Kid #32 – Guitar Virtuoso

The thirty-second kid I hated thought he could play the guitar.

Thought he was a real-life juvenile Jimi Hendrix, a snotty-nosed Slava Grigoryan, a tiny Tommy Emmanuel.

‘Thought’ was the operative word. ‘Play’ was a lofty dream of what he wanted to do with the guitar. ‘Owned’ was a more apt description of his relationship with the guitar.

The thirty-third kid owned a guitar.

He owned it in the sense that a person experiencing a midlife crisis owns a guitar, because they listened to too many Santana songs so thought they’d give it a good old-fashioned go themselves. They watch a few YouTube videos, pay half their live-savings towards private lessons and, when they get to the advanced stages of Deep Purple’s insidious Smoke on the Water guitar riff (the Chopsticks of the guitar), give up to instead frame the instrument for hanging in the pool room, while pursuing a macramé course.

The difficulty with this child was the YouTube videos he had watched were of Piano Cat, he had only paid £2 to be taught in a group of twenty children and, most problematically, he hadn’t given up. He just kept coming back. Every time we had guitar club, there he would be flapping his sticky flapjack-crumb-covered fingers on the fret board, massacring the chords to Michael Row the Boat Ashore.

Now, to put the ‘guitar club’ into perspective, the British education system has in the past many years hatched a half-cocked hairbrained scheme to have extra-curricular clubs outside of school hours. Clubs are usually hosted by staff working overtime, who are being compensated with time in lieu, a fistful of coins or a pat on the back. Meanwhile, the school can smugly show off to parents, top up the petty cash tin and earn a little tick in a box from the inspectors.

The reality for parents is their child will be baby sat for a cheaper rate than the normal after-school childcare services or the cost of a nanny.

In the case of this child, it was probably just to keep him out of the house for an extra hour. He was extremely hyperactive and the additional time away from home was most likely sweet relief for his folks. His parents were always very adamant that he held a deep passion for guitar, but then he also attended Lego club, cooking club, football club and origami club. Maybe he was an all-rounder.

“He just loves guitar club,” his mother would gush.

“He waits all week for guitar club.”

“He’s always practising at home.”

“He wants to be able to play like his uncle.”

Not to cast aspersions, but the way this student treated his guitar left one to think his uncle was some type of Antonia Banderas character toting a guitar-case loaded with weaponry. The child was prone to tantrums and aggressions. In contrast to my own upbringing where I was told to wash my hands before handling musical instruments, this child would have used the six-stringed song-maker as a dinner plate, given the opportunity.

We’d barely get through the first chord of Twinkle Twinkle and he’d be setting upon one of the children a few years younger. One lesson, we barely got to the end of the SpongeBob SquarePants Theme song, because of the disruption he caused. He’d be giving funny looks to the kids, speaking over the top of others and running in and out of the room. He was a complete nuisance and when you’ve got a room full of novice guitarists under the age of ten, the last thing you need is any distraction. Then when he’d finally settle, we’d still be waylaid by a plectrum falling into another child’s guitar or a string falling out of tune on the bright pink guitar one girl had purchased from Poundland – this is what she claimed, despite my scepticism that you’d even manufacture one tuning peg for less than five pounds. A group setting was not the place for guitar lessons, and it was not the place for this menace.

The school itself was not doing itself any favours. The headteacher at the time appeared confused as to the concept of reward and consequence. On one occasion after throwing a temper tantrum in class, we wandered past the headteacher’s office to see this belligerent pest eating ice-cream. On another occasion, after throwing a shoe at a student, we walked past to find said child being asked his opinion on the proposed plans for a proposed new half-million-dollar playground. It was at that point I figured we could forgo the weekly £2 club fee by getting rid of him altogether – the school was clearly saving money on consultancy fees so wouldn’t miss a couple of pounds.

I politely suggested to the mother that guitar wasn’t for this child. She seemed surprised. She mentioned something about how he was practicing a lot with uncle. I wondered quietly to myself whether she’d confused the guitar with the guns, because they both started with the letter ‘G’. Either way it seemed he was going nowhere. So instead he remained. My sanity did not. Neither did several of the other children who became fed up and left.

It seemed a case of ‘he who plays discordantly the loudest shall be heard’. And upon reflection, the purpose of much rock ‘n’ roll music is to manically release stress by banging membranophones, shouting into a microphone and slapping your hand across some nylon strings. It was probably good relief for this child to have an outlet.

I found my relief on the bus home listening to James Taylor.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween – Film Review

The scariest part of this film was spit balls.

“People respect us around here,” states Sam (Caleel Harris) as a saliva drenched portion of paper smacks into his face.

The projectile has been shot by the head jock and his cronies, who are now sniggering to themselves while referring affectionately to Sam and his offsider Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) as the ‘Junk Bros’.

“Spit Wads! What are you, nine?” retorts Sam.

And he raises a pertinent question. What is an appropriate age to begin using these phlegmy missiles?

I’m sitting in the darkened cinema surrounded by eight, nine, ten and eleven-year-old students, who luckily do not have the ingenuity or skills to engineer a ben into a missile launcher. But nothing turns my stomach like spit balls – or ‘wads’ as the American appears to phrase it in Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. Let’s be honest, they weren’t great as a child. I recall some of our classrooms having high ceilings, which allowed for a large target space above the whiteboards in each room. There was always some layer of encrusted paper framing the top of the board in an avant-garde papier-mache design.

As with all fads, there were long periods of time where nerd or vulnerable teacher would be free from onslaught in the creation of these paper-pulp pastiches. But when the trend was at large, you’d be living on a knife’s edge (probably the same edge of the knife used to dismantle the biro being used for the gun barrel).

Despite Sam implying it is a juvenile activity best suited for children in the single digit age bracket, students as old as seventeen have been known to assemble artillery from the art-supplies graveyard in pursuit of oppressing the weaker of the schoolyard species.

So, although this film features razor-toothed gummy bears, pick-axe-wielding garden gnomes, a jack-o-lantern-headed humanoid and the menacing ventriloquist doll Slappy, there is nothing that raises the hair on my back more than the inclusion of the loaded spit wad shooter. I’m glad to have avoided falling victim to its wrath.

How to talk to boys (about haircuts and girls)

“You’re going to have all the girls at school chasing after you tomorrow.”

This was the problematic remark made by a mother about her son’s haircut, when I was waiting for my own hairs to be cut earlier this week.

It is one of many tropes uttered without thought as to the wider implications of the relationship we have between the sexes and that which we have with ourselves.

In one foul swoop the mother has reduced her son’s interaction with women to that of a satin bowerbird collecting blue bottle tops for his nest. She sets up for him some sort of Georgie-Porgie, pudding and pie scenario where he’ll have a sex-crazed flock of girls swooning after his lusciously lopped locks. There’s a solid notion that he is somehow a reverse Samson whose newly cut hair will provide prowess to attract women.

Let’s start with the mother’s own relationship with men and how this statement may reflect her outlook on the male species. She obviously likes a well-manicured crop of hair on male heads, as she happily sat providing commentary for the duration of both her sons’ haircuts, and then her husband’s. Is it too much of an extrapolation to assume that the main thing attracting her to her own husband was his haircut? Probably (and hopefully) not. Yet she made the above throw-away remark, which would insinuate that this was the main thing – not his personality or intellect. It puts her in a position of appearing superficial if we are to assume haircuts are the main attraction she has to men.

Secondly, let’s think about the boy. It doesn’t do positive things for his self esteem to be told that he’s defining feature of attraction is the follicles on his noggin. There’s much dialogue surrounding the default position of complimenting young girls on their appearance, when adults can’t think of any other ways of engaging. To flip an old adage on its newly shaven head, ‘even if you only have nice things to say, you should on some occasions still say nothing at all’.

Phrases such as “what a pretty set of shoes”, or “what a lovely bow”, or “what a sweet smile you have” are no longer welcome, as they put primary value on appearance. Similarly, boys should be built to value their positive traits and abilities. The boy has made no contribution to the growing of his hair, nor the cutting of his hair. So why make him value it as a strong feature. That’s not to take away from the need to have pride in appearance and professionalism that a neat hairdo brings. But this should be for the purpose of his own pride of self and not for the enticement of the female species.

Finally, and most damagingly, the mother’s remark devalues women. The boy will be left with the impression that one of the main interests of girls is hair. She didn’t say “some girls”. She didn’t say “maybe a girl”. She didn’t say “a few girls”. She said “all” the girls. That’s right. All of the female students at the school will be chasing after him tomorrow. (Without considering the fact that it would be vastly intimidating to be chased by a lynch mob of people enamoured by the way your hair was sculpted) it is not a sensible notion, to give an impressionable young man, that women are so vacuous as to only be concerned with a man’s appearance from the eyebrow’s up.

An innocuous comment can hold clues to a deeper set of values. And in this case I think some reflection is needed – not to mention that perhaps Harry Haircut may want “all” the boys at school to notice his haircut. His mother didn’t think of that either.

I see you’ve played ‘Knifey Spooney’ before

Last week I found myself covering a nursery class and being asked to cut their lunch up. These children would have been between two to four years of age. There was a range of fine motor skills on show, with the more dextrous students neatly piercing the fork tines into their roast chicken and gently slicing through the cooked flesh with their oxymoronic safety knives. In the middle ground there were: those who held their implements like pens, those with the knife and fork interchanging between hands, and those using a spoon as a knife.

The remaining students – let’s call them the ‘Remedial Diners’ Club’ – were salivating into their plates knowing enough table etiquette to restrain from using fingers, but too dyspraxic to fasten a grip on their cutlery to succeed in the daily task of eating lunch.

So it was, I found myself circumnavigating the dining hall performing dissections on not only roast chicken, but also potatoes, beans and various other legumes. Furiously, I muttered to myself about the disservice parents had done by not educating their children before they left the family dinner table. But then I looked up to find other adults were also cutting food for these youngsters, further compounding the problem. Not that it is often the responsibility of educators to branch out beyond the usual topics of numeracy and literacy, into realms of topics such as ‘how to eat food’; but it struck me that teaching the children what to do would save time in the long run. These children were not being equipped for the coming years of independent food consumption. I could see that students in Year One and Two were also being given the silver service treatment of pre-cut food. I half expected to see a staff member mimic how a mother bird feeds its young, chewing the canteen lunch and regurgitating it into the mouth of one of these infants.

As I stood there guiding another student’s hands into the correct holding position, I began questioning myself. When had I started to use cutlery? It was in the blurred years between living memory and those early years which are mere fragments of sights, sounds and smells of my early existence. Was my subconscious obsession with correct cutlery use a mere relic of my own particular upbringing? Was correct handling of a fork not valued in all households?

I decided to check with another friend, who I knew would happily lament the misuse of cutlery in modern society. They too were raised to eat dinner in the late 1980s, when corncob skewers held your corn, prawns were eaten with a cocktail fork and every meal was presented in a CorningWare Wildflower baking dish or casserole (look it up – you’ll recognise the flower pattern when you see it).

They too could not particularly recall the exact moment they started using cutlery correctly, so assumed it was somewhere around the age of three or four. They also highlighted a special pushing implement I had not heard of. Apparently it is called a ‘baby food pusher’, appearing to date back to at least the 1920s thus confirming my friend’s suspicion that they had an ‘old-fashioned’ upbringing.

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The pusher (see above) is used in place of a knife to teach children to push the food onto the back of their fork. That’s right! The back of the fork! Check Debrett’s Handbook of Modern Manners and you’ll discover even peas must be collected on your fork with mash potato. No shovelling allowed:

If using a knife and fork together, always keep the tines of the fork pointing downwards and push the food on to the fork. It may be necessary to use mashed potato to make peas stick to the fork but it is incorrect to turn the fork over and scoop.

Now, based on my haphazard research, the consensus seemed to be that by kindergarten age, children should be able to use cutlery. I checked with my six month old nephew, who has recently graduated from milk to solids. When I asked him whether he’d begun using cutlery his answer was incomprehensible. So, I checked with his parents who told me he was still reliant on other humans creating spoon simulations of locomotives and aircrafts to guide the food into his mouth. They also quoted a parenting book as saying that it was all ‘spoons and hands up to 12 months of age’.

This at least narrowed the field of cutlery handling to somewhere within the toddler wasteland of one to three years old. I checked in with an old work buddy who has spent many years of their professional life teaching children younger than five. They also confirmed they had “absolutely” started using cutlery by primary age. So, I knew there would be no complimentary carving of food in their classroom.

But then I checked in with an Indian friend who claimed they used their hands until they were five years old. Then they clarified it was probably three years old and offered to take me to dinner to prove it. I took them up on their offer, where we ate our curry using cutlery. Perhaps British values of cutlery-use have pressured conformity on those who have other plate-to-mouth methods. My Indian friend also pointed out how odd they found it when they first went to school and saw a girl using knife and fork to eat some roti.

Perhaps the children who were struggling with their cutlery in the dinner hall were not incompetent after all. Perhaps they were just unfamiliar and should be left to eat food the way they were used to at home; mopping up their pasta sauce with a chapatti, eating roast beef with chopsticks and peeling a banana with a runcible spoon.

Cutlery etiquette is all very confusing and leaves you in a hey diddle diddle. No wonder the dish forked off with the spoon.

Mary Poppins Returns – Film Review

It’s striking how Mary Poppins exists solely for the purpose of child-minding yet has no children of her own. In fact I find an immense pathos in her character. It was there in the first film and it is present in Mary Poppins Returns. There is a longing for more in her eyes.

Where school teachers, babysitters, au pairs and nanny’s metaphorically swoop in to educate and care for children, Mary Poppins does it literally, first with an umbrella and then more recently off the back of a kite. Then as quickly as she arrives, she disappears again. She only appears in sequences where she is dispensing advice, medicinal spoons of sugar or reprimands. She doesn’t appear to eat, consuming little more than the odd cup of tea. She doesn’t appear to leisurely read any books. She may not even sleep, as she’s too busy singing everyone else to sleep and we never see her retiring to her own bedroom. She plays directly into the preconception many children have of their daytime educators and carers that they live either in the broom cupboard or simply materialise at the times they are needed. A student of mine was once dumbfounded to have bumped into me at the local cinema, then asked why I wasn’t at school.

This is where I find the pathos. She seems to live solely for the children. She doesn’t appear to have her own family. She is the sad epitome of the teacher who is so invested in their students that it has been at the cost of all other facets of their life. Even when the opportunity of finding a companion presents in chimney sweep Bert, she is too preoccupied by her duty to be “practically perfect in every way”. By the time she flies in on the kite in Mary Poppins Returns Bert has presumably put down his brush and been hauled up in a depression-era nursing home. Mary, on the other hand, hasn’t aged a day. Any attempt by her to befriend Bert would be weird, though equally it would seem inappropriate for her to begin flirting with young lamp lighter Jack.

No. It seems Mary is destined to be an old maid. Far from being the banner waving champion of the suffragette movement as Mrs Banks was or the flyer distributing voice of the labour party as Jane Banks is, Mary Poppins is so preoccupied with perfection it verges on being a diagnosable case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She is so flustered by things being out of place that it’s hard to imagine she’d cope with the imperfection of most human relationships.

So, I find myself wondering how much I am like her. I found myself in a great moment of empathy near the films end when she is handed a balloon by Angela Lansbury and declares “it’s time” then floats away. I know that feeling too well from leaving classes of children behind me. She knows her job is done but still appears saddened to return the children to their circumstances for better or worse. Those children are not hers. She has invested in them as though they were her own, but they are not hers. And where Mary Poppins gets to return to her lonely single bed apartment in the sky, many teachers and nannies probably return to their single bed apartment on the wrong side of town too exhausted from picking up the pieces of other people’s messes to tidy up their own mess. When Mary pauses a short moment before re-ascending, I couldn’t help but think this was a gut-wrenching moment for her. I couldn’t help but think the Banks’ life was a life she wished she had.

Is she forever destined to pick up the pieces of people’s own mismanaged attempts at child rearing? Will she be perpetually running her gloved finger along the infinitely dusty mantel of childhood emotional neglect? Shall she be shackled eternally to her talking parrot umbrella as sole confident and companion?

For all the singing and dancing, Mary Poppins epitomises the lonely path professional child minders must often tread, with one foot in the adult world and one in childhood. As Emily Blunt sings, we are perhaps left looking for ‘The Place Where the Lost Things Go’ in a vain attempt to recapture our own childhood while forgetting to live our adult life.

Kid #30 – Be Quiet and Sit Down!

The thirtieth kid I hated probably had undiagnosed ADHD.

After all, she was a girl and we’re continually being told now that lots of girls are on the autistic spectrum or have ADHD, they are just better at hiding their symptoms. Or perhaps, in this case, not so good at hiding symptoms.

She was the sort of child where all the children would sit neatly in their places on the carpet. All of them would sit in straight rows. All of them would have their legs crossed and arms placed safely in front of them.

This child would also sit still, at least until the teacher had glanced down at their watch only to look back up, just in time to see her squirming around on the carpet like she was trying to remove a tarantula from her hair.

Further, through some sort of warp in the time continuum she would seem to have appeared on the complete other side of the carpet space. It was very hard to explain – using physics – how she had managed to transport herself a good three metres past at least twenty other children, in the half-second it had taken for the watch-glancing to occur.

We tried a number of approaches: The usual specialty sitting cushions that have built-in barbs to hold the student in place, calming music to distract the student from using the muscles in their limbs, custom-made jackets where the sleeves fold around the back to join together with a buckle, and also a good old-fashioned set of safety reins. Basically, all the usual ethically-approved torture devices.

None of these seemed to achieve anything, so in lieu of a good spanking, we resorted to putting up with it.

Now the benefit of putting up with bad behaviour is that you don’t have to do anything and the child appears happier.

The downside of putting up with bad behaviour is everything else.

The behaviour becomes accepted as bad behaviour. In reality, it is probably some form of attention-seeking, due to another deficit in the child’s life. In this child’s case it was the lack of boundaries at home that was causing her to act out. Or rather the lack of love and boundaries.

When she was picked up from school, her father would be walking out of the gate before she had even caught up to him. No hugs and kisses. No “How was your day?”. At the end of the day she would simply point out her father to me. I would wave to him. He would wave back. Then as she walked over to him, he’d turn his back and start walking out the schoolyard. It was as though he was running an errand – and not an errand he seemed particularly bothered about.

The inverse would occur in the mornings when she would burst into the classroom, often knocking over a chair or tripping on a table leg, full of hyperactivity asking if there was any jobs to be done and how things were. It was guaranteed she would be one of the first students of the day to arrive. Clearly the parents were making the most of their access to free-government-funded babysitting. Or maybe they were just punctual people.

I almost found her early-morning enthusiasm endearing.

But as the terms spun on, my patience waned. Yes, she was given opportunity to express her personality freely. However, it becomes very draining giving so much emotional attention to the needs of an (undiagnosed) ADHD person. If it wasn’t providing her new strategies to conflict-resolve with her friends and enemies, the time would be spent concocting a long list of pretend jobs to keep her occupied.

Perhaps the long trail of chaos she left in her wake was nothing to be concerned about. Perhaps it was my own anal-retentiveness that found it difficult to allow her abrupt nature. Everything must be in its place including the little human beings I educate.

I’ve slowly become more patient at letting children express themselves through incessant babbling and constant movement around the classroom – at least for thirty seconds per day.

But if I ever met this kid again, I doubt I’d have self-restraint enough to avoid finding a more conclusive purpose for the spikey therapy cushion.

Girl Asleep – Film Review

If there’s anything more horrifying than a sweet sixteenth birthday party, it’s the horrifying thought of a forgettable fifteenth birthday party. So, it’s no surprise that Greta Driscoll would prefer to be a Girl Asleep when she enters the school corridor to find her mother has invited every single pubescent fool to her birthday party.

The thought of being fifteen again is so harrowing, that it’s easy to see why Molly Ringwall demanded that sixteenth candle be placed on her cake – just so she could move things right along.

Not in the case of protagonist Greta, whose mother is looking for her own excuse to dance, father is wanting to hang a cheesy birthday banner and sister is just wanting a party to invite her boyfriend to.

Set in the 1970s, Girl Asleep is a bizarre mix of the ocker humour of Muriel’s Wedding and the fantastical dark whimsy of Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are. It’s a film in two parts, in that it’s grounded in the banality of Australian suburban life (albeit an overblown surreal representation), while later transcending into a parallel world inhabited by mystical creatures.

It’s hard to pin down what makes this such an enjoyable film. Perhaps it is the familiarity in the nostalgic portrait of seventies’ Australia; Certainly there’s a disarming enthusiasm from Harrison Feldman’s performance (much like his character Oscar in Upper Middle Bogan) that makes it hard to look away. Most of all it is likely to be we’re empathising with young Greta’s quest to escape back into her innocence of youth, as many of us often try/want to do.