingly at anything with dots arranged like the eyes, nose and mouth of a human face.  This reflex assists bonding with the parent and is a reflexive survival instinct. Otherwise humans are pretty much artificial beings.

Trees, now. Trees don’t go through a learning phase where they start with absorbing water and end up catalysing chlorophyll. They don’t, as far as I know, suffer existential anxiety about whether really they should be a shrub  or a daisy or possibly moss. They don’t ask what it’s all about anyway when you get right down to it, or have tantrums or a rebellious teenage phase stomping about the forest, slamming branches or experimenting with fertiliser. They rarely gambol in the fields, although they may whisper breathy tales in  windy, storm-tossed darkness about ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night, if only to scare the saplings. They do not learn. They simply are. They are natural beings.

You will have spotted at once, my dears, that EBL is equating natural with instinctive, and artificial with learned. This is my distinction, and I am using it for the sake of the post. I am open to new ideas from whatever quarter they may come. My mind is a very field of dreams, with gusts of frantic randomness billowing through it. Different interpretaions can and do apply. Etc.

The principle of Wu Wei then, for me as a non-Taoist and complete novice to the concept, is that we learn to predict a natural response and enact it, without thinking.

This may be why I cannot claim, yet, to be a Tao-ist. EBL makes a note to read the Tao of Pooh as soon as possible. When all else fails, a teddy bear may help. It is a sound principle.

“Things just happen in the right way, at the right time. At least when you let them, when you work with circumstances instead of saying, ‘This isn’t supposed to be happening this way,’ and trying harder to make it happen some other way.”
― Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

Oh, that makes sense. Thanks, Pooh!

This has been EBL over-thinking like some kind of Anti-Tao-ist. It’s a classic example of how not to be Wu Wei.

Namaste.

Operation

I finally received an appointment for the second cataract operation.

Previously on ElectronicBagLady’s Blog….In case you don’t recall, or missed the first one, I am between operations to replace the lenses in my eyes. I don’t have fully formed cataracts yet, but I am myopic (“pathological myopia”, they told me) to an extreme level, so much so that the optician can no longer correct the problem fully. So they are giving me new plastic lenses in the eyes which should correct the vision and also prevent the further development of cataracts (they are beginning to form). The first operation in October was very successful but in the interim I have been suffering headaches and vertigo and nausea from having one eye very slightly long sighted, and the other so short sighted it’s almost looking behind me. And now the story continues…

There was a great deal of fuss involved in sorting out how to get to and from the hospital (not that easy from where I live), arranging the pre-op assessment (again a whole day to get there and back for a five minute MRSA swab – annoying but necessary) and many colleagues to calm down because it will be a week before Project Go Live and about 24 hours after I sign off Go Live, assuming that I do, in fact, sign off Go Live.

Well, that was all gobbledegook, wasn’t it? In English then, I will be going in for an operation at a Very Awkward Moment for everyone at work. However, being a Project Manager of some competence, I had recorded the possibility in the Risk Log and we all had agreed what to do if it happened (which is what a risk is). So there was no excuse when I held everyone to account, looked them in the eye down the phone line and said, “So you know what to do, right?”

Bless their hearts, they did. After the initial shock everyone admitted they might be able to manage, which soothed my ego nicely. I am sure they are cheering really because I have been so neurotic over the last few weeks they will be glad to get rid of me. The other item in our favour was that we finally signed off the documentation yesterday, by which I mean the planning documents, policies, joint procedures and so on, and have more or less finished running the Disaster Scenario tests.

Oh my dears, I will be so pleased to have this operation over. I hope the second eye will be as successful as the first (although it’s a different surgeon so I am a little nervous). They had said the wait would be 6-10 weeks, and that was a few months ago. God bless the NHS and all who sail in her, but they are lousy at timing, although in this case it has worked out better for my work life, even if it has meant a period of nausea and vertigo which was longer than hoped.

I don’t really have much to say tonight; I just wanted to share with you about the operation, and to say I am not sure if I will be able to see well enough to post for a while. If I do, I pray you will indulge the many typing errors (as opposed to the hopefully lower number that slip through during normal service).

I can’t touch-type. I wish I could now, but when I was more nimble pf brain and finger, my school took the attitude that we girls should not learn to type because that was what less academic girls did in order to become typists. We were destined to do greater things, attend university and marry well so we could entertain our husband’s business colleagues amusingly and intelligently. That was why girls went to university, don’cha know?

It didn’t work out. I fear I have let Sigoth down terribly. I am most ashamed. If he ever brought captains of industry home for supper, I shudder to think what would happen. Much would depend on their conversational ability, and the level of casual –ism of choice (racism, sexism, homophobia, which is an –ism really, or their position on hanging, which will have some –isms attached somewhere, probably by a reef knot).

On the other hand, if I bring home strays from work, as I used to do back in the day when we didn’t live in Ultima Thule, Sigoth can whip up demon veggie lasagne and we have a right good laugh. Even that time I invited my boss, we forgot he was coming and ate everything before he arrived. He enjoyed his Indian takeaway very much though so I think we got away with it.

Namaste.

The Spirit of Willy Woodthorpe

19890611Ashford Woodthorpe Road School5Recently the daily prompt at WordPress asked me to write a memorial to part of my childhood that had been destroyed.

It’s not fashionable to admit liking school. Sometimes anti-intellectualism goes too far, and so I am here to tell you that school was happy for some of us, at least some of the time.  My secondary school was horrible, but primary – well, I lived in heaven for several years, my dears. I told you about one of my teachers there the other day. The fantastic Mr B.

It wasn’t just Mr B though; it was the school itself. It wasn’t Hogwarts (if Hogwarts ever had a prep school, which it didn’t, but never mind), with Houses and homework and ghosts – although allegedly there was a ghost in our classroom. I think Mr B made him up, but you can’t be too careful about these things. The ghost lived in the roofspace over our classroom; you see that big arched window in the main building? That was our classroom, and Willy Woodthorpe, the ghost, lived above it.  At the end of the day, when we were getting giddy, Mr B would sit us down and play his version of Sleeping Lions. We had to sit at our desks and not smile or giggle. Meanwhile he stalked among us, telling us about Willy Woodthorpe and making silly faces and noises until we cracked. The last one to laugh won.

When I say the school was special, I don’t mean the teachers, although most of them were fabulous. Except the one who threw the blackboard wiper at your head if she got cross. She was not fabulous at all. She was the threat we held over annoying kids.

“I’ll tell Miss Scary!”

That wasn’t her real name of course, although it was how we thought of her. I doubt she meant to be scary, but she did get quite angry quite often. She used crutches because she had had polio as a child, and so she was not very mobile. I suspect the throwing was compensation for a clip round the ear, which other teachers might have adopted.

Anyway, not the teachers. The school itself, the bricks and mortar and crumbly, fading glory of it that you could pick out of the cracks with prying fingers when you were bored.

It was typical of many schools of that age – high windows and ceilings, resulting in cold rooms with grumbling, clunky radiators fighting a losing, cantankerous battle, and a polished wooden floor in the main hall where we went to sing hymns and do gym (not at the same time). The stage had library shelves at the back which you were allowed to use once you were good enough at reading. It was brilliant. There were books about astronauts and dinosaurs and volcanoes, although sadly not all in one stupendous volume.

The playground had lots of nooks and crannies, because the building was so fractal on the edges. It was a bit like Slartibartfast’s fjords, lovely and crinkly, providing a baroque feel. By unspoken agreement, different year groups inhabited different areas. Once we were in the final year we took over the space outside our classroom and held manic conker competitions and pretended to be daleks and had fights and long, soul searching discussions on the benches (because it was almost, but not quite, time for puberty).

During playtimes we might see our mums going past on their way back from shopping in town, which meant we had to be reasonably well-behaved otherwise we would be in trouble at home time. There was a rain shelter (you can just see the edge of it on the left hand side of the photo; it’s the square brick wall poking in behind the railings) which only held about half the school complement on days it was wet, so the smaller children tended to steam slightly if they sat near a radiator on a wet afternoon. We always went outside at break, without exception. Blue knees were pretty common because the girls all had short skirts and the boys all had short trousers; the science class on circulation of the blood made complete sense once you had examined your mottled knees and realised your life was being sucked from you by vampire winds. Our mums knitted balaclavas to keep our ears warm, but knees were left to fend for themselves.

I suppose the school was hard to heat, although the kitchens cooked us hot dinners every day so it felt warm in the hall itself. The only way in and around was up and down stairs, which were problematic if you had difficulty walking, like Miss Scary, or like the boy in our year who had cerebral palsy. He took forever to get up to the classroom. At the time we just waited because that was how long he took, although some of the boys called him names when the teachers weren’t around.

The downside to this suburban idyll was the toilets. When I say toilets, don’t be fooled into imaging pristine water closets with working flush mechanisms and gleaming porcelain. This was the 1960s. They were in special blocks the other side of the playground, and they were unspeakably horrible. I suspect most of us, if we learned nothing else, learned top quality bladder control because really anything was preferable to having to use them. It was a wonder we didn’t all catch cholera, although if we had I expect we would still have had to go to school. You needed a cast iron excuse to be off sick, such as death, and even then only if your mum wrote a note.

Most of us were happy there. Most of us learned to read and write and add up enough to get by.

I also saw the first man walk on the moon one summer day, and discovered that not everyone speaks English when a couple of Chinese children arrived (no one actually explained but I suspect they were refugees). I had my first crush on an actual boy, won another boy’s best conker in a fluke attack, and did handstands against the toilet block walls with the other girls. I made a model of an archaeopteryx which hung for the rest of term from the classroom ceiling.

Admittedly I also learned some unsavoury lessons, such as: if I hit the boy who teased me, he got in trouble for teasing a girl, and no one believed I had hit him. He learned the game wasn’t worth the candle and left me and my friends alone afterwards.

Eventually the council got fed up with the crumbly old building and hazardous toilets. They sold it to the Salvation Army and this is what is there now.

But the spirit of Willy Woodthorpe lives on, and, to paraphrase appallingly, you can’t take my school from me. Cue fiddles!

Take my love, take my land

Take me where I cannot stand

I don’t care, I’m still free

You can’t take the sky my school from me.

 

Take me out to the black

Tell them I ain’t comin’ back

Burn the land and boil the sea

You can’t take the sky my school from me.

Know my school and you know me.

Namaste

 

Lofty Ambition

I had a plan, as I have mentioned before, about how to spend my time rather than old-fogeying in front of the television. On the whole it has gone well this week, and I have been able to dig out my calligraphy books and write the alphabet badly with terrible pens.

I don’t rush things, you know. I was first introduced to the wonders of lettering very many years ago, back in the dawn of time when dinosaurs ruled the earth. They were terrible at calligraphy though; they just couldn’t hold the pen or brush in their stubby little fingers or beaks, and that was why mammals were invented. Opposable thumbs are apparently a Good Idea if you want to do nice writing (although I completely acknowledge that there will be artists out there who can do better with some of their toes than I can with all my fingers).

The great revelation about the writing-pretty happened at a creative workshop event back in 1991. That year I bought paper and pens and inks and did indeed practise the art and craft of writing very slowly, but carefully and mindfully, in wonky celtic script. The concentration required to produce even a wobbly line of text, to make it fit and to invest the care and attention it deserved, was completely absorbing and peaceful. Then I had 4th Offspring and started a Masters.

I always meant to go back to it and do some more. I meant if seriously and faithfully and nobly. It just never happened. Until this week.

The Plan, though, marches on apace and declares that this weekend I am going to work on Da Novel, get out and take some pictures, practise my classical guitar and revise my Anglo-Saxon. The Plan is full throttle, all-out mayhem, if followed slavishly, allowing no time for living, getting groceries, doing laundry or tidying up, and I think I meant only to do two of the four, depending on circumstances. So far, it is almost time to make dinner and I have achieved none of them.

It’s time to regroup. The reason for achieving none of those things is that, as well as the Plan, I also have a Project. Sigoth and I are now embarked on decorating the guest bedroom. We only got a guest bedroom last year when Youngest Offspring went to university. He and his brother still share it when they are home, for example at Christmas. We can only work on it during term times. So last weekend Sigoth and I sat down and devised a Project Plan.

Obviously I am the Project Manager; it’s my real job too, so I brook no argument. With great certification comes great responsibility. I have done a resource calculation, and estimated the time required for tasks. I am even going Agile on this baby and have time-boxed everything. This is because our last project evaluation revealed that the slippage was due to spending longer than planned (or needed, in truth) on some tasks. So we have learned and I have scheduled accordingly, as well as giving the team a pep talk.

As Project Officer, Sigoth is currently clearing out the loft.

Wait a moment, EBL! The loft? Didn’t you say you were decorating the bedroom?

Thanks for paying attention! Allow me to elucidate.

Have you heard that rhyme about the battle and the horse and the nail? You know, “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost” and so on. Go on, you know the one I mean.

Anything we try to do in EBL Towers turns out like that. In order to decorate the room we have to clear it, or at least have space to shift furniture about a bit. In order to make space we have to take out the boxes we put there while we decorated our bedroom before Christmas. That means we have to sort them out and decide what is going into the loft or to the dump. So we need to clear space in the loft for the things we want to store up there. Honestly, the painting bit is the really quick bit at the end.

I have to confess: Sigoth and I are hoarders. We have so much junk which we kept because it might come in handy. Or it used to belong to someone, like my dad, or Sigoth’s grandpa, and we don’t want to part with it. Or the Offspringses might conceivably want it one day. Or the putative grandchildren. Or it ought to be worth something on eBay. Or I’ll need it if I throw it out (this last is occasionally even true). Need I go on?

We kept our textbooks from university in case we had children who would find them useful. We graduated in 1983. One Offspring did indeed study one of my subjects. Unfortunately my textbooks were so out of date they were completely useless. They are still in the loft though. Just in case.

So last year we committed to the creed of William Morris and agreed to keep things only if they were useful or beautiful. It was a mighty change of heart, and we stumble often. But lofty ambition is what makes us human, and so we keep on trying. The text books will soon be gone. I might photograph them before taking them to the dump; it helps ease the pain. Declutter we must and we have set ourselves to learn the rules and by working hard we hope to pass the test.

What we have learned is the new-found delight of letting go. The all-new bedroom we now sleep in has space and light and only beautiful or useful things. The bed is useful, the blanket I knitted is both useful and beautiful. The pictures are pretty. The floor is clear. It takes no more than 10 minutes to clean, instead of over an hour. Every morning I wake up and fall in love with it again.

Letting go. It’s such an important lesson, but as said before, EBL is not fast. She is the tortoise, but the tortoise moves. Each day she moves closer to her goal, even if the route is circuitous and the goal also moves. Her ambition remains unwavering.

Each little success, each item taken to the charity shop or recycled at the dump or given to one who finds it useful and/or beautiful; each of these instances brings us both a little injection of peace. It is easy to learn a lesson that fits what we already think and do; learning to change is the hard part. Sigoth and I continue to learn, every day.

Namaste

Best. Teacher. Ever.

A recent daily prompt asked me (yes, me, personally) to write about a teacher who had a strong influence on me. I wrote about our French teacher from Hell yesterday before I saw the prompt, which coincidence amused me. I am easily amused.

Teachers have had a massive influence on my life, for good or bad; I am sure this is true of many people because many people spend a lot of time in their formative years with teachers. In his younger days, Sigoth was a primary school teacher and the children loved him very much, He is still in contact with some of them, over 20 years later, having seen them grow from barely more than toddlers to graduates and working adults.

I had a teacher like that too. Lots of my teachers were frightening; they thought that was how you managed children, poor things, or they enjoyed it, even more poor things. Imagine finding happiness by scaring little kids – how sad is that! Either way, I had one teacher who just loved teaching us and found great things to show us and teach us about.

The most important lesson he gave me was when he got the better readers in the class to sit with the slower readers and work through their books. Can you guess which I was? EBL: you can say many things about her, but not that she is slow with a book.

I sat with a boy who was virtually illiterate. The first thing he asked me was how to spell “phlegm”. I had no idea and supposed he wanted to write something rude, but I had a go and got it wrong. He was absolutely delighted to tell me the correct spelling and our teacher agreed he was right. I looked at the boy with fresh eyes and then we worked through his book.

I’m sure you can guess what had happened. Mr B, the teacher in question, explained it to me later so that I didn’t feel too bad (the lad had not been very gracious!). It wasn’t a fluke or chance that he got the spelling right, he had been primed by Mr B so he could show me he knew something I didn’t. That he could learn, if someone spent the time to teach him. That he was not, in fact, stupid.

Well, it worked. The boy felt better (and I hope he isn’t reading this! If so, know this: the respect stands), and I learned a lesson about hubris, which I can also spell.

One of the best lessons we had with Mr B was following an “incident” at school. Someone, someone you see, had been writing on the outside walls a very rude word. We didn’t know about graffiti back then, because it was the 1960s and English suburbia. Mr B got a boy to admit it (it might even have been our hero of the earlier story, in fact – hence my readiness to believe he might want to write “phlegm” somewhere). Then Mr B told him it was a bad thing to do, and paused.

“The thing that really upsets me,” he said, clearly upset because he was a bit red and huffy, “is that you spelled it wrong. It has a C in it. It’s actually an old Anglo-Saxon word for having sex. If you are going to do this kind of thing, at least make sure you know how to spell it and know what the word means. Swear words aren’t just swear words. They mean something.”

You could hear the jaws of 35 kids hitting the desks.

There was no more graffiti.

I kept in touch with Mr B after moving on to the school from hell. It was him that made my parents enter me for the scholarship. He told them that if I went to the comprehensive down the road I would be so bored by the time I was 12 that I would be in prison by the age of 14. I think he may have been right. He knew me well; I get destructive when I am bored. He wouldn’t have known how awful the teachers were or how soul-destroying the school could be. Even if he had, it was still better than the alternative. I won my scholarship and went to the posh kids’ school where I was bullied by some children and some teachers, but also had a chance to learn all the fancy stuff I love. Thanks to him I kept out of prison and went to university instead; my parents would not have put me in for the scholarship without his intervention. They did so because they liked him and trusted his judgment too.

So Mr B kept in touch and even came to my wedding. He was a lovely man and we often slipped up and called him “Dad” instead of “Sir”. He loved taking us all out for walks on the Common and bringing back pond water to look at under the microscope. He showed us how to make paper, and papier-mâché dinosaurs and how a candle went out in a bell jar because it needed oxygen. He taught us to respect the world and that we would lose the pandas and rhinos if we didn’t take care. He taught us to ask questions, and that knowledge was more important than tradition; he was incensed at a hymn we had to sing one day because none of us understood the words (“He who would valiant be”) – so we had a whole morning on what they meant and who John Bunyan was. We held trials in the classroom, where we had to play judge and jury, and prosecute or defend a moral argument.

He got in trouble for not teaching us traditional lessons, but we were the brightest class in the school.

He was inspiring and I have become unexpectedly emotional writing this. It was my privilege to have known him.

I hope you have all had the fortune to have known a teacher like him.

Namaste.

 

Old fogeys

Sigoth and I turn into a couple of old fogeys some nights, when it is dark and cold, and the wolves are howling in the hinterland. To distract us from the fear of Grendel coming to call, or worse, his mother, we turn to the bright, shiny presence in the corner, and watch TV.

I have a plan for spending my time at the moment which is going well. At least, I thought it up yesterday on the train home and managed to do some of it last night. So it’s going quite well, by my standards anyway. The plan for how EBL Spends Her Time is to avoid watching the bright-shiny-presence-in-the-corner all evening and then kick myself for failing to solve world poverty, finish my knitting or some such frippery. It finally guides me as to which hobby to pursue most evenings of the week, and is designed to be manageable when away from home, as I often am; it allows me evenings off, because I know that there are other things that will get in the way such as School Governors, or even, Heaven forfend, social interaction.

Meanwhile, the other night the wolves were loud and we turned to the television for comfort. It was a Top of the Pops Special for 1978.

Ah, 1978, that heady year! My dears, I remember it well. I was 16, completed my O-Levels and went on a couple of great trips to Germany and to the Baltic. I saw drop-dead gorgeous Swedish boys, fjords, the Tsar’s Winter Palace and the Little Mermaid. The sun shone, the birds sang and I got good enough grades to study A-Levels that September. I wasn’t allowed to take Latin, despite getting an A, even though I wanted to do Classics at university; so I rebelled, dropped History and took Maths instead, along with English, French and German. That showed them.

I remember the careers advice I got too. Our careers teacher was the chief French teacher, a fearsome spinster, with an interesting approach to pedagogy; in brief she wasn’t happy unless she had at least half the class in tears by the time of the first bell. She only managed it with me once, and that was a day she had the entire A-level class fountaining en masse because we failed to translate her reading of a JB Priestley novel in English into French on the fly. Indeed, we were veritable scum.

I entered the careers room, a dingy attic space full of dusty books and broken audio-visual equipment, keen to discuss courses, and options and the advisability of working immediately vs studying for 3 years. No one in my family had ever been to university and no one in my family, apart from me, could think why anyone would bother.

“What are you reading with French at university?” she asked.

“I’m not reading French,” I said.

She ignored me and continued to talk about careers for language graduates. It was fairly pithy stuff.

“You could get a job as a translator in Brussels with the Common Market. You can’t be an air hostess; you’re too fat.”

She was right. So I rebelled again. At least she settled the question of whether I was going to university at all. I was going and not reading French. Oh yes.

She glared, and assumed I was reading German instead. She and the German teacher were sworn enemies. It was worse than Paris in 1940. When she found out I wasn’t even reading a language she sent me away, unadvised but resolute.

School, eh? Worst time of my life. As Evelyn Waugh says in Decline and Fall:

Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums who find prison so soul-destroying.

That was 1978 for me, a topsy-turvy time, making life-changing decisions in the midst of hormonal fire-storms and the strenuous opposition of teachers and family. It was a bit lonely and a bit exciting and it was the year I made some good friends.

Back to the TV in the corner though. Sigoth and I watched amazed as our youth was exposed for examination from the distant perspective of middle age and parental experience.

The music – quite extraordinary! I hadn’t quite realised. There was everything from old glam rockers to punk, Mannfred Mann to Sham 69, Abba to Kate Bush, Brian & Michael to Althia & Donna: pretty much you name it, it was there. I remember thinking at the time that I hoped disco would go away soon, and that this new-fangled punk was pretty good if hard work to dance to (we had to pogo, it was utterly exhausting!).

For me the highlight of the programme was The Boomtown Rats. Bob Geldof in his youth, New Waving across the decades at me with “Rat Trap”. Absolutely fantastic. And is it just me, or does it make you think of “Dirty Old Town”, just a little bit?

Two years later I met Sigoth. We fell in love. We were kids. I realised it for the first time seeing that. Who knew?

Now we are older and greyer and more in love, and I hope always will be. Somehow it seems appropriate, in memory of that dreadful teacher, to quote Ronsard:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant :
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle.

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seray sous la terre et fantaume sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos :
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.

Ronsard was a bit of an ass, but I do like the poem.

Namaste.

A fighting opponent

“A fighting opponent” (8 letters).

I was working on a crossword yesterday before settling down to plan a post as part of Bloggers for peace, and this clue was giving me some trouble. Then I got it (it was the last one to do, that’s how slow I was!). I’m sure cryptic crossword fans will be sighing heavily at how obtuse I am, and those of you not cryptically inclined will be looking blankly at the page and wondering what is EBL on today?

The answer to the clue, in case you want to know, was “pacifist”, ie an opponent of fighting.  Geddit? I know, cryptic crosswords are a bit, er, cryptic…

So that was an interesting piece of synchronicity, or coincidence, and got me nowhere in terms of a blog post. Not unless I wanted to do something on favourite cryptic crossword clues. Such as “What a dog does round trees” (4 letters), or “Bridge is a card game” (7 letters).

So I settled down to watch the wondrous Borgen, as planned, and tried to let go of bloggery.

Wouldn’t you know it though? Not only did those delightful Danes live up to my wildly inflated expectations, and pull off not one, but two, absolutely cracking episodes; not only that, but also the first episode was about the war in Afghanistan.

EBL wears a serious face…

The show encapsulated a dilemma that I face as a pacifist. Once a violent set of actions have commenced, the next conundrum is whether to support further actions to try to reduce and minimise future harm, or whether to withdraw in order to resist collusion with opposing principles and actions. In the Borgen episode, the broadly left-leaning prime minister, who was trying to remove Danish troops from Helmand, had to deal with the fallout of a fresh attack by the Taliban which resulted in the loss of a number of Danish troops.

I am aware at this point that I am about to introduce spoilers for anyone who is planning to watch this episode, but has not yet done so. So if that is you, go watch it first!

In summary, due to public and media responses to the loss of life, she was unable to keep to the plan for a phased and managed troop withdrawal. She had either to withdraw immediately, allow the Taliban to claim a moral and actual victory and face the consequences (difficult but do-able for her), or she could respond by increasing the amount of equipment, resource and troop levels in Helmand (not what she wanted to do at all but an obvious choice for a number of others).

She was put under pressure by Afghani activists who begged her to support their country in promoting democracy. She faced down political opponents who wanted to pursue a more military (and macho) goal. She dealt with her own supporters who wanted to stick to the original plan (political suicide). Then she was faced by the father of one of the dead soldiers, who was himself opposed to the war, but who shared his son’s farewell letter with her. In it his son tried to explain to his anti-war father why he had joined up and served in Afghanistan.

It was a complex, emotional and brilliantly written story. The acting, as always, was superb. God, I love Borgen, even though political dramas generally are absolutely not my thing.

Maybe I won’t tell you what she did in the end. Did she change her approach, or did she stick to her principles and take the consequences? Just watch it already!

Actually what she chose is not important because (a) Borgen is fiction, and (b) the dilemma is always there, regardless of a specific choice at a specific time. What the show did was allow the audience to work out their own solution and agree or not with the way chosen by the character.

This dilemma is familiar to peace activists. It can split groups apart who should be working together. It causes loss of peace in itself, just by existing.

The Friends Ambulance Unit was initially set up in the First World War to provide conscientious objectors with a role in the conflict that did not violate their opposition to fighting, but allowed them to support and help those wounded in it. Again, this was not unilaterally supported by all Friends. Some preferred to go to prison rather than support the war effort in any way. It also operated in the Second World War.

Once we are committed to acts of aggression, it seems inevitable that there are innocent bystanders. In the 1980s I could not bring myself to support the immediate withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland because I felt the vacuum that would have left would have caused greater harm and violence. It was a difficult decision. I opposed the troops being there in the first place, but given that they were, I felt I had to take that into account.

My dears, EBL is a pragmatist, first and foremost. I manage projects, which means most of my time is spent finding ways around things which don’t go to plan. Life is messy and doesn’t read my critical path, unbelievable though that is. I wash it all up at the end in an evaluation to try and avoid making the same mistakes, but in the heat of project delivery (and it can get heated, and much of that heat may well be generated by yours truly if someone defaults on their commitment, I can tell you! You don’t want to make me angry.) I ignore the why, and focus on the “if … then…” option of sorting it out.

It does not sit easy. Sometimes I feel I have sold my soul, and not just on projects.

I said “No” to sending troops to Afghanistan. They went. I won’t celebrate it, and even though there are examples of good being done, I am not sure I can condone it. While I am not comfortable with asserting that my ethical squeamishness is more important than, say, Malala Yousafzai’s right to an education, nevertheless, in my bones I feel that there is still some moral weight to my viewpoint. If we accept, as I think we must, Malala’s right to an education (and if you don’t, then that is another matter to be discussed elsewhere), then using this agreement as a basis for violent intervention and conflict does not necessarily follow. Trying to link the secondary actions as a necessary outcome of the first (Girls should have education; girls’ education can only be achieved by killing the Taliban; therefore we must kill the Taliban) is both flawed and lazy. There are other ways to ensure the education of girls. Nor am I trying to imply this was the given reason for the war, of course! The given reason was just as muddled.

If we fail to stand firm on this, we contribute to a single-minded, unthinking and inherently dangerous world view that whoever has the biggest gun gets to decide whether girls go to school, or whatever the issue is that is being fought over. There needs to be constant challenge and discussion and reflection on all important ethical issues to ensure that we do not simply fall back lazily on what seems the easiest answer.

And if we should have learned anything by now, it is this: the long-term effects of such “obvious” solutions demonstrate that violent interventions merely result in generations of future conflict even if for a while some girls get to go to school. This is true of the rest of the world as much as Afghanistan. The UK is still trying to deal with the impact of its colonial past. Other examples abound; feel free to <insert your example here>.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it..

My dears, I appreciate your time in reading this rambling and poorly constructed brain dump. I am not agile of word or fleet of keyboard when ruminating seriously. I beg your indulgence.

Other bloggers for peace who are more able and beautiful than I include:

And really, go and watch Borgen!

The light in me salutes the light in you. Namaste.

P.S. “What a dog does round trees” (4 letters). Bark.

P.P.S. “Bridge is a card game” (7 letters). Pontoon.