Autumn friends

Are friendships rated by how long they’ve endured?

Lindsey Kinsella looks at Friendship
Photo by Ricky Kharawala on Unsplash

It’s not really fair to have more than one partner at a time, but it’s acceptable to have many friends. Different friends fulfil different needs and as our ‘requirements’ change, so do our friendships.  Some blossom; some wither.  If we’re lucky, new friendships form.  But do you rate these newer friends lower than your old chums?

The writer and politician Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797), viewed old friends as “the blessing of one’s later years” and noticed “half a word” could convey meaning between friends who have a history of shared experiences and conversations. I don’t disagree with Horace – it’s bliss to be in the presence of someone who knows you enough to detect the meaning of half a word, but is it necessary to be old friends to reach this standard?  How old is old anyway?

In my experience, there’s also joy in finding a connection with someone new.

For a period, my friendships were largely conducted chatting in the aisles of supermarkets while my toddler in the trolley scooped out the soft innards of the crusty bread baton up to the length of her arm. Later I became pals with other mums who had children in the same classes as mine at school.  Not all of those friendships survived my transition from mother of young children to the person I am now. I don’t feel they were less meaningful or important at the time though and I’m wise enough to know some friendships simply run their natural course.

I suppose my friendships were evaluated when I was in my forties – not particularly consciously.  I was single again after a long marriage, my ex-husband got custody of many of our joint friends and as my closest girlfriends all seemed to be in stable marriages, I felt as though I was pitied and didn’t quite belong. Sometimes I felt let down by those who were around for the good fun times, but not during my struggles because they found it difficult or upsetting.  So rather than roll my eyes at that, I began to socialise more with workmates and people I’d known growing up.  My autumn friends didn’t refer to me as someone’s wife or mum and I felt I was reclaiming my identity.  When one remarked how pleased he was to see the new version of the old me, I felt empowered by the reconnection and safe in the familiarity of the past we had shared.  I am lucky to have some old friends, newer friends and some new-old friends too – I haven’t even used them all yet.

I wasn’t welcomed everywhere however.  Bouncing up to the first face I recognised at a school reunion, manically grinning to hide my nerves, I was dismissed with the words: “I never liked you.”  Apparently a grudge against me had been borne since I was chosen to take the class hamster home for the holidays – in the seventies!  Some friendships are just not worth pursuing. Horace also said: “Nine-tenths of the people were created so you would want to be with the other tenth.” He was choosy was Horace.

How do you measure the calibre of your friends?

I recently went for cocktails with a close friend, made in mid-life, who told me she wanted to talk about our relationship. Almost choking on my cosmopolitan, I suddenly felt cornered, you know the way a man does when a woman starts a conversation about commitment. Surely she didn’t think I fancied her when I joked I’d never snogged a woman.  Then I thought: What did I do?  Is she breaking up with me?

Over the past few years, we’ve studied together, worked together, survived divorce together, both suffered losses and become grandparents.  I’ve known other friends a lot longer, but not many have I correlated with as much.

Now neither of us feel the need to study for more qualifications; I still work as a teacher, but she has moved on in her career; she lives alone while I live further away from her with my partner, Drew.  We no longer find ourselves in the same place unless it’s arranged. And that’s what she wanted to remind me of.  All our shared experiences and our relatable ones helped to form the bond we have, (them and the cocktails) but unless we pay attention, we risk losing it and that’s unacceptable to her. She told me: “There are some people you can say anything to,” and although she wasn’t testing my calibre in relation to her theory, she explained how that rare person is a true friend and should be cherished.

For Horace a friend needs only half a word. I’d add that good friends can tolerate hearing any words you need to say.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beauty Befuddlement and Makeup Tips from Men

 

Beauty Befuddlement and Makeup Tips from Men - closetdramablog.wordpress
Photo by William Ivan on Unsplash

Sent:

Please have my back at work tomorrow.  I’ve just had my first ever spray tan and look like an African tribeswoman.  The guys will crucify me. 

Received:

Don’t worry – I’ll tell them you’ve had your teeth whitened.

That evening, on returning home sticky, grubby and humiliated from the beauty salon, where I’d stood in a pod as an apparently pubescent beautician knelt at eye-level with my pasty, bare bottom, Drew asked if he could take some photos of me for when he might need cheering up.

My male work-mates were more subtle the next morning.  They just looked puzzled at each other whenever I spoke and when one passed my desk to go to lunch, he slowly and deliberately enunciated:  “Would…you…like…to…try…some…of…our…local…food?”

And I only realised after I’d stormed into the boss’s office barking: “I need a decision right now!” she was probably trying to remember when she’d recruited a mud-wrestler.

Since passing 50, I have become resigned to needing a little more help from the beauty industry unless I want to look a fright. I’m not unfeminine, but I’ve never had much interest in cosmetic upkeep and I’m baffled by the procedures and products.

No more so than on a recent European hotel and spa holiday where the salon staff spoke very little English. Probably thinking he’d hit on what any woman would want, Drew generously arranged for me to choose a ‘treatment’. I declined to have my feet nibbled by fish (after very little consideration) and instead opted for a type of manicure I didn’t understand. The options were ‘regular’ which I presumed was a file and polish I could’ve managed myself; ‘permanent’ which seemed like too much of a commitment and a mid-priced one I didn’t quite catch the name of, but which sounded the safest nonetheless.  Fortunately, being on holiday, I had no need for typing skills, but when I returned, it was evident the nails had to come off – somehow.  After a period of frustration, my daughter came to the rescue before I slammed my fingers in the door.

I never leave the house without mascara – people might think I’d been crying.

The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer:  “Please let this go well and without me smudging a ruinous blob of mascara on my nose in the final moments.” I never leave the house without mascara – people might think I’d been crying, but it’s not enough anymore. There are literally dozens of things you should be putting on your mug in the morning if cosmetics companies are to be believed.

Makeup primer for example, is pretty pricey for a tiny amount of something you may have thought belongs in the shed with the undercoat and gloss. I asked a friend if she knew of such a thing and was told hers had lasted a couple of years. I took this as a good sign until she admitted never using it because she was unsure what it did.

I felt sure spritzer was a white wine drink. I’ve learned it’s some sort of spray to set my makeup.  As it turns out, a shot of hairspray works just as well according to a male friend  who also suggested using haemorrhoid ointment instead of lashing out on extortionately priced unctions to control the bags under my eyes.

Apart from the nails and reckless respray, eyebrow tinting is another salon treatment I was pressured to try when my own started to turn grey.  Over 50s must resist plucking random, grey eyebrow hairs or we end up looking like ancient Japanese aristocrats as our eyebrows don’t regrow.  Don’t throw away your tweezers though – you’ll need them for your chin.

Eyebrow mascara, according to one red-blooded work colleague, is a less expensive alternative to tinting and he wouldn’t be seen without his.  This nugget was passed to me in such a conspiratorial manner, I began to wonder if women aren’t being taken for fools here as there must surely be a think tank somewhere hatching pointless practices and merchandise with the purpose of defrauding women who are hopelessly trying to look youthful or worry about being found with only lip balm, sunscreen and mouth fresheners in their makeup bags.

Much as I welcome tips from men, daughters are the best for guiding the mature mum through the maze of makeup and accessories on the market as well as letting us know when we’ve got it wrong.  You’re not kidding my look needs updating – have you tried applying liner to loose-fitting eyelids wearing reading glasses? But it was helpful to have clarification regarding the brushes.  The biggest type is for agitating my foundation – was I supposed to be doing that? I now have two of those for when one’s in the dishwasher – does anyone else do that?  Another brush is for contouring – what even is that?

Although I’m slightly suspicious cosmeticians are collectively taking advantage of our insecurities by intimidation, I’m not suggesting starting a movement to reclaim our right to be preservative free.  I know I’d be left hanging.  But it now takes such effort and a chunk of time every day to look this natural and I really can’t get up any earlier than I already do.  And now when I tell him I’m nipping upstairs to do my ‘colouring in’ for an evening out, Drew is unsure whether to start the car or stick the kettle on.

He is patience personified however and completely understanding after a recent remark made by his little granddaughter.  Lying on his chest early one morning, she gently stroked his skin and asked:  “Grandpa – why is your face cracked?”

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The Granny Grievance

A one-woman protest against the G-word

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Firstly, let me get this straight:  I have nothing whatsoever against grandchildren. I won’t even bother trying to convince you of that by telling you how wonderful and loveable mine are – much more so than anyone else’s in fact.  My grievance as a British grandmother is how anyone yet to reach the grandparent milestone uses the word ‘granny’ as a default derogatory term to illustrate how something is old-fashioned, irrelevant and dull.

And it’s often inaccurately used to mean elderly.

Sometimes, when others also in their 50s congratulated me on becoming a grandmother, there was an undertone of ridicule. “Congratulations Granny” implied I had suddenly somehow managed to become elderly without them and was officially slipping into senility.  My response was usually, “I’m not your granny.” And anyway, my grandchildren call me ‘Nana’.

Even my colleagues had to be warned: “Granny in the room,” at a recent planning meeting when the G-word was used to stress how our resources should be up-to-date and accessible for our teenage students. It’s important to point out when others show ignorance or bigotry lest their ill-informed attitude should be allowed to influence others and perpetuate the myth that all grannies are ‘little old ladies’.

There’s been much discussion recently about female stereotyping and discrimination.  I’d like to add another layer to this abomination: age.  Mature ladies are offered even less respect than other women and girls.  I’m not asking for special esteem, but I’m neither silly nor unconnected and shouldn’t dismissed.

The Granny Grievance
Nigella Lawson in a cardigan. Photo by Justin Lloyd/Newspix

If you must know, I was born in the same year as Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. I’m only three years older than Halle Berry. I’m younger than Iman, Sheryl Crow and Nigella Lawson and many others you wouldn’t expect to see in a pinny and pearls knitting cereal.

I’m at a funny age which doesn’t fit the granny stereotype: too old to be Jennifer Lawrence and too young to be a sassy senior such as septuagenarians Jane Fonda or Lily Tomlin (above).  The older lady, older than me that is, seems increasingly unlikely to be labelled as beside the point with the likes of Helen Mirren (72) and Diane Keaton (71) captivating us all.  I think I’ve fallen through a gap though.  Nobody seems to know where to plonk the fifty-several female in popular culture.

One fifty-three year-old reader told me: “What you write needs to be read.”  And what is there for people like us who enjoy contemporary fiction, but can’t stomach any more romantic shopaholic stories which focus on the twenty to thirty-nine year-old’s dilemmas?  I would have thought women in my age group read more than them, but we are even overlooked by studies.  I remember skimming a report on the reading habits of different age groups.  The findings showed American teenagers read books on their phones (if that’s not an oxymoron) and that 30 – 39 year-olds were less likely to be reading electronically.  Those older than 65 weren’t reading much at all by comparison.  Er excuse me – I’m over here in the demographic you ignored with a pile of books, a Kindle and … oh never mind.

Some of us are running marathons and companies.

Little secret: I was asked by therapist and counsellor Lisa Etherson what I thought should be included in her soon-to-be published book about the love lives of the over 50s.  One of my points was that we are are under-represented in popular culture, fuelling the misconception that all grannies are comical, crusty creatures who can’t keep up with the conversation.  I reminded Lisa that when we aren’t having sex, some of us are running marathons and companies.  And then we still might find the energy to run around after our grandchildren.  Just don’t call us grannies!

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If you can recommend any literature (or films) with an interesting, midlife, female protagonist, I’d love to hear about them.  I’ll bet you find it difficult.  Better still, watch this space … I’m writing one myself.

In the meantime why not have a look at the Shreddies nanas doing what nanas apparently do best. Notice the strings of pearls and cardigans.

 

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Why this woman won’t change

Are you trying to change your man?   Well, he’s hoping you don’t change.

Why this woman won't change
Photo by Brittany Gaiser on Unsplash

For the first time I can remember, since moving in with Drew, I live much closer to the countryside than the coast. I often whine about needing to get back to the beach to hear the waves, but I seem to be taken in the opposite direction whenever we have some time off together and in that direction is the countryside.

Drew finds his calm in the country; my calm is on the coast.

He may be proud of his wax jacket and Toggi boots, but playing the country gent’s missus is not my brace of pheasants. I mean it’s alright now and then, but where is the sand? The light? The water? The fish restaurant? The fun? And what happened to the people? Perhaps the deer and donkeys ate them all.

I grew up not too far from where I live now, but it might as well be. Our village is a slow-moving trail of noxious fumes away from where I work, my grown up children and my beach-loving grandchildren.  I visited them yesterday and it took me longer to drive there and back than I was able to spend with them.

Much like theirs, my childhood was a series of summers spent splashing in the sea until the sun went down and the sausages were cooked.  I remember how on waking at the weekends, beach bag packed the night before, I would nervously pull back the bedroom curtains and will the weather to be fine.

Drew grew up running around the national park trying to catch and mount the grazing ponies.  During our formative years, before we knew of each other’s existence, I was leaping over crashing waves gulping salty air while he was climbing over wooden stiles inhaling dung.

When the weather and the water were too cold for swimming, I’d spend hours squinting at the pages of my books which occasionally flapped in the sea breeze. Drew, then, would have been learning to shoot, a hobby he still enjoys and although he only ever shoots clays, the fascination for guns is distasteful to me.

Which reminds me to tell you about the bank holiday weekend when Drew ‘taught’ me to handle his in a field in Fordingbridge. Calm down – I’m talking about his rifle!

I now know the following:
you don’t shoot a gun, you fire it;
you don’t pull the trigger, you squeeze it;
it takes two people to lift it up if one of them is me;
it’s always best to point it at the sky;
the wide end should be placed firmly in the shoulder area of the markswoman or she will be propelled backwards shouting ‘bloody hell’ as the weapon goes off!

Well at least I tried.  If our interests differ, there are plenty of things we enjoy doing together which we hadn’t tried before we met, such as antiquing and visiting art galleries. I may be seascape to his landscape, but we are alike in the important ingredients.  We share the same values and humour and so we can support each other’s passions, or sometimes just leave each other to enjoy them. We don’t need to be the same for this to work.  And we don’t have to do everything together either.

Our differences add to our experience and broaden our outlook.

I’m quite happy to scoop up supplies in the supermarket while he washes the cars and even happier to meet with a writing group while he takes his motorbike for a blast with other like-minded blokes.  But it doesn’t matter if our separate excursions don’t coincide and I’m left at home toiling at a computer while he’s out having a pint with his brothers.  I won’t jealously guard his free time from those he likes to be with and wouldn’t expect him to pout if I leave him behind.

We are a couple, but no matter how happy they are for us, everyone in our lives doesn’t always want or need us showing up together because our relationships are our own and in most cases, those people have been around longer than we have known each other.

Drew jokes how women hope to change their men while men hope their women don’t change. Being together enriches our lives and increases our family.  And for us, our differences  fill in the gaps (he’s my calculator; I’m his dictionary), add to our experience and broaden our outlook.

Lately I’m appreciating the cream tea and country pub aspects of the sticks and learning to love rivers.  Drew is happy to indulge me at the seaside on a sunny day if it involves ice-cream and puts a smile on my face.

Why this woman won't change
Photo by Ilya Ilyukhin on Unsplash

 

 

The Princess Prerogative

Just because I was wearing a posh frock, I didn’t think I was a princess!

 

The Princess Prerogative - closetdramablog.wordpress.com
Photo by Ashton Mullins on Unsplash

I’ve never looked more like a Christmas tree than on that balmy summer evening, early in our relationship. Not knowing if it was the kind of occasion I’d enjoy, Drew had nervously invited me to be his ‘plus one’ at a banquet held by one of his business associates. My shiny, green, full-length dress complemented Drew’s dinner suit perfectly, but when the penguin and the Christmas tree arrived for the function, they were told: ‘You are a month early.’  Not a day, not a week – a whole month!

Convinced I must surely be about to have a tantrum, Drew hastily ushered me back to the car thinking a scene in the car park was preferable to one in the hotel reception.  I, however, felt truly sorry his plan for an opulent evening had gone wrong and beating him up over the diary blunder didn’t occur to me at all. Panic-stricken, Drew assumed I’d castigate him for not only the lack of a seven course meal, but also the wasted time, effort and expense I’d gone to in fashioning myself for the experience. 

Unbeknown to him, the dress and shoes were borrowed and the bird’s nest on my head was the result of my youngest daughter’s very first attempt to arrange an updo.  I was surprised to realise, later, that Drew had been anticipating a hissy fit from the moment we were smugly turned away.  But just because I was wearing a posh frock, I didn’t think I was a princess!  Drew though, was brought up to be a gentleman.

After being single for a few years, I was used to operating independently and found his archaic manners amusing. We still trip over each other whenever we wander around town because he has to make sure I’m always on the inside of the pavement, on his left, as though he has to be ready with a free hand to draw his sword and protect me from a violent assailant. When crossing roads together, a squeeze of my hand lets me know he’s decided when it’s safe, the way I would do years before with my children.

I suppose it was mean to ask him: ‘How do these things work again?’ on reaching yet another door keenly opened for me.  I’d been utilising doors for more than forty years and was pretty sure I had the hang of it.

If you think it’s your prerogative to be a princess, you might throw back a compliment ungraciously and make him feel he’s actually insulted you.  

I’ve now learned something neither of us appreciated before: there’s a difference between being treated like a lady and acting like a diva.  I don’t expect to be regarded as more important than him while Drew insists it’s good manners to carry stuff – even if it’s the lightweight paperback I’ve just bought.  What I hadn’t understood is that he also expects a woman to punish a man for not getting something right because the world revolves around a ‘princess’. I never was like that and don’t think the women in my orbit are either, so I didn’t recognise the princess behaviour in women until Drew pointed it out.

Some women, I’m told, blame their men for almost everything.  Taking the blame is therefore a blue job, no matter how contrived.  If you think it’s your prerogative to be a princess, you might throw back a compliment ungraciously and make him feel he’s actually insulted you.  Why not enjoy the praise?  Why invite discord?

It took some adjusting, but Drew has conceded his right to chivalry, not being a medieval knight or nobleman, and accepts my view of courtesy going both ways in our partnership. I’m left wondering if I’ve made a monumental mistake and considering asking for an occasional allowance of princess-ness as a privilege.  I’ve even tested his reaction by exercising this prerogative recently during a conversation about smoking.  It went something like this:

DREW –  If you gave up smoking, you could afford to have your hair professionally coloured and your nails done every month instead of just an occasional treat.

PRINCESS – So I’m ugly am I?  Well if I give up smoking, I’ll get fat too and then I’ll have to stop eating which will make me grumpy and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT!  Do you really want that?

He didn’t bite because he saw right through me, of course.  Since the night we were a month early for our luxury dinner, my cards have been on the table.

My first thought as I tottered after him in shoes ill-designed for tarmac was how hungry we were after fasting all day to make room for a feast.  Home was miles away and the only restaurant I recalled spotting en route to the hotel was a notoriously dodgy branch of KFC recently in the papers after a minor celebrity’s father overdosed in the toilet.  At my suggestion, Drew suspiciously transferred us there; he still couldn’t believe there wasn’t a storm coming. I allowed him to open the car door and escort me regally up the steps to join the queue, with me lifting the hem of my slightly too-long, ritzy dress.

As luck would have it, a ‘boneless banquet’ was on the menu, so all turned out splendid despite the cardboard box substitute for a plate and the absence of cutlery.  He was concerned about me stabbing him with a fork anyway.

Sitting opposite a dapper gentleman wearing full evening dress in a busy fast-food outlet tickled me so much, Drew began to catch on and relax although he kept his back to the room.  We couldn’t have attracted any more attention if he’d gone down on one knee right there. Unfortunately KFC don’t do desserts so we then processed to the nearest supermarket to pick up a trifle, resisting the urge to glad-hand passers by who openly stopped passing by to get a good look at us.

The next day Drew’s workmates warned him I might be plotting revenge, which caused him to wobble for a moment, so he called me to check. I only had to remind him how much fun we’d had to convince him he was safe.

Rather than cash in any princess allowance,  I’d always choose fun and harmony.  Even though some of those doors are pretty heavy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Threads

Mother of the bride memories

threads
Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash

I’m writing this in a Cretan hotel room early on the Friday morning before my daughter’s wedding.  The wedding gown, hanging on the door, hides here from view until Sunday when I have the privilege of dressing the bride, my beautiful girl, probably for the last time.

When I would dress her as a child, I never stopped to think of the time I would be helping her into the most important dress of her life.  I was instead negotiating an agreement on which outfit was most practical or appropriate before the last button was done up and she would slip from my grasp to change into something else, or even undress altogether on more than one occasion.

From a very young age, my daughter had her own ideas about what she wanted or didn’t want to wear, so it makes me smile when she looks at old photographs of herself and asks why I let her wear THAT?  These days I find myself  listening to her suggestions as to what I should wear and even gamely traipsed off to London with her before the wedding so that she could select my ‘Mother-of-the-Bride’ outfit, which turned out to be something completely different from what I had in mind.  I won’t be wafting around like Meryl Streep in Mama Mia after all and hopefully will bear no resemblance to anyone from My Big Fat Greek Wedding either.

When she was about 7 years old, after a particularly cheeky and wilful episode, she calmly sat at the end of the table, half-listening to my exasperated ranting – all directed at her.  She waited patiently until I had run out of steam, looked me up and down in my new outfit and asked: “So who told you orange goes with pink?”  I suppose she had a point.

I wonder if choosing a hot country for her wedding has a subliminal connection to how she was swaddled  as a winter newborn and left in her moses basket close to a radiator, so afraid was I that my first baby would freeze.  She’s lucky I didn’t cook her! And as a toddler she would be wrapped in layers of woolies, gilets, padded coats, gloves, hats and scarves until she wobbled like a weeble – remember them?

I remember those moments when she would wait to be called with her dance classmates, all in pink leotards singing hand-clapping songs together:

When Susie was a teenager/A teenager she was/And she’d say/Ooh ah!/ I lost my bra/I left my knickers in my boyfriend’s car.

That line somehow found its way into the innocent version of  When Susie Was she’d learned and when asked why Susie would’ve lost her underwear, she suggested Susie must have been changing for ballet.  Obviously

Susie had a busy after-school schedule of dancing, piano lessons, gym club and swimming too.

I have so many memories of vibrant dance wear and swift backstage struggles to switch between costumes before the next dance piece and her uncomplaining compliance as arms went up in the air to have one creation whipped off before the next was pulled on, balancing on one foot, then the next to change dance shoes beneath a wide width of tutu or diaphanous folds of flowing fabric.

I remember our battles over sensible school shoes, just as I had battled with my mother and later the urge to throw a cardigan around her when she and her friends would be getting ready in her room for a night out, wearing less than I would wear to bed.

And now as we all gather here in Greece to celebrate my daughter’s marriage, I remember what I have gained since she came into my life when protecting my fragile baby was uppermost in my mind, much like the delicate wedding dress and veil in my care now.  As others gasp at the stunning bride, I will congratulate myself for creating someone as breathtaking as she is to look at, but the credit for her beauty is not mine as it radiates from within her and shows in her pretty face, her ready smile and her ever sparkling eyes.  Mine, no doubt, will be brimming with tears.

 

What I am learning from the fragile students I teach

What I'm Learning From The Fragile Students I Teach
Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

This piece isn’t intended to be depressing, but it is about depression.

As someone who teaches sixteen to eighteen year-olds in a very large college, I’ve learned to accept that during the inevitable spell of hormonal hell they experience, young adults are trying to develop their social skills in an environment of stress and pressure at a time when they are most at risk of emotionally crashing.

Most of my students have only just left the safety of their familiar schools, or were home schooled, and finding themselves in a college perhaps four or five times the size of their last learning environment, without their friends, can be the shock which tips their fragile minds into a state of extreme anxiety.  But many bring with them mental health issues they have been dealing with for a long time.  Are there more sufferers now, in this information age, or is this generation simply more open about their difficulties and limitations than previous ones who had less to deal with in terms of competition, choice and indeed information?

Sensing you are making a student ill because of the pressure you have to put them under to succeed is an uncomfortable feeling.  James (not his real name) was crying in my office last year in the run up to the final exams; he’d crumpled the year before and so was retaking the course.  He was seventeen at the time and I knew he was going to beat himself up for not attending his final exams again if I didn’t encourage him and, as he was an able student, the eventual success would boost his confidence.  Unlike those who are looking for someone to blame for their shortcomings (usually a ‘crap teacher’ who likely hadn’t had much opportunity to teach a frequently late, lazy or absent student who would then fall hopelessly behind), James had been suffering from depression for a few years.

We are educators, not mental health experts.

Yes some do work the system, or try to, knowing that if they declare a problem with anxiety, the disciplinary procedure for continued absences from classes or lack of submission of work will not apply to them, but it doesn’t do to let them know you suspect they are faking as we are educators, not mental health experts and the whole story may not be apparent to us in our role as teachers.

Last month, when a student appeared to be blacking out in college one afternoon, the decision to call for paramedics was taken despite our strong doubts about whether her symptoms were genuine. Used to attention-seeking illness faking and how to spot it, the paramedics sussed her straight away and, after feeling inwardly furious at her for taking up the time of an emergency service, not to mention the college staff, we began to realise we were dealing with yet another mental health issue when the student had a panic attack two days later.

When an extremely shy and stressed student opted to become mute, I asked for help with how I should teach him if I couldn’t expect him to answer any questions (the basis of assessment of learning).  Exasperated by having to find more practical solutions to mental health problems in the classroom, my team leader whined: ‘Oh there’s no point; he can’t hear you!’  Simon, let me explain ‘mute’; you are confusing it with deaf.  But hey – your pain is my pain.

My colleagues and I are acutely concerned about the number of students for whom we have a duty of care who have problems functioning in our information-age world – they who have been growing up around fast changing technology, instant communication and one-click consumerism. You’d think they would cope better than us.  The rate of mental illness is obviously (to us) climbing and possibly because of the cyber-space age we live in.  My generation never worried about cyber-bullying, online safety, grooming, radicalisation and all the other terrors enabled by technology these kids are at risk from.  We were too busy balancing as many vinyl records as we could on the arm of the record player while we waited for our blurry snaps to be returned in the post.

Alongside years of studying our subject to be able to teach it, more years training in delivering said subject and getting the wild ones to behave as well as learning how to include all types of able and differently-abled learners, we now need opportunities to swot up on mental health and wellbeing as part of our continuous professional development (CPD) if we are to be effective in education.  At present, my strategy is always to send the suffering scholar to someone who knows how to deal with them, but this is becoming harder to do as more students with these needs enrol.

Before a recent CPD day we were told to select which workshops we wanted to attend and expected, as before, to be able to join in a number of fun sessions run by other lecturers demonstrating what they regularly teach in the sprawling college.  These no-teaching days are always good for bringing staff from different departments together and advancing the having-a-good-time-at-work ethos (happy, healthy workforce blah, blah.) I fancied balloon modelling and drum lessons this time.  To our surprise, transgender awareness was compulsory,  and  scheduled to take up so much of the day, there was little time left for the usual spell in the art block for example to splash around with messy materials or to make some noise in the music studios or practise how to photoshop the principal’s publicity shot into a recognisable primate in the Mac rooms.  However, we all gamely processed towards the huge conference suite few of us could remember visiting before.

“Where’s Transgender Awareness?” asked someone.

“Between your legs,” replied another and,

“Why are we having a cross-dressing conference?”

We processed out again some time later shocked by the statistics, moved by what we had heard, thanking the transgender students who were brave enough to address us all on behalf of those who couldn’t, agreeing to meet their needs at the college and apologising for our ignorance.

45% of transgender kids commit suicide

I learned the statistics show 45% of transgender kids commit suicide – yes that’s almost half of them.  Homosexuality doesn’t seem to be a significant isolating or bullying issue any longer among our students and I really hope compassion and acceptance for transgender teenagers by their peers follows soon because this generation changes things.

Whether you think ‘gender bending’ is a modern phenomenon or something which was always there, but not spoken of, I was surprised to realise there are significantly more students affected than I already knew of simply because many will not present themselves at college as the gender they prefer for fear of being ridiculed, or worse. Unsurprisingly, the transgender individual who does not suffer, or has not suffered poor mental health, is rare.

I’ve since read the following by Pearson McKinney:

“It wasn’t until Europeans took over North America that natives adopted the ideas of gender roles.”

He goes on to say:

“In Native American cultures, people were valued for their contributions to the tribe, rather than for masculinity or femininity.”

McKinney explains how those known as ‘Two Spirits’ i.e. transgender Native Americans, were considered to have the ‘gift’ of being able to see things from both sides.  It’s obvious when you think about it.  We however treat them as freaks.

I’ve long thought ancient peoples knew more than we know now, and the cost of living in a civilised society is losing touch with our emotional essence and introducing stress in our lives.  For the fragile or vulnerable among us, the cost can be expensive if it is paid in mental health.  Ideally, to flourish, we must be healthy, in fine fettle, robust in mind and body; our bodies and our minds need nourishment and care.  Did we ever actively take as much care of our minds as we do our bodies?

For my part, encouragement and positive affirmations are pretty much all I have to offer my anxious students for now, but there is reward in that for me too. Being able to say ‘Congratulations’ to James when his results were confirmed last summer and seeing the satisfied smile on his handsome face is a moment I treasure.

 

Ref: Pearson McKinney (April 2nd 2017), Before European Christians forced Gender Roles, Native Americans Acknowledged Five Genders, [www.bipartisanreport.com]