School: The Ultimate Desert Island

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  Another teenager ends her life after being bullied relentlessly by schoolmates, both in person and online. The heartrending story of Izzy Dix’s suicide, told by her mother – a single mum, for whom Izzy was her only child – has hit me at a particularly emotional moment: my kids are away and the house is thunderingly silent. God only knows how Izzy’s mother is coping with her solitude.
  And it makes me wonder – not for the first time – what the deal is with education. What good is a school if it teaches kids how to regurgitate facts for exams, which they will certainly have forgotten two weeks after finishing school, and yet is so blinkered to the facts before its eyes that it cannot see when a child is teetering on the edge?
  What, more to the point, are they teaching their students about social responsibility, ethics, compassion? At times it looks more like the mechanical imprinting of information than the careful nurturing that a bunch of insecure adolescents need.
  After blogging about my trepidation in taking Caveboy to state school, concluding that it wouldn’t harm him since, comparatively, we live in a beautiful, open, natural wonderland, by the end of term he’d come down with double pneumonia and ended up in hospital on an antibiotic drip for three days. (He did fine with treatment, thank God, and even went to the UK for Christmas).
  But he was still not back to peak health by the beginning of the spring term, so I took the executive decision to keep him out of school. It was only Infant’s, in any case, and therefore not obligatory, though if you don’t take up the offer of free state education most Spanish people look at you like one of those creepy mums who tell their kids that everyone is evil and probably still breastfeed their teenagers.
  Since I had to organise a babysitter to look after my daughter (then nearly three), I got together with two other mums and we had a babysitter-share at my house, three mornings a week. It worked a treat. There’s lots of space to play here, lots of sunshine to be out in, trees to climb, kittens, toys, craft materials…I think I can safely say they had a ball.

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  I was, meanwhile, optimistically planning a home school co-op for the following year. I could teach music! I thought. And poetry! And history! We could do whole theatre productions! And make up group stories! And plant things! If, that is, I could generate the extra six hours a day I needed to get everything else done…
  Thank heavens, then, that someone else did know that particular conjuring trick. Two wonderful friends got together and had a wooden cabin built in an olive and orange grove, filled it with Montessori equipment, kitted out a patio to the side with art things, and set up a Montessori-inspired playschool.

  Three days a week, too – the magic number I figured would work best with my kids, so I’d still get enough time to see them and be able to juggle all my other projects.
  It seems that in the two years since their dad and I split up, I’ve felt less like I needed my own space and more like I want to relish my time with my children. Partly that’s because they are growing older and more able to potter around with paints and playthings, without leaping on my back and pulling my hair or wailing over something inexplicable every five minutes.   
  And partly it’s that they go to their dad’s for days or even weeks at a time, and I realise that the house really isn’t so much fun without them in it. I don’t really inhabit it when I’m on my own here; I barely cook, which means the washing up pile is slow to accumulate, and the same could be said for the laundry too…which might sound like every housewife’s dream, but in a strange way, I appreciate these little daily tentpegs that moor my restless mind into something tangible and satisfying to finish.
  So the idea that next year Caveboy will be starting primary school leaves me feeling quite bereft. Before I know it he’ll be doing after school activities, going to friends’ to lunch, or having to contend with the increasing amount of homework that kids are being set – often, it seems, by blockheaded teachers who make them repeat the same inane tasks over and over, until all love of learning has been thoroughly stamped out of their tender heads.

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  Learning, I believe, is something that any child who has been encouraged to do so from an early age will do quite instinctively. And once they can read for themselves, the pedagogical world is their oyster. Some of the best read people I’ve met have not gone to school.
  “But it’s the social thing!” anti-homeschoolers rant. And they’re right: there are those kids whose parents, in their earnest wish not to see their kids being bullied, end up stymying their children’s own ability to work things out for themselves.
  However, it’s an argument that is just as valid in many schools, especially large, impersonal schools in which kids like Izzy Dix can fall through the net. Izzy had moved back to the UK from Australia two years before she died. She came into a high school eager to make friends, but instead found nothing but cliques with their backs turned to her, firing bitchy comments from behind their battlements to keep the stranger at bay.
  It makes me want to work hard to keep this Montessori project flourishing through to primary. Not just because the kids seem happy, interested, relaxed, engaged, alive, but because they would be fortified on all sides by a society they understand, people they know, kids whose parents meet and chat and laugh together in the street. I wonder if this isn’t really the secret ingredient to a successful school ingredient – the wider society being something that children do well to mirror.

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  I went to a state school, quite large (1500 at the time, and it’s grown a lot since I left). It was competitive; we had dozens of sports teams and dance shows and charity performances; people talked about Oxbridge at Sixth Form.
  But my parents had nothing to do with anyone from this microcosm of society, except on Parent’s Evening. There was not much point me telling them about things that happened to so-and-so; they didn’t know who they were. We were relative hermits, bookworms inhabiting a miniature classical Islamic library, or making music to ourselves. We had our own friends, other Sufis who’d come to our house to sing and do dhikr (the remembrance of God) together. We made sense among ourselves.
  Nobody from my school would have understood us. I know why my parents didn’t want to hang out with other parents; our lives ran on different runners. We didn’t drink alcohol, that ubiquitous social lubricant. We didn’t watch EastEnders. We didn’t take much of an interest in the usual English things (house prices, football, Jonathon Ross). The weather was about the only thing that affected us equally as our neighbours.

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That, of course, and our sense of humour.

  But growing up in this bisected way, with one outer life and another inner, was not much fun. I developed a hard shell to deal with everyday England that took many years of difficult work to emerge from. My interaction with people was premeditated, edited, cautious. Nobody got the full picture, which perhaps is what made me turn to writing and music with such passion.
  So in the imaginary schools of my children’s future, I hope I will always be there, brandishing trays of prawn blinis at every event, enthusiastically welcoming other parents and insisting on being their acquaintance, not just for the sake of appearances but so that my kids won’t feel that I am deserting them on a strange island every time I leave them off at the school gates.
  I intend to make it plain who I am, without shame, without fear of judgment, since if you have no shame about your real self, there is nowhere for any hater to pin their hate onto you. It’s as if you have become a transparent ball of light, melting their needles whenever they get close. And if you carry baggage around, writhing with embarrassing secrets, you can be sure that someone, bully or snark or spineless invertebrate, will take pleasure in opening them for you.
  Don’t let your light be barnacled by self-doubt. You are every bit as awesome as you wish you were. And you always have been.

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12 thoughts on “School: The Ultimate Desert Island

  1. beautifully written and something I often think about; I’d ask my own teachers back at school especially in subjects directly related to ethics and morality ‘but what’s the morally right thing to do in this situation’ and getting the response ‘I’d never tell you what’s morally right or wrong- I’d lose my job if I did!’

    Also interesting that the States are putting out research suggesting they may be coming out with ‘micro chips for memories’ that could potentially allow people to ‘download’ information straight into their brain… I wonder what the role of education will be then once the exercise of transplanting facts into our heads will also be taken over by computers http://www.philosophy.ed.ac.uk/people/clark/pubs/TheExtendedMind.pdf

    • Glad to hear your home ed experience is working out! I have often been tempted…then realised I still haven’t worked out the magic formula for not getting my kids to fight. Or I am just not patient enough with my own kids (with others’ of course I can be very patient!) Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

  2. Oh, my kids had their tussles, but we are not trying to make perfect kids. We are trying to make very good adults. When they are little, the clay is still wet. When they’ve grown, we shall see what we’ve done. 🙂

    • That’s a great way of looking at it! I guess over time you stop worrying about the minor headaches and look at the bigger picture. And psychologists are always saying that siblings benefit from working through conflicts with each other as it’s practice for the big wide world. Good luck with your teaching. Sounds like you mut be having some interesting lessons! =)

      • Oh, yes. True. I had one rule: You must try to fix it, first, then come to me if that doesn’t work.
        When they came to me with “social” problems with their sibs, I first asked them, “Did you ask him nicely to stop it?” If the answer is “no” then I say, “Then you are part of the problem. Go ask him nicely to stop it, THEN if that doesn’t work, come to me.”
        Sighs. It takes a lifetime, though.:)

    • However…if mine just could not get the “don’t fight” command, I sometimes made them work. (You don’t want to play nicely? Okay, do some work.)
      Or, if they were outside, I would make them come in. (If you are outside, you are on display. If you can’t look decent out there where everyone is watching, you have to come inside.)
      On a few occasions, I made them sit across the table from each other until both could think of something nice to say about the other. Once two of them sat, mute, for an hour. 😀
      I have seen an idea I never thought of, but wonder if it would help: On facebook, I saw a photo of two kids wearing the same man’s xxxlarge t-shirt, because they had fought. The idea was that they had to learn to cooperate. Probably just wore it for 15 minutes or so. WISH I HAD THOUGHT OF THAT ONE!

      • That is hilarious! Did thy have their heads coming out of the armholes? I like the work angle, chimes with Positive Discipline (‘a misbehaving child is a discouraged child’ therefore give them a constructive role). The difficulty I find with any parenting technique is remembering it in the heat of the moment! There doesn’t seem to be any advice (that i’ve seen anyway) for developing patience. Other than experience. Maybe parenting book authors have seen so much that they are unscathed. Us younglings still get annoyed when things aren’t going to plan. Sigh!

      • 😆
        The neck was huge.
        Ah, the heat of the moment. Sighs. And it can get so hot! Sometimes I had to count to ten. One time I shouted, “Y’all stop your shouting!” I said it really loud, for the shock factor. They actually laughed.
        In the car, I’d say, “Don’t make me pull over…” That was so effective. Later I learned they were scared of my “pulling over” because they didn’t know what that meant. Ha!
        In a store I would say, “Do we need to go home?” Once I just did it. I apologized to the store manager, left the whole cart of groceries there, and we went home. And supper was meager. And Daddy wanted to know why. And I was thrilled to tell him why. And boy, were they in trouble then! Later I felt kinda bad, but … you know they got the message, so maybe it was the right tack?

      • I am starting to wonder if a bit of tough love isn’t the worst thing after all. I would love to do everything from a ‘Compassionante Communication’ kind of angle but really, it isn’t me, and I’d rather my kids knew who I was, warts and all. Trying to be compassionate. Surely that is good enough! And lots of hugs after/during meltdowns. Mine and theirs =)

  3. I was tough. Really tough. I pushed and pulled and clamped down really hard. I often dealt more with the disobedience than with the wrong action, itself. If I told them to bathe and they did not bathe, they were NOT in trouble for being dirty, but for being disobedient.
    Who, but I, would bother to steer them to safety? They had to obey me to be safe.
    I thank God they grew up good and strong and still love me. But the “love me” part was not as important to me as the “good and strong” part. Sometimes they were pretty mad at me. Sometimes they came back to me and said “sorry”. My greatest pleasure is seeing them be tough with their own children. And my grandbabies growing up good and strong.
    Of course, compassion is totally important! So is wisdom and endurance and many other things. “Balance”, that lovely word that can mean “wishy-washy”, is so important.
    And knowing when to be balanced and when to go overboard.
    Face it: We have to know everything and we cannot make one single mistake, and they get to be ignorant and goof up all the time. And we will always feel guilty and never feel as if we’ve finished the job.
    But they are our opus, our joy, and our selves projected into the future. And we love them. 🙂

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