The Joy of Learning

The world is full of magic to be discovered, and it was my children’s library and laboratory during their childhood years.

I would like to begin by saying that I am not an educationalist, but my children’s father is. He has a Bachelor of Education degree from King Alfred’s College, Winchester, but the best of his education philosophy (in my humble belief) comes from his mother.

My mother-in-law was brought up in a poor part of South East London. Her mother was a Spanish immigrant who did not speak much English and went blind when my mother-in-law was 11. The war came soon after that, so my mother-in-law had a very low level of formal education. She worked as a cleaner, cleaning offices and schools. But she self-taught, despite her limited hours, to better herself. She finished her years of work as a clerk at London Electricity Board, a huge achievement for a girl who did not go to school and had a lot of responsibilities.

The great thing about my mother-in-law is, she did not harangue her blue-eyed boy to study, study, study. And so, my children’s father grew up cycling round the Kent countryside from the age of 4, played with the family pets, and later on, jammed away in a rock band in some mate’s garage. He is the most balanced, happiest person I know, and he learned a lot and earned enough to buy us a magical life.

When my kids were young, we did not have enough money to keep up with what other families were doing. Thus, my kids grew up without electronic toys or even a colour television. We had to ‘make do’. Pots, pans, wooden spoons when they were young, and later, family games of Pictionary and Charades. We built forts from blankets and sheets, collected interesting things from our walks for our Seasonal Nature Table, and from this way, we all learned about ourselves, the natural world, family values and the beginnings of language, literature, the sciences.

Later, when iPads became the rage, we could have afforded it but somehow never got around to buying it for our youngest child. Her former school had made it mandatory for each student to have an iPad, the much touted learning tool, but she did not do too badly without ever having owned an iPad.

We had to work harder as parents because we did not have the whizzy gizmos to educate our children. We don’t use the internet to babysit them either, so much as the temptation was there to allow them to passively learn from the ‘Net, we taught them the old fashioned way, namely by experiences in the real world.

My second son built a real-life go-kart with his father in the garden shed. He raced the go-kart, became quite good at racing, and then sold it for profit. He wasn’t an academic child, and he certainly did not leave school with a string of A’s, yet he managed to win a scholarship to study Mechanical Engineering & Electronics at Southampton University, and in a time where there are many unemployed graduates, he is second in command of all the weapons on a Royal Navy warship. He is 27, exuberant, boisterous, balanced, loves life.

His younger sister is enjoying the closing years of her very magical childhood, living in a land of aquamarine oceans, blue skies, winding island roads. She rides shotgun to school everyday with her father, chatting away happily, and often, with her mother too. She talks about her day, uncensored, with passion and heat. The teachers were sometimes unfair, there were bitches in her school and dumb boys. History and English Literature are confusing, Maths is boring, and the Sciences are easy. As for English Language… “don’t get me started” with a roll of her eyes.

Unbeknownst to her, as we soothed her, answered her, rebuked her, we are teaching her. Not only about the syllabus, but our family values, the ways of the world, humanity.

And because we limit the time she is allowed to spend studying, she dives on her books with great gusto. And because she is only allowed limited time on her subjects, she on her own accord brings them into her real world, in our car conversations and whenever she makes the connection with the real world. And her eyes and quicksilver brain are always searching to make the connection, sometimes between the most innocuous events and objects. A casual conversation about “those shoes” became the laws of Spanish grammar and ultimately, the trivium. She argues heatedly, sticking her head between her parents’, intent on getting her point across.

We see the joy of learning awakens in her, and it is a great feeling.

Across The Counties

Lionheart

Yesterday was officially the end of the British summer as the cold front came in with vengeance. Fierce storms, 70mph winds and driving rain were the forecast, and indeed, when I went out for dinner last night, the roads were relatively quiet as people opted to stay indoors. The forecast this morning was meant to be the same.

Overnight, there had been several fatalities on the road in southern England. This morning, at 6am, there was a massive accident on the M4 at Langley. There was a tailback going back 10 miles.

But over dinner last night, Knight had dared me to do something I have never done before: swim on the River Avon with him.  I have never swam on the Avon with anyone.  What a ridiculous suggestion. Because at the best of times, I hate swimming.  I am a strong swimmer based solely on this very dislike of the water – I swim fast, to get myself out of the water as fast as possible.  But to voluntarily swim on the swollen Avon on the first day of autumn? I must be mad.  Even my normally implacable mother had wailed, “But darling, people have drowned on the Avon!”

But meet Knight’s challenge I must.  After all, isn’t growth all about coming face to face with your inner boundaries, and stepping out of your comfort zone? it’s what keeps us young, as we draw new confidence and new exhilaration from taking the step off our usual daily existence.

So like two misbehaving teenagers, we set off from London at the crack of dawn on this supposedly vicious day to travel to Avon. To our surprise, the sun followed us throughout, with no sign of grey skies or dark clouds, as we drove past the roads of our past. We laughed joyously, and the years melted away.

Whilst at University (though at separate times) we were both members of the Oxford Stunt Factory. I joined, simply because I wanted to go to its Pink Pimms Party in the park after the May Ball. I ended up being catapulted across the river at 3am in the morning, still in my ball gown. After that, I was hooked and became the Club’s fixture.

River Avon is rich in history.  It is 75miles long, slow, meandering, with hidden dangers.  In the past (maybe 5,000BC), when it was young, it was a powerful torrent that the limestone outcrop could not push back. The river gradually wore away at the rock eventually forming the 300 feet deep gorge that is the seaward entrance to the city.

And it was into this river we jumped in, swam briefly, emerged with shivering bodies and chattering teeth, exhilarated, alive.

Warning: Do not attempt this. In April 2014, a man drowned on the same spot on the Avon that we swam in. 

Bristol,_Avon_Gorge_from_Clifton_Down

 

Same view, different eyes

A year after I graduated from Oxford, my family remained in our Oxford house whilst I started work in London. I had to commute. It was a nightmare, but there was no way out. Housing in London (where I wanted to live) has always been exorbitantly expensive, and I was the main breadwinner. We also had lots of children.  So. for almost a year, I had to endure the long commute.  I could not afford to commute by train, because a huge chunk of my salary would have gone to British Rail. The bus would have been too slow. I had no choice but to bike it. My machine was a Ducati Monster, which was a thrill to ride buy quite unreliable.  And it was hellish on winter nights. I just wanted to rush home either to put my kids to bed or to have breakfast with them, depending on my shift.  Life wasn’t easy then.

Thus, I travelled on these roads for over a year without noticing how beautiful they are.  Today, I did.

Avon 2

 

The strength of a nation

Avon 1

Avon and Somerset, Oxfordshire and London. We set off at 6am, and caught the morning sun burning the mists off the grounds in Oxfordshire. We both have great fondness for this county, because Oxford is our alma mater. We had a lot of lovely memories here, punting on the Isis and Cherwell in summer, pubs of St Giles in winter, the higgledy piggledy bookshop on St Giles, friends’ houses in Jericho and summer parties on our colleges’ quads. It was a magical interlude before ‘real’ life began.

We drove on, passing rolling farmlands and pastures, fields ready for winter cereal or those with tall corn already growing. We drove past deer, horses, cows and sheep. The leaves are starting to turn auburn and gold at this time of the year. It is this that deeply binds Englishmen and Englishwomen to our country rather than the glitter and opportunities of the capital. I hope my son will return after his 6 month tour of duty of the Middle East back to his beloved England once more. He promised me he would do his best to come home, and to bring others safely home too. We have one Englishman whose time is running out, a John Cantlie. My son said, it is worth the sacrifice of his own life and others like him to bring John Cantlie home, because all the British men and women involved had gone into this voluntarily, with their eyes wide open, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

“We will never leave one of our own behind, Mum,” my 25 year old Lieutenant said. “It’s not machismo, but a simple ideology.”

My boy is young, passionate, idealistic, fiery and so proud to be English. Someday, he will make a fine leader. But as his mother, I just want him home where he belongs. Here, in England.

Knight touched my hand lightly as we drove into the capital at nightfall. We had driven in silence for the last few miles and I had tears running down my cheeks.

“What I said in my speech just now, though I misquoted slightly, is something you have shown me,” he said. “That you can judge the strength of a nation by the face of its women.”

And through my tears, I smiled for him and my son.