Friday, August 24, 2012

August cold and dank and wet...

Flanders and Swann got it right this summer:  
     "In July the sun is hot.  
       Is it shining?  No it's not.  
       August, cold and dank and wet 
       brings more rain than any yet."   
Actually, if there had been just a little less of the wet stuff, I'd have been quite happy: despite years in the Middle East, hot weather doesn't really suit me, and I tend to wilt in proper summer weather.  The cooler season this year preserved more energy than usual, though I have not always used it fruitfully.

Spring, when I last wrote, flew past in a blur of work, and the Easter holiday was mostly spent gearing up for the exam season.  The summer term gets less productive each year in terms of teaching, as GCSE and A level exams creep back a day or two from year to year, so even with an early return to the classroom after Easter, we had less than four weeks before exams started.  Once I'd coaxed and nurtured my own flock through their Theology papers, I was then straight into examiner duties which continued through overlapping papers, standardising, marking, awarding and reviewing until the end of July. 

Just before the end of term, my mysterious black cat had to be put down after a road accident, so there was one quiet, peaceful evening when I buried her under the apple tree and mourned the pet who had been my constant companion for more than 12 years.  A few days later, the departure of students for the summer brought a little leisure: I could get up a little later, read into the night, and fit in a few visits to friends and family.

Summer sees two family birthdays, second son in July and youngest son in August, so two wonderful evenings out in London punctuated the holiday. Now I no longer have any teenage children, and with my delightful grandson more than adequately grandparented by his maternal grandmother, my duty to society has been largely accomplished, and there's a gleeful sense of possibility in the air.  I hasten to add that grandson is a source of utter joy when I see him, and even more so for the blooming contentment he brings to first son and daughter-in-law.  I have promised to become a properly functioning granny when he turns into a snarling teenager and no-oe else can bear him, because that is when I really start to enjoy young people.  Perhaps that is why schoolmistressing is such a delicious profession: they actuallly pay me to teach a subject I love to young people whose education I enjoy.

But it is exhausting, and with the extra time devoted to examining responsibilities, holidays time is precious.   I've been doing some research on recusancy, and spent a wonderful day at Rushton Triangular Lodge and Rushton Hall in the only really seasonal weather of the month.  The odd picnic or meal out loses nothing by being on my own, though asking for a "afternoon tea for one" tends to fluster staff at even the most venerable venues. Driving through the Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire country villages with the roof down and the wind blowing through my hair, stopping to look round a church here or a ruin there, is the best kind of holiday, and I can do it all without having to pack a case or change any currency.
My heavier exam load and his fragile health have combined to limit time spent with my lover this summer, but with him on the mend and a brief hiatus between examining and the looming start of the school year, we plan a couple of days together before the summer ends.  I'm already starting to feel the bubbling excitement as the Michaelmas term appears on the horizon: new ideas to develop, new students to meet, new possibilities to explore...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

After the rush, a lull...

Half term brings a wonderful sense of time out from the routine of school life, and this one especially offers time to look back over a very busy few weeks. Social events with colleagues and students, a concentration of parents' evenings, and the rush of marking trial exams, have all soaked up the few waking hours not already allocated to professional duties. The easiest way to deal with such pressures is to surrender any hope of "spare time", and accept that for a while, life is allocated unequally to work and sleep. In an ordinary job, such a regime would be unbearable, but this is not by any means an ordinary job. A lost Saturday in front of the TV becomes a riotous house dance in the fives court; a sacrificed Sunday evening or Saturday afternoon turns into a welcome chance to meet the families of the children I see every week to compare perspectives on their progress.

Fortunately, I have a most accommodating lifestyle. With all the offspring now fledged, I can be flexible outside the conventional working day, and with a few exceptions, touching base with them can be fitted around school duties. There was one potential exception recently, though.
However, my daughter-in-law, in a most dutiful fashion, delivered my grandson a week early, on the Saturday afternoon of my only free weekend of the term, allowing me the chance to race up the motorway and spend time with the new family without encroaching at all on school life. Needless to say, he is quite the most perfect baby ever born.

This lull in the term offers the chance to enjoy a different pace of life. After a weekend city break with my lover, the rest of the week holds other pleasures: a trip to London to wish daughter Happy Birthday,
and a trip to the theatre with son number 2; a drive through the Cotswolds to visit my Dad, who has been feeling under the weather recently; lie-ins and the boxed set of "Goodnight Sweetheart".

There are things I have to do, though. With an eye to the exams in summer, I have school revision materials to edit and exam board materials to write, and there are plenty of jobs to do around the house. The joy is having the time to pace these chores, interspersing them with self-indulgent trifles, and doing them after enough sleep to feel energetic and motivated. So I am enjoying the lull, knowing that next week I will be plunging headlong into the mad rush towards Easter.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Amazing kids

So far I'm just on time keeping one of my resolutions: to write a post to this blog once every month. This means I have fewer events on which to draw, and less need to telescope time, allowing me the scope to reflect appreciatively on those things I encounter as I hurtle through life.

One such encounter was the shocking realisation that not only have all my children grown up, but that they have turned into the nicest adults one could wish to meet. I can't quite recall a single time when the tables turned, but this year, without question, it was them who did the work, and me who was looked after and entertained. Epiphany fell on a working day, so the plan was for all to gather while I was still sweating over a hot whiteboard. Five kids, a wife and a girlfriend were all in residence when I arrived home at 4 to find the roast in the oven, veg preparation in hand and under control in the kitchen, and chilled cava in a glass waiting for me.

I lifted not a finger, nor ruffled a single hair. The meal produced itself effortlessly under the expert skills and genial co-operation of various sons, and all was cleared and fed
into the dishwasher over the next couple of days by daughter -
who also hoovered and wiped up the kitchen so that the house ended up cleaner and tidier after they had all left than it was when they arrived. We all had time for a leisurely drink in the Ellie before dinner, and it never got to my round.
Daughter-in-law and son's girlfriend have endless patience with the weird family rituals and remind me that a family is always a growing, changing entity. The meal was perfect, the family time together merry, and there wasn't a moment of stress in the entire event.

If having remarkable offspring is pleasing, watching one's pupils doing remarkable things is another kind of pleasure. In a moment of insanity earlier in the year, I decided that the third form could usefully dabble in my PhD field of theology and the internet. I slightly overestimated their familiarity with the technology, so it has been a steep learning curve, but here we are, three weeks into term, and each set has a page on their own website, a growing blog, and the faintest stirrings of a Twitter feed. There is so much hard work going into writing content and getting the hang of different kinds of online presence. What has surprised me most is the thoughtful creativity of students whose output is usually written answers to academic questions. Do have a look at the blogs of 3-1, 3-2, 3-3 and 3-4 to see what I mean.

By the time I get round to writing the next post, I expect there to be another amazing kid in the family: more about that after the event. Watch this space.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

As time goes by...

This year's Christmas tree is, I think, the biggest and bushiest I have ever had. Youngest son and I went to fetch it on a bright, clear morning a couple of weeks ago. By the time we got to the farm, heavy clouds were gathering with intent, and as we started the drive home, a few heavy drops plopped down. The sharp shower that followed should not have been a problem, but for the fact that the tree would only go into my car with the roof down. There's something very silly about driving an open-top sports car in the rain, and sillier still when there's a five-foot Christmas tree bobbing in the wind whistling above the windscreen. This event has already entered family legend as another example of their mother's advancing eccentricity.

I'm ashamed to discover that more than half a year has whistled by without a single blog post: mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Life has been busy and happy, but there's been little leisure to gather my thoughts and compose them into considered prose. However, I've promised my Dad that I will try to follow his example and update my musings more often and in this season of new resolutions, it's a good time to make a start.

Almost immediately after my last post, daughter-in-law was elected as a local councillor. After years of grassroots activism in local politics, and with eldest son as a willing and energetic campaigner and supporter, she polled an unexpectedly high majority on what ought to have been a marginal seat. I am turning into a Hyacinth Bouquet soundalike: "my daughter-in-law the councillor" trips off the tongue so nicely.

Summer started with the usual rush of exam marking. Tight deadlines and heavy workloads at all three levels mean that the end of term and the first few weeks of the holiday are businesslike and strictly timetabled. People ask why I mark public exams when I could be lounging on a beach somewhere. The second part of the question is easy to answer - I don't much like lounging on beaches. But there is more to it than that: it is, without question, the most rigorous form of professional development for a teacher, discovering how students all over the country tackle topics I deliver in the classroom week by week.

August was all about closing a chapter in my life. With youngest son off to university in September, the time had come to empty the old house and put it on the market. After ten years as a family home and a year as a young man's bachelor pad, there was a lot of clearing out to do. Lofts, cupboards and cavities under and behind furniture were all emptied into the light of day, sorted, and divided into unequally into two piles: to skip, and to keep. All of the children helped out a bit, but special mention goes to daughter who spent dusty hours clearing lofts and sorting and boxing books with a ruthlessness of purpose. "Do you actually *need* this? No? Skip, then." Second son arrived just in time to rescue the day when I tripped and sprained an ankle badly: he lugged boxes into and out of the hired white van as we moved the remnants of our life into a hired storage unit.

After nearly three weeks of hard work, two eight-ton skips and twelve boxes stowed, and enough dust to bury a small city, the almost-empty house echoed sadly as we set off for a celebratory trip to Bramall Lane to watch the Blades beat Walsall in a very satisfying game. I felt quite nostalgic for the years I've been a Blade by adoption as we spilled out with the cheerful crowd after the match.

The Michaelmas term started at a run and continued that way. My most daunting task each year is learning the names of new students, closely followed by re-orienting my picture of familiar faces into new year-groups. I love the buzz of energy at the start of the school year, and the settling back into the rhythm of a day punctuated by bells and familiar tasks. Who would have thought that the awkward, stroppy schoolgirl I once was would eventually find comfort in the repeated patterns of school routines!

There have been some delightful interludes with my lover when we have found space between his work and mine, including a city break early in summer, but his illness clouded the end of the long holiday which has put our collaborative project on ice. Instead we've spent time together clearing the backlog of his daily work to give him more time for rest and recuperation.

The Christmas holiday has been one of family logistics: daughter's car lives outside my house, so their stepmother's big birthday party saw children and partners converging here for lifts north, then returning here before dispersing to their holiday destinations. The day itself was spent with second and youngest sons and their bosses and families in their London gastropub: quite the most congenial way to spend Christmas day. A trip to introduce daughter-in-law to my Dad yesterday rounded off the Christmas travelling for the year, and I came home bearing quite the most glamorous Christmas present I have ever received: a Fortnum and Mason hamper full of seasonal gourmanderie.
I'm looking forward to 2012. The most significant date in the diary so far is the expected date of arrival of my first grandchild. Eldest son and daughter-in-law are stuffing their house with things that hadn't even been invented when he was born, but which are now de rigeur for a twenty-first century baby. I'm delighted that they still want to use the hand-knitted blanket I made for him thirty years ago: it gives me a real sense of continuity and helps to offset the terror I feel at this next step along the matriarchy timeline.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Spring Pleasures

This has been the most beautiful spring I can remember. The harsh winter of 2010-11 seems a distant memory now that we have basked through the warmest April on record, and the longest Easter holiday anyone here can remember.

The Lent term was long and busy. The snow melted only just before the start of term, and the dark mornings and evenings made school life feel like a troglodyte existence. Up each morning before sunrise, and walking home long, long after nightfall, I found last term businesslike and fruitful. There was little time for leisure, and even my birthday passed with just a breakfast visitor to mark the event.

But there were a few opportunities for fun. One such was our family Epiphany gathering. All but foster daughter number two made it despite the snowy conditions, and penultimate son's girlfriend also came along, so seven of us sat down to venison and all the trimmings. Later, during half-term, I had trip to London to go to the theatre with daughter number
one for a rather odd but enjoyable show about shoes (and I missed the last train home because we were having such a pleasant time at the pub afterwards!) As the weather warmed up, it became possible to walk a friend's dogs by the canal and spend lengthening evenings in the garden writing lesson plans.

The holiday has brought many pleasures. The Society for the Study of Theology Annual Conference in York was both academically invaluable, but also socially pleasant. The chance to catch up with people I have worked with in the past, and to meet new people who are so interesting, made this feel far more like fun than a professional necessity. Here at home, I've read books for pleasure, done Guardian crosswords, cooked and played the piano (this last I do very badly). I've touched base with all the offspring, visited my Dad and enjoyed whole days when I haven't spoken to a soul. If that sounds odd, bear in mind that I am a classic introvert who needs time alone to recharge the batteries. I feel well and truly recharged.

My beautiful car has been a joy. The passenger door was dented by someone who lost control in the snow - and didn't have the decency to stop - but it was eventually repaired just as the weather improved, and I've had it out with the roof down at every opportunity. Over the Easter holiday, trips to York(twice), Leeds and Sheffield provided enough exposure to the sun for me to burn my nose and tan my arms. My favourite Sunday chore is to spend a couple of hours washing it and then waxing it to a piercing shine, before taking it out for a spin to dazzle those bumbling along Oxfordshire lanes in their dull Audis and BMWs.

Alas, lover has been as busy as I recently, and we have only managed the odd day here and there until this weekend. But things are settling down now, and there's the prospect of a city break on the horizon and a few days away together in the summer holiday. If that seems a long way yet, I remind myself that we're already a week into a term of just eight weeks, and between now and then I have plenty to occupy my mind and energy. With GCSE and A levels, school exams, and university entrance advice at work, and exam marking at home, I'll be lucky to have any time to myself.

Perhaps the best thing of all is that I still love everything about being where I am now. The work is both challenging and satisfying, and now that I have been here long enough to know what I'm doing, it's less stressful and more fun than I ever imagined it could be. I can see this being a very good summer indeed.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Rounding off the year

Good heavens! If I ever needed proof that I am ageing, my perception of the passage of time provides it. Two gentle reminders that my blog needed updating prompted me to check the date of my last entry, and I find that what seems like a couple of weeks ago is actually five months.

Recapping that amount of activity now requires me to exercise another failing faculty, my memory for detail. The death of Bertie, my lovely old gentleman springer, at the end of July was a great sadness. He was staying with youngest two sons when he suffered an inoperable leg injury and had to be put to sleep. He was with me such a short time, but he ended his days as a much loved companion after a lot of struggles as an elderly and unwanted stray, and I consider it a privilege to have shared my home with him.

I recall August as a time of blissful idleness, but I know there was a period of mad activity when I realised that the new term was looming and needed proper preparation. (Such a period is now once again upon me, of course. I'm learning
the rhythms of the schoolteacher's year, which are quite different from the academic's.)

Tne highlight of the summer was a couple of visits to Smiths of Smithfield for breakfast. The first time, second son and I started the day thus before an exhibition of Picasso works at the Gagosian Gallery. Penultimate son, a Masterchef groupie of the most fanatical hue, was so envious that I promised him a visit when it could be arranged, and so a few weeks later, two sons, daughter and I converged on Smithfield for a return visit.

Oddly enough, one of the best things about September was the arrival of new colleagues so that I was no longer the new girl. It was good to be there for the start of the school year, to write my own plans for my department and to have my own timetable, rather than one inherited from a part-timer. Starting new after school activities was fun: my survival cooks spent the term learning to feed themselves well on a student budget, and after the first session when we were locked into the cookery room, we decided it was safer -
and more authentic to the student experience - to squash into my small kitchen for an hour each Monday. Meanwhile, my TV and Religion slot later on in the week has prompted some lively thinking about prejudice, social disadvantage and community life.

October provided an autumn of astonishing beauty this year. I gather from various online reports that this is the result of a sequence of traditional seasons. Whatever the reason, driving over the Cotswolds through trees in every shade from palest yellow to deepest brown to visit my Dad at half-term was a joy. The return to school in November coincided with a visit from the inspectors, who gave us a warm endorsement and the encouragement to keep going as temperatures dropped and fluey bugs raged through the school. When the first snow fell in early December, the cycle of the year moved towards completion. The village was under snow when I arrived, and as term drew to a close, another blanket of white covered everything to a depth of 18 inches.
The last of the snow is now melting after a beautiful white Christmas day. It was clear and bright enough to drive down the motorway with the soft-top on the MG down and my Santa hat blowing in the wind.

2010 has been a good year - a very good year. I have made new friends, found a new sense of purpose, and used time fruitfully in the new soil of this lovely place. I've had some good times with my lover and enough space to be myself. Part of the reason the detail escapes me is the intensity of life here. From early morning until well into the evening, and sometimes even late at night, every moment is filled with experience, hard work, and fun. And so, as the year ends in a grey mist which blurs the edges of perception after the snowy intensity of Christmas, I am gently reminded that my own blurred recollection is a consequence of the intensity of life lived in the last twelve months.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days

Oh bliss! The school summer holiday is upon me, and I am free to enjoy it all for the first time since I was 18. But gosh, I had to work to earn it. Term-time working hours are long and demanding, though I enjoy every minute. On a good day, I go in just before 8 and arrive home some twelve hours later. Once a week, duty in the boarding house keeps me busy till 10.30. The working week runs from Monday morning to Saturday lunchtime, and many weekends include functions and parents' meetings. Not all of those hours are compulsory, but I need every one of them to do justice to the job and my students.

This being the summer term, there were also exams to mark. The breaks in the timetable as students sat school and national examinations each threw up another batch of papers to mark. GCSE external marking arrived first, over half term. I was torn between the sheer pleasure of a week off and the painful urgency of GCSE marking. In a masochistic way, I enjoy the intensity of marking: each paper represents the culmination of secondary work for a child whose ability, teaching and aptitude for the subject has been tested at last by an hour and three quarters of application. Marking must always be accurate and consistent, because a trivial error on my part could affect the future career of a child. It can't be rushed, but the deadlines are tight in order to get the results out by mid-August.

Once that was underway, the school exam papers started flowing in, each set needing to be turned around within a week, ready to feed back to the students as lessons resumed. Common Entrance papers arrived for marking with a short deadline as well. By dint of some early mornings, later than usual nights and a few skipped lunches, I managed to get all of those clear before the A level papers arrived.

In between the exam frenzy, there were occasions both delightful and sad. Social activities, school plays and a staffroom sweepstake on the football world cup all provided a welcome complement to the busy-ness. The various ways the school and boarding houses said goodbye to those students and staff who were leaving reminded me of how close-knit a community we are. Although I've known my own students for such a short time, I'll miss this year's Upper Sixth.

The hot summer weather persisted through the term with
only odd breaks, with the result that my new car has had plenty of outings with the lid down, sun glinting off shiny paintwork and wind blowing through my hair. After years of vehicles that deserved nothing more than the odd trip through a car wash, I find myself looking forward to a sunny weekend morning when I can spend a couple of hours with a bucket and a chamois tarting up my car. The crowning glory was to fix on the personalised number plates that proclaim my ownership of it to all who pass.

Summer here has produced other pleasures, too. I had a bumper crop of strawberries from a patch in the back garden which would have been a slug fast-food joint in Sheffield, but which in the less clay-bound Oxfordshire soil produced pounds of strawberries a day at its peak. I plan to be
prepared next year with a jamming pan and preserving sugar at the ready: this year I merely gorged on the ripest fruit each time I went into the garden. The local farm shop sold asparagus so fresh and young it could be used raw in salads. Barbecues at school and chez friends are always made from locally produced specialist sausages, burgers, steak and chops. One memorable evening during exams, I took an hour away from marking to join friends in their garden, and all the local folk musicians turned up with instruments and fiddled, whistled and bongo-ed as the meat sizzled.

Now, term is over, the final batch of A level marking has gone back to the exam board and summer stretches away ahead of me. A week's city break with my lover marked the start of the holiday, and I plan a few days in France in the car, camping and visiting friends in Brittany, towards the end. Of course I have work-related things to do: planning for next term, reviewing the past six months, writing notes for my A level sets. But these are trivial tasks in comparison with the time available. Nothing can possibly spoil the sheer joy of school summer hols shimmering towards distant autumn.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

As good as it gets

Yes, my dear public, it has been a long absence. A new job is always demanding: new tasks, new practices and new colleagues always take some getting used to. Changing from higher education to secondary has its own set of challenges, and my silence owes everything to the need to pour all my effort into hitting the ground running (and in the right direction).

The Lent term started under several inches of snow. With my wrist still in plaster from a close encounter with an icy road, my high heels stayed warm and comfortable in the cupboard while I travelled the perilous 200 yards between home and school in walking boots or wellies. As it turned out, the surgeon wasn't happy with the repair to my wrist and re-set it with pins during the second weekend of term, so further damage was actually done not by accident in the wild, but in the controlled environment of an operating theatre. I didn't lose the plaster and pins until half term.

I have always enjoyed teaching, but nothing matches the fun, the challenge and the buzz of a secondary classroom. It took a while to get acclimatised to teaching in 35 minute periods instead of two-hour blocks, but once I got the hang of appropriate content it has all gone swimmingly. OK, I once lost a fourth form set, all twenty of them, but only once. Tutoring in a boys' boarding house is funny, infuriating and delightful - it's like our house used to be when all the kids were younger, but times ten.

My colleagues are without exception wonderful. I have been supported, gently guided, encouraged and affirmed at every step along the way. They must have wondered what kind of nutcase they had taken into their midst often enough, but by the end of term it felt as if I'd been here forever. We've made some changes in the department, tightened up a few things and made big plans, all in the space of ten crazy weeks.

In the middle of all that, a big birthday loomed, coinciding with the school's own anniversary celebration, so the eve of both was celebrated with a formal ball (acres of rustling blue taffeta) and the day itself with a memorial walk. It was especially good to reclaim the day for some personal merrymaking in the company of a dear friend who came round, helped me cook dinner, and then made me laugh and forget work for an evening.

And then, after a busy, busy end of term, another unaccustomed pleasure - three glorious weeks of holiday. A city break with my chap, a few days parenting in Sheffield, and then back home (and it does feel like home, though I have only been here four months). Thanks to my Dad's outrageous generosity, the modest car with which I was going to replace my Ka in summer morphed into a six-month old MGTF 85th anniversary edition on Good Friday. So the beautiful weather of Easter week looked even more inviting than usual for driving, and I had a couple of good runs with the wind in my hair and the sun beating down. Life doesn't get much better.

Summer term started today, and, no longer a new girl, I'm happy to be back in the classroom with the whole term ahead. I wake up each morning, wriggle my toes, grin, and think "They are actually paying me to do this!"

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Breaking with the past

As the rest of the world is out partying, I'm sitting in my new home reflecting on the turn of the year. 2009 has been turbulent, with children flying the nest and my own life moving into a new stage. The last fortnight has been a succession of breaks with the past, each one tinged with a little sadness.

I said goodbye to my old colleagues, friends and students with a leaving party and a private showing of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. One of my students sang for the gathered throng, and raised a collective chuckle and groan when he looked meaningfully at me and sang "I get a kick out of you". I've always given tough tutorials...

Then five days of moving, tearing up and down motorways with cars full of pieces of my life in carrier bags and boxes.
The new suite is awesome, and my bed is humongous;
the piano was a close thing but the piano-movers did their magic and it now graces my sitting room.
Bertie and Mab are well settled and everything except my books is now put away.

The final break was a more physical one. My last moving-in chore was a trip to stock up with food and household stuff, and as I was unloading the car, Bertie managed to escape. I didn't notice his absence until later on, so set out in the snow as it was getting dark to look for him. This is a friendly village, and as I passed people I asked them to look out for a lost dog. Just as I was giving up for the night, my phone rang, and the chap on the phone told me he had found my dog, and would I like to join their Christmas party when I came to collect him? Their gracious hospitality was tested to the limit when I slipped on the ice just outside their house and broke my wrist.

People have been kind and generous: my next door neighbour walked Bertie until the ice melted, and one of the party-goers I met has called in to ask if I need any shopping. My hostess and friends dragged me off to the pub to try out the anaesthetic effects of Old Hooky, and my new colleague invited me round for Christmas lunch when he heard that I wasn't able to drive to spend the day with Second Son.

I'm excited as the first day of my new job approaches, and happy in my new home. And yet... New Year's Eve is a time when regret is allowed a little space. I miss the dear friends who made life so varied in my old home, and I would give much for someone to share a glass of champagne with as the bells ring out the old year. But perhaps this is the most potent way to break with the past - to keep the vigil, to let go of the past and to face the future alone. It's going to be good.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nightmares, and a dream come true

One month from today, I'll be in my new home. Somewhere between now and then, I have to get straight enough in the old one to leave it liveable for the remaining resident, and equip the new one from a distance ready for the big move weekend. The awkwardness of the entrance in both houses is causing headaches: I had to measure carefully to make sure that the new beds will fit through the narrow doorway and along the entrance hallway.

Sitting room furniture turned into a real nightmare. After hours of complicated trigonometry to work out the biggest dimensions in all directions that could be squeezed in, I was forced to conclude that nursery furniture and beanbags were the only things likely to fit. But then I discovered an outfit that makes sitting room furniture in modular, self assembly packages, with a money-back guarantee to fit. So I have ordered a whacking great settee/sofabed and a bum-and-a-half sized armchair, in the gleeful prospect of stretching out in comfort with a book when the hassle of the move is finally behind me.

The next cause for concern is the piano. I can't really play it beyond busking nursery rhymes, but I can't imagine living in a house without it. I'm in touch with some specialist piano movers, so if it can be done, they'll do it. I wonder if you can dismantle a piano, move it, and then reassemble it, like Ikea furniture? Probably not...

Having an industrial size family means that I have a workforce to call on for the actual move. I hope that sons and daughters can be distributed at each end of the journey, loading and unloading cargo (mostly books, of course) while I have only the chore of moving a hired van up and down the M1 a few times. Which reminds me - I need to book a van-hire.

If I intended a nice orderly run down of work here, it is
not turning out that way. I'm doing my best to make sure that colleagues can handle the things that need doing, and putting arrangements in place to cover all my students, but I worry that things will be left undone or unplanned for when I leave. I'm sure no-one is indispensable, and they will do very well without me. Almost weekly, I find myself doing something for the last time, and there are so many aspects of my work I'll miss. Watching my students graduate in York Minster a couple of weeks ago was one such occasion. (Please note that the chap on the pedestal watching us is Constantine, instigator of the Nicene Council: a most appropriate interloper for a meeting of theologians.)

At the same time, I'm slowly starting to pick up tasks associated with my new job. At present it's little more than doing lesson plans and thinking through some teaching strategies, but there are already a few departmental matters that I have considered, and in the next few weeks until the end of term, I hope to become gradually more engaged. It still feels a little like a dream come true, but as I do more, it is starting to feel real. I owe my predecessor in the post a good deal for his generous welcome and thoughtful inclusion into the department.

Between now and then, I am breaking the habit of a lifetime and throwing a party. A surprisingly large number of friends, colleagues and family are joining me for drinks, nibbles and a film at the local arthouse cinema to celebrate the end of the old and the start of the new, and with one of those scary birthdays coming up shortly as well, it seemed that if I was ever going to have a party, this was a good time to do it.

All this excitement means that other projects have been temporarily relegated in importance. I have a burning urge to do some writing towards a resource collection, but time in appropriate quantities for such an undertaking is hard to find just now. I'm horribly conscious that I have neglected the offspring and my lover, and I'm dying to see them all over the holiday to get a bit of serious mothering in. So much to do, so little time...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Liquid refreshments

Life is very pleasing at present. Penultimate son and daughter have flown the nest to university and I follow their lives through their Facebook updates. This means I don't know about wild freshers' parties until after the event, and I no longer have a daily duty to nag over homework. Instead, they actually miss me, and the state of their rooms are their own problems. Youngest son and I, meanwhile, are free to indulge our shared taste in experimental soups without the refrain "But Mum, soup isn't a meal."

Nothing ever runs smoothly, of course. On the way back from a meeting, another driver ran into the back of my little Ford Ka, doing considerably more damage to the chassis then the dent in the bumper suggested. Three weeks later, and I finally have my own car back, having had the most unpleasant experience of trying to stay mobile in a hire car that drives like a tank and replaces basic comfort and functionality with gizmoid gimmickry.

Work was supposed to be easier this term - a measured disengagement, carefully transferring my duties and responsibilities to colleagues over several weeks. The sudden illness of my immediate boss, absent now until the end of term, scuppered that as a plan of work, and instead I am trying to uphold her role while disengaging from mine, a complicated dance that takes political wisdom, academic versatility and unfailing good humour, qualities I am working hard to cultivate. But if this unexpected workload is onerous, the prospect of new adventures next term is a powerful motivator.

This last weekend involved a trip down the M1 to spend two days dipping a toe into my new job. Meeting colleagues, learning the ropes and feeling my way into a new role has
been made so much easier by the generous patience of the chaplain and the warmth of the staff and students I have met. I am delighted that I'm to be tutor attached to a boys' boarding house in addition to my academic role, and a pretty little house in the middle of the village will give me a home close to the school and three pubs. Each morning I wake up and have to pinch myself: this is a dream come true in every way I can imagine. I veer between sheer delight and utter terror at the scope of the task I have taken on, but always there is a bubbling excitement and energetic optimism.

Working closely with my lover on our joint project has been fun and challenging, as we try to anticipate problems and deliver quality. Time together has been scant over the summer, but oddly enough, as autumn comes on our diaries mesh more often and we have time to work and relax together more frequently. As the days grow shorter, the leaves turn colour and fall, and a morning chill shivers the daily walk to work, life looks very, very good.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From this day forward

I confess. I'm a proud Mum, and never more so than when my children do something remarkable. On Saturday 12th September, my firstborn married a lovely lady whom I am honoured to call my daughter in law. Each of the children excelled themself in special ways. Youngest son, looking terribly grown-up in his suit, was charming and gracious. Penultimate son curbed his natural tendency to smart-arsity and charmed birds off trees. Foster-daughter sang "Ave Maria" during the signing of the register in a voice that is naturally beautiful, and with a confidence she has grown into over the time she has been living with us. Daughter was the most gorgeous usher I have ever seen, and she fulfilled her role with poise and grace. Second son has all the social graces in abundance, and delighted family, friends, and total strangers. And eldest son gazed into his wife's eyes with love and made my heart leap with hope.

The run-up to the wedding was a nightmare. I only had the Friday off work, so it was a crazy day, buying shirts and cufflinks and wedding cards, and having my nails and hair done. By the time I got home my beloved uncle had arrived and the resident offspring were all at a pre-wedding reception in Leeds, so he and I walked down to a local Indian restaurant and enjoyed a lazy and gastronomically satisfying evening.

Saturday morning saw the arrival of another three bodies, so that by 9am I had 8 people in the house. Second son took charge of the iron and made sure all had shirts and frocks worthy of the occasion, while daughter supplied caffeine to all who needed it. Thanks to my colleague who volunteered to act as a driver, we were all on our way to Leeds by 11.30.
Arriving at the groom's house, scruffy youngsters were transformed into smart young men and women, and by 1pm I was at the church distributing buttonholes and tying ties (it is astonishing how many young men do not know how to knot a tie). Meanwhile daughter overcame her natural reticence to ush efficiently alongside the bride's brother with poise and charm.

The wedding was was perfect, the bride breathtakingly lovely, and the groom so happy I was close to tears of joy myself. Foster daughter's wedding present to her brother and sister-in-law was to stand in front of 90 strangers to sing Schubert's setting of "Ave Maria" - I was so proud of her as her rich, pure voice rang round the chapel. Check it out on YouTube here.

Interminable photographs - perhaps the least appealing aspect of a wedding - were followed by a magnificent reception in Leeds Met Hotel. Flawless service, excellent food and heartfelt speeches, and the delightful company of the bride's father and the best man made for a most pleasing wedding breakfast. Then there was an interlude to chat and catch up with old friends as the staff rearranged the room and the photographers whizzed through a gazillion photos to produce a slideshow of the wedding and reception. Then another wave of guests arrived and the evening party began. The tables had been pushed back, a dance floor laid, and a buffet of cheese, biscuits, fruits and wedding cake provided sustenance for those with more stamina than I for dancing into the night.

A family conspiracy provided the musical highlight of the evening as the bride and groom were coaxed onto the dance floor to a recording of "Sylvia's Mother" by Dr Hook, a favourite of both. What the groom did not know until the music started was that we had resurrected a recording of his eight-year-old self, with siblings, singing lustily, if out of tune, along to the recording.

By 11.15, exhaustion was setting in, my feet hurt, the bride and groom were bopping madly to "Things can only get better" and the kiddiwinkles were all enjoying the fun, so I left the happy gathering with a glow of maternal satisfaction. My abiding memory of the day is the utter joy in the faces of my son and daughter-in-law as they turned towards the congregation at the end of the ceremony. All of a sudden, 27 years' parenting seems worth all the effort...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The threshold of the future

It's only ten days since results day, and already there's a sense of loosening in the family unit. I used to bemoan the fact that as the kiddiwinkles got older, they no longer came into the bedroom in the morning bouncing with excitement. On 20th August, I decided that perhaps this wasn't such a cause for regret after all, when two very excited 18 year olds woke me up at the crack of dawn to say that their university places had been confirmed on the UCAS website. Both penultimate son and foster daughter got the A levels they needed to take up their university places, she to do psychology a few miles up the M1, and he to do law on the south coast. Youngest son's AS results allow him to continue to A2, so there was plenty of cause to celebrate.

Since then it has been a flurry of form-filling, finance-juggling and removal-planning as the two of them prepare to leave home and start the next stage of their life journeys. Halls of residence are now expecting them, new bank accounts (with free railcards) are hungrily awaiting the arrival of student loans, and the logistics of moving two people in two different directions in the same week seem to have resolved themselves.

We are also into the final countdown for eldest son's wedding in two weeks: the hen and stag parties in early August were fun and congenial, and pretty well everything is now in place for a wonderful celebration. The table plan from daughter-in-law-to-be arrived with a delightful set of explanations about who everybody is, which I shall print out and file in my handbag for quick reference on the day. Foster daughter has been practising her song and I've been getting to grips with the reading: all that is outstanding is the purchase of suitable shirts for the resident boys and a frock for foster daughter. I'm looking forward to the once-in-a lifetime experience of seeing all my sons in suits at the same time. Of course the real joy is welcoming a whole new set of people into our clan, and sharing my first-born with his new extended family.

My own departure from Sheffield is only a little over the horizon, and as I write up the teaching plans for the coming term, I'm acutely aware that each task is being done for the last time. I alternate between delight and dread: delight at the prospect of a new challenge that is full of excitement and promise; dread at the enormity of the task before me. To thank Sheffield friends for thirty years of their presence in my life, I'm having a film-party - expect your invitations shortly.

This has been a busy summer, but there has been a little time for leisure. Opera in
the Park in Leeds with eldest son and d-i-l-t-b was enormous fun: a very extravagant picnic, the Halle orchestra and soloists, and the perfect weather for such an event. (The picture shows the "arm can-can" - a local tradition apparently. Odd.) There have been meals with friends, and the odd afternoon curled up with a book and a glass of wine. Now the holidays are almost over. (What holidays? I didn't even get away with my lover this summer because things have been so busy) We all stand on the threshold of a new academic year, new ways of living and working, and new futures. This is a good place to be.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

All change please

Once more, there has been too long a gap between posts. Two very busy months have passed, and the resident minors have taken their exams, so they now anxiously await results. Penultimate son and foster daughter have officially left school, and have instead spent much of the summer cluttering up the house with their friends, all polishing their skills at poker. There's mounting excitement at the prospect of leaving the nest for academic pastures new, as we book accommodation, complete student finance forms, and start to collect living essentials for their new lives. Subject to exam results, these two will be heading in opposite directions to study, leaving youngest son at home for his final A level year.

At present all the resident minors are non-resident for a couple of weeks, having headed off for a bit of Mediterranean sun and luxury with their Dad. The house is deliciously quiet and, for the first time in months, is almost tidy. It isn't just the tidiness I appreciate - it's the fact that it looks exactly the same when I get up as when I retire to bed, the same when I come in from work as it did when I left in the morning. I find such changlessness calming and peaceful.

Meanwhile, we are now in the countdown to eldest son's wedding in September: suits are being bought and hair
appointments booked, hen and stag parties are in the diary, and I even have my hat. I'm not sure how radical the change will be for the two of them, though. Whilst their ontological status will of course be transformed, they already have a happy and stable life together, and my biggest wish for them is more of the same.

Second son and daughter, who have been sharing a flat in Islington, are moving, too; he to a single flat and she back to Sheffield for a while. This delights me, since I see much less of my London children than I would like, though they have always been generous with their hospitality. I gather second son is planning to acquire a motorbike, a travel decision which makes sense for someone in his position, so I shall have to suspend my reservations. Daughter, with a much better sense of self-preservation, has instead arranged to borrow my car when she needs it, contributing the occasional tank of petrol and acting as chauffeur for me once in a while.

My own summer has been less exciting, mostly spent marking exam papers. In an attempt to get the maximum done in the minimum time, I have been starting work at 6.30am and finishing around 10.30pm, weekends included - a quite dreadful regime, but one that started to feel worth the
pain when I was asked to mark enough additional papers to buy a Radley handbag. The final batch are, as I write, packed up for collection on Monday, and for the first time for weeks, I shall be able to spend the rest of the weekend curled up on the settee with a book and a clear conscience. Even the limited time I managed to spend with my lover this summer was overshadowed by the need to continue marking, and we probably won't get a proper break together now till the autumn. We have much work yet to do on our joint project, and little time over the summer to tackle it.

But the minors are not the only ones with change on the horizon. I too have exciting new plans, having been appointed to a job to die for starting in January 2010. It is a new adventure for me, with younger students and a quite different kind of community, but one that allows me to fulfil long-standing ambitions in an institution that is the very best of its kind. I shall be sad to leave a place where I have been so very content, and learnt so much; but the time is right to move on, and I pinch myself daily to be certain that this isn't just a happy dream.