Tag Archives: grandmother

My grandmother’s drawings

I’ve been blitzing the house today. My kitchen is so clean I’m scared to go in it and I’ve filled a box big enough to sleep in with recycling from the spare room.

This afternoon I started tackling the bookshelves and piles of paper and crap that surround them and became absorbed in… well…. everything: academic books from perspectives that now irritate me, brochures for holidays we could never even conceive of affording, pretentious poetry books I forgot I had, spouse’s slightly alarming political books, science books I keep not quite getting round to reading… and that sort of thing. I also found some more personal things: a purple flowery book of drawings and stories I wrote when I was small, a collection of significant poems I collected when I was a teenager, and a black hardback book of my grandmother’s drawings.

Looking through them reminded me vividly of her living room. It was painted a light coffee colour and featured paintings that her mother had done; a harbour scene of a jetty surrounded by red wooden houses, and my favourite – a representation of my great-grandmother’s weaving room with a floor-length blue patterned curtain swept aside to reveal shelves of yarn and weaving equipment. There was an old oak settle with a cushion that she had woven the cover for, and a massive extra cushion with a really itchy also-home-woven green cover. Inside the settle were all her Christmas things – wooden stars, hearts and goats, little Father Christmasses made by my Auntie Helen, electric candles, a plain white wooden angel with wispy hair like a little old lady and a candle holder in the shape of a lady with a wooden dress and a round nose.

My grandmother must have learned to weave from her mother and she did try to teach me, but I was far too teenage to take it on board. I regret that now she’s gone, of course. And I felt that very strongly when I visited Golant church this year where her woven cushion covers are still in use on the pews many decades after she made them.

My grandmother's weaving
My grandmother’s weaving

There were two cupboards in my grandmother’s living room on either side of the fireplace. One was next to her chair and contained her braid-weaving equipment and the other contained drawing books and a huge (or it seemed huge to me when I was small) tin of felt tips. I loved that tin of felt tips. It was made by Caran d’ache and what was splendid about it was that it didn’t seem to be made for children. My grandmother was the only grown up I knew who used felt tips, and these ones were in a tin instead of a rubbish plastic folder. Each one had a special niche so you could arrange them neatly by colour, they felt nice when you rolled your hand up and down them and the tin made a satisfying gentle click when you opened or closed it. They were so POSH.

And it was these very felt tips she’s used for her sketches in the book I found today. If you’ve ever coloured in with felt tips you’ll know that they can be quite a blunt instrument, so I find it interesting that she chose to use them instead of pencils or paint, but I suspect some of these drawings are ideas for weaving and the felt tip might be more precise – appropriate for the precision of designs for the loom.

These last two pictures are more meaningful to me than all the rest. When my brother and I were little, we used to find those little flat, green bugs (I now know they’re called Shield Bugs) really cute. My grandmother called them, for reasons I still don’t know (is it Swedish?) ‘Fifs’, and she told us stories about the Fif family and their children, Fif, Fifalina and Fifalotta. In the book there are two drawings that can only be of the Fif family. Here they are.

fifs 2 fifsOne excellent thing about having creative relatives is that you have something left of them when they’re gone. I have prints and drawings by my spouse, one painting by my mother and one by my dad’s cousin, some of my grandmother’s weaving and other paintings by my aunt and my great grandmother, and also this book of sketches. My creativity is largely digital, though, so I wonder if I’ll have anything physical to hand over to my sons when I’ve kicked the bucket.

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Is this going to be in the exam?

I wonder how many texts in the whole history of the world have begun with the phrase, “My grandmother used to say…” Probably millions. It’s probably a phrase that should be avoided at ALL costs. They probably run creative writing courses specifically to train people never to use, “my grandmother used to say” in their Great Works.

My grandmother used to say that I should be a teacher. She thought so from the time when my lifeyears could still be counted in single numbers, and she continued to think so right through my delinquency and out the other side. Or if not a teacher, she thought I should at the very least be be a journalist. One of the two.

She was quite wise, my grandmother. She did say less sage things sometimes, such as when she compared the back of my neck to a fruit and regularly observed that the best way to keep a house tidy is to take something upstairs with you every time you ascend. Small brother was troubled by the potential outcome of this – that fairly soon everything you own would be inconveniently upstairs. But still, she was mainly a fount of wisdom, just as grandmothers are supposed to be.

My grandmother and mother in the 1960s

So when I finished being a delinquent, then stopped waiting for my bewildered spouse to suddenly become a city financier and finally realised that if I wanted to have a ‘normal’ life (one with a toilet, a letter box and furniture), I would have to do something about it myself, it was to teaching I turned. In fact, I awoke one morning with an evangelical urge to save teenagers from the fate I had experienced – a decade of addled pointlessness – and immediately phoned a local college to find out how someone with a YTS in Photography and a couple of English ‘O’ Levels could qualify herself to inspire the young and lead them onto a path of righteousness. I was a Born Again Educator.

Four years later I had a First Class Honours degree and shortly after that I had a teaching qualification and a job in a college. Ok, that makes it all sound ridiculously easy, which it wasn’t, but I’m not admitting to you that I once got so knackered churning out essays that I forgot to remove my knickers in the loo. No. That’s far too personal. And anyway, that’s not my point. My point is that I became a teacher. In fact, I thought I’d landed the dream job teaching ‘A’ Levels in the FE sector. I mean, all my students were at least reasonably equipped with active braincells (surely?); I wouldn’t have to shout at kids to straighten their ties; mostly students were attending voluntarily so would be partially well-behaved (surely?) and I would get to motivate their young hearts and tempt them with the iceberg tips of knowledge that had blown me away at university. I was an eduslut. An evangelecturer. You get the picture.

For me it was all about giving young people a place to think, and to recognise that their ideas – no matter how ‘radical’ or seemingly socially unacceptable – actually have an important place in the history of thought. I wanted to show them that education is not about shutting up and believing what they are ‘taught’, but about grasping the skills to learn for themselves whatever it is that interests them.  I wanted to engage them in the history of ideas and give them chances to look at things from different perspectives, pursue their own trains of thought and to give them all the links and tools to do so. Nothing would be out of bounds as a topic for consideration. And I mean nothing.

I know I was naive, but I truly and unequivocally believed education was about enlightenment. I haven’t got a clue what gave me that idea, but that’s what I thought. My, how I laugh now when I think of my idiocy.

The first time a student ever said to me, “is this going to be in the exam?”, I took the question at face value and didn’t quite grasp the implications of it. But after it had happened more times than I could count, it dawned on me that, for the bulk of these students, none of this stuff mattered unless it would help them achieve the grade they wanted in the final assessments. The things we were ‘teaching’ seemed to them to be in a whole separate category from the lives they led outside college. The whole point of being in the classroom for them was to find out how to get grades in a process absolutely removed from anything they cared about in the real world. The kind of intellectual curiosity teachers dream of inspiring in their students was/is a very rare commodity indeed. In every class of say 24 students there are usually one or two (if any) who are genuinely interested. Many can raise some interest for the duration of the lesson and many will work very hard to learn material, but only a very few are absolutely engaged and able to bring their own ideas, reading, thoughts and experiences to the table.

I am not blaming the students for this state of affairs – not at all. Those very students who sit in classes with facial expressions resembling potatoes will often spring to life when discussing mechanics or music or flying or whatever it is they like doing outside formal education. Something has happened to them, and it’s not necessarily terminal brain damage. Our system seems to have created a disconnect between ‘education’ and genuine learning for the love of it. Somewhere along the line – as home educators have been saying for years – our young people lose the curiosity they are born with and become processed grade-churning machines, and it’s we who have made them that way.

The trouble is that, no matter how strongly we believe this, and how much we teachers want to reverse this process, the entire education system is now dependent on grades. Schools and colleges that don’t get the grades lose students and funding and can no longer continue. This leads to a vast underground of troubled teachers finding ways to get students through qualifications that they’re not really equipped for because they’ve been processed-not-educated through their formative years – in other words, we have to continue to process-not-educate.

As an A Level teacher I constantly marvel at students who come to me with C (and above) grades at GCSE and who cannot string sentences together and have never read an entire book. Speaking to teachers from the primary and secondary sector I realise that the same thing happens all the way through schools. A primary teacher told me that it starts the minute targets are set and SATS are taken. Teachers are punished if they don’t get students to meet targets, so they teach to test. Students move on to the next stage without the required knowledge and skills and so it goes on – all the way up – teaching to test and excessive guidance with coursework. Teachers have no choice. I see it all the time, and those that don’t do it are labelled bad teachers and undergo capability enquiries. Their livelihoods, sense of self-worth and careers are in jeopardy if they don’t comply.

Here’s a version of a conversation that took place between a friend of mine (L) and her manager (M):

M: This student’s only got a D in her coursework.

L: Yes.

M: What are you going to do about it?

L: Give her a D.

M: But there must be something you can do.

L: I have. I’ve done one-to-one sessions with her to help her, and she got a D.

M: Couldn’t you get her a C?

L:  She doesn’t care about the grade – she’s only doing this course because she wants to learn.

M: But you could do a couple more sessions with her.

L: I’ve done nine already. She is happy with a D. Do you want me to write it for her?

M: …

When my friend told me about this conversation I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It crystalised for me everything about where we have gone wrong as a system. L had a rare student who actually just wanted to learn for learning’s sake, and she was STILL being pressured into achieving grades. WHO was that grade FOR?

This made me finally realise I don’t believe in it all any more. So even though my grandmother was right – I probably was born to be a teacher – and there’s nothing I enjoy more than being in the classroom – it’s probably time to try journalism. Or something.

All offers of gainful employment welcomed.

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Proof that women are definitely funny

I see what happens. Yes, I thought as much. A blog is the same sort of thing as a yogurt maker or a Remington Fuzzaway; you get all excited about it for a while and write frenziedly for a few days but then your brain gets all caught up with buying train tickets, thinking about mayonnaise and whether to hoover the hairs off the sofa or just wear clothes the same colour as the cat, and you forget all about blogging. Your blog ends up in the dusty bit between your chest of drawers and your bed, or left unused in a kitchen cupboard with a bit of food residue welded to it.

Either that or you have a crisis of confidence after watching Grayson Perry’s analysis of middle class taste and realise that you are just as boring as everyone else in the entire world so why should anyone want to read anything you have to say anyway? You may just as well post pictures of otters and cats with annoyingly spelled words added to spoil the cute.

So I need a kind of testcard thing to use while I am thinking about domestic appliances and filling in forms and not doing blogging. Remember the testcard? It was a picture of a wholesome girl with Alice in Wonderland hair grasping a piece of chalk in a decisive sort of way and playing noughts and crosses with a spooky toy. At least that’s how I remember it. She used to appear in all her menacing innocence on the TV at night and her purpose seems to have been to prove your TV wasn’t broken when you turned it on and there weren’t any programmes. I need one of those. Some sort of testcard thing to prove your Internet isn’t broken when I haven’t posted any blogs.

Instead of a picture, I think I might just post conversations that have amused me in real life or on Facebook. Testcard banter. Yes. I will. Here’s one that happened a while back. I liked it:

T to H: Who is Eva Mendes?

L:  Was she in Dad’s army, or is that the one that did the thing. The thing with the other one?

H: The one that used to be married to that woman that owned the hairdressers, y’know, the one that was married to thingy’s brother down the road. That one.

L: The one that ran off with the sailor, or the one with the prosthetic head?

T: The one with the prosthetic head, I think. And the gran with the doughnut shop.

H: The one with the limp. And the Labrador.

L: Yeah her. I snogged her once.

L: Before she had the scooter.

H: She used to do the Avon.

T: I heard she died. Of the aids.

L: I heard she had a fancy man in Haverfordwest, but that he won £250 on the lottery and took up with a cult.

T: I heard her sister used to pick bilberries and ram them down her cleavage .

H: She used to wash her hair with fairy liquid.

H: My gran used to call the Avon lady ‘Titsolina Bumsqueek’.

L: She used to water down her orange juice when visitors came.

L:  There isn’t a like comment big enough to say “I want to marry you”.

T: You can’t marry people because of their grans.

L: On the contrary, if they have rich and solvent grans who might die intestate, you most definitely can.

T: They might die of intestate cancer.

L: My gran died of plague and of watching the horse racing.

T: My gran died of deciding England is shit because it has no snow. And weaving.

H: The orange juice wasn’t her, it was her mother. Don’t get me started on her mother.

L: Her mother had very cheap knickers. I saw her emptying a machine at the laundry once.

L: You know, her mother, that lived in the flat near that other flat?

H: My gran died of sellotaping her toes together to fit in her sandles. And having buttery hands.

L: I had a hamster that died of too much giggling.

T: I had a wasp that died of disappointment.

L: I had a disappointment that died when I discovered Youtube videos of 1970s children’s TV.

H: I had a turnip that died of anxiety.

L: I had a bath that emptied all of its own accord.

T: I had a neighbour who leaked sap.

H: I had a shelf that hated me.

L: I once wrote a poem that contained an allegory about J Edgar Hoover going vegan.

L: I had a sock that sighed.

T: I knew a woman who kept her hair in a box.

H: I watched a film once. It was OK.

L: I once cycled somewhere I didn’t need to go and had a sit down.

T: I once stroked a weeping hippopotamus.

H: My great uncle invented drinks.

L: I once consoled an elf whose political career had ended in infamy.

T: Before I was born my mum participated in a minor revolution in Warwick.

H: I have a bag for sale: £8.

L: I had a breadmaker that went feral.

T: The man next door collects slug halves.

L: I bought a gourd that looked exactly like a career.

T: My aunt was a wart charmer who believed tambourines were the percussion instrument of the devil.

L: My last dream was televised.

T: Twelve people came in my room last night and carried off my cotton buds one by one.

L: My epitaph will be the face of a bemused child.

H: I once broke a fall by (accidentally) placing my hand on Cilla Black’s tit.