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.
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!
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.
Are you trying to change your man? Well, he’s hoping you don’t change.
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.
Just because I was wearing a posh frock, I didn’t think I was a princess!
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.
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: ‘Oh, 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. Clearly 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.
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 is 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]
Be honest. What goes through your mind at a funeral?
If, like me, you have been attending them from a young age, you might find yourself thinking about funerals you’ve been to before the one you happen to be attending at that moment. If so, does it make you feel guilty to realise you have been remembering someone other than the person whose life you are supposed be celebrating? I’m not saying I compare them you understand, rather I’ve noticed that funerals don’t get any easier the more experience of them you have and, if anything, they have a cumulative effect.
Painful as they are, we feel compelled to arrange and attend funerals as a mark of respect and from a need to make sense of our loss. Despite knowing every life surely must come to an end, our minds mostly have difficulty accepting that someone who was here with us, suddenly is no longer and so we gather together with our thoughts. But while thoughts are private and individual, are they really that much different from the thoughts of our neighbour?
I’ll admit my mind has wandered to wondering what’s so wrong with flowers these days? We are often told, ‘family flowers only’ and a donation to a relevant charity may be made via the funeral director instead. I don’t disagree with collecting money for a charity in memory of anyone, but flowers make a funeral smell good and give us something fresh and beautiful to look at while trying not to lapse into morbid imaginings. Would you admit to staring at a coffin and picturing what lies under the lid? If you ask me, it’s difficult not to, no matter how wrong it seems.
In the five years since we have been together, Drew and I have been to eight funerals. We are starting to lose count now, it might be nine, but even for people in their fifties, that’s a fair few. All of them have been at churches or crematoria, so I can’t comment on any other type, but the tradition of congregating with a coffin before you surely means there are others picturing a cold corpse too. So I’m in favour of flowers, especially atop a coffin – lots of tastefully, expertly arranged flowers. But please not those floral tributes spelling out ‘Mum’ or ‘Grandpa’ or whoever. Seriously, if only ‘family flowers’ are allowed, make a good job of it; spelling out names or other words in flowers belongs in municipal parks or similar, not at funerals. Just put their name on the card!
At a funeral, I always feel it’s best to have a look at the order of service before the proceedings commence and be prepared for the choice of music. I have often tried to figure out what lies behind the musical choices and make the lyrical connection between the deceased and the song or hymn – which isn’t always particularly obvious. I heard once that Robbie Williams was aghast at the popularity of his song ‘Angels’ when selecting funeral music although it seems a perfectly appropriate choice to me. However, the popularity of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ has rendered it a cliche which is embarrassingly inappropriate if the deceased led a conventional life in the town where he or she was born, working for the local authority for example. Though to be fair, that choice would almost certainly have been made by the deceased themself and who would argue with a last wish?
A word of warning here: if you choose music for a loved one’s funeral, think carefully about how often you might hear it again when you hadn’t been expecting to. The sudden, unforeseen loss of my father when I was still a girl was the hardest thing I have ever lived through and it affects me still, almost forty years later. It catches me unawares sometimes, especially when I happen to hear a particular piece of music which was played at his funeral, a piece I couldn’t hear for many years without silent tears streaming down my face.
When Elton John asked Bernie Taupin to revise the lyrics to his song ‘Candle in the Wind’ to be sung at the funeral service of The Princess of Wales, he vowed he would never perform it again afterwards. No doubt this was to save himself from many distressing moments as well as protecting her sons from having to endure hearing the saddest song of their young lives again.
You may have reached the stage when, at a funeral, you begin to consider what you would want at yours. I know I have. Were you so impressed or moved by a little touch that you have earmarked the idea for your own service? Cardboard coffin? Your portrait on an easel perhaps? Flowers? I want lots of lovely flowers. And just to be sure, the music I’ve chosen is ‘The Flower Duet’ (Duo des fleurs) from Delibes’ opera, ‘Lakme’. I don’t expect many people I know will follow the words because they’re sung in French, which is just as well. It ends with …
At the risk of offending equality campaigners, I’m aware that I’ve gravitated backwards regarding my working relationships with the opposite sex. I’m surprisingly alright with it now that I’m closer to retirement age than I was when the natural male-female interaction became skewed for fear of sexual inappropriateness or harassment accusations.
When I was much, much younger and prettier, I was sexually assaulted at the office where I worked. It was a very physical attack which hurt and bruised me, but I meekly decided not to make a formal complaint for a number of reasons. Firstly, my attacker was senior to me with a wife and two small children. Secondly, I was relatively new to the company and keen to progress in my career without inviting any unnecessary obstacles. Thirdly, there was a culture at the time which cannot be compared with today. In other words: things like that happened and I regretfully accepted it had happened to me. I never forgot it though. No-one who has ever been sexually assaulted forgets how it made them feel.
Of course that kind of thing can’t be allowed to happen – I’m opposed to that sort of thing!
In my second career as a teacher, my time has, up until recently, been spent with mostly female colleagues which is not unusual in education. But since the beginning of this academic year, I have found myself based in a male-dominated department of the large college I work in, alongside staff with whom I’d previously had little contact. It’s been an unexpectedly pleasant change.
I realised they had all been working together for a long time and having two new female English teachers in their space was perhaps something they wouldn’t have chosen. So mostly adopting a keep-your-head-down and get-on-with-it approach, I didn’t seek or expect much attention, so little attention, in fact, that on one occasion, I unwittingly managed to surprise all my male colleagues by emerging from a cupboard in the staffroom and shocking one of them into gasping: “How long have you been living in there?”
The two of us came as a pair, almost an invasion as far as our male colleagues were concerned, and we had been happily working together in another department for a while. A nickname has since been bestowed on my female team-mate (Hockeysticks, on account of her posh accent) and I suppose on me too as I’m sometimes referred to as The Other One and more recently, Typhoid Mary, on account of my insistence on continuing to work during a spell of illness, risking their health.
Within a few days of us settling in to our new environment, I felt it necessary to assure the guys that Hockeysticks and myself were classy enough to say F-, and the team leader laughed: “Now you’re part of the team.” Apologising every time they realised some swears had been uttered was becoming a strain for them, but they were concerned about offending either of us.
No-one bothers to modify their language or conversation any longer which is why I was recently surprised to hear myself loudly deploring: “What has your foreskin got to do with me?” A sentence I never thought I would need on a regular workday and one which had more impact than the often repeated: ‘Too much information!’ when relaxed conversation becomes intimate.
Humour is one coping strategy which clearly works for these guys. They would no doubt consider their humour sophisticated – all of them being academic, accomplished, passionate and professional, but they are not above taking a moment to be, or look silly and they know how far they can go. Before a recent demotivating data update meeting (yawn), we were invited by one of the team to don vivid, vastly oversized sombreros and it didn’t occur to us to decline. It was a small attempt to ease some of the tension which builds up over the first term. When eventually asked by the Director of Learning what was “with the hats,” everyone replied from beneath their brims, one after the other: “What hats?”
I knew I was beginning to be accepted as one of them when I was asked: “Can I come and stay with you until all this blows over?” during the beginning of term chaos and what sort of woman would seriously object to being addressed by a bearded workmate with the words: “You’re a woman; do you want some chocolate?” I did fancy some chocolate and it was clearly meant as a joke, not an invitation to assert my feminist self. Just ‘banter’ as the students would say.
That said, I have never been comfortable with touching my co-workers and actively discourage it in my classes. Now however, it is not unusual to be given a hug from someone on the team when the moment calls for one. The office/staffroom we are in is a pressure release unit where teasing, joking, listening and cake or biscuits are available for mini-meltdowns, struggling on through sickness and stress as well as the upsetting moments. It’s normal to touch in circumstances such as these and now, when arms are opened to me, I won’t back away – not for fear of offending, but because it’s natural human behaviour, often extended because the one offering a hug needs to do it as much as the person who will be hugged benefits. It is often said that we spend more waking time with our workmates than with our families which can starve us of warmth if our working relationships are cool.
The aspect of our identity which becomes the most important at any one time is the one that marks us out as different.
In our team there is clearly mutual respect. We don’t need legislation to remind us of our obligations to our workmates. We are individuals who are safe with each other and learning how to treat one another, not because we are all the same, but because we are not. The aspect of our identity which becomes the most important at any one time is the one that marks us out as different in that particular instance whether it is age, origin, skill, status or anything our identity is composed of. None of my comrades would hesitate to lampoon another for any of these reasons, so why should making fun of someone because they are female (or male) be any different?
Recently in conversation with the team, I mentioned I realise I have an issue with objectifying women. The response was: “Stop doing it then.” I don’t know why I needed to mention it really.