Thanksgiving

This year has been a wild and crazy ride, and it has brought home to me with painful intensity how reliant we are on our friends. They support, encourage and protect us. They pick us up and dust us off when we fall over. They wield the frying pan of perspective, when necessary, with love and enthusiasm. They are foundation stones for a happy and connected life.

Birthdays, especially those with a zero on the end, are a great opportunity to reflect on where we are, and who helped us to get there. Like some sort of cosmic poke in the ribs, they prompt us to celebrate our relationships, and to think happy thoughts about the people who take care of us in hundreds of varied ways, both large and small.

There are friends who are always willing to listen when things go wrong, and who won’t hesitate to pop open the champagne when there is something to celebrate. There are people who live on the other side of the world who encourage and support me as powerfully as if they lived next door. There are colleagues, past and present, who recognise my state of mind from a single greeting or chat message, and who are a constant source of reassurance and inspiration.

There are friends who swoop in, do what needs doing in a take-no-prisoners fashion, bestow hugs with generous arms, and swoop out again leave me feeling loved, cared for, and surprisingly in control. There are still others who quietly make life flow more easily. They smooth away many of the stumbling blocks in my path before I even see them, and they require no thanks or even notice. It’s a gesture of the greatest, most humbling love and affection.

It’s not easy love, but you’ve got friends you can trust,
Friends will be friends,
When you’re in need of love they give you care and attention,
Friends will be friends,
When you’re through with life and all hope is lost,
Hold out your hand cos friends will be friends right till the end

Friends will be friends – Queen

In times of crisis I know that my friends will be there for me when I scream, and that many of them won’t even wait for the scream. These are the kind of friends who make it their business to be aware of how I am travelling, and who are standing beside me with their arms out before I stumble.

There are friends who make me laugh in life’s blackest moments. While they will listen and provide sympathy, they won’t take tears for a final answer. It feels as though it is their mission in life to make me smile. To tickle me in the ribs with the funny side until I turn a fetching shade of purple and beg for mercy with my last wheezing breath. (At which point they will generally provide me with a decent breathing space to catch my breath, stopping just short of depriving me of oxygen entirely.)

I am incredibly fortunate to have a whole host of these friends in my life, and many more besides. I have found a workplace positively teeming with intelligent, caring, compassionate, and above all crazy people, and they have welcomed me with open arms. I have dear friends from school, past colleagues who remain beloved friends, university buddies who know me better than I know myself, and friends made in the most unexpected of places.

17 and a half years ago I married a man who personifies all of those types of friendship, and more besides, and he has stuck by me through more tears, trauma and tickling than I care to remember. He keeps me insane in all the best ways.

To my family and friends, to all the people who love and support me with breathtaking constancy and compassion – the greatest thanks I can give you is to return your love and support with every fibre of my being, and to be the best I can be – the person you enable me to be.

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Things they didn’t tell me when I signed up

Regular readers will know that this year I became a high school teacher. I am privileged to teach in an exceptional environment, with incredibly talented and motivated kids. I used to be an academic, so I was used to teaching at a university level. My PhD was in computer science education, and I thought I was already a teacher. I had no idea.

I suspect most people share a tendency to think we know what teachers do. After all, we’ve all been to school. We’ve seen what they do. They teach our kids, and we hear about some of their finest moments, together with some not so fine. What’s to know?

Wow. Where do I even begin?

For starters, the only reason I have survived this year is that I am part time. I officially work 3 days per week – and only two of them are teaching days (one is officially study leave). This means my formal work hours are 9:30 til 2:30 three days per week, and all day Wednesdays. In practice, I start earlier, finish later, and regularly work at night and on weekends, and I still don’t get everything done. Those much vaunted school holidays are spent doing marking, curriculum development and generally trying to get my head above water. And this is with a much lighter teaching load than most of my colleagues.

Sure, I am new to this, and as I get more experienced some things will get faster and more efficient. But I will always be developing and refining the curriculum and materials of any subject I teach. The day I stop doing that will be the day I quit teaching. There’s no point in being here if I’m only going through the motions.

Every year, indeed every different class, comes in with a wide range of different skill sets, different knowledge bases and different interests. Part of the thrill of teaching lies in engaging and enthusing students in your subject, and to do that you have to get to know them, know their abilities and their interests, and engage with each student personally. That is thrilling and satisfying, but it is also an immense  effort. The emotional investment is huge, exhausting and utterly draining.

About two weeks before the end of each term I hit the wall, and feel as though there is no possible way I can make it through to the next lot of holidays. I know that I will need to temper my emotional input if I am to stay the course, and yet even the experienced teachers around me are deeply invested in their work – why would we do it if we weren’t?  For the low pay, the lack of community respect, the long hours and the vast amounts of take home work? For the holidays that we spend getting ready for the next term?

Early this year my 8 year old decided she didn’t want me to be a teacher anymore: “You work too much, Mummy!” And it’s hard to blame her.  I suspect that many teachers find their families get the short straw to some extent. And yet… and yet… I am happier and more fulfilled than I have ever been in my life. The days when I really connect with the students, and feel as though I have made a difference, are euphoric. Not every day is like that, of course. Many days I am painfully aware of my shortcomings, and the kids I haven’t reached. I want tangible measures of my success, and there aren’t any.

I can’t point to an object and say “I made that.” I can’t look at a mountain and say “I climbed that.” Perhaps one day, if I’m really good, when I have been teaching for years I will have students come back and say “You inspired me.” And I know I will want to frame those moments. Right now I live for the more immediate moments when a kid grins at me and says “Now I get it!” Or when I mark a batch of assignments and see that they really do get it.

We are a week and a half away from the end of term 3, and I am dragging myself towards that finish line. They tell me that term 4 is easier, but I’m pretty sure they’ve said that every term. I’m too tired to argue. Teaching is a hell of a ride. Fortunately it’s worth it.

Ain’t it great to be craaaaazy?

People keep calling me amazing lately. I’m starting to suspect it’s a polite way of saying “completely insane”, because it’s usually in the context of one of my crazier exploits, like travelling over 12,000km (and back) for the weekend, or becoming a high school teacher. I seem to have been specialising in acts of extreme lunacy recently, but it has an upside.

I think craziness has an image problem. It gets a bad rap, but there’s a lot to be said for it, judiciously applied.  For a start the therapeutic value of going completely nuts is undeniable. The craziest times of my life have been some of the happiest and most rejuvenating. Like the times I sing and dance in public places with my kids – and let’s be perfectly honest here, the kids are just an excuse – my cover story. I’d sing anyway.

Boom boom, ain’t it great to be craaazy?
Boom boom, ain’t it great to be craaaazy?
Giddy, and foolish the whole day through.
Boom boom, ain’t it great to be crazy?

Last week I went to California (from Melbourne, Australia), for the weekend. A very close friend was getting married, and there were many reasons why I couldn’t go for an extended visit, but the friendship is so important to me that I had to be there for the wedding. I was a little daunted by the idea – worried that the jetlag would be brutal, that my kids would pine for me, and that making the trip on my own would be difficult and hazardous to my health. I spent most of the preceding week wondering just how crazy I really was.

In the end the kids hardly noticed my absence (I’d like to put it on the public record that my husband is a saint and a miracle worker).  I wasn’t really there long enough for jetlag to be an issue (with all the late nights, I didn’t bother to switch time zones).  Various friends helped to make the potentially difficult bits of the trip trivially easy.

I got to be a part of a spectacularly lovely wedding, and I met a lot of wonderful people. I caught up with old friends, and made new ones who immediately felt like old friends. Although I came home exhausted beyond belief, in some strange way the weekend also recharged my batteries in a way I desperately needed.

Everybody says sit down sit down
Everybody says sit down sit down
But I can’t sit down, no I can’t sit down
‘cos my feet are full of dance around

We’re very quick to label non-standard behaviour crazy. Singing in public. Riding a bicycle in the rain. Mowing the lawn with a hand mower, instead of a power mower of some kind. Talking to random strangers on the train. As a society, we are very invested in the status quo. Yet it’s breaking out and going a little crazy – whether it’s travelling huge distances to be with friends, acting like a child, or testing your limits – that can remind you of what’s important. Paradoxically, it’s flying that can ground you, and help you grow.

It’s no coincidence that the verses I’ve used to illustrate this piece are both from children’s songs. Kids are good at crazy. They intuitively know the value of silly. As adults, we are very good at squashing that instinct. “Don’t be silly” must be one of parenting’s most repeated phrases. I suspect it’s really bad advice.

Being silly is crucial. In fact, the sillier I am, the easier parenting gets, and the more relaxed our whole household becomes. Silly helps at work, too, for waking up my students, and defusing difficult situations. Silliness is an incredibly effective tool – there should be more of it. We all need more silliness in our lives, to help us lighten up, to help us live.

My weekend could have been crazier – I just asked google for directions from my house to California. Among the directions was the instruction “Kayak across the Pacific Ocean” –  3 times. Perhaps there should be limits to craziness. But I suspect we could all do with some more insanity in our lives.

Give it a try sometime. Go a little crazy. You might just enjoy it.