Lesson 103 Young and Foolish

Lesson 103 on Babies, tight budgets and being friends

Nowadays, when I meet a young girl pushing a buggy in our Yummy Mummy suburb, I assume she is the nanny.

It wasn’t like that when I started out.  We got married in our late teens and early twenties. Babies just followed, or else they were what had hastened the marriage in the first place.

In those days you couldn’t set up home together unless you were married, nor could you get access to family planning.  The pill was only just becoming available and was only prescribed in exceptional circumstances. 

We relied on our friends for advice, practical support and entertainment. I doubt my grandchildren and their contemporaries would believe just how self-reliant and resourceful we had to be at an early age, though it didn’t necessarily make us any more sensible or mature.  They certainly wouldn’t have much idea of just how hard up we were, or how little we had, not that we bothered much about it. It was just what we expected and accepted.


I had been given an old Silver Cross pram, which was my only wheeled vehicle.  My best friend and I would use it for excursions to the Town Centre.  On a nice day it was easier (and cheaper) to walk the mile or so, rather than try and manoeuvre everybody on to the bus. It meant we could take the dog as well.

On the way back, when the two toddlers were tired, it could accommodate them and the baby (even the dog too, in an emergency. He was only small.) The shopping fitted underneath.

The pram was great for taking the washing to the launderette. We didn’t have washing machines, just Burco boilers for the nappies, and I had been given a horrendously noisy spin drier, which hopped its way across the kitchen floor if you didn’t lean on it.

My friend had a big dog, because her husband had a second job as a DJ and they needed the dog to protect the equipment. Most of us in the street kept dogs to discourage break-ins, but my friend and I used to go to dog training classes together in the local park.  My little dog was so terrified he just used to sit and tremble, but hers was a quick learner. He was an absolute star until it came to “sit and stay”. The moment the lead came off, he was off like a greyhound into the distance. We both got thrown out in the end.

One day, when the toddlers were playing together in her living room, we were having a cup of Nescafe in the kitchen, while we sorted out the laundry.  The dog in the garden kept scratching on the back door and whining.  In the end we looked out to find out what was wrong. We had forgotten all about the baby. She was sitting in her walking frame in the garden placidly holding out her hands to catch the rain drops which were coming down faster and faster.

Still, at least it was summer.


Lesson 102 Recognising Guardian Angels

Lesson 102 on People who make a difference


After I retired for the final time, somebody asked me how I felt to have reached this point in life. 

“I just feel relieved to have made it through this far!” I replied

But there were a lot of people who had helped along the way, people who had no particular reason to go the extra mile for me, but had done it just the same.

There was the school secretary at my first school who turned up on my doorstep one lunchtime when I was off sick and miserable.

“I’ve just come to make you a cup of tea,” she said cheerily, “Because I know you’ve got nobody here to make one for you!”

There was the Lollipop Lady at the crossing by my daughter’s school, who brought her all the way back up to the school where I was working one morning. The note to inform parents that the Juniors was to be shut that day had been lost on the way home.

A next door neighbour, when I moved to a new area, took me on the bus to her doctor’s surgery and insisted I was seen straightaway, because she could see I was in no state to be able to speak up for myself. She had just come round to introduce herself!

Out of the kindness of their hearts, two children in my teaching practice school, who had a view of the carpark, used to give me advance warning of when my supervisor was coming.

In fact, whenever I was under pressure or having hard times, people would just turn up, like personal guardian angels in all sorts of unexpected guises.

I remember a friend, who had been forced to return to her parents after a violent marriage, telling me what had turned her life around.  She was in her early twenties with two small children and one day when she was making her weary way back home on the bus she overheard two women in front talking about her.

“Poor soul,” one was saying. “Have you seen her? She looks dreadful, trailing around with those bairns. Of course, her life’s over now. She’ll never be able to work with those two to bring up on her own!”

She was so furious that she went straight to the chemist and bought some hair dye.  That very night she went blonde.  Then she looked for a job and a childminder.  She never set foot outside the door again, without first checking that she didn’t look like a “poor soul”! 

Lesson 101 Life, The Universe and Everything

Lesson 101 on Paying attention

“Pay attention!” is the traditional teachers’ catch phrase, but it is commonly used by the instructor to the instructee, rather than the other way round. 

However, I found it saved a lot of trouble if it worked both ways.  After all, there is always the outside possibility that what your captive audience is feeding back to you is actually true.

I learnt that listening to what people were telling me, whether by fretting, fidgetting, whinging, shouting or generally making a nuisance of themselves, was a reliable signpost to where I was going wrong, or to some other aspect of the situation that was less than satisfactory to those on the receiving end. It was a helpful indicator of what needed to change.

Very, very occasionally, when I stopped rushing and paid attention to what was going on around me, I even had a sudden insight into what I wanted from life, the universe and everything.

The first time this happened was when I was in the Isle of Wight with Mandy’s school and I went to check on one of the bedrooms while everyone was downstairs.  The window looked down the road to the beach, everything was still and the early summer evening was just slipping into twilight. Suddenly I just knew that this was all I wanted. It was quite simply a view of the sea. Not a stratospheric career or untold riches, but just a comfortable, peaceful seat by a window that looked out on the sea and the sky.

Life sometimes tells us what we need if we are able to stop and listen.  We may still have to work out the practicalities of getting there, but at least it clarifies the way we have to direct our steps.

I sit in my open window now, with a book by my side, and the sea breeze cooling the heat of the late afternoon and I am grateful, oh so grateful, that I stopped to pay attention on that evening long ago.


Lesson 100 Surplus to Requirements

Lesson 100 on Learning what lasts

Early retirement is something that isn’t likely to be offered to another generation.  But it happened to a whole cohort of teachers in the mid-nineties.  It was something to do with the Teachers’ Pension Fund.  It couldn’t afford to keep going as it was, so we were offered the choice to go then and there, or keep working until whatever time in the future the pensionable age might be.

Normally I was very, very cautious of anything that threatened my nice regular salary, but suddenly I felt certain I had to take the chance and go.

But when you unexpectedly become surplus to workforce requirements, it makes you think.  All the work, effort, study and training you put into your career counts for nothing.  Nobody needs any of it any more.

It reminded me of when we culled the stock in the college library. All those books that people struggled to write, putting down the ideas they really cared about, probably giving up hours of time with their friends and families to do so.  And there we were, bagging them up and throwing them away.  Surplus to requirements.

Retirement, early or otherwise, makes you wonder what, if anything, was worthwhile about what you did.

I could only come up with one thing. For a few people at a certain time in their lives, I was able to make things a bit better.  Perhaps they are out there somewhere now, enjoying their lives a little bit more, because of it.

Now that’s something that doesn’t get thrown away on the professional rubbish heap.

Lesson 99. A Cautionary Tale

Lesson 99 on Learning to be servile

I was lucky. I grew up with free state provided Cod Liver Oil and Orange Juice and a ration book controlled diet so I was healthy. I had to walk, run or pedal everywhere, so I was fit.  Relentlessly upbeat Pathe newsreels kept me ignorant of any nastiness in the world.

When I was old enough to buy my own clothes, it was the sixties and I could squander my full student grant on miniskirts and kinky boots. For the modest entrance fee at the local dance hall or jazz/folk club we could hear the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the old blues singers touring from America.  Drugs were still a minority interest, so all you could do to harm yourself was get drunk, and we never had enough money to poison ourselves with alcohol.

On the work front, it carried the blessing that I was well into my fifties before I finally acquired a line manager.

You may wonder how the world functioned before everybody had line managers. In schools it was quite straightforward. You had a head teacher who appointed you, then said good morning if he/she bumped into you in the corridor. There was a deputy who organised things and ran around a lot doing most of the work. Then, if your school was big enough to have departments, you had a head of department who held meetings now and again and worried about how much paper you were getting through.

I didn’t have a line manager till my second post-early-retirement job.

When I first went to work in this office it was a cosy, homely place. All the old junk and furniture from the outgrown town hall premises had been moved into a soulless open plan block, so the areas had been divided up by ancient, tall metal filing cabinets with cardboard boxes of assorted items balanced on the top. I particularly remember a large soft toy tiger and the football scarves from when Bobby Moore’s England won the World Cup.

But then we were restructured!  We got line-managers, instead of just the old departmental head, who let you get on with things and trusted you to come to him if a problem arose.

I couldn’t really see the point of my line manager. She knew nothing about the actual work of our team and her only qualification to be in charge was that somewhere along the way she had risen to the next highest grade, so she got paid more.

Once in post though, she had to do something. So she meddled and micromanaged. And, from being the sort of work you could take a modest pride in, the job became a burden.

I could never work out whether she had been promoted beyond her ability or out of her own area of expertise, or if she was just nasty. Whatever it was, she made our life difficult.  We ran an efficient service. We knew our stuff and we kept up-to-date.  But now we had to fit into a whole new set of imposed management boxes. Our clients found us reliable and helpful, but their needs now came second to those of the system we had to operate.

Now there is a language for it, of course, but there wasn’t then. We were just bemused and unhappy.

But I was lucky. 

I was almost sixty before I finally encountered disempowerment.