Failing to succeed

It’s nearly that time of year again, when year 12 results come out (or have already come out, or came out and went back in again, if you got caught up in the glitch!). As usual there’s a lot of talk of of defining moments. Of deciding your fate. Of doors opening or slamming in your face, depending on the outcome.

Earlier this year in a school assembly, I was inspired to out myself. Here I am, passionate (verging on obsessive) Computer Science teacher, researcher, and writer. Absolutely where I want to be, doing what I love, and feeling as though I can make a difference. There is nowhere I would rather be.

But my first preference was medicine.

So was my second.

I didn’t get in.

I failed.

Oh, I didn’t fail my VCE, but I failed to get the score I needed to do medicine.

A better thing could not have happened to me. I drifted into a science degree intending, in a vague and fairly uninspired way, to study Genetics. I took Computer Science as a fill in subject because I had always liked machines that go “Bing!”

By third year I was studying nothing but Computer Science. I was never going to do honours. Certainly never going to do a PhD, and no way would I ever become a lecturer. All of these things inevitably came to pass. Quite quickly, really.

I suck at predicting my future.

I’ve always been faintly astounded by people who have 5 year plans and the like. My planning mostly consists of noticing an open door and flinging myself through it.

Occasionally I have to dynamite the door to make sure it’s open.

The point is that I thought I knew what I wanted, but not getting it turned out to be the best thing that could possibly have happened. It took a while, but now I am right where I want to be, doing something I love with a slightly obsessive passion (I may be lying about the slightly part). I’ve taken a strange and winding path to get here, but every step of that road helped to give me skills and attributes I would not have had any other way. I doubt I would be this happy, or this useful if I hadn’t failed to get into medicine.

Tonight my year 12s graduate at our school’s presentation night. (I know, I don’t teach year 12, but they are still MY YEAR 12s. Hush.) It will be a minor miracle if I don’t cry, because every single one of them has performed amazing feats just to get where they are.

So if you’re waiting on your final school results, remember this: there is nothing defining about these numbers. You are so much more than a number could ever express. Whatever happens, your future is in your hands, and you have extraordinary potential. Go get ’em, Tiger.

Down the Dementia Rabbit Hole

I don’t always write about my visits to Mum. There’s always something new, but often there’s no new emotion left to deal with it. Nothing left to say. Nothing new to feel.

Today was pretty normal at first, as far as dementia allows for any definition of normal.

Mum asked me where my parents live. “Only in my head, honey. Only in my head.”

Of course I didn’t say that, just answered lightly and steered the conversation to safer topics. But I’m used to that one now. Then she said I was her sister. That was new. She’s an only child. But she hasn’t reliably known me for months. I’m not greatly disturbed by who she thinks I am.

We went out to lunch. She was a little odd – differently odd, even for her – but nothing particularly radical. We walked back to her house, and I waited to see her inside before leaving. She fumbled with her keys and couldn’t get the gate unlocked. This is pretty normal for Mum these days, so I waited a bit in the hope she would sort it out, and then I got out my keys and tried the lock.

It was stuck.

I had the right key – I had opened the gate with it when I arrived – but it wouldn’t turn in the lock. The lock is a deadlock and the gate is one of those spiky ornamental ones. The house is really quite a fortress, so being unable to unlock the gate makes getting in a significant challenge.

Mum immediately started to panic. Her key chain is festooned with broken keys, and she was getting more and more stressed about trying to unlock the gate. I was worried she would break her key off in the lock and then we’d have no hope. To top it off it was getting late and I needed to get home to pick up my kids.

I tried to get Mum to stop wrestling with the lock while I figured out what to do. I couldn’t open the garage, as the batteries seemed to be flat on the keypad. There is no easy place to scale the fence. I tried my key in the lock again, to no avail – it was definitely the right key, but the lock just wouldn’t move. Meanwhile Mum was becoming increasingly agitated, saying it had never happened before and she never had any trouble with the locks, why was it happening now, what were we going to do, why was it happening now… her stress levels were sky rocketing and it was impossible to isolate myself from her panic. It was infectious.

I called my husband to see if he had any suggestions, which at least calmed me a little, and I worked out that if I put my foot in the letterbox slot I could get myself up and over the gate (lucky I’ve been doing all that weights work recently is all I can say!). I had to sit on the spiky gate to get my other leg over which was no picnic, but I managed it.

I jumped down the other side to find that the lock was indeed jammed. But it was jammed outside the latch-hole. If we had tried the other handle, the gate would have opened.

This is the rabbit hole of dementia. I’ve felt for years that visits to Mum took my brain and ripped it into tiny pieces. I’ve long suspected that I didn’t ever manage to collect up all the bits, and that with every visit I, myself, become less complete. Less coherent. It’s impossible to be around that level of dysfunction without becoming somewhat dysfunctional yourself. But today I failed to open a gate that was, in fact, not locked.

I saw Mum safely inside. She became calm as soon as she was inside the house, fortunately. But her panic, her terror, her anxiety? I took them home with me. I pulled over on the side of the road halfway home and sobbed. Over a gate. Yet not over a gate at all. Over the mess that this damned disease has made of my mother, and is making of me.

I don’t want to play this game anymore.

 

Nerds don’t make good teachers, eh?

“Nerds don’t make good teachers, Catholic schools warn” screamed a bucket load of headlines yesterday, in response to the Government’s proposal to increase the minimum ATAR for teaching to 70.

Now, I have some reservations about this proposal. I would rather see conditions improved – especially workload – than impose a mandatory minimum score. This feels to me like a cheap and easy approach with quite uncertain outcomes, rather than a genuine attempt to improve our education system.

But it’s the comment from the Executive Director of Catholic Education Melbourne that gets so far up my nose I’m going to need surgery to extract it. To be fair, the headlines were cheap clickbait, and the actual quote is “Nerds don’t necessarily make good teachers.” Which is hard to argue with. I mean, take any group of people, even teachers, and they don’t necessarily make good teachers. There is no completely homogeneous group of people on earth. You can’t point to a race, a personality type, a socio economic group, of any kind and say “they will all make fabulous teachers”. Or train drivers. Or Executive Directors of the Catholic Education System.

Now, I will be the first to admit – no, to exclaim with pride! – that I am a nerd. So perhaps I am a little biased on this topic. But I am so very, very sick of the lazy, tired stereotype that nerds are pasty people with no social skills who never go out in the sunlight.

I work with nerds. I teach nerds. I have taught some of the smartest people I’ve ever met over the last 6 years, and there are some extraordinary teachers, communicators, and empaths among them. Sure, they’re not all like that. It’s true that smart people aren’t all the best communicators. But there is no group of people that you can say are all the best communicators.

Some of my nerds are amazing at sport. Some of them are extraordinary debaters. Some of them are the most talented musicians I have ever met. Some of them are incredible empaths. They are a rich and diverse group of people, with no two ever totally alike, but here’s what they have in common:

Nerds are intelligent and focused, especially when something engages their passion.

Nerds are passionate and often want to change the world.

Nerds are talented, often in many different areas at once.

Nerds think outside the box, and ask “why?” about problems the rest of the world takes for granted.

Nerds are creative.

Nerds are problem solvers.

Nerds made the iphone and write all the apps. They designed your tablet computer and create new drugs to treat disease. They invented wifi, the microwave, and the Airbus A380. They gave you google maps and email, hybrid cars and solar power. They can give you life saving surgery and remote controlled lights.

Just like the ASAP Science boys sing:

See I heard (oh) 
That you been out and about making fun of nerds 
Making fun of nerds 
See that's simply a mistake, know why? 
Soon they'll innovate and change our lives 
And be remembered for all of time

Most of the teachers at my school would happily, and accurately, wear the nerd label, and they are some of the most dedicated, talented, and amazing teachers I have ever known. They are brilliant communicators, passionate about their work, and would do just about anything for the students they teach. A startling number of them have PhDs – they are pretty much the definition of uber nerds – and they are fabulous.

So next time you are tempted to run with that tired old nerd stereotype, ask yourself what you’re really trying to say. And whether it’s true.

 

Holding on tightly

Andrew just left to go to Perth for our friend David’s funeral. I only met David a few times, but we bonded over teaching, and of course over Andrew. Andrew, David, and David’s brother Mike, grew up together. They were brothers in all but DNA. After David and his family moved to Perth in his teens, they were only sporadically in contact but they remained inescapably connected.

And now he’s gone. Andrew packed his things for the flight in my cousin Chris’s backpack, which we inherited when Chris died. Tonight we’ll eat dinner in some bowls that also belonged to Chris. We might serve the veggies with the silver spoon my beloved friend James gave me before he died, so that I would have something to remember him by. I didn’t need the spoon, James has a permanent and dedicated room in my heart.

If Marg hadn’t died a few weeks ago I would call her to touch base around now. I’m wearing the earrings I bought when raiding Vic market with Di way back in first year uni, some years before a car accident robbed her of a future and me of the other half of my brain.

Together, and with many others, they made me who I am. I am built on the foundations of all the people I have ever loved. There are pieces of them embedded in my heart, but they take pieces of me with them when they die. I am broken afresh by each new death, and rebuilt by every friendship.

Each new loss is a body blow, knocking me off balance and off course.

Look down,
The ground below is crumbling.
Look up,
The stars are all exploding.
Hey yeah, hey yeah oh oh
Hey yeah, hey yeah
It’s the last, day on earth,
In my dreams, in my dreams,
It’s the end, of the world,
And you’ve come back, to me.
In my dreams.
Kate Miller-Heidke, Last Day on Earth

Last night in my dreams I was having an argument with my Dad. I woke to find him still gone, and it was equal parts relief and regret. That’s a long story.

Every death interrupts a million stories. But it does not sever those connections. As Pratchett, himself now an echo, wrote: ‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…’

Memories remain. Love remains. Even as sadness is overwhelming. My Dad used to say that life was a chronic and ultimately fatal disease. Experience has taught me that the prognosis is acutely uncertain.

So gather your loved ones to you. Take that chance. Make that stand. Give life everything you’ve got. It’s uncertain, and precious, and capricious in the extreme. Grab it with both hands.

Taking us back up

Today I accidentally read some of the comments on an article about what I hope will be the demise of Trump. I have scrubbed and scrubbed and I still feel filthy. They make me angry. They make me despair. They are misogynistic, racist, xenophobic. They are a snapshot of the worst that humanity can be.

And that, right there, is what is killing us. Politicians like Tony Abbott, Pauline Hanson, and Donald Trump take us down. They foment all of the worst that we are, and brew it up into a sick and feverish storm of hatred and misery. Which often works. It got Abbott elected. I hope with all my heart it won’t get Trump elected, but at least until a few days ago it was looking all too plausible. I want to believe the chances have dropped, but he’s bloody good (by which I mean evil) at what he does.

There are too many ways in which we allow the world to take us down now. To reduce us to the lowest common denominator. The fear of otherness is whipped up into demands that Muslims should be locked out of our country for our own protection – notwithstanding the ones who were born here, and who are in fact in more danger because of all this fear than we “normal” “safe” Caucasians. No, Muslims are different, and therefore a threat.

Speaking as someone who has always been a little different, one way or another, I find that chilling.

So instead of reading about Trump, and Hanson, and others of their evil, demoralising ilk, I am increasingly turning to the people who inspire others, just by being themselves. They, too, are different, and that is immensely heartening.

I have a close friend who is vegan, because she wants to reduce her impact on the planet. She doesn’t talk about it much, and certainly doesn’t impose her beliefs on others. Where vegan food isn’t available she will go vegetarian without fuss. But she is busily making thoughtful, ethical decisions. She inspires me to think more about the impact of everything I do.

I have another friend who would be exceedingly cross with me for writing about him, so I shall endeavour to be vague enough that he remains safely anonymous. But he is an extraordinary inspiration. His work, his friendships, and much of his play are all focused on making the world a better place. He tries to think about the impact of everything he does. Wherever possible he chooses the companies he deals with by considering the ethics of their behaviour. If he sees a situation that needs fixing he damned well fixes it, if he possibly can. More often than not if he can’t do it alone he will mobilise the rest of the world to get it sorted. If he sees someone who needs help, he helps them. He feels a deep need to give back to the world. And the beauty of this is not just in the immediate impact of what he does. It’s in the way his behaviour changes the people around him. The ripples of his actions spread across the world. I am a better person for knowing him.

I have another friend who fosters guide dog puppies. She cares for them, loves them, bonds with them for a year, and then has to say goodbye. It’s brutal, but it’s crucial. How could guide dogs be provided to the blind if someone didn’t love them and care for them while they were puppies? We’re all pretty good at leaving things like that to “someone else”. This friend has stepped up to be that someone. Plus she posts pictures of the puppies online, which is a whole wave of positive energy right there.

A student of mine thought I was a little down last week, so he bought me a sonic screwdriver necklace to cheer me up. What is Trump against that sort of kindness and empathy?

I’ve written about people like this before – they are the sparkly people who polish the souls of the rest of us just by being nearby. They catch us when we fall. They lift us higher than we could rise alone.  I could write about the good people in my life 24 hours a day 7 days a week and not be finished in a year.

I think we need to spend more time talking about people like this, and less time listening to Trump and his corrosive ilk. Because even in disagreeing with Trump, even in ranting about how foul he is, he is taking us down. We are focusing on foul, stinking hatred. And I think it’s time we focused on love. Research has shown that being thankful positively changes your brain chemistry – so what impact do you imagine hatred has?

So let’s write about people helping each other. Let’s talk about the people who love and support us. Let’s be thankful for the good things in our lives. Research has shown that being thankful positively changes your brain chemistry , and even your health – so what impact do you imagine hatred has?

Lately I’ve been posting my thankful things to Facebook every day. And maybe some people find it mawkish or overly sentimental. I post political stuff too. I certainly get angry a lot – about injustice and cruelty, mostly. But there’s a lot of good in the world, too. I think maybe it’s time we started paying more attention to all the love.

Every single valedictory

Monday marks my sixth valedictory dinner. The sixth class of year twelves who will take a piece of my heart with them as they fly free into their amazing futures.

For my first valedictory dinner as a High School teacher I sang in a choir of people who felt more like friends than students. I couldn’t wrap my head around saying goodbye to them, even as I dwelt on their extraordinary potential.

It was impossible to imagine feeling that way about another class. They taught me everything about becoming a teacher, a huge amount about being human, and quite a lot about computer science – PhD or no.

Yet every year a new class enmeshes itself in my heart – winning my admiration, my trust, and my affection. I know teachers are supposed to be dispassionate – calmly objective observers of studentkind – but I can’t operate that way. Each new class has a claim on my heart like no other.

I don’t teach year twelve classes, but my year elevens are profoundly special to me, and I love seeing them around the corridors once they move on into year twelve, and finding out what they are up to. I always get teary when they leave. With any luck next year I will see them around Facebook, or when they come back and visit, so that I don’t really have to say goodbye.

Last year’s year elevens taught and challenged me in a host of new ways. They took on extraordinary challenges and produced amazing results. From the ones who were outspoken and passionate during class discussions to the ones who sat quietly, and when pressed would add just one well chosen but deeply insightful comment that sealed the debate.

From the ones who had been programming for years and took on the craziest problems, to the ones meeting programming for the first time who came away with astounding skills. Not to mention the one who wasn’t actually in the class but aced it anyway.

From the shy ones to the ones who are still seeking me out to talk to me about their projects. From start to finish, pass to high distinction, these are my people.

We shared insights into the nature of intelligence, and the need for privacy. We solved problems and questioned orthodoxy. We evaluated some amazingly unusable websites, and learnt new approaches to user centered design. We tackled real problems in computational science with some very bizarre data sets. And we gave variables some truly inexplicable names.

We stretched and challenged each other, and we laughed quite a lot. We searched, sorted, and danced our way through Computer Science and out into a wider understanding of ourselves, computation, science, and the world.

In just a few short days they will be done with school, and face the relentless barrage of those daunting exams, but whatever the outcome each and every one of them is a searingly bright star in the firmament of the world. Each and every one of them will light up the world in their own unique way.

Some of them will no doubt go on into Computer Science, and some won’t. But if they learnt as much from me as I learnt from them, they’ll have a great foundation for whatever they choose to do.

 

 

Transfixed

The first time I tangled with death I was struck by the way the world continued to turn. People worked, played, and laughed while I stood immobile, transfixed with horror and loss. My stomach churning. My heart stopped. My life irrevocably shattered – its reconstruction would take years. Yet my neighbours went to work and tended their gardens. The weather was beautiful, heedless of my pain. My friends gathered around me, but they still had lives to live. Things to do. Practicalities to attend to. For me, time had stopped.

Today is no surprise. Her loss has been imminent for weeks. Relief rises in waves because her suffering is finally over. But it hurts. Oh god, how it hurts. Less than 24 hours from her last breath I miss her humour, her bluntness, and her love. Above all she wanted to make sure she wasn’t a nuisance. Surrounded by tales of people having to force their elderly relatives into a nursing home she chose to go, when she was ready – not because she wanted to, but because she wanted to spare her loved ones the trauma, and she knew the time was coming when she would not be able to manage at home.

She did everything on her own terms, but death was not kind to her. It took too long to come, and made her suffer in the waiting. I don’t know what she would have chosen, if she had a choice, but with all my heart I do believe the choice should have been hers. She was dying. She was suffering. Why could she not choose to go gentle into that good night, with the kindness of morphine, instead of suffering night after night, dragging herself and her loved ones through hell with every struggling breath? This is no slippery slope, this is the deliberate withholding of compassionate treatment. This is calculated cruelty for ideological ends.

hey there’s not a cloud in sight
it’s as blue as your blue goodbye
and I thought that it would rain
the day you went away

Wendy Matthews, The Day You Went Away

She was a troublemaker, Marg. One knows another, and we fired a spark in each other that burns brightly in me now. She told me wild tales of growing up with my Dad and his brothers. Through her I saw a side to my Dad that he never chose to show me. I learnt more about my family, and my background, from Marg than I sometimes think my Dad ever really knew.

Marg was always part of her community, even as she spent more and more time in hospital with a failing heart. Her neighbours all adored her. Whenever I visited there would be people popping over the fence to see how she was doing. She used to introduce me as her niece – which technically I wasn’t, as she was Dad’s first cousin, but I took some pride in it. She was certainly an aunt to me, and much, much more.

We talked often, Marg and I. She raved about her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She loved them to bits, and delighted in their spirit and will. Never one to sit quietly and do what she was told, Marg connected best with independent spirits, and she related tales of her spirited descendants with glee.

I always knew I could trust Marg to tell me exactly what she thought, even if it was hard to hear. But even when she disagreed with me, she was in my corner come hell or high water. Marg did what she thought was right, and damn the torpedoes. She loved with her whole heart, even as it failed her.

We’re a funny old family. Widely scattered and curiously distant, Marg was a crucial link between my past and my future. She is a piece of my heart, now and forever. I’m glad she’s at peace – for the last week I was begging fate to let her die, to release her from suffering – but I am gutted that she’s gone. I can hear her saying “I’m not special!” but she is incredibly special to many.

The way I see it I was lucky to have Marg in my life. She was a huge and loving support to me. If grief is the price of love, I pay it willingly. But it hurts.