When I was little I grew three lemon trees which I named Socrates, Aristotle and Plato (I had just read Sophie’s World). These days I’m teaching their ideas to undergraduates…
Today I went to my first British primary school open day. My daughter went to her nursery friend’s house. His mum is also a PhD student (researching poverty eradication and how to stop deforestation! Putting my namby-pamby irrelevant literature PhD to shame), and his dad is a member of, from what I can tell, a fairly popular Portuguese band. They are on Wikipedia and have tens of thousands of ‘likes’ on Facebook, so it was tempting to call this post ‘A Portuguese rockstar took my daughter to the toilet today’. Apart from the occasional trip to Portugal and mentions of his booking agent, you wouldn’t know though, he’s a lovely hands-on dad. We all went to watch the big fireworks a couple of weeks ago, and it was lots of fun. The little boy is just under two weeks older than my daughter, and they really get on like a house on fire. We seem to have established a bit of a reciprocal occasional babysitting deal, which is great, and completely new for me. It is unfortunate that they will leave the UK in the spring after their second baby is born, sadly such is the nature of friendships struck up at a university nursery.
Looking at schools was a surprisingly emotional experience for me. I was very happy at my small German village primary (not so much the secondary in the next town), and I really want my daughter to have a similar experience. But with so many things being different here, plus the fact that she’s growing up!, it’s causing a surprising amount of anxiety. I started reception at age 5, my schooldays lasted from 8.30 to 1.10 (from what I can remember), and school uniforms are still seen as a funny British (read: overly formal) quirk. So it’s a bit different, to say the least, to imagine my tiny daughter in a uniform spending 6-7 hours a day in a class of 30.
The two schools I looked at today couldn’t have been more different: school A is on the outskirts of our small town, has 2 classes each from Reception to year 3, a bit of outside space with a vegetable garden for each class, and has taught a couple of generations. School B was set up by parents 2 years ago, has a beautiful building in the very busy centre of town for their Reception to year 5 classes (1 per year), an outside space the size of my kitchen, and takes the pupils to the local (premiere league? First division? No idea!) football ground every week for their PE lesson.
At School A we were shown around by a very enthusiastic parent governor, at School B I was shown around on my own at breakneck speed by a year 4 boy who got thoroughly bored when I quizzed the music teacher on the methods used in the extra-curricular violin lessons. I know it’s cute when pupils show you around their school, and when I was asked to do this at my British secondary school, I found that it added to my feelings of pride about my school. But today I couldn’t help but think of the pupil in his brand new shiny uniform as a tiny robot, programmed to point out the school photos and ‘school dog’ (stuffed and propping open the principal’s office door!), linger for an extra few minutes in the dyslexia unit and then deliver me back to the principal in the foyer who rattled off percentages in reply to my no doubt completely random-sounding questions. School A does not have a dyslexia unit, they simply have a couple of rooms (the same number as School B) which are used for identical purposes, as far as I can tell, but they don’t make a big deal out of it.
The governor at School A made a point to explain how happy the pupils are. The principal at School B put a big emphasis on the school’s superiority compared to other local schools, even encouraging a pupil to confirm this.
Needless to say, I felt a lot more comfortable at School A! I still have to find out about our catchment school’s open day as that one will have to be one of our choices on the application form. Several people from my university department have sent their children to the private school which is ca. 10 minutes’ walk from our house. They offer bursaries and are particularly keen to enrol more girls from a non-standard background at the moment, I’ve been told. As the daughter of a penniless non-British lone student parent my daughter seems to fit the bill, and I have been intrigued by this school for a while. But where I come from, private schools are quite rare and the preserve of the snobby.
So, basically, this school business is just as agonising as I thought it would be!
I was thinking this morning how a more traditional division of labour in families means that mothers experience most of the emotional impact of their child growing up.
Some of my daughter’s friends are now 4 years old, which means it’s the season of goodbyes at nursery. Her first best friend was there for her both of the times she progressed to a new group at nursery (there are 3 age groups at her nursery), which I know she liked, and it also greatly reassured me to know she’d definitely have a friendly face to greet her in the mornings and show her the ropes. Her friend even used to take her to the toilet when the grownups were too busy (hmm, that’s a whole other story!).
So I’m getting a real heavy-hearted feeling this week knowing that after tomorrow my daughter will probably never see her friend again after seeing her almost every day for two years.
Next year it’ll be my daughter’s turn to start school. Obviously it’ll be a massive change for her. And in addition I will lose the four-days-a-week routine of seeing the same people and feeling part of the nursery community. I’ve already lost the pushchair phase as my daughter is now finally too big not to walk, the sling phase ended a long time ago, and soon life as we’ve known it for two years will change completely.
So my daughter’s growing up, as well as bringing new friends and skills, entails the loss of all these experiences. What seems unfair is that no one else in her life shares that loss with us. Her dad’s life will stay exactly the same as he has not been involved in nursery life apart from three birthday parties and ca. 5 drop offs/pick ups. This post is not to blame him for this, this is just the way we’ve organised things because the nursery is on the university campus.
I’m just sad about losing this part of my daughter’s life and the people associated with it, and it seems really strange to be the only person in her life who will experience these changes together with her. That’s one of the downsides of having dysfunctional families I suppose.
*Sung to the tune of ‘I’m a Believer’
When my daughter was eight months old, the other PhD students in my department insisted that I attend a bi-weekly research seminar. Our university had recently started a new initiative of postgraduate research training, and they were keen to bring me into the fold from which I had been absent for over a year. I kept getting secretly annoyed that they weren’t able to see that there was no way I could attend seminars without childcare, until they said ‘you can bring your baby, we can hold her for you when you’re talking’.
The first time we went was an autumn afternoon, and after meticulous nap-, toy- and snack-planning, it was great to be back where I felt like I belonged. I didn’t even know what I’d been missing, and I felt revived after that seminar, as well as proud of what I and my daughter had achieved together. (When I was new to mothering I lived in perpetual fear of public crying and wriggling, so a 2-hour university event was a challenge.) I also realised that this group of childless academics of various ages, nationalities and convictions had made one of the clearest feminist statements I’ve experienced first hand. If I ever finish my PhD, it will be in no small part thanks to them.
My daughter and I went to the seminar every other week for two-and-a-half years until my daughter decided she wanted to use her new talking skills to make herself heard in the seminar. It was not necessary for anyone to ‘hold her’ (the idea of trying to confine a baby who was enjoying crawling all over the place made me chuckle) as she was usually happy to play or cuddle with me. Even the occasional hunt for dropped crayons, Duplo-clattering or surprise smelly poo didn’t disrupt proceedings (or perhaps the gagging took place while I was out of the room changing her nappy). We spent our final seminar together with her on my hip, eating a banana, taking her own ‘notes’ and looking at my work on the big screen while I presented my research.
Now I have been asked to take over running the seminar, which is a lovely progression. I’m officially a ‘convenor’ on all the paperwork, with no idea what that actually means. Hopefully I can do a good job and make people feel as welcome and accepted as I felt.
I came across this article via one of my PhD supervisors. It’s about gender and reading: the challenges children face when choosing which books they want to read, socialisation, and books as bibliotherapy for transgender children. Also includes a huge list of gender-diverse books for children.