Tag Archives: starting school

My son, the tight-lipped, secretive, spy operative

There are a huge amount of new experiences and much to get used to, when you start school. For E, now six weeks into his first term, one of the first things that it appears has caused him a pause for thought is the general incessantness of it. Not that he has told me this outright. Oh no. He is a five year old boy. So I have to glean information from him like an informational archaeologist, painstakingly brushing away layers, looking for clues, gently prodding to see what happens, stroking my beard as I ruminate on what could lie beneath. Okay, maybe not the beard. Not for another few years, at least.

On the second Friday he attended school, I was getting him dressed in his uniform. “Am I going to school again, mummy?” he asked, eyebrows raised with the incredulity of such a ridiculous notion.

“Yes, you are,” I reply with a smile. A smile that means: please don’t make this a Big Thing.

“I don’t want to go,” he states emphatically.

Of course, he did go. Granted, dragging him the whole way there by the wrist was not the most relaxed walk to school we had ever had, but he did go.

Last Sunday, he asked: “Mummy, why are weekends only two days?”  A question that echoes throughout every household, from every school child, parent and worker, uttered with an air of resignation as the last day of the weekend draws to a close and Monday morning starts to loom like a lumbering giant with a cattle prod and an alarm clock.

So, it appears he finds the routine of school a little challenging. I am interested in finding out what he does all day at school, given that I am his mother with at least a passing interest in his educational development.

“What did you do today then?” I ask on the walk home.

“We had lunch.”

“Lovely. What else?”

“We had a snack.”

Well, I can be confident that at least his stomach has settled in well at school.

“What else did you do? Painting? Stories?”

“I don’t remember.” This, from the boy who remembers the most inconsequential of details from something that happened two years ago (“You remember mummy, we met that man in the funny hat in that shop with chairs in.” Errr. No. I barely remember my own name some days, so a man with dodgy head wear could well have passed me by.)

It is obvious I need another tack to elicit information from my son. Maybe take a more peer-led approach.

“Who did you play with today?”

“A boy.” Good god, he would make a hell of an MI6 operative. He’s not even breaking sweat under my ferocious interrogation. Who knew I had inadvertently enrolled him in bloody spy school?

“And what was his name?”

“Don’t know.” Okay, I surrender. For now.

And then, at some unspecified moment after the event, anywhere between an hour and three days, E will let slip some details about his school day.

“We made a spider from an egg box and the legs were pipe cleaners, mummy,” he announces in the middle of lunch. I nearly fall off my chair, overwhelmed by the tsunami of information that has just poured from him.

“That sounds cool,” I enthuse. “Why were you making spiders?”

“Don’t know.” Bang. The sound of the sharing door slamming shut in my face.

So whilst E gets used to being at school, I get used to knowing pretty much nothing about school. At nursery, I would get a full debrief from the staff, including the number of toilet trips he made, what he ate for lunch, and what activities he filled his day with. At school, they file out of the classroom at the end of the day having sworn a vow of silence, the teacher giving each parent a brief, knowing smile. A knowing smile that says: we know. We know everything. You, however, know nothing.

Whenever E does let slip what he has been up to at school, I am invariably in the middle of driving, or changing B’s nappy, or doing something that means I can’t really pay attention. A few weeks ago, I nearly drove into the verge as I tried to keep one eye on the road whilst the other watched E act out his jolly phonics songs, which I had no idea even existed until that moment.

I also suspect that school is training him in the art of mis-information. E tells me one afternoon that he had apple and carrot as a snack. Apple and carrot? Is that not a match made in culinary hell, only rivalled by banana and beetroot? I ask him if it really was apple and carrot. “Really,” he says, nodding enthusiastically. I chalk that one up in the ‘possibly a whopping fib’ column.

Yesterday, I ask him what he had for pudding (I soon realised that as it seemed he was only allowed to talk about what he ate at school, I may as well glean as much as I can about his menu choices). Yoghurt and fruit, he tell me. I ask him what the other choice was. “That yellow thing… you know, that makes your face go funny.”

“Lemon?”

“Yes, lemon.”

“There were slices of lemon for pudding?”

“Yes.”

I chalk this one up in the ‘utter bollocks’ column.

So as the weeks trundle on, and E gets used to being at school for what must seem like the rest of his lifetime, I have to get used to knowing nothing about what he is doing. But there is one glimmer of hope. If school is training my son to be a tight-lipped, secretive spy operative, capable of withholding information under maternal pressure, then all I need to do is launch a clandestine operation and single out one of his friends who will willingly turn informant. There are two packs of Smarties and an unmarked sheet of Spiderman stickers waiting for them.

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A scattering of wobbly bottom lips

So this was the week that my son started primary school. I mention this in conversation to people, and they all have a strangely similar reaction: a hand on my arm, head on one side, an “ahhhh” to accompany it. I was a little perturbed by this at first. Had I mistakenly told them that I had run over a kitten? That my faithful dog Fido had died swallowing a hedgehog? Nah. Because everyone thinks that starting school is a Big Thing.

Well, it probably was a Big Thing. But that was before the school ran several settling in sessions, and E’s new teachers visited his nursery, and the nursery took the kids on the walk to school, and we talked about starting school, and then he saw my ham-fisted attempts at taking up numerous pairs of grey trousers. So by the first day of school, it became utterly not a Big Thing. Well, not for most of the kids, anyway. And certainly not for me. In fact, I was so not bothered, I begin to wonder if I really qualified as a bone fide mother at all. I mean, sure, it was nice to see him in his uniform. But it was just a slightly-too-large-because-I-want to-get-my-money’s-worth white shirt and a pair of grey shorts, with clumpy unattractive black shoes to complete the ensemble. I prefer his Dangermouse tee shirt, to be honest. He looks a little less nerdy in it.

There were a scattering of wobbly bottom lips and teary eyes from the mums in the playground, but I was more concerned about hot-footing it home to try and squeeze the day’s work into the next two and a bit hours, before I had to pick him up again. It’s less like a school day, more like a quick visit for a leisurely snack with just enough time to daub a few splodges of paint onto a bit of paper.

As the kids eventually filed into the classroom, I gave E a wave and a smile. Am I supposed to not feel this bothered?

“Oh,” said a mum who stood next to me. “It’s awful.”

“I know. By the time I get home, it’ll be time to come back again.”

“No, I mean, my little one starting school. It’s like my heart has been ripped out.”

Oh yes, now I get it. The heart ripped out thing. That. I guess that’s what I should be feeling. Hmmm. Bollocks to that. I’ll put it on my to-do list just below my VAT return, tidying me desk and picking the fluff out of my keyboard. I’m sure I’ll get round to it eventually.


Big is a relative concept

E is starting school in September. ‘Big school’, as we refer to it. Granted, big is a relative concept, as I have told past boyfriends more than once, but for E, it is a Big Thing. Or is it? To be honest, it is difficult to tell with him. This might be a boy thing, or a four year old thing, or just a him thing, but the Big Thing might not be such a Big Thing, and could be quite a Yeah Whatever Thing, but I’ll be damned if I can tell. It’s an I Don’t Have a Clue Thing from where I’m standing.

Talk of Big School has not been uncommon in our house for the past few months, and every conversation has me surreptitiously peering (which may seem like a contradiction in terms, but when you live with The Inscrutable One, your surreptitious peering skills are quickly honed to perfection) into E’s face, looking for a reaction that might reveal his true feelings about the transition from nursery to school. I tell you, that boy has a great future in MI6. He is as inscrutable as a house brick with a secret, that one. Nothing. Not a flicker. Not even after thumb screws and flushing his favourite toy down the toilet did he relinquish his true feelings about going to school.

“Are you looking forward to starting school?” I ask casually.

“Yes,” he replies, which really means: ‘I might be. I might not be. I could be totally relaxed about this, or a maelstrom of fear and anxiety. You are my mother, and if you can’t work it out then tough shit, you’re on your own’. I am perhaps paraphrasing the subtext a little.

Whereas I, on the other hand, am already a little bit in love with his new school and don’t mind telling anyone who will listen. It is still quite a new build, so is purpose built to contain a large rabble of kids perfectly, with doors in every classroom that open out onto the play ground, an outdoor classroom (I know, an outdoor classroom! I’d never heard such a thing. In my day, an outdoor classroom meant sitting on the damp concrete of the playground trying to stop the ants crawling up your socks whilst two people stood fifty foot apart and tried to imagine the size of a dinosaur) and high ceilinged rooms filled with light. Christ, I fancy living there myself, quite frankly, even if it would mean having to practically crouch on my haunches to lower myself down onto the toilets. Of which there would be quite a choice. And on the up side, not even my family could fill up all the coat pegs we would have at our disposal.

And it seems that schools have got smart since I went to one (which was so long ago we paid for school dinners in groats and we had the luxury of a small bottle of luke-warm milk at morning break that already had the faint tang of sourness as it had sat outside the classroom for the previous five hours). Kids just don’t turn up on the first day any more, drowning in their stiff, packet-fresh uniform, barely in control of their bladders, their tear ducts on a hair trigger. Now, the school offers a number of warm up sessions, getting the kids used to being there before the first day of term. I am sure this ostensibly is to provide “seamless integration” and an “emotionally sensitive and educationally supportive approach to transition” or some other “holistic educational strategy” but let’s face it. The real reason is that the teachers got bloody sick of all those wailing, petrified kids, all those urine-soaked garments and all those blubbing parents and decided to do something about it.

I position the first of these sessions to E as a ‘play date with some new friends’. This, I believe, is a text book example of Parental Spin. I find spin the best way to reinterpret things into a four-year-old-friendly way. Mind you, if I put much more spin on this situation, we may all get picked up by a cyclone and dumped in the Land of Oz. He seems to take this idea in his stride, right up until the very moment I tell him it is time to go. At which point he dissolves into tears and chants “I don’t want to go I don’t want to go I don’t want to go” like some fervent religious maniac. But now, at least, I know that this is a Big Thing. Either that or there is an episode of Scooby Doo on the television that he hasn’t seen before. Now this could get tricky. I contemplate picking him up and forcing him there, but I can barely carry him to the front door these days. Then inspiration strikes and I bribe him out the door with a drinks bottle that I had bought him that clips to his scooter. Genius. So off we went, with only the mild inconvenience of stopping every two minutes so that he could take a sip from his new bottle before ostentatiously slotting it back into place.

We stand in the hall on arrival, as I point out kids that he knows in a desperate attempt to shrink this Big Thing into something smaller. He holds my hand and says nothing and I find myself inadvertently turning up my cheery-laissez-fairness to 11, no doubt a sure sign to E that I, too, consider this a Big Thing. Finally, names start being called. E is first and I propel him forward. He stands in front of the teacher, rigid, hands flat by his side, head straight forward, like a soldier awaiting orders. Possibly orders to face a firing squad. Once the line is complete, they are told to wave to their mummys and daddys and head to the classroom. E turns, searching me out, and I give him a smile and a wave and look at his face for clues as to whether this is still a Big Thing. I am still none the wiser.

I pick him up two hours later and ask him if he had fun. He smiles. I ask him what he did. He says nothing. I start to guess. Building? No. Puzzles? No. He hands over a piece of yellow paper, on which are stuck a few random pom-poms and a splodge of paint. Well his artistic side has not flourished under the school’s tutelage yet, that’s for sure.  He was tight lipped about who he met, who he played with, what the teacher said to him and only begrudgingly admitted what he ate at snack time. I might have to attach one of those Cat-Cams to his neck, it’s the only bloody way I am ever going to find anything out. I might as well install a cat flap in the front door and leave his dinner in a bowl on the floor while I am at it. As a child care routine, I think it has a lot going for it.

We have now had two sessions at the school and I am fairly confident that starting school is now, not a Big Thing. However, there is one more hurdle to scale in this whole starting school thing. I made him try on his new uniform the other day. The moment the shirt was on, he was wriggling around like a worm under attack from a bunch of stick-wielding four year olds. “The collar itches! I don’t like it! Get it off!” he cried repeatedly, making it bloody difficult for me to turn the cuffs up twice and tuck the bottom into his trousers all the way down to his knees to make sure we had really captured that ‘three years growing room’ chic that is part of the school uniform regulations. We may have got over the going to school thing, but a shirt collar? Now that really is a Big Thing.