Saturday, 30 July 2011

4000 miles

I enter a kind of meditative Zen state, capable of gazing out of the window and watching the scenery roll by for hours at a time.  My books go unread, my films unwatched, my writing is not getting done.  The view doesn’t change: at the moment through Texas and New Mexico it's dusty rock, scrubby green and brown bushes, cacti, the occasional dry river bed, low hill or shallow canyon.  I could get a better view in the lounge car, which has larger windows and views of both sides of the train, but that would mean leaving the glorious, silent isolation of my room, this tiny space which contains everything I need and nothing I don’t.  For someone who loves solitude, this journey is blissful.  Just me, a room and 4000 miles of American landscape passing before me like a film reel.  And America is impossible to look at and not think of movies: the cactus-studded promontory looking like it belongs in a Western; the busy Manhattan street with yellow cabs straight out of a Woody Allen film; the small town in rural Georgia where Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistlestop CafĂ© was filmed.

I have become an expert at typing whilst looking outside; not wanting to miss a second of the scene laid before me, empty and repetitive though it may be.  Two years as a secretary and I never mastered this skill: two days on the train and I have it down pat.

When I do venture out of my room, the train becomes a challenge for someone who is a)  full of English reserve, and b) shy.  The other passengers are all American, as far as I can tell, and insist on certain social protocols being followed. You must greet everyone with “Hi how are you?” and take your leave with “Have a nice day/journey”.  When sitting next to someone (for example, the dining car has community seating so as I’m travelling on my own, I always get put into a spare seat with a group of 2 or 3 others) there are 3 key questions: Where are you from? Where are you going? Where did you come from on this journey?  You rapidly find out more about people’s lives than you might know about your own family’s business in England.  From Denise & Chuck, I learn about their cross-country journey from Florida to Phoenix, where a brain surgeon is going to attempt radical and last-chance-at-life surgery on their 8 year old, who lies on Chuck’s lap holding his head.  With an elderly couple from LA, whose names I never learn, I discuss Nancy Drew books and what we ate in New Orleans.  A teacher working at an international school in Mexico gives me her email address in case I fancy a change of scene: Leicester to Latin America.  A meeting with a college professor from Berkeley and subsequent flirtation over the course of the two day journey leaves me imagining what life might be like in California, just as the previous day I was imagining life in Mexico.  I enjoy these interludes but always return with a sense of relief to my room where I can resume my staring in uninterrupted silence.

The big easy

I have wanted to visit New Orleans for so long that, like a long-anticipated party or Christmas as an excitable child, I felt sure it would be a disappointment, would not be what I expected.  But the crumbling plaster, the iron balconies, the oily heat that coats your skin, the lush foliage trailing from upper storeys… everything is exactly how I imagined it would be.  Bourbon and Decataur Streets are both reminiscent of Blackpool or the tackiest parts of Ibiza, but the rest of the French Quarter (and indeed the rest of the city that I see) is an essay in faded beauty.   

I think my two favourite things over the 3 days I am there are the bike tour I take with Confederacy of Cruisers and the Katrina exhibition at The Presbytere.  Jeff, the guide on the bike tour, is witty and knowledgeable and it’s nice to leave the French Quarter behind and see areas (mainly the Fabourg Marigny and Bywater districts) where residents live, work and go to school.  I haven’t been on a bike for a few years and was slightly concerned that I wouldn’t cope with cycling in decidedly non-English temperatures.  I needn’t have worried: the fixed gear bikes are super easy to ride on the flat streets of New Orleans and the breeze when cruising is a pleasant way to cool off.  It leaves me itching to get a bike when I return home to the almost as flat Leicester streets.

I’ve been reading New Orleans-based books while I’m here: Poppy Z Brite’s Lost Souls, the New Orleans classic A Confederacy of Dunces and, having picked up a copy in New York specially, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which is good preparation for The Presbytere. The Katrina exhibition is amazing and I spend a lot of my time there biting my lip, willing myself not to cry.  Lots of photographs, recorded testimony, video and donated objects (everything from a mud-encrusted teddy bear to the wall of an apartment on which a resident wrote his diary).  I stumble out into the sunshine of Jackson Square full of awe at the resilience and spirit of the residents of New Orleans.

I want to be a part of it

New York – and specifically Manhattan – have long been dear to my heart, but on this visit it’s Brooklyn that I fall for.  Our cousins live in Crown Heights, an area that while rough around the edges has its fair share of funky bars and vintage stores.  And in fact that’s precisely what we spend our first afternoon doing: walking to Prospect Park and then round Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, ducking into vintage shops ($100 dollars for a dress, anyone?!) and ending up at Franklin Park, a dark neighbourhood bar with pear cider on tap.

The following two days are blisteringly hot and many of our plans go out of the window.  Finding that the Strand bookstore on Broadway has air conditioning, we loiter for a couple of hours (no great hardship) and leave with a stack of books between us. 

Other great discoveries: 

A bookstore in downtown Brooklyn which is open till 10 at night - great to browse after a few cocktails.

Magnolia Bakery in Greenwich Village. 

Lunch at Grey Dog on University between 11th & 12th Streets.  Their homemade lemonade really hit the spot after a morning in 38 degree temps.

Brooklyn Flea on Saturday morning was a great final stop and I wished I could fill up my bag with goodies.  If I’d been flying home that day I would’ve done so, but I didn’t think the vintage maps, street signs and other tempting ephemera would survive a 5000 mile trip round the States so we left empty-handed.

Monday, 25 July 2011

On the move: a few thoughts

New York: family, laughter, HEAT.

Train: numb bum, Bunny the beadmaker, gazing out of the window for 1300 miles.

New Orleans: rain, bikes, books.

I will try and expand on these thoughts very soon, but I'm being evicted from the coffee shop as it's closing, so no more wifi.  Suffice it to say I am having a great time.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


So, I'm about to leave for my month-long trip around the States. My rucksack is packed to the gills, my iPod is charged, my wallet is full of dollars and I am full of cold, how typical.  I'll try and keep you all updated as I go but as I've no room for my laptop (it came down to that or my pillow, and I love sleep more than I love the internet) it will all be done via my iPhone: please excuse any typos, I hate the keyboard on this thing.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Music Monday

Nineteen years ago my family and I went to stay with my uncle and aunt in Boston for the summer.  I was just fourteen: gawky, awkward and very far from at ease with myself.  America was everything I imagined it would be from the books I read and the films I watched.  One warm evening my cousins (who seemed impossibly grown up and cool to me, being 16 and 20 at the time) and I drove to an outdoor concert an hour or so north of Boston.  Although when asked I will always cite Elastica at Leeds Metropolitan Uni as my first live music experience, in honesty it was Paula Abdul & Color Me Badd in rural Massachusetts. 

Paula Abdul I could take or leave, but I loved Color Me Badd.  If anyone ever complains about the rise of raunch in pop culture, I draw their attention to Color Me Badd's 1992 hit I Wanna Sex You Up.  Raunch has been around for as long as pop music and the lyrics to Rihanna's S&M, which caused such a stir recently, are no more shocking than I Wanna Sex You Up's "I wanna touch you in all the right places/I wanna make love to you/All night, all night."  Is part of the issue that it's now women who are making their desires explicit (in both senses of the word)? 

Listening to it now I realise that it's a truly bad song but it will always remind me of a hot July night when, very briefly, I felt grown-up, cool and American.

Saying goodbye

The board in my classroom, as decorated by 9E on the last day of term

Some teachers are able to be dispassionate about the job: a bad day is just that; a child is there to be filled with knowledge but not necessarily to interact with beyond that.  I'm not like that.  I enjoy spending time chatting to my pupils and getting to know them, listening to their hopes and fears, helping them find the right path in life.  But that does make it hard when, as on Friday, a class leaves.  My tutor group joined the school when they were 10 years old and I've been their tutor ever since.  Now they're strapping 14 year olds and are moving on to their new upper schools, thanks to the weird middle school system in Leicestershire.

Being a tutor to 9E for four years taught me a lot.  J taught me that some kids, no matter how much time and effort is put in, are on a self-destruct mission.  E taught me that with a bit of time and patience, black hair dye can be grown out.  B taught me the value of parental support: when he moved to a new foster home with fantastic carers, he flourished.  O taught me that sometimes all a child needs is someone to believe in them, to say "you can do it". 

On Friday afternoon I couldn't even make it through the register for crying; and I cried again as they walked out of the door.  The masses of cards and presents they gave me (mostly Haribo or wine - they know me very well!) also brought a tear to my eye.  I know some of my colleagues were probably wondering why the hell I was upset, but in six years of teaching this was the first tutor group I have taken right through the school and I would be worried if I wasn't sad to say goodbye.  After all, I've spent thousands of hours with these children.  I have giggled with them on school trips; spent tearful (theirs, not mine) lunchtimes sorting out problems and offering advice; taught them the dreaded Sex Ed; told them off when they were naughty (often); praised them when they did well (sadly, less often).  In the absence of any children of my own, those 26 kids have been my focus for four years and watching (and helping) them grow into delightful young adults was a joy.

O gave me a beautifully written card on the last day which contained one of the best analogies for the teacher/pupil relationship I've heard.  A bit of background first: on sports day a few weeks ago he ran the 800 metres race.  He's sporty but not an outstanding athlete and wasn't expecting to do that well.  I was sitting on the results desk just by the finish line and when he went past me on his first lap, in second place, I stood up and yelled encouragement at him: "Go on, you can do it!  Keep going!  You can do it O....!"  When he came round again in first place to win the race I jumped out of my seat, screaming with joy.  Now, this is not exactly normal behaviour for teachers at my school but it is normal behaviour for me.  Anyway, his card said:
"Year 9 sports day, 800 metres [and I'm] in second place, then I run past Miss Brown screaming her head off and I finish first.  This is the support you have been giving me for the past four years, pushing me from second to first."
I think my job as a teacher, and especially as a tutor, is to encourage my pupils to be the best they can be.  While the pupil does most of the hard work, just as O did the hard work in the race, I need to be there shouting encouragement and guiding them.  It's been bloody hard work being this class's tutor for four years, pushing them along, but I am going to miss them terribly. 

Monday, 11 July 2011

Music Monday

"Early morning, Sunday dawning/It's just the wasted years so close behind."

This music Monday brings back memories less of a particular person, more of a particular time.  In my first year at Leicester University I lived in halls in a block of 18 blokes (mostly rugby playing Southerners, with a token Londoner who reckoned himself for a wideboy and an aloof Mancunian skater thrown in for good measure) and 5 other girls.  The numerous ways in which I was set apart from my hall mates included: having black/red/pink/bleached hair (delete as appropriate for various times throughout the 9 months I lived there); being interested in philosophy and politics; preferring the divey indie clubs to the awful student night at Krystals or Le Palais De Dance (classy names or what?).  It was a fairly lonely year and not what I had expected from university, my fantasies being more of the 'sitting in sunny quads reading the metaphysical poets and debating feminism' persuasion than the 'watching the rugby club chug their own weight in lager while the girls looked on, enraptured' reality.

I developed various routines to get me through the year, my favourite of which was to go out and drink chartreuse (I thought it was glamourous) by the gallon on Saturday night, then wake with the dawn on Sunday morning and play The Velvet Underground & Nico.  The lazy, hallucinogenic feel of the record (on scratchy vinyl, naturally) allowed me to believe, for a short while, that I was somewhere more glamourous than lying hungover on a single bed, in a poster-filled bedroom, in suburban Leicester. 

On my birthday (a Sunday) last month I woke early, rueing the cocktails and cider of the night before.  I came down to my kitchen, turned on the radio, and Sunday Morning was playing.  It seemed like the perfect birthday present and a wonderful reminder of, if not better times, then younger and different times.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

A typical Saturday

I'm a creature of habit and if I'm at home in Leicester my Saturdays tend to follow a pattern:

Start the day with the Guardian while eating breakfast.

Go to the Post Office to collect parcels that the poor postie hasn't been able to fit through the letterbox (today, among other things, a train set for my nephew's second birthday, a letterpess print from What Katie Does for my kitchen, and The Rough Guide to the USA from Waterstones).

Walk into town, come rain or shine, through Nelson Mandela Park and past the prison, down King Street to buy a Big Issue from the vendor outside Waterstones.

Go to H&M to see if they have anything new and exciting (bought today: a great egg yolk yellow cardigan).  I don't usually go into Debenhams, but decided to check out the sales today and was glad I did: this little beauty was £7 in the sale from the Topshop concession!

Wander around the independent shops in the Silver Street/Lanes area and surrounding arcades. 
My favourite bookshop: Chapter One.  It opened a few months ago and I LOVE it.  Really cheap, really good stock and always plenty of new things to look at.  I have bought their 'Go away, I'm reading' tote in three different colours so far.  Today I resisted adding a fourth bag, but picked up Claire Tomalin's biography of Katherine Mansfield for £2 instead.
My penultimate stop: the peerless Rockaboom in St Martins Square.  This shop is a Leicester institution and I try and buy something every time I pass (my excuse is I'm supporting independent business).  This afternoon I got Odd Blood by Yeasayer for a fiver: bargain.

Finally, Firebug.  My home-from-home, the best bar in the world, this is where I end the afternoon with a pint of Thatchers Gold cider (pictured with the book I was reading) and some lunch.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A day in the life

The following is what the coalition government would like me and every other teacher to do, every working day, until we’re 68, for less money and less pension (£180,000 less over the course of my life in fact):

I’m at my desk by ten past seven.  In the winter it’s still pitch black when I arrive at work but this morning the sun is shining.  I spend twenty minutes reading and replying to emails: from colleagues; from teachers at other schools; from parents.  I have some paperwork I need to prepare for the upper school next door but that has to wait as I have a pressing email to reply to from a concerned parent about their child’s hospital tests.  Another twenty minutes are spent going through my lesson plans for the day, getting resources out, and cueing up PowerPoint and video on my computer for display on the interactive whiteboard.  At 7.50am I take a fifteen minute break in the staffroom for breakfast: a cup of tea and a cereal bar.  Then the bell rings…

My year 9 tutor group are leaving for their induction days at upper school this morning so are even louder and more hyper than usual, their nerves shredded and shredding mine in return.  Then down to assembly, checking ties and shirts as they go.  I feel nervous for them and sad to see them go, knowing also that this will feel so much harder next Friday when they leave for good.

Period 1 comes with many whines of “I don’t get it.”  Despite having had two lessons preparation for the project, and despite me going over the instructions not five minutes ago, a good proportion of the class are looking clueless and moaning.  When I ask them if they have read the worksheet clutched in their hand which offers a step-by-step guide on what to do, they look at me blankly.  When it becomes clear that I am not going to read the sheet for them, they eventually comply.  “Do you get it now?” I ask, and receive a grunt in return which I take for affirmation.  This conversation is repeated about seven times with seven different pupils, while the kids who were actually listening to me busy themselves with library books, computers and note-taking.  Their project is designed to follow the latest pedagogical trend for ‘independent learning’; the idea that if you give students a goal but allow them to choose how to reach it, they will learn more and become more independent.  Unfortunately, independent learning requires them to think, which is anathema for some kids who would prefer to be spoon-fed.  Hence I will have to go through this same process every lesson until the project is finished, metaphorically holding the hands of the ones who lack the skills or are simply too lazy to think for themselves. 

Period 2 is an unusually pleasant cover lesson, sitting with a top set while they complete an assessment.  I only need to put on my ‘scary teacher voice’ (my mum’s words) twice, for the benefit of some lads in the back row who haven’t met me before and try to take advantage.  Soon they are working away in silence like the rest of the class, and I catch up on marking some essays: top set year 9, who have a tendency to write seven pages of closely typed analysis that takes hours to mark thoroughly.

I spend my break time preparing things for the next lesson as it’s quite resource-heavy: by the end of the hour the classroom is an explosion of paper, colouring pens, glue sticks and glitter (we’re making boardgames).  This class (a year 6 group with only 21 pupils) are the high point of my day, they’re so amenable and diligent and they even say “thank you” when I help them.

After lunch I have a second high point: making a phone call to the mum of a boy I’ve tutored for four years.  I want to let her know how well he’s done and how far he’s come since year 6, when we had to work together quite closely to sort out his behaviour and organisation.  We have a lovely chat that leaves us both near to (happy) tears.  Having a parent thank me and recognise the contribution I have made to helping her son grow up into a delightful young man makes doing this job worthwhile.  What is to come next, though, is the other side of the coin…

My final class of the day have been a struggle all year.  Actually ‘struggle’ doesn’t seem to quite cover it.  ‘Daily hell' is more accurate.  In six years of teaching I have never had to deal with a group like it, and the struggle has only been slightly helped by the fact that every teacher who has them is going through the same thing. 

The lesson begins with confrontation: two boys were extremely disruptive yesterday and didn’t finish their work, so were warned that they would be out of the lesson today while everyone else typed up their creative writing in the ICT room.  Both boys have conveniently forgotten this and I have to keep them out of the room and calm while simultaneously settling the rest of the class and getting them logged on.  In the 55 minute lesson we then have: one of the boys outside point-blank refusing to work, leading to senior management intervention (even with this he has produced a grand total of nothing by the end); one kid (S) being sent out for continual name-calling; the kid who was having the names called to him (C) getting S in a headlock and shoving him into a chair.  So out he goes and I find his head of year to deal with him.  So now I have four children out of the room, and twenty two left.  L is up and down like a jack in a box.  T needs help with every other spelling, which is fine but his chosen method of asking for help is to yell at the top of his voice across the room.  D has discover a zombie game online and decided that’s a better option than completing his work.  J and K manage to keep focused until the last 5 minutes, when hitting each other with their books becomes more interesting than finishing the task.  All the while I’m up and down the aisles, giving reminders and warnings, eventually taking D off the computer.  Every so often I pop outside to check on the three remaining boys (C having been removed entirely from the area by management).  S has typed one line all lesson and will need to be issued with a detention to make up the work after school.  During all of this, the girls have diligently sat working and chatting quietly.  How they put up with this low-level disruption to their education day-in, day-out is beyond me.  They have made little progress this year because of the handful of boys (and it is usually the boys, sadly) who cause chaos.  I end the day feeling like an utterly crap teacher, the parent’s kind words utterly forgotten.

By the time I get home - one meeting and ten more Macbeth essays later - it's nearly 6pm and I've done a 10 hour day.  Nothing unusual, special or noteworthy about today: there are 189 other days just like it, some slightly calmer, some much worse, but all along the same lines.  This isn't a moan or a 'poor me' rant.  There are many elements of teaching that I love and parts of yesterday that I wouldn't swap for the world, but to think that I'll still feel that way at the age of 68 is ridiculous.  Children deserve to be taught by people with energy and enthusiasm.  Teachers deserve to be given respect for the fact we do a difficult job educating and helping to raise the next generation, and that we mostly do it with a smile on our faces.  That respect should include being fairly remunerated both during service and in retirement.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Across America by train

Two weeks today my brother and I leave for a month-long trip across the States.  This trip has been long-planned and includes cities I have wanted to visit for, in some cases, decades.  It seemed sensible to make use of my long summer holidays and go to as many of those places during the same holiday, rather than a week here and a week there over a few years.  Another influence was reading Stranger On A Train by Jenny Diski, which recounts her circumnavigation of the USA using Amtrak. 

Richard and I fly to New York where we’ll stay with cousins in Brooklyn for three days.  It will be my third trip to NYC so will be less about the touristy things and more about hanging out with family and visiting the holy grail of bookshops: Strand on Broadway, with 18 miles of books.  I also hope to get some good thrifting and vintage shopping done.

Then it’s a train south and after 30 hours I’ll arrive in New Orleans.  I’ve longed to visit since I was about 20 and started reading Anne Rice and Poppy Z Brite.  Never mind that their New Orleans’ are populated by vampires and mass murderers, they made the whole place sound steeped in mystery and history.

From New Orleans I catch Amtrak’s Sunset Limited service to Los Angeles, a journey that takes two days and two nights.  A quick change (LA doesn't hold much interest for me) onto another 12 hour journey to San Francisco, on supposedly one of the most beautiful stretches of railway in the world.

San Francisco is where I’ll spend a couple of days tramping up and down hills, finding out about the LGBT history in the Castro district, doing more thrift shopping and visiting Amoeba Records to buy lots and lots of music.  Richard and I hook back up here and go to Yosemite National Park for a two day hiking trip.

A train north takes us both to Eugene, Oregon to visit my friend Sarah and her family, then onto Portland.  I’ve been intrigued by this hub of alternative culture for years now.  Portland is or has been home to such indie luminaries as The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, The Cribs, Gossip, The Shins, Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney…. the list goes on and on.  I read a great feature in the Guardian travel section a few years ago about vintage shopping in Portland and as it’s also home to one of the biggest bookshops in the WORLD, Powells, it was always a given the city would figure on this trip. 

Finally Seattle, a city that for anyone who was a teenager in the early 90s has a similar allure to that of San Francisco for children of the 60s.  Bands like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam and films like Singles made this rainy corner of the US the centre of the alternative universe for a few short years.  I’m looking forward to putting on a plaid shirt and visiting the new Nirvana exhibit at the Experience Music Museum.

So as you may have gathered, my trip has essentially been planned around music, books and shopping.  I’m taking a laptop so will be blogging as I go about the places I visit, the people I meet and the things I buy.  I can't wait!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Music Monday

I got some great feedback after last week's musical memories post so decided to shamelessly steal Jenny from juststuff's idea and make 'Music Monday' a regular feature. 

I didn't even have to think very hard today because when I got home and turned on the radio 6 Music was playing the rather wonderful A.M. 180 by Grandaddy.  This song reminds me of my brother, Richard, as watching it being played live is the closest I've ever come to seeing Ric dance.  Either traumatised by too many enforced choreography sessions as a child(usually to Jesus Christ Superstar, with me as Jesus (of course) and my brothers as backing dancers)  or just inflicted with straight-white-male syndrome, Richard does not do moving rhythmically to music.  But when we went to see Midlake play at the O2 Academy last November they brought on support act Jason Lytle (late of Grandaddy) to play one of their encores: a version of A.M. 180.  So, Richard had his favourite band playing one of his favourite songs by another loved band, with their lead singer on vocals.  It was more than even he could manage to stay still and while no-one would call his tapping of the toe and vague rocking motion dancing, it is as close as I'll ever come to seeing him bust a move. 

Jason Lytle & Midlake at the O2 Academy