Why are we here? Because we are failing.

A year ago, I stood at the front of a Maths GCSE exam room as their invigilator and announced with a smirk that they could now turn over their papers, and begin. I should have known that smirking comes before a fall: I now teach this level of maths, and as such, I am not even allowed into the exam room. Things that amazed me last year – the candidate without a pen, the terribly big fake nails and their collision with the terribly small calculator buttons, the sleeping student at the back of the exam room – these are now just par for the joy of my everyday life.

This time last year, I wrote a post here trying to work out: how did it come to this? Why are all these students here, and why do they not care, just a little more? Have we failed them, have they failed us, or have they failed themselves? It’s a little of all three.

This post is motivated in part by training I have been doing through the Education and Training Foundation, who, as part of the process, have requested that we reflect on something we have learned that has changed our perspective or improved our teaching practice.* As it happens, in the week the training started, I had taken over a new maths group, so I tried out an exercise mentioned in the training to help me get to know my students better. I gave them two post it notes. On the first they were to write why they were here; on the second, to say how they would feel if they opened the little brown envelope (or more likely, the email that got lost in the spam folder and was only found the next day) and discovered the magical number 4 inside. The course tutor waxed lyrical about the exercise, about the perspectives it could change and the ambitions it could unlock. I can see why it might have that effect; that is, after all, why I wanted to try it myself. I am afraid to say, though, that is not what happened in my classroom. Here’s what happened instead.

Post-it 1: why are you here?

I encouraged an open attitude. No holds barred. Be honest with me – what went wrong last year? Why are you back in a maths classroom that is clearly only one step higher on your to do list that being entombed forever in a pit full of snakes? The answer I got back, from every person in the room? Because. I. Failed. Why did you fail? I asked. Was it because of bad teaching, or absence, or because you couldn’t understand the core concepts? Oh, none of those, they said. I just failed.

Five post it notes on a bright background. On them, my students have written: Because I failed; I don't know they down graded me; I failed; because I failed; because I failed.

This doesn’t just concern me; it horrifies me. Why? Two reasons. One is that they have written themselves off. They did not say it was too hard, or that the Covid pandemic threw up roadblocks other generations might not have had to surmount, or that somewhere in their futures, bright and glorious things might still await, despite their lack of a maths GCSE. This failure was a result of something lacking within themselves; no agency, no poor decision making; it just happened, as inexplicable as the fact that the sky is blue, and equally not to be questioned. This leads to my other concern: that there was no engagement, even then, with the idea that this might be subject to change. A self-fulfilling prophecy, there’s no question that they have failed, are failing now, and will always fail, and the suggestion that this might be within their own power to change barely even warrants a hair toss or glancing up from the screen in front of them.

Post it 2: what if…?

What if you did get that 4? How would you feel then? “Happy.” (Lyrical, aren’t they!) But it’s not going to happen. How do you know? I tried really hard last year and still got a 2; I’d rather fail because I didn’t try, than fail after putting the effort in; I don’t need it and never will, so what’s the point in being here anyway?

My style of teaching is all about authenticity, about relationships, about trust. I take the time when I first meet my students to build up that trust, to work on relationships and overcome those roadblocks, before I get anywhere close to trying to teach some maths. So yes, I can spot those responses as defensiveness and despair and delusion as easily as the next teacher. But this is where us failing them comes in. Education is not in a state at the moment to take the gentle approach. Teachers are leaving left right and centre, over-criticised, under-supported, overwhelmed. Learning Support Assistants are leaving to work in warehouses and earn three times as much per month. Classes are cancelled because groups get too small or the funding just doesn’t add up, with students moved like pawns on a chessboard, easy to sacrifice, the opening gambit of the game, never the focal point or the end result. How can authenticity, relationships, trust, stand up to any of this? And without those things, what hope do I have of my students listening to me when I make the links to why they’ll need this, or have a discussion about relevance, about ambition, about building on last year and aiming for progress, not perfection?

So what has this course, and this year, taught me? I have made connections between the functional skills I’ve been teaching for years and the GCSEs I’m new to. I have learned that students are students and maths is maths and barriers to learning will always be there, and it’s a wonderful thing to now have 5 different approaches rather than sticking to one and hoping it will always work. And I’ve learned that without both sides of the room being willing to be present, honest, and able to not just see our failures but also learn from them, no amount of breakfast maths or alternatives to worksheets will ever genuinely engage this particular group of kids.

*This post is, I’m afraid, going to get a touch negative. I feel I should stress, before going any further, that this is not as a result of the training itself. This has been invaluable, particularly for someone like me, new to this level and amazed by the amount of material out there to use, adapt, and throw out as appropriate. However, without something more, the materials themselves will never get out of the trolley that took them to the classroom and get to thrive in their intended habitat. This post is entirely about that something more.


You may turn over your papers, and begin.

I’m writing this post whilst invigilating a GCSE Maths exam* and, like most of the people in the room with me, wondering how in the world I ended up here.

First, let me set the scene, for those of you who enjoy a good horror story. My morning starts as well as Friday mornings ever do, though a series of personal, structural and Palaeontologist-related chaoses soon knock me off schedule. Setting up the exam room is so stressful that my Fitbit thinks I’ve done 20 minutes running on the spot, when I’ve actually just been working through what I should and shouldn’t display on the walls, the door, the desks. Still, at least that makes up for the following hour and a half, when I can do nothing but walk up and down the very short lines between very bored students. The kids themselves (and they are all kids in my room) fit every cliché in the book. We have the rebel, with spiky hair and a dragon ring. We have the one who showed up without a pen, and the two who showed up to the wrong room. We have the boy with Hugh Grant-esque floppy hair (when did that become a thing again?!) and the girl with a crop top and nails that will make the calculator paper a challenge, to say the least. There is a lad at the back (impressive, given they have no choice where they sit) who puts his hood up in the first 15 minutes and comes pretty close to falling asleep, and a guy in one corner who is enjoying the paper so much that he spends a good chunk of time picking blue tack off the walls. And, of course, there is me, whose whole outfit is based solely around shoes that don’t clomp and earrings that don’t jangle.

Back to my question: why am I here? One answer to that is perfectly literal. I’m here because six years of working in education have still not trained me out of volunteering to help when I know help is needed, and so I offered to step in when we simply did not have enough bodies to put in rooms to make sure the exams happened as they needed to. That answer needs more detail, though, as it is not a situation unique to us; you could say I am here because of decisions made by a variety of government departments, who have orchestrated years of ongoing cuts to Further Education, allowed trained invigilators to find other things to do during two years with no formal GCSE exams, and failed to alleviate an ongoing crisis in teenage (and adult) mental health. Students of all ages are more likely to need separate rooms, more likely to go into crisis on the morning of the exams, more likely to drop out altogether under the pressure they are currently under than ever before, which has forced schools and colleges across the country to rope in teaching staff to ensure the exams can still take place.

But why am I here is bigger even than that. The real reason I am here is because of the need to ensure that everyone going through education in this country, at some point in their lives, squeezes through this one narrow gateway. The expectation, of course, is that you go through this gate when it does not feel so much like a prison; it’s just one more exam in a month of pressure, nothing to see here, carry on through. And those who pass through comfortably, who achieve that magical 4 and move on, are then able to progress with the rest of their lives with no idea what horrors they have escaped. But what of the rest of them? What of the hundreds of kids in every town across the country who do not pass their Maths and English first time round?

Teal background with a tree trunk from top to bottom, and a fish in one corner. On the trunk are the words: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."
A wonderfully famous quote, proverbially from Einstein: Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Don’t get me wrong: I am passionate about levelling up and ensuring that everyone has the skills to do a job they love. If I had a slightly less laissez-faire attitude towards my hair becoming as grey as the clouds over me as I write this, I’m sure I would be very concerned if my stylist did not understand ratios and the passage of hours. If a care assistant is visiting a friend, I would want them to be able to both read and understand the instructions left for them, and to adapt those instructions if needed for the person stepping into their place next. The construction workers building new homes on the corner really need to understand volume, area and converting measurements. I teach all these things in my classroom, and I will sermonise until the cows come home about why everyone, everyone, in this country deserves access to free Maths and English classes to ensure that they can develop these skills if they do not yet have them, whatever current government guidelines on residency may want you to believe.

But GCSE Maths is not the only way to measure how confidently someone can use numbers; and GCSE English is not the only way to judge reading. They are not the only ways to do this; they are just the easiest. Exams feel impartial; and we have all been conditioned to believe that partiality is bad. The Right might argue that exams are necessary because teachers cannot be trusted not to inflate their students’ grades; because exams were what they had In My Day and it never harmed anyone then; to make life skills commodities that can be weighed and measured and found wanting. The Left might feel that exams are necessary because they are anonymous, and so they cannot be subject to unconscious bias (as though anyone who has worked in adult education for longer than 6 months can’t immediately tell which land mass a student grew up on based solely on the style of their handwriting). Whichever side you argue from, you arrive at the point that exams are the only way to ensure that education is fair and we are all playing by, and judged by, the same rules.

This point, though, says that knowledge is worth something only if it is judged; that skills are worthy only if they meet assessable criteria. This is the same system that says that the worth of a person is the same as the salary they earn; that those who do not work for money do not work at all; that if we are not always consuming, and growing, and progressing, and doing more and more, and using more and more; if we are not doing these things, then we are failing.

What am I doing here? What are we all doing here? How have we ended up allowing ourselves to be locked into boxes that limit our potential and our creativity and our ability to be ourselves, and added insult to injury by insisting this is the only way to be fair?

A white page with a pencil and a pen. On the page is written "Am I good enough?"
Picture credit: Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

*By which I mean that I am composing this in my head whilst invigilating a Maths exam, of course. Whilst actually in the room, the rules are very clear: you are allowed to walk up and down and look over the shoulders and into the palms of each student to ensure that they have not unconsciously got their phone out mid-exam; you can breathe if you must, whilst making every effort to hold in the sighs if you see a wrong answer on the page in front of you; but you can do nothing, absolutely nothing, to distract yourself from Your Purpose during the exam itself. In my case, I couldn’t even stare out of the window (and neither could the candidates). There wasn’t one. Now that is forward planning on the part of the building designers, don’t you think?

To all (FE) teachers everywhere

Do you remember August, when you couldn’t imagine how to start? You walked into those echoing classrooms, with spaced-out, haphazard desks like a pre-schooler’s teeth, full of gaps where something valuable used to be, waiting impatiently to be filled with new life; though in this case, that wait might go on for years. Do you remember putting on a visor for the first time and getting vertigo, as though you would be shouting your lessons whilst trapped inside a fishbowl? There was the exhausting uncertainty of new procedures, every walk to the classroom becoming a fraught one way system that introduced you to staircases you never knew existed and blocked off familiar walkways without warning. You stood at the front of the room behind the ominous new screens and tried to remember what it felt like to teach a room full of students, when you hadn’t seen that many people in one place for six months at least; and all you were sure about was how utterly, bone-crushingly weary you were.

Do you remember September, when you thought you couldn’t go on? Each day started with the same PowerPoint, reminding all students that they must wear masks – like this, not like that – and stay at least as far apart as a full-grown alligator. Do you remember wishing you had one of those to hand, sometimes, walking around a room full of strangers as they crowded around you and you felt exposed and out of control? Your days became an endless looping lesson: smile, teach, wipe down the desks, take a deep breath where no one can see it behind your mask; and repeat. Half length lessons to allow for double the space between students; half hearted teaching to allow for the lack of movement, of resources, of relationship-building between everyone in the room.

Green background with yellow writing, saying "physical distancing - keep 1 alligator". Two white stick men with a white alligator between them demonstrates what is meant.

Do you remember October, when you knew for a fact you couldn’t go on? Do you remember that first time you got a call from a student, voice shaking as they told you that they had tested positive, how your heart pounded but your tone was steady as you talked them through what happened next whilst ending the call as quickly as possible to go through the increasingly familiar cycle of who needed to be told, and when, and how much? And the calls kept coming, and your own bubbles burst, and you became an expert in language that never had meaning before, like blended learning, and live-streaming Virtual Learning Environments, and “please don’t swear in this classroom, everything you say is being transmitted to those at home, and their kids are listening too.”

November and December blurred into one; no lockdown for education, no breathing space, no rest. Gather any evidence that you’ve ever completed work because we still don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know if you’ll have exams or not, we don’t know if we’ll be here next week, we don’t know if you will be either. And at last, Christmas came; and with it came the strong supposition that we would not be back after the break; the frantic reorganisation to see as many as possible through mocks, through assessments, through funding-driven paperwork before the clock struck midnight and we turned into too-highly-transmitting pumpkins; the knowledge that we had one afternoon to take everything we would need to prepare for potentially months of remote teaching.

January came, and I remember that. Mixed messages poured from the media, the government, the exam boards, bombarding us with “We know you want to know the answers; we don’t know when we’ll have them.” Students bombarded us, full of fear and uncertainty as they grappled with what might be asked of them, and we, who are so used to having all the answers, had no way of supporting them through. All lessons were live-streamed; all work submitted electronically; and we all spent hours hunched sideways over photographs of blurred handwriting, painstakingly drawing out the good points and the necessary improvements, only to have to start all over again when the mouse jumped and the highlighter flew in the wrong direction and the only way to correct it was to click to remove all ink from the photograph. January was also the month of upgrading home WiFi systems; of children unable to access Zoom calls from school because their teacher-parents had all the household devices in use; of teaching adults who did not know what a [shift] key or the @ symbol were how to hold them both down together to write an email address, and so allow them to access the lesson that was their only form of social contact in a week.

What about February; do you remember that? Do you remember talking to your students about the vaccines, answering their questions, hearing their stories, encouraging them to take it as soon as they were offered it, knowing that your own turn would not come for a long, long time yet? That strange sense of being proud of the care assistants, the school cleaners, the older and vulnerable and desperate individuals you teach and yet, for the first time in the relationship you have built and cultivated for years with your students, also being envious of what they had that you did not.

Do you remember March, with its feeling of being catapulted into a jet stream without being given time to work out where it was going, or how to get out at the end? Bam! Exams are back on for adult students – but to get them all through, they must sit them in 3 weeks. Bam! GCSEs are off and GCSE-style assessments are on; you know your students best, so it’s only fair you work out if they pass or fail; hope you don’t mind playing God with the lives of the people you have invested so much in for the last 6 months? Bam! Here are the new rules, the new requirements you need to remember, the new announcements that need to be made – masks must be stronger, lateral flow tests must be taken and reported, hope should probably be left at the door.

May. Beautiful May, that should draw the year to an close, full of presents and celebrations of the end of a hard year with a definite end. No beautiful May this year, but rather a bleeding into June, an unceasing cycle of exam retakes, and paperwork, and confused decisions that are reversed in minutes, and fear that, after all this, we would receive no funding for these students, forgotten at the best of times, and goodness knows, these are not the best of times; fear that as a result our own jobs would be lost, as rumours began, as rumours always do, about what next year would look like, and feel like, and how hard it will still be.

But do you know what? Now, it is July. And you, who were convinced at every step of this journey that you could not go on, have made it. You have done it. We have done it. And now, finally, superhero that you are, it is time to put down that cape and time, at last, to rest.

A lake with birds swimming on it, with a tree on the right-hand side, and dry earth with roots showing through in the foreground. It's a beautiful early summer day.
Peace. At last.

Privilege, 2020 style.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are unaware of their privilege until someone who does not share it points it out to them.* 2020 has introduced new ways of showing the same old privileges, over, and over, and over again. Sometimes I have re-met privileges I share, that others have highlighted to me; at other times privileges I lack frustrate me beyond reason until I manage to sit down and work out why I am so angry with people I know, love, respect. Here are some of the things I have learned, for those who cannot simply leave their homes and talk to others about their experiences; those who do not come into contact with the people these stories belong to every day; and those who really don’t want to hear what I have to say, buy frankly need to anyway.

An open ocean. In the background is a 3 masted sailing ship; in the foreground is an origami ship made from newspaper.
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Privilege 1: having a car

One of my adult students phoned into college last week. She had developed a temperature over the weekend and was feeling unusually fatigued, so she did exactly as she should, shut herself away, and sorted out a coronavirus test. As she spoke, my mind was spinning Catherine-wheels of panic; this was a conversation I’ve known for a while was inevitable, but it’s never one you’re ready for first time round. What followed was three separate conversations checking facts, experiences and regulations to work through what we had to do next. And in those three conversations, every one of them started out not with praise for the student’s actions, or relief at her social responsibility (though those did follow later). Instead the first response was to curse. Why on earth had she chosen to get a postal test, when drive-thru testing is so much faster? And then it hit. This student spent a week cut off from study, her source of income, much good will, and the ability to leave her home and see her children; all when someone with their own vehicle would have been able to take the test, get the negative result, and be be released after only a couple of days.

Having a car you can use whenever you need it means avoiding personal risk by being able to commute without allowing random strangers who happen to be on the same bus as you into your personal bubble. It means having the flexibility to work that extra half an hour, instead of having to scream out of the office exactly on time or risk missing the last bus that will get you to nursery for pick-up, with the threat of a £5-per-5-minutes-late fine setting fire to your legs and your lungs as you run the last 100 meters. It means being able to deal with the third timetable change to your college course in as many weeks, and being able to accept blended learning that leaves you with an hour to get from your computer screen to your in-person lesson; and avoiding the accusation of lack of commitment if you are unable to make that journey work in any other way. Those of us who are ecologically minded and have averting the climate catastrophe at the top of our agendas speak about the importance of giving up cars; but we need to remember, this year of all years, just how much privilege we are showing not simply with the luxury of having a car in the first place, but also with having the security and confidence to be able to give that luxury up.

Privilege 2: not having to wear a mask

When discussing reopening our Quaker Meeting House for Meeting for Worship, back when that was possible and before Lockdown 2.0, it was commented that many Friends may not feel comfortable worshipping in person because an hour was a long time to wear a facemask. I found the comment entirely understandable and quite infuriating simultaneously. Yes, it’s true, an hour is a long time to wear a mask, particularly before you have built up a tolerance to them. But who falls into the category of people who can choose how long they have to wear a mask for? Choose, that is, rather than not wearing one because they do not feel safe enough to leave the house, or because they’re not lucky enough to have a reason to draw them out, or because they have a health condition that might make them more at risk of the virus whilst simultaneously preventing them from protecting themselves with a face covering? Those who can choose are financially secure enough to be retired; or senior enough to have their own private offices; or well-educated enough to be able to avoid working as cleaners, as waiters, as taxi drivers, as care workers. They have the privilege to choose whether they go somewhere that necessitates a mask or not; the rest of us don one every morning or face disciplinaries, dismissal, and the virtual, overcrowded dole queue.

Privilege 3: having a secure job

Having a job, particularly if it is on a permanent, non-zero-hours, non-furloughed contract; having a job where you can call in sick or self-isolating and still be paid; having a job that will accept it when you call in sick if your sickness is linked to stress, mental health, or a long-term condition; this is a privilege many would give up all dreams for their future to possess. Not being able to plan for when you can study, when you can work, when you will be locked down and when your kids will be sent home with half an hour’s notice means many are unwilling to follow through on long-held commitments and passions for fear of having to set them aside once again; and the pain of doing that, after so much other pain this year, is just too much. Fear of losing such a job means not rocking the boat, not asking for an evening off to work on your literacy and finally get the qualifications to get out of there, not saying no to shifts when they are offered even if you have made it clear that you are utterly unable to work at particular times and days (another Sunday you can’t work? You say it’s because of church, but if you put that before your shift here, I just don’t feel you are best suited to the weekday hours I have on offer next month…) And having the knowledge, the power, the confidence to stand up and cry discrimination and willingly take the consequences? That remains the sign of privilege it has always been.

Privilege 4: having time

Time. That beautiful, ephemeral gift that lurks in the back of every busy mind; the gift I have asked for at birthdays and Christmases since having children; that thing that only those who never have it really understand. Having time may not seem like a privilege; indeed, for many during lockdown it may seem like a curse. But from where I’m standing? Here’s why I call it privilege.

Having time and the capacity to use it as you choose means being able to hold down a job that operates on the assumption that you will take work home with you and complete it after hours: something impossible if your time or your living space is not your own. Having time means that when you are offered an extra shift at the job you enjoy you can take it, rather than having to turn it down to race to your second job where they expected you half an hour ago, or because, due to lockdown restrictions, you can no longer ask a neighbour to drop your kids home instead of being there yourself in the correct 10 minute pick-up window. Having time means you can work with your children to complete their homework, fill gaps left by home-schooling and weeks of lockdown, help them grow, show them what is urgent and important and valuable in life and give them the best possibilities for their own futures. Having time means you can laugh, and play, and exercise, and slow down and notice the sunset instead of running with blinkers on to the next task. And so, having time means better mental health; better physical health; a more secure financial footing; more control and more choices.

Sunset over trees; the clouds are orange and gold and fill the sky.

There are those who speak of the beauty of Lockdown, of the hope inherent in slowing down, as though that is a universal characteristic of this year. There are those who speak of boredom, and I find myself desperately jealous of the thing that is slowly killing them. There are those who speak of productivity, of creativity, of finished to do lists and totally read bookshelves, and I am so glad that I can read their thoughts and their joys, for all it’s through a haze of frustrated tears, because their voice reminds me of a story that is not mine, another picture to put in opposition to the one leaking through the bricks and pores of my everyday life. One storm it may be; but while the angle of the waves and the size of our rafts are so infinitely different, while we can, we need to all shout our stories, our fears and our triumphs to those on other boats.

* Before the men reading this get infuriated with me, I am, of course, using “men” as a generic term to refer to all humanity…

To every thing there is a season

Some things in life are uncontrollable and unquestionable. Night will follow day. Feathers are lighter than bricks. If you are poor you are much more likely to suffer during times of flood, fire, pestilence and broken election promises. And the first of September means that the slow pace of a sleepy summer is about to be smashed by the mind-boggling vagaries of a new academic year.

Discussions ebb and flow around how that last can be combatted – how teachers ought to reduce their own workloads, how the focus of Ofsted inspections might include wellbeing (oh, the irony), how the summer holidays should be shorter. I can safely say that my initial reaction to that idea can best be summarised by viewing Munch’s The Scream; whether I admit it to outsiders or not, the possibility of an unbroken stretch of planning time with the lazy luxury of indulging my imagination rather than being constrained to using only what can be found on teaching websites or Ecosia in the first 15 minutes of searching is one of the few things that prepare me for the jaw-clenching emotional battering that is currently the autumnal lot of a teacher.

But like most initial reactions, mine doesn’t hold up to reasoning or scrutiny. Less time off in the summer might be balanced by more time off through the year, which just may avert having to spend every school holiday curled in the foetal position and only moving to find more wine. Less time off in the summer would mean fewer colour-coded spreadsheets detailing how every favour going has been called in to allow working parents to afford to keep their children safe and entertained and fed for 6 consecutive weeks. Less time off should mean less time for those same kids to forget everything they have been taught, thus avoiding the need to cover the same topic again in entirely new ways at the start of the next year. Less time off could even ease the emotional pressures of going back after so much growing and changing and boredom and shifting sands, and allow those children (and adults) made anxious by new starts to walk back in through the school gates with equanimity.

Changing the length of the summer holidays. A quick win that would genuinely benefit the economically deprived more than the well-off; but that’s OK, because it would benefit the economy too. So why haven’t we done it? If we were ever going to take this step, this year was the year to do it. Life was already stopped short. Children had managed to squeeze a lifetime of braincell-destroying emotionally stunted drivel Power Rangers and Richie Rich into three months of Lockdown, and even they were starting to get bored of the same people doing the same jokes with the same canned laughter day, after day, after day. Returning to the classroom in August could have solved so much. What better time, then, to change the unchangeable and attempt the impossible?

By Edvard Munch – National Gallery of Norway, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69541493

It couldn’t happen. Not right now. It is just too big. Too different. Too hard. Too creative. Too dramatic. Too united. Far, far too scary. Too many of us are still frozen, shell-shocked by the battering we have taken in the last few months. Head teachers ordered schools to be locked and children turned away at the gates, mere days after insisting fines would follow any absence from the premises. Bishops ordered churches to be shut and people locked out of the houses of God. Parents forbade family to see the grandchildren that made their now-threatened lives worth enjoying. Those we most trusted to respect our institutions, our loved ones, our ideals and truths, were the ones who stopped us from accessing them and left us to cry alone in the night. It may have been the right choice, the moral choice, the only choice; but its consequence is still that we are now left standing, slack-jawed and staring, unsure where to go or what to say or who to trust. Every household drew up its drawbridge and filled the moat with crocodiles, reminded at all times that contact with anyone outside those gossamer thin, MDF walls could carry the disease that would decimate those living within. That mistrust could not be fully overcome as the collective clapping of March descended into enforced community judgement time in May, as the pubs re-opened, or with the invitation to return to city centre offices. It will not be overcome by the calendar turning from August to September either.

This lesson is fundamental for those of you raising the cry for revolution, for immediate and dramatic action, for every one of us still cowering in the half-light of uncertainty to get up, get out and get on with it. This is true for the arch-conservatives and arch-radicals alike, united as you are by the desire to move beyond Lockdown and into whatever comes next. It may be overthrowing the government and celebrating the world doing a U-turn on its axis and accepting the emergency that is the climate crisis. It might be the pressing need to drive the economy back into never-ending, never-tiring growth as the means to draw the world’s poor, unprivileged, desperate-to-be-educated peoples into the same glorious bubble as the Western world. Wherever you are and whatever led you there, do not attempt to force action on those of us who are still a long way off. Go easy on us. For you this may be a time of infinite possibility, or of a need to act that is so strong it fills your mouth with adrenaline and your guts with nervous energy. I love that there are people with energy and hope in the world, because it reminds me that one day, I will be there too, walking beside you, shouting in time with you, working in harmony with you. But I am not there yet. I am still in that place where the one way systems and beautifully individualistic face coverings and starkly divided classrooms make a space that was once more familiar than my own home feel alien, and threatening, and unsafe. I am still in a time that is neither ready to reap nor to sow, to heal nor to die, to build up nor to break down. I am in the time between times; the pause between breathing in and breathing out; the moment on a pendulum when everything is changing direction and, at exactly the same time, everything is utterly still. The time will change soon. You can taste it in the water and feel it in the air. It is coming. Have patience. We do care and we will shake off the lead-lined inertia holding us down, and when we do, we, too will dance.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance

Show us our darkness: A story of whiteness and privilege in the UK

You know those things you do even though you’re not sure they’re a good idea? This post is one of those. If you’re tired of hearing yet another white person talking about #BlackLivesMatter, don’t read on. This post is about my (white) thoughts, my (privileged) experiences, my fragility. It’s another white person making BLM all about them. If that’s not something you need right now, I totally get that.

So why am I writing this post, given my own ambivalence towards it, and the volatility of the subject? I’m doing it because the thing that has changed my understanding of this topic has been the first hand stories, heartbreaking and brutally honest, poured out, wept over, cursed and sworn at. Reading other people’s stories has helped me see what is really happening, hidden from my own viewpoint most of the time. I am writing this with the hope that my honesty can equal that of those other writers, that I can follow in their footsteps and lay down my tiny brick along this new way we are forging together.

A white girl, tear falling down her cheek, draws one half of a heart with a pencil. A girl in a hijab, also crying, draws the other half of the same heart with the same kind of pencil. The heart is unfinished.
An image that has spoken to my experience many times in the years since I first saw it, and that speaks to my experience again today.

I am not trying to speak for others, though the experience and stories of others has become a part of mine too, and will shape my own narrative. I am also going to try really hard not to whitesplain anything. And I’m pretty likely to get that wrong sometimes. If you have a better way to say these things, please share it. This is a learning piece for me; I do not understand this topic well. I am not familiar, or comfortable, with much of this language. But I want to learn, and I hope that, at least, will count for a little.

Going to Africa

A question frequently asked about privilege is “Have you ever been the only one who looks like you in a public space?” If you are black, Asian or minority ethnic in a white-majority country, you are often the only person who looks like you in a room, and this can feel threatening. My own answer to this question is also yes. I have been alone in that way. This first became true when I spent several months in Kenya. This was also what made me very aware of my own skin for the first time (I was in my 20s, so there’s privilege straight away). But this way round, I did not feel threatened. I felt uncomfortable in my white skin maybe twice in three months, when walking through unfamiliar villages, or crossing the Likoni ferry. Most of the time, when I was uncomfortable, it was because I was treated far, far too well, by people who knew nothing about me but the colour of my skin.

I went to the home of a colleague one afternoon, to help him with a piece of writing he had to do. As we were working, his very new wife came in, looked at me, and said “It’s true then.” I was ready for all sorts of accusations – who wouldn’t be, after that? Instead she said “They said I would be nothing. But here I am, married, and a white person is drinking tea in my house.” That’s what it took to have made it, in her mind. That comment was joined by others. We were called angels by children trying to touch out skirts. I was informed that in the queue to enter Heaven, rightly, the white people would go first. When just looking at me made a child cry (well, I have that reaction in plenty of other places too, but this was more extreme than normal) everyone hastened to make sure I was not upset by this. Even when asked how it could be possible to drink with noses as long as ours (possibly the best question I have ever been asked in my life 😂), it was asked with curiosity, shyness, and no judgement.

Living in Birmingham

Several years later, in a new phase of life, we lived in Birmingham and we learned A Lot. We were there, living in a vicarage, when Fox News (wrongly, clearly), pointed to Birmingham as somewhere that white people, and Christians, feared to go. Oops. We lived in an area where most middle class people, of any ethnicity, came in and did charity work during the day, then left at night before it got rough. There were stabbings in the park just beyond our back fence. We frequently found used needles and used condoms on our walk, just up the side of the church, to worship on a Sunday morning. I was mistaken for the local prostitute (she was also white, I’m told, and neither of us covered our hair). I took my children to an event of 200 people and we were the only ones there who looked like us. There were mutters, sideways looks, and a circle of space around us as if our whiteness might be catching. There were times in this stage of my life that I was treated differently, and treated as less than I had been before, based solely on the colour of my skin and the visibility of my hair. There were times, at this stage of my life, that I felt afraid.

And yet. I could get out of this place, go to church, go to Meeting, shop in the reinvigorated city centre, or visit the other side of town, and find plenty of other people who looked and thought and spoke like me. When the police knocked on our door (which they did quite a lot), it was to check we were OK, not check up on what we’d been doing. When The Paleontologist started school, she was one of only two white kids in the whole school, sure; but there were a lot more adults who looked like her around than there were who looked like the other children, so she never lacked understanding from her teachers or positive role models.

My life as a teacher

Time moved on again, as it has a habit of doing. We moved to a new parish and a new life, which for me meant becoming a teacher. Once again, I find myself the only person of my skin colour in a room. But I’m the one at the front, the one with the power in this room. I do not feel afraid. I find myself hearing my students’ stories and their jokes, laughing with them as they bash their weaves and, rolling their eyes, explain “it’s an African thing”. Laugh as though I’ve been there, as though I’ve also felt the need to cover the hair I was born with with something artificial and itchy to fit in with others’ expectations, just because I’ve been there so often when it’s happened that it’s started to feel like my story too. I enjoy the surprise when I say I’ve eaten ugali; I include pictures and names that look and sound like the students in the room; I celebrate Black History Month and try to ignore the knowledge that I am whitesplaining this to at least half the students in the room, as I speak about histories that have gone unwritten and wrongs that have gone unrighted, and I pick very carefully who I will make eye contact with as I’m talking. I tell students that they should give me the name they want to be called, not the one they think will be easy for me to say; but I don’t say this to everyone, and not everyone laughs. I teach about prejudice and am horrified when a student describes being asked not to work with particular patients as “criticism”, not the racism it is; and then I talk down a complaint made by the same student against me, justifying to myself that I am not talking her down because she’s black, but because she’s just really, really annoying. (This is honestly true. I’ve only lost my temper in front of a whole class once, and it was because this student deliberately destroyed an activity planned to benefit the whole community. That doesn’t change the fact that, after telling her she should speak out against injustice, I then silenced her, and won, to protect my own reputation.)

I am not saying this to say “Look at what I’ve done, look how good I am”. Neither am I saying it to rend my clothes and say how bad I am. I’ve done some things I’m proud of and some things I’m not. I’ve done some things I would change if I could, and others I would leave just as they are. We are all complex, more than our skin colour, more than what others make us or want us to be. This situation is more than a hashtag, more than a headline, more than slogans that can be shouted in a crowd. I have no answers. But I pray that, as in worship, sharing our stories can show us our darkness and bring us to new life. We all need to own our darkness. We all need new life. And we all need to get there together.

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.
Wangari Maathai. Amazing on so many levels.

Sorry Sorry (for making your life a living hell)*

The scene is exhaustingly familiar. Your chest is tight and it’s hard to take a breath, even though you have done nothing more physically taxing than running upstairs, downstairs, and in the children’s chambers, looking for far-flung reading records and misplaced swimming costumes, since the middle of last week. You realise you have two minutes spare so you look for a job to do, your hands flapping aimlessly, your mind unable to process the idea that two minutes without action will not cause it to blink out of existence after all. You are thinking about that meeting you just had that tripled your workload whilst questioning everything you thought you were told to do last week. Everywhere you look there is laundry, washing up, or unsorted children’s drawings, schoolwork, forms to be signed, and there is so much in front of you that you can only see a haze, your mind refusing to process the details or consider starting points for improvement. You nip upstairs to get something and forget what it was you came up for as you are confronted by unfinished decluttering projects, or wellbeing projects, or rubbish that never made it to the wheelie bin, lurking accusingly in the middle of the floor. And, when there is no more room for anything but a soundless explosion and a burgeoning mushroom cloud, the cry goes up from the sofa pushed way too close to the TV: “Mummmmaaay”. “Just a second” is gasped out through clenched teeth. But of course, no quarter is offered, no second’s recovery allowed. The cry goes up again, and again, and before you know it you are also standing too close to the TV, shouting in full dinosaur mode and demonstrating to your offspring how the grown ups do tantrums. Their eyes go round. The Cowgirl starts crying. The Paleontologist starts taking notes. You take a deep breath, and count to ten. Then count to ten again. Then you apologise for shouting. Because grown ups get it wrong as often as children do. We do bad things. We do things with the best of intentions, and as time goes by, it turns out they were bad things too. We tell our children that if they make mistakes and hurt people they must apologise, and then they watch us refusing to follow our own orders.

When did apologising for something become equated with weakness, failure, not trying hard enough? Why is it that, as a nation, we apologise when someone else bumps into us in a public place, but we cannot apologise when we have caused genuine harm?

Is it the fear of complaints, of an institution losing its reputation? Because let’s face it, that will happen whether we apologise or not. The only thing that will change is the grace our acceptance of fault might bestow, or the residual flavour of blame and cowardice that is left in the mouths of those we have let down. I think my hardest act as a teacher was to call a student I had already told had passed her exam. Standard internal checks demonstrated I’d got it wrong. Thankfully, this story had a happy ending, and the student was able to retake, and pass, her qualification. I felt awful: a disappointment who had seriously let a good woman down. But I got the chance, through owning up, through apologising, to make it right. What if I hadn’t done that? Had hidden behind the faceless MISandExams Department, or, even better, the geographically removed exam board? My avoidance would lead her to question the college more, to doubt herself, and cause her to delay her dreams for yet another year. Oh, and she would still have lost her respect for me. How could she not, when I had taught her, invigilated the exam, built a relationship through a long and tiring year, and not looked her in the eye when the time came for bad news?

Because nothing says sorry like cardboard figures dragging roses. Except possibly very cute cardboard figure dragging roses. Picture credit: https://pixabay.com/users/Alexas_Fotos-686414/

Politicians, it seems, never make mistakes. They never change their minds. And if they do, they never acknowledge they have done so. A lot of people would like Boris Johnson to apologise for promoting close physical contact with people with Covid-19, all those years ago when it was still March and lockdown hadn’t started yet. A lot more would like Donald Trump to apologise for the dangerously misguided comments he made about bleach and UV light. Will either of them do so? Of course not. But then again, how can they?

We have all contributed to this culture that considers apologies as a sign of weakness. An apology is made into a meme, which becomes a Nick Clegg-style video, which becomes the epitaph of any political position. Acknowledgement of personal error is lorded over the fallen opponent until the end of time, because an apology is a sign of weakness, and changing your mind is the act of a fool. If someone changes position they are greeted with a rousing chorus of “I told you so,” rather than “Absolutely. We agree. Let’s work together to fix it.” No wonder scientists are treated with such suspicion and confusion in the modern world. To accept that some things are not yet known, to breathe in uncertainty and enjoy finding out new questions, to change your opinion if others find evidence that those initial interpretations were wrong: these things are opposed to the very foundations of our self-belief.

We live in a time where the dark side of capitalism is raising its head with increasing regularity. The gap between the overfed and the starving grows all the time. Continuous global growth, if pursued with historically single-minded determination, will eventually come at the cost of the continuing existence of us all. But in this world of fear and frustration and the non-existence of the apology, people who believe that capitalism is the answer cannot change their minds, and people who oppose it would rather see the world burn than admit the innate worth of those they have classed as their opponents.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion. And there is every chance it’ll turn out that I’m wrong. If I am, I’m sorry. It’s my best opinion at this time. If you disagree, and it turns out you’re right and I’m wrong, I won’t hold it against you. I hope you won’t hold it against me either. Instead, let’s find a way to work together to make things better for us all.

*If you know this song, I expect you to now be dancing around singing to it. Doing just that has got me through more crises at work than I care to remember now. Though admittedly, it was a slightly unusual number to insist we had played at our wedding…

Busy doing nothing: the first 5 days.

Day 1. The Cowgirl comes in at 6:30am (second time that night) with an ouchy tummy. My sleep-fogged brain finally puts together all the pieces and we work out this is an all-too-familiar list of events, which results in a call to the doctor and antibiotics for a urine infection. Normally this means a day of Netflix, sleep and Calpol, and then back to normal. Today it resulted in a text message by 8:30am reminding us that, because urine infections come with a fever, the family is officially locked in for 14 days.

First I refused to believe it, running through everything I wanted to get done before this happened. Then came relief: at least now we knew what the next 14 days had in store. That was closely followed by guilt and a morning spent in Skype, email and Google Classroom as I watched my colleagues trying to plug holes and fight fires as we locked down the college for the academic year, with no exams complete and no certainty of whether this is entirely practicable or a massive over-reaction.

By lunchtime, we can breathe again. Calls have slowed, children have settled, antibiotics have been fetched. We have more food in the house than we had at Christmas, nothing has run out yet, and there are flowers and sunshine.

The evening arrives and I’m buzzing. Life is good and so are the people around us. My colleagues have delivered my left-behind marking; The Vicar’s colleagues have delivered the most beautiful duck eggs you’ve ever seen, and soil-encrusted potatoes from the local market. The paramedics have also revised their opinion: with The Cowgirl responding as expected to antibiotics and given The Vicar’s key-worker status we are given the all clear for him to leave the house if necessary. We are good.

Home working meets home schooling meets our kitchen table, clear for the first time since… well, possibly since we moved in.

Day 2. Can it really only be day 2? This time last week everything was still pretty much normal. How can things possibly change this much in a week? Within the house, life is manageable, apart from occasional gripes when told that we can’t use the playground and a moderate panic from me until I work out that what sounded like dry coughing from the living room was actually just The Paleontologist putting lanterns into her Minecraft mansion. Seriously – who knew the two things could sound so alike? Outside The World’s wheels continue to turn. Fears abound and people continue to behave like idiots. But self-isolation works both ways, and we are as isolated from that as others are from our temperatures.

Rainbow crystals take 1. These followed the recipe. The others did not. They are not quite so pretty…

Day 3. It’s Mothering Sunday. Church and Meeting are in enforced lockdown; we join Zoom so that we can take part in Meeting, catch up on worship on Facebook Live, and take the timer off Facebook so that it stops telling me this is contradicting my digital wellbeing. The sun is shining; the blossom is blooming; The Cowgirl is experimenting with endless rainbow crystal test tubes. All around us people are struggling and suffering and stressed and I am feeling pretty guilty that I am not.

My students have told me before that it is only in England that the work-life balance is so bad that you cannot shop for fresh produce every day. What habits will we all form in this time of enforced idleness? And will we want to return to our great busyness when society returns to normal? There are times that it feels like this is a giant reboot, turning society off and on again. I am aware that there will be many who are unable to trust that this is an answer to prayer. I am aware that there will be times when I cannot feel that myself, and I am aware that I am very lucky that right now isn’t one of them. But we have been praying for years for something to disrupt the destructive, cataclysmic societal structures that are draining the lifeblood of existence on earth. Prayers are very rarely answered exactly how we would like them to be. Is it just possible that this time, they are being answered like this?

Mothering Sunday flowers. I present to you the New Normal.

Day 4. It’s Monday. Schools are shut and we’re juggling children’s activities with trying to maintain a normal work timetable. This is not going well. The morning was pretty productive and the children were cheerful. The afternoon was productive in a very different way: mostly productive of tears. And screaming. And The Paleontologist pretending she’s 15 and storming off to her room, slamming every door along the way. 8:30pm brings the news of Shutdown 2.0 from Boris Johnson, and the day ends with whiskey and chocolate on the sofa. The Vicar’s phone pings continuously from those who can no longer look to any form of church to sustain them when they need it most. His face greys out as the evening progresses and he gives all he doesn’t have while mourning himself for what has been ripped away from the core of his being. There are many who are screaming tonight, as the candles, lit at 7 to show hope, are blown out one by one.

Our joint plan for avoiding going stir-crazy. And to stop me spending all day hiding away with nothing but a bottle of gin and my phone.

Day 5. The cracks are deepening and blood is starting to seep through. There have been tears, tantrums and misunderstandings galore. The kids haven’t been coping brilliantly, either. Things ease once the morning chaos is past, though – the sunshine continues to help us out massively, a local independent bakery are doing home deliveries of chocolate brownies, and school have sent out colouring activities instead of research tasks this morning. This too will pass. All will be well.

As close as we can get to holy ground, in The Room Formerly Known As The Dumping Ground.

Smiling, Spring and Coronavirus: keeping pandemonium in perspective

Spring landed this morning. The sky was endlessly, brilliantly, blue, bigger and brighter than it has been for months. The grass was uncomfortably luminous, real life filters making it too bright for eyes used to winter dullness. The glorious yellow of the blooming daffodils was matched only by the golden arms of the JCBs, carving out new foundations next to still-waterlogged floodplains. Blossom, too heavy now to be contained in scent-stuffed blisters, burst forth in transitory wonder. And driving through this cacophony of new life, my heart is crashing and my tummy is exploding with tension; a volcano transforming my focus and sapping my mind.

We all live in bubbles. Most of the time, we ignore their presence, looking out through their soapy rainbow walls at a world filtered for us by our own prejudices, seeing everything as though it fits perfectly with our own expectations. But every now and again – in elections, in pandemics, when meeting the family of a new and beloved partner – bubbles crash into each other and can no longer remain invisible. At these crunch points, we have a choice. Do we stay within our bubbles, shoring up the walls and hoping it will be enough to keep out the threat creeping towards us? Do we attempt to burst the opposing force in order to maintain our own security? Do we create a double bubble, the sides gelled together, though each remains integral to itself?

The thing that is most exhausting for me in this time of fear-fuelled headlines and anxiety-provoking bulk emails are the bridges between my bubbles. I have one for home, another for work. One for Quaker Meeting, and an adjacent one, sometimes attached, sometimes a lifetime apart, for Church. I carry these identities within me all the time, and the nothing moments, when I switch from teacher to mother, from daughter to counsellor, from worshipper to Vicar’s Wife, are always the points of my day when surges of energy rush me with adrenaline and exhaust me from my painted toenails through to my split ends. In normal times it can be overwhelming; and these, of course, are not normal times.

Keep calm and carry on is engrained – after all, we don’t want to make a fuss over nothing. Have a cup of tea and let everyone else whip themselves into a flap clashes in mid-thought with memories of those around me I know are immunocompromised, or over 70, or pregnant. My natural instinct to be a raging hypochondriac sits in chattering conflict with my deep-seated need to write off as suspect anything promoted by Boris Johnson. Wanting to do my job and do the best I can by my students, labouring over planning and guiding and marking and feeding back, is suddenly the worst thing I can do, and to help them the most I need to leave them alone. Together we learn the new language of self-isolation and social distancing, too new still to come up on the spellcheck. Every day I hear new myths, covering racism, justifying prejudice, anticipating financial hardship. All of it is based on fear masquerading as fact. All of it is spoken with authority and without understanding.

The world, for many, has been flipped inside out, and I feel buffeted along with it. If we cannot trust each other enough to not hoard toilet paper, how will we get through this together? (I was sitting smug on this one until it occured to me that our upcoming delivery from Who Gives A Crap will be sitting outside our front door all day, if it’s delivered at all. I never worried about other people walking off with it before – after all, it’s a box big enough for The Cowgirl to turn into a café, filled with nothing but toilet roll. All of a sudden, I feel a bit like I’m leaving gold dust in the front garden all day…) I won’t finish with advice I’m not sure I can follow either. Instead, I will share the three things I have learned today, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

  1. Don’t be like me. Be like The Vicar.* When the news updated us to leave the house only for essentials and work, I bought vegetables and withdrew cash. He bought a case of wine and visited the sick in hospital. It’s all about priorities.
  2. Don’t sing Happy Birthday. Unless it is your birthday, of course, at which point, indulge as much as you can in the singing, as now is not a good time for parties. Instead of singing, say the Lord’s Prayer. I have found little that helps me slow down, be mindful, and hope, as much as that.
  3. Stop. Talk. Share idiotic stories – from a distance of 2 metres, naturally. My introverted nature is close to dancing for joy at the idea of having a legitimate reason to enforce personal space, but even I’ve been talking to people that I would normally just smile at and move on. This is a time when we need every connection we can make, and actually, it’s lead to some great conversations. And the discovery that security tagging Extra Mature Cheddar is a thing. But mostly, it’s made me smile, and I for one needed more of that.
A screen filled with white and blushing pink blossom.

*I decided my husband needs a name on here, rather than just being defined by his relationship with me. After all, I’m very aware how frustrating that can be. I’m going to get in trouble for this name, as it isn’t technically his current job title. But hey, this is my blog, so I’ll stay a Vicar’s Wife, and he will stay The Vicar.

What the hell are we doing here?

I have steered clear of talking about politics here. Well, a bit, anyway. This is partly because simplicity is the polar opposite of any form of current affairs (though messy has certainly come into its own), and partly because when I think about politics at the moment it gives me that clenched up feeling in your throat that you get when you’re arguing about something you really care about with someone who just won’t listen.

This morning, I accepted that I couldn’t ignore that lump in my throat and keep on trying to breathe through it. Why? Because the start of the teaching year is just around the corner, and so, possibly/probably/definitely/never in a million years (delete as appropriate) is a General Election.

A mobile polling station in an area with no community buildings. With nicer weather than the next election, I suspect.

As anyone who has ever been in a classroom with me for more than 10 minutes will know, I quite like talking about politics. In fact, make that anyone who has spent 10 minutes with me in any situation at all. (Overhead yesterday was The Cowgirl, the roll of her eyes evident through her voice, muttering “Not boring Brexit again…” Sometimes struggles to work out which way round her trousers go, but already knows about Europe.) We have discussed Brexit, immigration, budgets, whether education should be free, climate change, the NHS, and so many other things besides. Sometimes they come up naturally. Sometimes they are shoe-horned in to tick a box (you want me to talk more about British Values? Well…) Sometimes they are deliberately planned because I think it really is so much more important than a bit more on how to pass an exam.

One thing that falls clearly into that category is teaching students about elections. I first taught a lesson about voting back in my first year as a trainee teacher, and agonised over it for hours. I have honed it, shaped it, vastly improved it, and used it again for every election since. I teach adults. They need to know not only that they can vote, but how voting works, and how to choose who to vote for.

And that is the key problem I am having now. The first part of the lesson is very straightforward. Take my usual rant about why everyone should vote, tone it down, remember not to do it with a large glass of gin in one hand, tone it down again, and job done. Then things get harder. Normally, at this point, I would go into a variety of things that should probably be obvious, but, apparently, are not. My students leave either bored out of their minds or fired up with new-found enthusiasm, and I can sit back and know I have done my bit for democracy, compose Facebook updates detailing the most interesting things to come out of the lessons, and feel delightfully smug.

Not this time, I suspect. My usual list of What Students Probably Don’t Know runs into neck-deep quicksand by about minute ten:

  • You do not vote for a party; you vote for a candidate. Well, I suppose that is still true. More so than normal if yours is one of the more than 30 MPs to have changed party this year. (I admit, that figure is based on Wikipedia, which lists every shift in allegiance, expulsion due to scandal and bigotry, re-admission, and re-expulsion in dizzying detail.)
  • We do not elect our Prime Minister. So far, so accurate, of course. This has caused seismic incredulity every time, even in the days when we had a conventinal Prime Minister. The obvious question is always How are they chosen then? Um. He’s the one who can command a majority? On the day even his brother abandoned his party, I don’t think that works. He’s the leader of the largest party? By this time next week I’m half expecting the Tories to have been overtaken in number by the Lib Dems. He’s the one who has the confidence of the House? When it is both publicly acceptable and not even questioned to say that Boris Johnson will change his mind as soon as it suits him, I doubt he has the confidence of his own reflection, never mind Parliament. Well, never mind. We always knew Boris would break the mold. Let’s move on.
  • Choose who you will vote for by what matters most to you. In a world with so many demands crushing in from every direction, who is going to be our R2D2 and stop the walls before they kill us? Climate catastrophe lurks in every shadow, questioning every choice available. The NHS is in crisis. Education is making our children less equipped for daily life as it overwhelms their resilience and their ability to make independent choices. Brexit hovers over us like that spaceship in Independence Day, and none of us really know which worldwide icon it will consume next. Given all these paralysing priorities, I’m not convinced it’s fair to put anyone in the position where they have to decide on the spot what is most important to their lives. I certainly can’t ask them to defend their choices to people they have only just met.
  • Find out what each party stands for. Quakers seek that of God in every individual; here, I seek that of God in every party. I have to provide materials on each one for my students, as none of the parties produce their manifestos in a way that can be understood by low-level readers who are also politically inexperienced.* I attempt to read them, summarise them without bias, make up my own too. It does, however, require manifestos. Or at least, it requires people to say things and then stick to them for at least as long as it takes to teach one lesson. This taxes my time, my neutrality and my patience with current affairs at the best of times. These are not the best of times.

It feels more important than ever to teach about the next election, precisely because it is so unpredictable, so unusual, so contradictory. We need to teach each other, our children, ourselves. We all bear responsibility for getting into the unfathomable fiasco facing us now. What do we do now to take responsibility to get out of it again?

Thunderstorm, courtesy of Pixabay. Amazing colours surround us as nature crashes down on our heads. https://pixabay.com/images/id-3440450/

*You can get easy read versions, but they still run to about 50 pages and tend to be even more biased than the standard ones. She says, with no bitterness at all.