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Jane Eyre: how I hated that book! For two years we slaved over it at school, reading and rereading it, our set text for O level. It’s strangeness, it’s originality, it’s rich vocabulary, all ground into dust. I can still remember the horror, when we read it aloud round the class and I was handed the midsummer night scene in which Jane and Rochester finally declare their love to one another. I was fifteen: I was scarlet, mumbling the Victorian endearments.

It was thirty years before I could bring myself to read it again. I had remembered the plot, there are still a few passages I remember word for word (“Reader, I married him.”). I had forgotten what an odd-ball Jane is, and what a bully Rochester can be. But I was surprised at what I had misremembered.

Everyone remembers the madwoman in the attic: Rochester’s first wife. Bronte’s nightmare depiction of madness is still haunting, still buried somewhere deep in our collective unconscious. The lunatic, shut away from sight, raving and dangerous.

But though that image had remained vivid, I had misunderstood it. According to Rochester, “it is not because she is mad I hate her.” He hates his wife, he declares, because she has “a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw”. Had Jane gone mad, he claims, he would care for her tenderly. The madness is an inconvenience, preventing him legally divorcing from a monster. His wife’s former “vices” are rather vague, mixed up with the discovery that her mother was “a Creole”. We are left with the distinct impression that the first Mrs Rochester’s sin was not so much to be secretly mad as secretly black. “Her family wished to secure me because I was of a good race” says Rochester smugly, and Bronte does not bother to discuss this.

It may have been obvious to Victorian audiences – comfortable in their notions of racial superiority – that Rochester’s West Indian marriage was “impossible”, even before his wife went mad. But all that remains to modern audiences is the raving lunatic with her hideous strength and low cunning. In endless dramatisations of the book, this is all that appears on screen: any undercurrents of racism are written out. Perhaps they, like the book’s religious fervour, are too unsettling.

Myths about mental illness are strangely persistent. Downton Abbey, written recently, screened last year, rehashed the Rochester plot line: a character, under pressure to marry his girlfriend, reluctantly reveals the existence of a wife in an asylum from whom he cannot divorce. There is not even a fig leaf of “incompatibility” here: it is clear we are meant to sympathise with this man’s plight. He is, after all, a good chap, and clearly the mentally ill are unlovable and not fully human.

Give me Charlotte Bronte any day. An old unreconstructed racist she may have been, but she did try to give Rochester a better reason to hate his wife than her descent into illness. As Jane herself says: “It is cruel – she cannot help being mad.”

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It’s that time of year again: the start of another academic year. Everyone who has ever been a child or raised a child in the Western Hemisphere will recognize that this is the time of new beginnings. Small children start school, bigger children chafe in new uniforms, and many teenagers leave home for the first time against a backdrop of reddening trees and the freshening winds of autumn. 

For me it is also the time to pick up the exacting routines of housekeeping after the laxness of summer. Everyone has to get up, eat and shower and be out of the house on time.  Everyone has to return home safely at the end of the day and be fed again, listened to, commiserated with, supported and soothed and finally nagged back in to their beds.  The fridge must be kept supplied with food, everyone must have shoes and the lights on the bikes must be working. 

This routine, though somewhat monotonous, is necessary. Without it we rapidly sag downwards into the chaos that awaits beneath: skipped meals, forgotten medication, chronic sleep shortages and abandoned homework assignments. I will know my children are truly adult and independent of me when they finally recognise the importance of getting enough sleep and eating regularly.

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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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I’ve been a “special needs” parent for a while now – since my son was about seven, and my daughter thirteen – and I’ve got the T-shirt. I’ve been to special needs conferences, I’ve battled through the statementing process and I’ve got the school SENCO on speed dial. All schools use terms like “special needs” or “different needs” liberally these days, and a large secondary school will have a small armies of additional adults called teaching assistants (TAs in the lingo), helping individual children.

So it’s sobering to hear what my children think of the word “special”, after a lifetime growing up hearing the term bandied about by adults, especially in relation to them themselves. One of my children had to fight to be included in the “special needs” camp and win funding for her very own TA; the other child has spent the last few years fighting to keep out of the “special needs” category, struggling to evade the SENCO’s grasp.

It can come as no surprise to anyone who knows children (or who was ever a child) to find out that “special” has joined that list of words that are changing use rapidly, and generally heading south. Just as Obama wise-cracked about “the Special Olympics” (and then had to hastily apologise ), you can bet there’s a teenager near you telling another teenager that they’re “a special”. Is it only a matter of time before “special” goes the way of words like “spastic”? When I was a child the word “spastic” was perfectly respectable (as in The Spastic Society) before sliding into taboo.

So no kid wants to be “special” these days, but of course as teenagers they are also anxious to find out what it is that makes them different from everyone else. This may be partly because we educate them in such huge cohorts – my kids are at a school over 1500 strong. Even though they seem to prefer to do everything in packs, they are simultaneously hunting for that elusive personal signature.

This is a challenge for any kid who has ever been labelled “special”. They can embrace that label and identify themselves by it, but that’s not always a very successful strategy. If you decide to be assertively Aspie, for example, that only works as long as you feel that having Asperger’s Syndrome is generally positive. You might feel enthusiastic if you credit it with giving you mathematically superior powers, but more reluctant if you think it puts off prospective sexual partners. Reject it, and you redouble your efforts to find another way to define yourself.

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1. (Before starting the course) This subject is really easy, I’ll easily get an A in this subject.
2. (During the course) Exam? What exam?
3. (During class revision sessions) Yeah, yeah, this is really boring.
4. (One week before the exam) Oh shit, I have an exam in a week’s time.
5. (Trying to revise) Why don’t I understand any of this? I don’t remember learning any of this.
6. (After looking at a past paper) My life is over, I am going to be slaughtered.
7. (Reaching the bargaining phase) If I faked my own death they would probably give me a good grade posthumously.
8. (The night before the exam) I could work as a dustman. Surely you don’t need good grades to work as a dustman?
9. (In the exam, just after turning over the paper) Oh no, anything but that.
10. (Afterwards) Fantastic, I will never have to study that subject ever again. What do you mean resits?

(My son is sitting an English exam next week. We’re currently at stage 6.)

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O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

This week I came up short against an unflattering image of myself. I am sure it is good for the soul, to meet your distorted twin occasionally, but probably best not to meet it too often. Apparently I am a pushy dominating mother. (Sometimes I beg the children to let me do a bit of pushing and dominating, but they never let me.)

One of the school staff has started mentoring Duncan – trying to help him cope with exam year. You have to remember that staff doing this are frequently giving up their (very rare) free time, because they honestly want to make a difference to students’ lives. But it’s no surprise to find that, untrained, they can drift into pop psychology. This is what happened here: Duncan told his mentor that he wanted to study Physics at [Scary University], and his mentor thought that very outlandish. How could a child – a child with his problematic school record – have dreamt up such an ambition on their own? It must come from the parents: “You don’t have to live your parents’ dreams, you know.” Throw in bits of gossip about Julie heard in the classroom, and the mentor was convinced he was on the right track: “You don’t have to get as good grades as your sister. The two of you don’t have to get good grades just because your mother expects it.”

(He probably doesn’t know much about Julie and her illness. He may know she has been in and out of school. Perhaps he believes she is just highly strung, made a bit anxious by pressure from mum. He likely doesn’t know about the hospital, the medication, the sadder reality of mental illness.)

Duncan wasn’t getting caught up in all this. He was cross with his mentor. “He doesn’t believe that it’s what I really want to do.” he said, “You’ve never pushed me into anything. I do want to get good grades and go to [Scary University]. I don’t secretly want to do something else: I just want someone to help me do this!”

As Duncan is the first to point out, from his perspective the real problem is that his parents haven’t been pushy enough. We never have bothered ourselves about his grades; we are convinced that his many good qualities will help him succeed in the end; and we think he should work out for himself what he wants to do in life. (In fact neither of us think much of this plan to apply to [Scary University], but it has to be his call.) Anyone who thinks we have been pushing him around doesn’t know Duncan: the last time I successfully pushed Duncan around he was in a buggy.

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I’m in the middle of one of those weeks which is like a really bad Italian opera. Not one of the great ones, but one of those flabby, cut-and-paste jobs that were just trying to make a fast buck. There is too much high emotion, raised voices and an unlikely plot.

Life with teenagers is not always easy. Life with two highly strung teenagers, both with mental health issues, can really suck. Week four of the school term, the nights are drawing in, homework is piling up, and there is a sudden flurry of assessments. Both kids, in their different ways, buckle under the strain. There are lots of tears, a lot of catastrophising and an overdose is taken (yet again).

I calm, coach, encourage and insist. I drive, cook and shop. I negotiate with school. I phone psychiatrists and therapists. As an after thought, I sometimes work. I don’t sleep, laugh or relax as much as usual.

I think, Why are my kids like this? What did I do wrong? What could I do differently?

I am sorry I had to miss a key meeting at work, sorry I forgot to go to the nurse for my blood test, sorry I failed to return my neighbour’s call, sorry there was nothing in the house to eat one evening. But it was all I could do to survive this week.

But hey, I wrote my blog post: and this weekend I shall bake some bread.

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