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Monthly Archives: May 2013

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My daughter has a new friend, Heather, and Julie has just invited her to the house for the first time. Huge anxiety for Julie! It is a long time since she had a friend round.

Some people who only known my daughter slightly might be a little bit surprised at her choice of friend. Julie is a seventeen-year-old grade A student, who hopes to study at university eventually; Heather has a serious learning disability, and would like to find work in catering. On the face of it, they seem an unlikely friendship. Is Julie just being kind? Can these two possibly have anything in common?

Julie is not just being kind and this is a real friendship. It is around friendships with people her own age that Julie’s disability becomes most evident. Unable to attend mainstream school, she met Heather in the learning unit where they study. Julie may look like a normal seventeen year old, but she is officially a vulnerable young person. Both girls struggle with tasks that most of their peers mastered years before: catching a bus, buying a coffee, visiting a friend, to name three examples.

Friends are very thin on the ground; attempts to keep alive old friendships have met with mixed success. It is not that her old friends mean to be unkind, but they have moved on in that way that teenagers (should) do. Julie has been ill for over three years, has been in and out of hospital, and takes heavy medication. She is not at all interested in sex, the drugs having switched that bit off for now, she dislikes vampire movies because she cannot be quite certain that they are fictional, she falls asleep by nine. She struggles to keep up with rapid conversation, cannot drink alcohol or take recreational drugs, hates loud music, and is petrified by crowds. But above all – and this is what sometimes undermines her with other teenagers – until she gets to know you, she is serious, solemn as a judge, guarded. Once she knows you she is funny, creative and generous, but her young contemporaries often move too fast to discover this.

What Julie most craves in a friendship is in short supply at this stage of life: reliability and loyalty. She is naive; she has already been taken advantage of by shrewder students, manipulated and bullied. She needs the companionship of someone who is not too demanding, who likes routine as much as she does, someone who understands that a successful 20-minute bus journey is a triumph. Enter Heather.

The visit to the house went well. The two girls were both very anxious, but when they calmed down, decided they liked it so much they would extend the visit by another half hour. The return match, to Heather’s house, has been planned for the weekend.

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I can try all I like, but I can’t publish this lilac tree in full bloom! It is not the look of these flowers alone that is powerful, but the experience of standing underneath that lilac tree, on the tarmac road, drinking in its heavenly scent. And part of that experience is that it is so brief, barely a week or two before it will have gone again.

The problem of having such a complex multi-facetted life – working, parenting, loving – is that stress flows from one part of your life into another, without hindrance. If two or more areas come under stress at once, the whole system threatens to collapse. It only takes some prolonged extra pressure at work, and a child taking an overdose again, and suddenly there is a problem. Suddenly you’re not sleeping, not enjoying that book you were reading, forgetting to go out for a walk. Suddenly you find yourself worrying even about the parts of your life that are not in crisis: your elderly father, the sickly tree in the garden. Tired, you function less well, and other parts of your life are less successful: you shout at your husband, your bread doesn’t rise, and you forget the password to your bank account.

You have to beat that stress: that way depression lies. You have to find a lilac tree and stand underneath it, drinking in the scent of summer.

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My son came back from his biology lesson looking fed up. “Soya contains oestrogen!” he said, “Aren’t there any foods that contain testosterone?”

I laughed at my son because I know he is hoping to find a wonderfood that will make him superbly tall and strong (preferably overnight). I asked him what food he thought was the most masculine.

“A bacon sandwich.” he announced, “But it has to be made by a woman – and a woman who stays in the kitchen!

He was kidding me (a bit) but I felt a little sorry for him too. It has often been the subject of discussion between us. His life to date has been full of dominant women, and not that many men. Our family is full of powerful women, holding down jobs whilst running a household; the men are simply less visible, and sometimes absent. His primary school was almost entirely run by women, many of whom wasted no time in telling him that “boys were noisy and naughty” while “girls were neat and good”. Even his secondary school has a large number of women in senior leadership positions. Worst of all, he is surrounded by girls of his own age outperforming the boys (and mostly taller than him).

All this female power and success may cheer me up, but it is dismal for a boy like him. He would like to live in a more male world, a world in which being male was potent and glamorous, not lumbering and inept. I tried with all my might to raise my children as human beings first, gender last, but it never worked out that way. Being a boy has always defined him: he could no more leave it behind than the bindweed in my garden could wind clockwise.

I sometimes try to explain to him that the adult world is quite different from the way it appears to him at fifteen. Being male is not so much of a handicap in our society, I say wryly, whatever men would like to tell themselves. You will not spend your entire adult life in a world dominated by women. That is not the way it is, not at all.

But of course he doesn’t really believe me – and anyway, has a more pressing concern. Even if the world were ruled by women, will he eventually at least be taller than most of them?

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May is the cruellest month. The sun is shining, the woods are in leaf, the birds are singing. And everyone between the ages of 13 and 23 seems to be bent over their books studying for exams.

Of all the initiation rites into adulthood used by human societies, our prolonged periods of studying and examinations seem unusual. Unlike killing a lion, climbing a mountain, or drinking large quantities of the local brew, our exams are not just opportunities that you either pass or fail. They are graded: our children are set against one another. They are sorted into sheep or goats, and those that do very well are rewarded with a great deal of praise.

Are our exams useful? Surely they must be: parents clamour to get their children into schools that get good exam results, and governments agonize over exams. Here in the UK there have been repeated public arguments about our exam system; it is in a permanent state of being overhauled.

But it is all too easy to become obsessed with exam grades – they are almost too easily recorded, monitored and traded. These strings of letters are lazy substitutes for accurately assessing the real abilities and value of young human beings, the quality of a teacher, or the success of a school. My children’s teachers drum it into them that their future depends upon these exams. Some of my children’s teachers never speak to me about my children without pulling up their predicted grades on the computer first: while I am talking to them about my child, they speak only about the grades. The child has become that string of letters. Sometimes those letters are translated into real emotions: my daughter prompts a smile – she is always predicted good results – my son a scowl – his results are poor.

I speak as someone for whom exams were very useful in their day. I was good at them, they opened doors for me, they helped me escape from the limitations of the world I was raised in. But they were artificial gates to the adult world; they did not, in themselves, give me much of lasting value. Over time I have found that the things that have been most valuable were things that cannot be studied or examined. I have found, for example, that understanding how people work, and how to be kind, have been much more useful in my daily business than an ability to analyse the language of Shakespeare in a 60 minute essay.

At their worst, the exams damage the mental health of some youngsters. My son is coping badly with exams. They emphasize his weaknesses, and his teachers are convinced that he is lazy or uncooperative, when he is actually desperate. He feels he is a failure before he has even started life, and he is beginning to give up. It is in vain that I try to explain to him that, even if he failed all of these exams, his life would go on – and in fact, would probably work out as he wants, given time.

Every time a teacher says a child “must” do something, perhaps someone else should be asking why.

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If I am writing less at the moment this is entirely due to this birch tree growing in my garden. Struggling with hayfever, I have resorted to antihystamines. The thing about antihystamines is – I don’t know what they do to other people – they turn me into a dormouse. I would be happy now to curl up in my teapot for the rest of the early summer.

The up side to this induced comatose state is that, despite the house being filled with the despair of teens approaching examinations, I float through much of it unscathed. For this short while, I pass through life tuned out of their frantic broadcasts. I help them revise, I talk them down from hysteria, I sound the alarm if they start to talk about doing something stupid to themselves, but I am just a little less torn apart by it all. I am mildly disengaged, looking forward to the end of the day when I can fall into my big quiet bed and sleep the sleep of the just (or in this case, the drugged).

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