Thursday 21 May 2015

School Daze

It's been a while since I have visited Blogland, although Fogland (lack of sleep) and Frogland (hallucinations - see the latter) have been familiar terrain. Thank you nippers.

It is 'A' Level season and our eldest is currently being squeezed through the last of his square-shaped holes - he has never quite fitted into the square-shaped mould of school. And neither have I, frankly. Primary School promised to be a breeze, though we had to find a school outside our area as the one on our doorstep was full. His first teacher assured me son was gifted and he would ‘sail through, given he was light years ahead of everyone else.’ Those light years came to an abrupt end a few years later when bored, he began staring out the window and doodling all over his work. There were still flashes of brilliance: his drawings, the music he played by ear, the poems; but there was no way I could get him to play the game. His heavily tutored peers (offspring of Hampstead Socialists bent on getting their kids into the best schools in the land - I could elaborate on 'bent' but I won't; suffice to say, I don't blame them for wanting the best for their kids, it was the methods many of them employed and the hypocrisy and pretence that I hated) steamed ahead.

Somewhat hypocritically, I also found myself a part of the social conditioning that's rife in state schools in 'good' areas. When Camden Council told me son wasn't able to get a place in any of the state schools, my choices were this: try for the private exams that were coming up in a matter of weeks, despite the fact that he was untutored, or teach him myself. I panicked and went for the exams. Son said there was no way he was going to a private school, he complained about the elitism, and the fact that it went against everything that he was, but when I said that the only other option was to be taught by me, he relented. I paid the gobsmackingly high entrance fee for two of the schools and he sat the two exams. He didn't have a chance, given one of the key aspects of the training for the exams is time spent on each question. I thought his natural intelligence would be enough - but it's not, these schools want kids who can jump through hoops, they don't look for kids who are creative or simply naturally intelligent - though obviously the kids who are getting in are not daft. Put it this way, there were boys in our son's year that were not as bright as him who passed the exams - and their parents were able to pay for the full spectrum of exams at the various grammar (grammar, my foot - don't even get me started on the grammar issue!) and private schools. There were a couple of others, who were, one in particular who was very bright. But it broke my heart that I did that to him - like throwing him to the sharks without the cage that the others had had years to fashion. The gloating from a few of the more competitive mothers (there were lovely mother's too) was hard to take, they really rubbed it in in various ways: "Oliver was offered all the schools he went for..." Well given 'Oliver' had been tutored since year dot, it would have been pathetic had he not, didn't come into it. I comforted myself that their offspring were not as not as good at the arts, or sport - or nice looking [!] or nice frankly - yuck, I know, but this is what that whole system does to you! I’m not proud of any of that.

Anyway, our kid hated going through that but he was just relieved not to be going private, and took the mick out of me for going down that road in the first place - making me laugh over the social conditioning of the whole thing, I wish I'd just trusted that something was going to come up, as it did, straight after the dreaded exams, when he was offered a place at a brand new academy that many parents would not touch as it was untested. Son wanted to enjoy life and have a laugh as well as go to school - and if he hadn't been able to make me laugh as much as he does, I possibly wouldn't have laughed it all off as quickly as I did, given that the whole period was horrid. And isn't laughter the best medicine? Just last week I was doubled over in Sainsbury's, holding on to the freezer handle with a bag of peas in my hand, because son was singing "Here comes your man," perfectly by the Pixies, except he was singing: "Here comes your nan." Okay, perhaps I can't grow up either, but therein lies our connection.

I took our eldest out of primary school for several months to take him to the Thai-Burma border where he played football with Burmese orphans who had seen unspeakable things. He sat in on the classes I taught and widened his horizons in so many ways. I’m glad we did that. Over the years, we spent hours playing music, drawing and discussing books and all manner of things, including faith. I’m glad we did that too. These are the things that made him who he is and who he will be.

Some kids are just not suited to school. I'm still battling to get our eldest to "just give them what they want (art criteria) not what you want to do!" I keep saying: "You can do what you want in three weeks time!" My three youngest are home-schooled. Two of them would be fine in 'regular' school, though, in my view, it would not be the best option for them; the other, well he'd be crushed, and I'd sooner lie in front of a steam-roller than send him. There are some wonderful teachers in the state, and I am told, in the private system, but the system does not work for everyone, home-schooling allows the parent to tailor education to fit the child and their abilities. 

Looking back at my school career, I was just like my eldest. Only worse! But I have still painted my pictures, sung my songs and written my books - eventually. Thanks to my parents, I was fortunate enough to have gone to The National School of the Arts, in Johannesburg, where my creativity was encouraged - as it was at home. My eldest has had some incredible people along the way - his wonderful piano teacher, who refused to force him to sight read because she said it was crushing his natural ability, and who taught him for free for a time because of his 'amazing musical mem-o-ry,' as she put it in her wonderful German accent, when I, a skint single mother, was going to have to take him out of lessons for while - and some wonderful teachers at his state academy - his Geography teacher who said how sad he was that our son had stopped asking "the questions that turned the tide in the classroom." (He was in the middle years in a state school and had to rap his responses at the time.) At the parents meeting when he said this, we both turned to our eldest and said (me tearfully, he with emotion, like we were all suddenly in an Alan Bennett play) "Why don't you ask the questions any more?" Or his art teacher who told me that she has only taught two students with our kid's level of ability - our son and another boy who is now a renowned artist. 

I am convinced that if our son does ‘go the distance,’ it will be along his own path and in his own way, so for all of you parents out there who are freaked out about these finals, fear not, I'm not anymore; it's the beautiful oddballs that 'make the music that makes us dance.' And we want our kids to be happy, well rounded, caring individuals, regardless of what they choose to do, or whose yardstick they are supposed to measure up to. And they will learn to be those kids in our own back yards.