An unsent email to my supervisors

Here is a little phenomenological interpretation of why I cried during our meeting. A story of my dad’s is playing in my head. “When [your twin brother] didn’t know a word, he’d ask me, and I would say, ‘well, sound it out…’. If you didn’t know a word, you’d ask me and I’d say, ‘well, sound it out,’ and you’d say ‘no, just tell me!’ And then you’d go and ask [your twin]. And that’s why he was reading at two-and-half and you were a bit later, when you were three.”

So not having the answers, and not being given the answers, taps into my personal narratives of being inferior to my (literally) genius twin brother in my father’s eyes.

Also, I have PMT at the moment.

Thank you for your patience.


Schools are terrible. Really terrible. Really.

I have been reading a lot lately about how terrible schools are, ranging from cartoons like this to articles like this. I went into my six-year-old daughter’s classroom today because she had to go to the doctor this morning (ear infection, you know how it is) and so I actually had a chance to observe them in action.

As I walked in, a paper dart flew past my head. It sailed over a tight corner which was crowded with a man I didn’t recognise – I think he might have been the autistic boy’s teacher aide – and a boy or two, discussing maths. Swiftly chasing the dart came Josh* and Aidan, both giggling. They picked it up and wandered off again, as I entered the main part of the room. There I spotted the teacher, Ms N, sitting on a low chair at the front of the room, with Bindi, Sofia and Anja (my daughter’s friends) sitting facing her on their own chairs. Ms N was taking notes as the girls explained some incident involving unkind behaviour by someone. My daughter was happy to be in the room and wanting to engage with her teacher and friends, but Ms N said that she would need to go and read a book for a few minutes. I relayed this to my daughter, explaining that Ms N was busy at the moment but would be free in a few minutes. Miss 6 skipped off to the book display behind her desk group to find something to read.

When Ms N had a moment I told her about the trip to the doctor. She stood up and put her head close to mine. “I sometimes think it would be easier if it were all boys!” she murmured. “They don’t get into all this… stuff.” Then she sat down to resume the court session.

The rest of the children were in small groups, or ones and twos, clustered around their desks and apparently cheerfully getting on with things. Some were standing, some were sitting. Some were chatting, some were quiet. It was a peaceful scene.

I mused on the contrast between what I had just seen and the popular image of schools portrayed in many articles on the Internet – children in rows, forced to sit down and shut up, to memorise and regurgitate mindlessly. Schools like these must indeed be terrible places of frustration and tyranny, where joy in learning is stamped out and individuality stifled in the name of classroom control.

The thing is, my school isn’t like that.

Maybe there’s something different about Ms N. And there is. She is recognised by my fellow parents and by other staff at the school as being exceptional in understanding the individual kids in her class, and fostering each child’s unique gifts.

Maybe there’s something different about this school. And there is. It is an Accredited School of the New Zealand Foundation for Character Education, and it places an extremely strong emphasis on strengths-based learning. It is the largest primary school in town. Kids from all over the world come here, meaning that my children are surrounded by a greater diversity of skin colours, accents and religions than you mostly find in this neck of NZ. It has an extraordinarily wide range of extra-curricular activities available (which we mostly don’t take advantage of because I don’t believe in overloading kids’ timetables).

So did we just happen to luck into one of the best schools with the best teachers, and that’s why our kids have loved school and learned heaps and made friends and come to understand themselves, their gifts and their challenges and the things that make them unique? Or do most schools do this, and is public opinion (as mediated by the internet) just lagging behind? … Or is it perhaps lagging geographically, and New Zealand schools are better than those archaic SAT-driven education factories in the US?

As I walked across the playground to leave, my almost-nine-year-old son and his classmates raced by me, training for the upcoming cross country. “Hi mum!” he yelled as he belted past.

My school is fine. So why do people think they’re so terrible?


*Names have been changed.

The New Victorian Childhood: Tiger Mothers and Constant Testing

An excellent post that puts together two of the pressures I admit I often feel: pressure to see my kids ‘fulfil their potential’ – i.e. do every possible activity available and succeed brilliantly at it – and pressure to not upset Them. I’ve talked about Them before, and I’ll edit in the link once I’m not blogging on my phone. Them, aka People, as in “what will People think?”
It’s 6:28 am and I’m in a nicely redecorated motel room in Christchurch, 5 hours drive north from home. I didn’t sleep well, I generally don’t the first night in a strange bed, and now I’ve given up. So here I am.
Christchurch is the city that both Sam and I were born in. He lived here more recently than me, when he was about seven or eight, while I left for Dunedin at eleven months and never looked back. We came here for our honeymoon nearly fifteen years ago and enjoyed the International Buskers Festival. But we haven’t visited since the Earthquake (link to come). So we’ve brought the kids to do a spot of ‘disaster tourism’ and see things like the Cardboard Cathedral and the container mall (a shopping centre constructed from shipping containers). We will also take the kids to Orana Park. I wish we had some kind of zoo in Dunedin but maybe it’s too cold, or maybe just too small.
This motel room is the nicest I’ve ever stayed in, although on closer inspection you can see the hideous old decor (embossed orange and green flower wallpaper, anyone?) peeping through the new paint. But I’ll forgive that for the mezzanine and the nice smooth ceramic cooktop. The kids were given a double and a single bed between the three of them, so naturally Mr 10 is sleeping on couch cushions on the living room floor instead. What WILL They think? We’d better clear it away before They come in to clean.


We think of ourselves as much more civilized than the Victorians, who sent their children to the mills or factories, or to work as chimney sweeps.  Thankfully, child labour has been banned, at least in most of the Western world. (Unfortunately, it seems it has simply been outsourced, like our factories… and call centres.)

But the Victorian legacy of depriving children of a childhood lives on… in the Tiger Mothers around the world, and in my local patch of North London, the obsession with schools, results, and cramming knowledge into children at the earliest possible age — ballet/piano/chess/foreign languages/maths/gymnastics etc.

We don’t expect our children to earn a living anymore, but we do expect them to carry our banner into the world.  And sometimes, it can be a very heavy banner indeed.  Especially if it they need to compete with lots of other children who are equally charged with carrying…

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Wanting to Belong

Wanting to Belong


Also, the photos are of where I live.

I’m shifting away from my desire to be a neuropsychologist. As I read more about addiction and mental health through my studies, and especially Dennis Cardiff’s amazing blog, I am increasingly drawn to this area of work. There aren’t many visible homeless people in Dunedin (there, I’ll stop being coy, I live in Dunedin NZ, ok? You still don’t know my address, right?) but according to another Otago Uni student they’re out there.

I stopped being scared of ‘crazy’ people in phases, partly chatting with a schizophrenic who would often come into the bookshop where I was on the counter, partly working with a client with a TBI at an activities centre for adults with disabilities (I was a music tutor), and partly getting to know some of the regulars who would pop in to the Hospital Chapel for a cuppa (I was the administrator). Now I’m itching to get back to working with the ‘crazies’, in a more directly useful capacity, but in the mean time I plan to use some of my free time next year (hey, I’m only writing a thesis, right? That’ll be easy compared to doing papers! Yes? Right?) to help out a bit at the local free health clinic. I think they need drivers at the moment.

By the way, please be assured that I do not think of the people I mentioned above, whom I know and chat with, as ‘crazies’. I think of them as people, and I know the things they care about and are interested in, and talk about those things. I use the word affectionately as a convenient way of describing the unconventional folks who are familiar figures walking the streets of Dunedin (my twin brother may be classed as one by the people who don’t know him but recognise him by his beard, hat and bare feet, and who is not at all crazy) and who have become part of the background of my life.

Small things in the middle of big things

I quit working with my Research Proposal introduction half finished today (my supervisor wanted a draft to review over the weekend) and walked out into glorious sunshine and the scent of spring flowers. I came home, played Piggy in the Middle with the kids, did some puzzles in the sun, made poached eggs with fresh garden herbs for tea and had a bath with my daughter, and once she’d got out, with a book. Now I’m settling into one of my more productive writing times of day. Hopefully it’ll actually be productive, but even if it isn’t, I’ve got one paragraph written that I didn’t have this afternoon, and a week more to do the rest of the thing.

This is a more pleasant way to think than ohshitohshitohshit I still have the introduction and methodology background and ethics and method and potential results to write and then there are exams in less than two weeks that i haven’t even started studying for and half the washing is still damp and next week both boys have to be at different places at different times of the day and i have classes and andandandandandwhydontijustgiveupsleeping.

So I’m not thinking like that. I’m listening to this. And as soon as I post this I’ll check Twitter one more time then turn it off and see if I can chip the next few sentences into shape.

I’m getting there, and it feels good to be actually working really really hard and proud of my progress.