Colouring conversation

Colouring Club meets from three o’clock to four o’clock on a Wednesday. Like the advertisement goes, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Students gather for an hour to sit and colour and to chat with their friends. Colouring Club attracts students from across the school population.

Wandering into the classroom where they meet one Wednesday afternoon in the spring, I saw one of the Year 11 students. It would have been hard to have imagined a more unlikely person to be there than the young man sat by himself at the back. With a colouring sheet and a handful of felt-tipped pens, he was a picture of serenity. Built like a prop forward from a rugby scrum, and with a beard that would have allowed him to pass as ten years older, the sixteen year old seem to be someone who enjoyed defying any stereotype that might have been applied to him.

The warmth of the summer sunshine means students are less inclined to stay inside for such a sedentary activity. On Wednesday, when I took Colouring Club for a colleague, there were only five students, a small group of girls from Years 7 and 8.

”Taking Colouring Club” is an overly grand description of an hour spent presiding at the gathering, having conversations with those present, and offering opinions on the appropriate colours for unicorns or rabbits. (The preferred choice for unicorns seems to be rainbow sequences or Elmer-like chequered hides, perhaps explaining why unicorns seem even rarer than heretofore: how would those raised on the idea of unicorns being white recognise an equine multi-coloured beast as a unicorn?)

Taking colouring club offered opportunities for conversations in which to take seriously the comments and opinions of those present.

It is odd that people of twelve and thirteen years old are often not treated as though what they say is worthy of respect, as if their age means that anything they may say must automatically be disregarded. Is it imagined that young people undergo some instant transformation at some point? Is it assumed that at a particular age, presumably eighteen, young people instantaneously are transformed from being youths whose words can be ignored to being young citizens whose votes must be courted?

In the early-1970s, adults were probably even more aloof than now, but I recall that those whom I respected the most were those who talked to me as though my opinion mattered. Colouring Club taught me that having those conversations should be a priority in my life as a teacher.

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Male models

I can’t remember the model of the car. It was a small Mitsubishi, the economy-sized one. Black and with a 2007 registration, it was an unprepossessing car. A green “P” plate was stuck to the hatchback, the probationary driver plate is not compulsory, but perhaps encourages other drivers to be patient. Perhaps the driver’s parents insisted that he put the plate on the car. It was almost certainly a “he,” for the black paint of the hatchback also bore the letters, “Black Hawk.”

It would be hard to imagine a car less likely to be considered similar to a black hawk than a twelve year old mini-sized car. It seemed a vehicle more similar to a hawk’s prey than to the soaring and swooping raptor itself.

Perhaps, rather than the bird of prey, the car was being compared to the American combat helicopter of the same name. Perhaps the words were meant to evoke thoughts of swift flight and the launch of missiles at a target on the ground, at enemies disappearing in an explosive moment as the pilot turned upwards and homewards. Perhaps not, though, a small car in a supermarket car park is not the stuff of Twenty-First Century warfare.

What is it about? Why would the driver of a small car want to somehow associate his vehicle with speed and flight and ferocity? (I once saw a truck with “Black Stallion” painted across the back of the cab. Looking at the driver, it would have been hard to have imagined someone less like a black stallion). Is there some sort of male identity crisis?

Perhaps it was easier for young men to assert an identity in former times. After the Second World War there were successive waves of fashion that allowed diverging expressions of identity. Distinctive and instantly recognizable styles seemed to come to an end in the 1980s. Younger people now are not dressed in ways that are distinctively different from the mainstream, or even distinctively different from a decade or two decades ago. No Teddy Boys, or Mods, or Rockers, or Hippies, or Punks, or New Romantics: just a monochrome culture of labels.

Perhaps the triumph of neo-liberalism brought not diversity but uniformity as young men absorbed the advertising and the images projected by the media. The illusion of choice is that everyone looks the same. Perhaps putting “Black Hawk” on the back of your small car is a statement of individuality.



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More than a dinner lady

Sometimes you turn your back for a moment and, when you turn back, you find someone has gone.

Walking among the familiar faces in the village cemetery, I met Mrs Cullen. I had never thought about Mrs Cullen having died, she no longer lived at Number 4, but I had never heard that she had died. There was a moment of regret that someone who had played such a big part in the lives of the children of the village had died, and that I had never known.

Mrs Cullen believed in old-fashioned good manners. Mrs Brooks lived next door, at Number 3, and Mrs Cullen called her Mrs Brooks. In turn, Mrs Brooks would always address her next door neighbour as Mrs Cullen.

Mrs Cullen was a dinner lady, but that was a small part of her activity in the life of our school. Miss Small, wearing a white overall, would prepare the school dinners, and Mrs Cullen served them. Mrs Cullen supervised the dining room. Mrs Cullen also supervised the playground. Mrs Cullen was the school caretaker. Mrs Cullen organised all sporting activity, including our participation in the area junior sports day. Mrs Cullen organised the annual school outing. It is probable that Mrs Cullen was not paid for one fraction of the work she did, but she would have done it all with a glad heart.

It is hard to imagine that there would be an opening for a Mrs Cullen in any school today. The multiplicity of policies intended to eliminate any possibility of risk, the insurance implications of any activity that is planned, the requirement that one have completed a course and have been awarded a certificate for almost any endeavour contemplated would ensure that someone who served school dinners and was caretaker would not be considered for any other role.

The world is a poorer place for want of opportunities of new generations of Mrs Cullens to emerge. Good hearted people are no longer considered appropriate for the roles Mrs Cullen played.

Without Mrs Cullen, many of us would have had no outings, no chance to take part in sports, no memories of lunchtime games in the school field.

It is funny to see her name inscribed on the headstone. Of course, we knew her name was Ivy, but no-one would ever have dreamed of calling her it. Mrs Cullen was, and always will be, Mrs Cullen.

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Summer land people

No-one is certain of the origin of the county name of Somerset. It seems old English, perhaps meaning the people who lived around Somerton. The meaning of Somerton is equally uncertain, perhaps the summer farmstead. Convention that the county name means the summer lands or people seems reasonable. In centuries past, in wintertime, much of the land was under water (and, if you live on the Levels, much of the land may still be under water at times). Perhaps it was the dampness of the place that tempered the weather: with the odd exception, never very hot in summer; and, with the even odder exception, never very cold in winter.

Perhaps it was the temperate climate that brought an even mood. No-one became too excited about summer, and no-one became too gloomy about winter. The turning of the days and the darkness again advancing was not a problem in primary school days. If the weather stayed dry, then there were opportunities to be enjoyed outside on every day of the year. For a schoolboy who had received a new bicycle in the summer of 1968, and who had been delighted to have dynamo-driven lights fitted to it for his eighth birthday that October, the roads and laneways of our village were a year round opportunity for reckless cycling. Whether it was January or July, the only wish was that it wouldn’t rain.

Perhaps it was being part of a farming community, but there was never a sense of normal life closing down for the winter. Farm work carried on throughout the year, (some farmers milked cows throughout the year, rather than drying them off during the winter, in order to ensure a regular milk cheque) – and if the farmers were busy, then there seemed little reason why other people should not be so.

Perhaps it was living at a remove from the seaside, where there was definitely an open season and a closed season; perhaps it was the fact that we took part in no activities that depended on daylight or warmth; but it is hard to remember there being much sense of life being seasonal. There was certainly not a question of a change of wardrobe between winter and summer. Summer was recognised by not wearing a pullover with the shirt and trousers that would be worn for the rest of the year.

Perhaps summer was more a state of mind than a meteorological reality, but summer in those times seemed something of infinite flexibility.





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Conversations with ten year olds

Ninety Year 5 students came to visit the school today, with all the cheer and enthusiasm for life that only ten year olds can have.

They talked about all sorts, telling me about their school and their summer holidays. One told me about not only his summer holiday, but also his winter holiday in Austria. His chatter brought a memory of being with a ten year old in Austria, just after my fiftieth birthday, and telling the ten year old about when I was ten

The ten year old friend was feeling fed up.  “I’ll tell you a story from when I was ten.”  I had said, “that’s forty years ago.”

“When I was ten years old, a girl called Sarah, whom I thought to be the most beautiful in the world, was having a birthday party. This was to be a day of great excitement, for it was to be the best party ever.  On the day on which the invitations were handed out, I was absent from school with asthma. ‘Never mind’, I thought, ‘my invitation will be waiting for me’.  As the day drew close, I grew more worried. Our two teacher school had forty pupils. There were twenty in the classroom in which I sat, and everyone else had been invited. It wasn’t talk of the party that worried me, it was the point when all the others went to the party that I was dreading. Sarah lived in a stone cottage directly opposite the gate of our village school. It would be impossible for the others not to notice that I was the only person not going.”

“At 3.45 on the appointed day, our teacher let us go from the class. I was very sad as I walked out through the door and across the playground to the school gate. Everyone else merrily crossed the road to Sarah’s house. Very sad and lonely, I turned right and walked home – I was the loneliest ten year old in the entire world.”

“Then do you know what happened?  Thirty years later, a new family moved into the house next door to my church in Dublin and they came to church.”

“Where are you from?’ I asked the man.

“From England,” he said.

“Where in England?”

“Somerset,” he said.

“Somerset is my home county,” I explained to my ten year old friend, so I asked him, “where in Somerset?”

“High Ham,” he said.

“Where did you live in the village?”

“Opposite the school.”

“You’re Sarah’s little brother,” I said.  “He looked at me in amazement.”

The gondola had arrived at the lift station, and we had stepped out.

“Is that story true?” laughed my friend.

“It is.  And in forty years time, when you are fifty and I am dead, I want you to tell another ten year old that story and make them laugh as you did.”

“You won’t be dead in forty years time.”

“I think I will.”

We had smiled and walked on.

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