Are We There Yet? When Your Kids Finish School

Graduation DayMy eldest daughter, The Songbird,  finishes school this week, by which I mean she will have completed her ‘formal education’ to age 16.

From now on, it’s up to her whether she continues with her schooling or leaves. Today, she has her last ever PE lesson after which she intends to ignite a lycra/airtex bonfire and may well stick a rounders ball up her teacher’s unmentionables while tomorrow, Songbird will joyously attend her Last Ever Maths Lesson. My eldest daughter and maths have never really got on. It’s been a volatile 12 year relationship that began innocently with ‘sums’ and ended up in quadratic equations via lots of tantrums, tears and shouting. Other than her brief affair with algebra in Year 9, all 2,000 hours of Songbird’s maths education have been hell for all parties concerned. I do think it’s rather a shame that she has got through 12 years of education without ever learning to appreciate how magical numbers can be, but then they don’t teach sacred geometry or harmonic resonance at school. No, I should have taught her that. In fact, if you go the mainstream school route, all magical thinking remains the sole domain of you as a parent it would seem.

As my eldest crawls across the finishing line of ‘formal’ school, I have this awful feeling that there’s a lot more I ‘should’ have done along the way. We’ve kind of tolerated each other, me and school, eyeing each other suspiciously. It’s been an act of silent acquiescence like when you know you have to plant a kiss on a smelly uncle who you don’t really trust. I have danced with my daughter’s educational establishments as if they are an enemy I know I ought to keep close. I am one of those annoying liberal parents who doesn’t believe in homework or government targets, and as for  SAT’s, they can kiss my organically grown ass. Along the way, I often thought about home schooling, but my own brief childhood experience of it has always been a barrier (that’s a whole other blog post!). I also know that I am too selfish to home educate, and if I’m honest, not that brave.

I think perhaps I have an innate distrust of all institutions; school, churches, banks ~ they all make my skin crawl ever-so-slightly. Other than in bras, I just don’t do well with structure. In spite of my ability to sit on the fence of my own ideals, my daughter has carved out her own educational experience, and  has come through the whole thing relatively unscathed. When a school has not delivered what is right for her individually, we’ve moved on to the next one. Three years into her all-girls secondary, The Songbird had had enough, so she found out about another school that better suited her music needs and got herself into it. I’ve always taken her side when it comes to school stuff, confident that I understand my girl better than any teacher ever will, and I’ve always believed it’s about finding a place that suits her rather than trying to squeeze her into someone else’s idea of what constitutes an educated human being. State education in London is pretty much a mess as our schools are at the mercy of ever-changing government whims.  You really do have to hold firm so that your kids don’t become test guinea pigs in someone’s crazy experiment.

There have been terrible low points over the past ten years. There were lots of days when The Songbird begged me not to send her into school and she would clamp around my waist like a limpet and I would have to un-peel her from me with Medea-like coldness. There was a school trip to China that went terribly wrong and Songbird ended-up isolated, quarantined in Beijing for two weeks during the Swine Flu panic.  Then there was the letter she brought home aged 13, that suggested she go to her GP  to get the Pill  so she could organize not to have her period during a school camping trip (I kid you not). In Year 3, there was the boy who kept stabbing her leg with a compass and the school were so afraid of how the perpetrator’s  father might react if confronted that they never addressed the issue.

“He stabs you with a compass because he likes you,” she was told by way of a bizarre lesson in How Men Are.

“Er, NO! He’s a sociopath. When boys like you, they give you half their packed lunch, even the Penguin biscuit,” I countered wisely. Thank God she has me.

And that’s the thing about school, as well has providing all the magical thinking, there will be lots of “lessons” you then have to undo as a parent. If my experience is anything to go by, maths and nutrition are still taught appallingly, and girls are still not educated properly to respect their bodies, their cycles and their power. Plus, most music departments have simply not stood in enough muddy fields to really appreciate bass.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been spectacular school high points too, like meeting really special teachers whose dedication to their role and to my child was heart-warming. There was my daughter’s portrayal of Nancy in Oliver, where her rendition of “As Long as  ‘e Needs Me” was such an awe-inspiring cross between Babs Windsor and Barbara Streisand that she practically raised the asbestos-tiled roof. And there have been the countless times I have welled-up because Songbird has come home from school and done something I have no idea how to do and I have just thought, “Wow! She is so much better a version of a human-being than me”. I feel enormous gratitude to the incredible adults who have made it so.

One minute The Songbird was donning her first acrylic mix sweatshirt, and the next, well…she graduates this week. I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of this bit of my slapdash, let’s-hope-we-get-lucky parenting era. The thing that really gets me is that Songbird is not much younger than I was when I left home and I can already feel the aching chasm of her leaving not just school, but me. Ouch.