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Monthly Archives: June 2014

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“Do you remember when we used to do this all the time?” asked Joe last night. He was sitting across a restaurant table from me, we were having an early meal before our concert.

“Twenty years ago, before the children.”

For a moment both of us shared the same astonishing thought: that one day the children might move on.

It was a wonderful night out. It was the hottest night of the year, which brought it home that it was almost exactly a year since we’d had our last evening out – on the hottest night of last year.

Last year we needed a friend to come in and look after Julie, who at the time could not be left alone. This year she looked after herself, cooked her own dinner, put herself to bed. What a change.

We could go out all the time now. We’re just out of practice – it takes such a lot of effort to arrange and we have got used to our evenings at home in front of the TV. Once a year is not very good: we must practice!

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For the last few weeks I have been reading ‘Far From the Tree’ by Andrew Solomon, which is my excuse for not writing a great deal. At 976 pages it is a fairly hefty read! But the pages fly by quite quickly – the writing is simple and vivid – and thank goodness, it turns out that the footnotes take up half the book!

Solomon is exploring what it is like to raise children that are different from you (and, sometimes, what it is like to be those kids). His idea is that we all have multiple identities, and some of those are vertical – inherited from our parents – such as nationality, religion, or red hair. But some are horizontal – unexpected traits that are not shared with parents – such as being deaf, dwarf, or autistic – and some of which, like his own account of being gay, may be rejected by parents. He tackles each of these categories in its own chapter, describing the unique challenges and strengths of the group, and some of the science, intermixed with people he has interviewed at length about their experience. It is the case studies that make the book: some of these characters leap off the page, and there are some extraordinary stories. Solomon makes a very sympathetic interviewer: he spends time with his subjects – not just an afternoon, but returning to visit again and again over years, building close relationships that often become real friendships. He stays in their homes, he keeps in touch, and it does feel as if some of his subjects – especially the most poor, isolated and discriminated against – gained a real sense of validation from his involvement.

Later in the book, Solomon deliberately moves away from what we all think of as “special needs” families. He looks at families where children are prodigies, or the product of rape, or become involved in crime. There were some good points here, and the interviews were thought-provoking, but I’m not sure he made such a good case for some of these categories. The chapter on children of rape, in particular, felt as if it needed a book all of its own. As Solomon admitted, the real connection here was amongst the mothers, not the children, and this group sat uneasily amongst the rest: a story to be told, yes, but perhaps in a different way. It didn’t help that while many of the families in the early chapters were similar to each other (mostly American), in this chapter, Solomon travelled to Rwanda to explore the subject of rape in war. Changing cultures so dramatically is pretty jarring – how can we relate these women’s experience to mothers in New York? This section felt very compressed, awkward and uneven.

But even just for the first half, I’d recommend Solomon’s book to anyone who has found themselves parenting kids who are “different”. Much of the time, parenting odd kids feels isolating and thankless, but this book is full of parents struggling to raise such children. Amongst these pages you find people you recognize, muddling along from day to day, sometimes showing amazing courage and tenacity, sometimes laughing at themselves, sometimes giving up and hiding under the duvet. But for most of these parents, amazingly, once they had got the hang of it, a lot of them seemed to gain from the experience. It was hard, and they grieved at first, but they no longer wanted their child to be any different.

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I don’t know why I decided to sit a GCSE at age 50. I have been studying Latin on and off for about 3 years at evening class – something I had always promised myself I would do. But I was happy just pottering along, satisfying my curiosity, why did I decide to put myself through an exam?

It was all Queenie’s fault. The idea only surfaced when Queenie announced that she wanted to sit a GCSE. At age 13, Queenie is a linguistic genius with several GCSEs in modern languages under her belt already. Once Queenie joined my Latin class, the pace really picked up. I had been the star pupil before Queenie joined: in fact, I was often the only pupil, and certainly the only one that bothered to do homework. Now I had competition, and I didn’t much like it.

So when Queenie said she was going to sit GCSE, I said I would it do it too. “She needs a running mate.” I declared, graciously. Running mate be damned! There was no way I was going to be beaten by a 13 year old! (Of course, back then I had no idea I would have an operation a few weeks before the first exam.)

So what is it like to sit exams at 50? It is nearly 30 years since I last sat in an exam hall, and I can tell you it feels exactly the same. These exams don’t mean anything to me: I have my career, thank you, and there is nothing a GCSE in Latin can give me, but it still feels the same. You still feel nervous walking in. The trestle desk feels just as flimsy as it did back then, and the same person has scored their initials on it in a fit of boredom during a Geography exam, along with the word FAIL. The same fidgety person is sitting in the seat next to you, sucking sweets. Your heart still races when you look up at the clock and see you have less time left than you thought. And when you hand in your paper you still go home and look up the words you didn’t know in the heat of the moment, and you know despair.

I thought it would be interesting to remind myself what my kids were going through. I was astonished to find that I was still so very nervous, even though I don’t have any pressure on me at all to succeed except what I put on myself. My kids, of course, have plenty of pressure: slip a grade, and they don’t get to study at the sixth form college or the university of their first choice. In principle, slip a grade, and it might be difficult to do some things in life at all (though this risk is greatly exaggerated by teachers, I find).

So to all teenagers everywhere, sitting exams in this June heat, I salute you: it is every bit as hard as you say.

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