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.

20 Things I Want My Teenage Daughter to Know – Notes From a Menopausal Mum

Sara Bran by Mia Bran aged 6

My mum by Mia Bran

1.Choose a personal theme tune early on and stick with it. This is extremely useful for the cinematic enhancement of dramatic life moments such as break-ups, anniversaries and celebrations. It will also provide comfort during time spent on runways waiting for Easy Jet flights to take off (approx. 98 hours in the average lifetime),  childbirth and terrible sex. My theme tune for example, is Saturday Night Fever and when my daughters were born, there was only wah-wah guitar in my head. That and the vision John Travolta’s white nylon-clad buttocks. But that’s Pethidine for you.

2. Enjoy those perky nugga nuggas. One day you will be able to tune into Radio 4 with them.

3. Laugh often. Some day this will be accompanied by small amounts of wee.

4. Whereas I could floss my teeth with your underwear, you could raise a small family of baboons in mine.

5. When you kiss someone, kiss them like you could die. Abandon all reason, climb inside the moment heart and soul, surrender to love and all its possibilites, and then steal their wallet. (I have found that being a combination of Jane Eyre and the Artful Dodger is practically irresistible to men).

6. The same boy who is currently breaking your heart will one day be capable only of breaking wind. One day, he will be an unemployed security guard living in Leighton Buzzard with a wife he hates. One day, his hairline will receed. And also his gums. (N.B. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental).

7. You are rubbish at sex and will be until you are at least 30.

8. When (if)  you say, “I do”, it is perfectly normal to have an evil genius voice inside  your head going, “Hehehe… or do I?”

9. The intangible feeling that you should either be doing something else, be somewhere else, living a different life or that you’ve forgotten something important, never, ever goes away.

10. It is still a man’s world.

11. Karaoke is a cure-all for all ailments for all women. There is, in fact, an underground insurgency taking place in karaoke bars around the world vis-a-vis the above fact of it being a man’s world. Fuck burning your bra. Wear a good one with decent support and SING SISTER SING!

12. If you decide to mother, do it unconditionally and with complete abandon. Thinking you can still do anything else leads to utter despair and an addiction to Jaffa Cakes

13. Also, if you decide to mother, during pregnancy, sandpaper your nipples daily. No one advises this but it is a genius idea and prepares you for the reality of breast feeding.

14. In mid-life, inexplicably, one armpit will start to smell worse than the other. (Or is that just me?)

15. Some day, you will really understand what sisterhood is all about and it will save you. Now sisterhood is all, “Can I borrow your Top Shop jeans,” and “Will you hold my hair back while I chunder up this WKD?” but one day, you will find solace in another woman’s empathic smile as you wipe baby sick off your jacket. You will love beyond measure those girlfriends who drag you out to celebrate your divorce. Sisterhood will save you when the blokes all start popping off earlier than us tough old birds. When we stop being in competition with each other and judging one another’s mothering/parenting/looks/size/shape/choices, women are awesome.

16. Whatever your age, if you have music in your bones, nothing will be as joyful as standing in a muddy field at sunset when the bass kicks in.

17. When you are a teenager, there’s a lot of hassle about best friends, boyfriends, bitchy friends, twitchy friends, new friends, old friends. In middle-age the only friend you need is good lighting.

18. That old saying about being a ‘Wise Woman’ in later years is actually a misreading of the term ‘Pies Woman’ which is what you become after you stop giving a damn what boys think.

19. Because I was born with all my eggs, as all women are, it means that when I was in my mum’s belly, you were there too. Remember your maternal grandmother’s story and pass it on. It matters.

20. One day you will look in the mirror and see me.

13 Today

(For Lily)

My girl is unfolding like a geisha fan,

Time moves on inflexible and ruthless in its plan.

Almost imperceptibly a borderline was crossed,

A smile for what was found today, a tear for what was lost.