Monday, 31 August 2009

Home ed history

This is our primary age history lesson. Because the history of this land is resounding under our feet, rubbed between our thumbs and forefingers, and caught in the rhythm of a voice.

We gain all that, and more today, at West Stow Anglo Saxon Village.

Our history isn't given to us from the black and white pages of a worn through text book. We feel it, do it, live it, and are spellbound by its story.

For me, there can simply be no better history lesson than one that takes place in the richness of the world. I hope to pass that on to Shark, Squirrel and Tiger.

Thank you, West Stow, for supporting our history lesson today.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Come with the gritlets on a photoblog walk

We'll start off in a field. Not any old field. England's fields are dug deep in history, and this one is no exception. This field offers you a windmill, built 1627, cut wheat, and tumbling greywhite clouds.

The hill behind is chalk, once a warm and calm sea, floating somewhere south. Chalk comes in layers, Upper, Middle and Lower. And we're told about this today, at Ivinghoe, thanks to the Bucks Earth Heritage Group. I have to pause a while here to be astonished that the group leader on this walk so easily welcomes my little rockwatchers Shark, Squirrel and Tiger.

Having said that, the party seem to have legged it. Quick! Catch them up, before they start running.

At the end of the field, we turn, pause, and look at this.

Don't laugh. It's the remnant of a quarry. Grass covered, it's a chalk habitat, and if I were to get down on my hands and knees, I'd find glory; a land festooned with tiny creatures, wild flowers, fragile plants and a micro society of mini beasts. We would sort and size them all if we had time. But look. The party's gone again, heading down the road, round the corner and arriving here, once a wide chalk quarry, now College Lake Nature Reserve.

These wood huts are very British, don't you think? Here are our national treasures, all shovelled in a garden shed. We'd padlock them probably, if only we could find the key. I shall be quite disappointed when they finally build the twenty-first century vision of the Visitor Experience. I quite like the ramshackle twentieth. And the views are superb.

We must come back for the fourteen bird hides, and the squirrel assault course.

And here! Here is a world famous SSSI site.

Can you see the sign that says No Entry? That's how we do things in this country. We don't make a song and dance about our ancient lands, you know. You'd drive past them with the car windows firmly snapped shut and you wouldn't know, unless you stop that hurtle-by life, pull on those wellies, cross those fields, and start looking.

Yes, it looks like grizzled ground to me too, but our expert guide tells us it shows an interglacial period when the waters rose, surrounded the animals and this land became an island. I imagine woolly mammoths and lions dancing together about this country. She tells us they were probably cut off, and scrabbling to get out. And here's the evidence of that prehistoric despair, back in the shed.

A tusk of a woolly mammoth. Seriously. Did you expect to find that here? Neither did I. What adventures are in Britain, right under our feet!

But more than that, College Lake has a wooden built cafe, serving steaming mugs of tea, thick slabs of cake, and a real old lady with shuffling papery hands counting out coins behind a desk.

I don't think it could be any better unless there was a second hand honesty bookshop attached to the cafe.

At which discovery Grit is almost kissing this ground and declaring it holy. Can any part of England be more satisfying? We'll be on a hunt to find it soon. But for today our walk is done. We have to cross back across that field.

Thanks to the seventeen books I'm carrying, we'll fall a little way behind.

But let's wait for Shark. Here she is, photographed in Lawrence of Arabia or pilgrim mode, take your pick, clutching her treasure find at the bookshop. The Oxford Dictionary for Schools.

A glorious walk, with the wind pulling the clouds about and pinching our cheeks pink, my legs aching from crossing that hummocked ground, Shark's scribbled hair, woundabout and windswept, Squirrel's pockets stuffed with sharp pebbles from ice age dump, and Tiger's fingers chafed with picking grains from wheatfields. We go home happy. What could be a better way to spend a day?

Saturday, 29 August 2009


The end hour of another month hurtles towards us.

Time to sweep up the days past, hold the children's notes and jottings, the hastily drawn pictures of unicorns, and pause; a moment to wonder about the years, before carefully tucking those child-drawn treasures away to books and cupboards.

The paper secrets I'll file in the day book for August, which will, as the days tick by, become another memory book for another month. I know that in just hours ahead, I'll heave a big sigh, create the empty pages for the day book of September, and look forward once more to plans and big ideas.

Then, as I search and sift through all the badly printed photos, the ephemera, torn theatre tickets, notes from workshops, flyers picked up in holidays and travel across the counties, looking for the last items to save before I throw all to the recycling bag, a photo that Dig has taken crosses my paper pile.

I stop there and would laugh about our departing bouncing bottoms, me and Squirrel, or flatter myself that of all the skirts I have, this careful cut cotton wraps my shape better than any other.

Yet it's not these observations that cause me to tuck this photo especially safe, bound in the cover of my August diary. It's the way we are, mother and daughter, both gently strolling towards a town, any town, one person larger, one smaller, but so easily, made of the same, simply separated by years.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Is this normal? Not for us.

'A lot of mum action happens at tea-time (after nursery or school) and cake is often present to liven up proceedings... And, by the way, there is a lot of social pressure around this issue. You can be ostracised if you don't eat cake. I'm serious. No one likes a mum who doesn't join in. No one likes a mum who fusses about what her child eats.' (Opinion piece, Amy Jenkins, The Independent 27.8.09)

If this is mainstream, then this is a world I don't want to join. It sounds like a world of judgement, social exclusion, and bullying.

I have only ever encountered the judgmental cakes-and-mums situation once. That, by the way, was at an after-school club that Squirrel joined for a term. It is true I was definitely a strange item there, to be commented upon if I didn't eat The Cake.

So what happens to you? Do you approach that cake like it was a fearful initiation ritual into the one-of-us mum gang? Do you eat it willingly? Is it a mark of social acceptance? Are you airkissed afterwards, hoping you don't chuck up the blue flavoured sugared up E-number icing over the new moc-croc handbag? And when it's done, do you sigh and settle back down, and wait for the next new mum to turn up innocently, so she too can be shown the cake slab?

I declined cake. But to these tea-time mothers I could shed no light on their world. So there was no way I was invited to the post-cake chit-chat. I could not discuss the latest heel styles (is three inches too high?); I could not talk about how difficult it is to shop when you have a three year old who, infuriating, won't go to nursery (really? want to try three three-year olds who we choose not to send to nursery?); of course I couldn't say anything about Tinkertop's school (school? should we say child care?), and then there was the burning question of what to put in lunchboxes (how many hours can we really talk about that?).

Grit, who wouldn't have minded talking about what good books folks might recommend for children and how to encourage non-readers, was distinctly a fish out of water, a non-cake eating variety, for the entire 6-week run of the thing. And mostly ignored.

Not surprisingly, it is true that I now feel much more comfortable in the home ed meetings. There is cake there too. Actually, there may be several types of cake. Make one vegan, make one non-gluten, make one by Ellie, aged 12, with added jam and home made rosewater icing. There will also be fruit for those who don't eat cake. Someone's brought popcorn, because this morning they used it to model the Big Bang. And parents in my world care aplenty over what their children eat, and no-one thinks them strange, or odd, or fussy. Just normal.

The home ed community - and not just mums, I'd better say, but mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings all turn up - is remarkably non judgmental about these things. Sometimes strange, no doubt, when you meet the roadkill enthusiast, but still, just let us all get on with it. Cake is not a social hurdle. It's just cake.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Some moments, I have no doubt

The camping trip is over, and I watch the laundry in the machine, churning.

It's been a heart warming experience, these last few days.

Not for the camping, which was, quite frankly, horrible. But for the children I have met on the home ed drama camp. Each child, in their own way, shone in brilliance. Many have told us their stories, and they are ringing in my head. Children who were battered by the school system, who didn't fit, who couldn't understand the rules, who felt not part of a mass, but unique and different, an individual not catered for.

I might have once asked, How could that have happened? Here are amazing people, gentle, thoughtful, warm. But what system have we built that could not handle that? I have seen a system that could not handle that. It makes me sad, not angry. School is there for mass production. It is a factory flow. Individuality, uniqueness, these are difficult for mass production to handle. School requires fitting in the allotted slot, making the given sounds at the given time, living someone else's time.

But here are these children, many strangers to each other before last week, yet within hours working together shoulder to shoulder, creating a magical theatre in the woods, and their talents are on display. These children are sensitive, wise, happy, unique. They mix easily with children older and younger than themselves. They express themselves clearly. They feel safe. And this experience tells me, home education best fits us; it equips my children for a future that is theirs. It is the right thing for us to do.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The only reason for the past few days

My centre stage. Peaseblossom Tiger and Woodland fairy Shark. Attendants to Queen Titania. Sworn enemies to Puck, mischievous sprite. A wonderful performance in the woods (and the rain).

Take a bow, children. I would travel all this road, and more.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

This could be the start of a whole new adventure

I think the novelty of camping has worn off Squirrel's diamante sparkles. In fact, she has chickened out. She has slipped off to Am and Jol's to spend the night there, in something called A BED.

You should have seen the look on Squirrel's face when I suggested that escape route. You may have caught the warm glows of relief glittering like brilliant sunshine through your windows this afternoon.

All the better joy for Squirrel, because the idea popped from the blue, like a summerday gift from an aunty you didn't know you had, and she's loaded.

Until this moment, Squirrel had resigned herself, like a true gritlet, to suffering for the art of others, and resolved to extract her revenge later, when their guards are down. And here we are, suddenly turning up at Jol's without so much as a toothbrush and a change of knickers and anticipating a whole night away from a dark dark tent in a dark dark wood.

On the phone earlier, I must have sounded desperate. I pulled the car over, as far as you can get on a single track road, and shouted to Jol through a coming-going signal, We are close by! Let's come and see you!

We are not close by at all. From the campsite to Jol's it is a forty minute rocket down a dual carriageway at 70 mph. We made it in half an hour. Crawling over the threshold to Jol's house probably made her pity me all the more. That's a HOUSE, by the way, WITH BRICKS. Walls. Doors. Cushions. Carpets. Tables. Sofa. And Jol, making lovely hot real coffee. At the sight of the toilet, I almost wept.

Then, just as it is time to return to the field, I had the idea of leaving Squirrel. Can I leave Squirrel here? I blurted to Jol. She, gracious and unfazed and wondrously stable, said Of course! Am will be delighted! And that was done.

I very much wanted to stay myself. But Tiger and Shark finish their forest rehearsals at six each evening and, if I am not there, Tiger will burst into tears, thinking I have abandoned her. I will not abandon you to camp alone in the woods, I say. I don't even add my usual line, not without frisking you for breadcrumbs first. Somehow, after three nights in a tent with the disastrous mother Grit, I don't think Tiger will laugh.

That fear of solitary camping is down to Shark, by the way. Without any regard for the impact she has upon the tender hearted, Shark has bounced about for days, being delighted by the whole camping experience, and suggesting she'll be adventuring into the unknown outdoors at the first opportunity, perferably with a sea lapping close by and without any tedious parents holding her back by saying they have forgotten to pack 1001 Interesting Facts about Fish. Now I think reading Robinson Crusoe was probably a bad idea.

Tiger has enjoyed the theatre, loved the theatre really, but she has had enough of the camping experience. Mostly on account of last night's industrious midge, who has had the temerity to puncture my delicate Peaseblossom daughter in thirty or forty places.

Dig - you may be wondering about him - has spent one night with us, and hightailed it back to the office home to work. On the bright side, literally, he has left us another torch.

But we are nearly done. We see the performance tomorrow; the end result of all this labour and sacrifice.

And for me? Not for the first time, I can feel myself shifting my ground. After I have put this bravestupid foot forward, I am not giving in and going back. I can already hear my voice saying to Squirrel, If we find the right campsite, yes, one with toilets, and we find the right location, yes, by the beach, and we find all the equipment we need, yes, for hot chocolate milk every morning, then yes, don't you think, Squirrel, you can go camping again? I think you will find the answer to that question, Squirrel, will be yes.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Two trips to the camping shops later...

...and I am equipped to fight another ten hours.

I have three mattresses, two duvets, four torches, two wind up lanterns, four bottles of beer and an empty bladder, having squeezed out every last drop of pee in a toilet that doesn't scare me witless.

I should make it through the night. Don't correlate the beer and the bladder. I will deal with that problem when I get to it.

You may be wondering about food on this camping experience. The food is excellent. I have no complaints. Other people are doing it. I have no hand in it whatsoever, beyond throwing daily bread and fruit supplies to the little grits. Each evening, other home educating parents are taking turns to deliver top quality hot nosh to us all.

And if you are wondering what we are doing camping in a field at all, then yes, I have taken leave of my senses. Apart from the normal insanities that come from home education, Shark and Tiger are taking part in a theatre summer school with Heaven and Earth theatre company, leading to performance on Wednesday.

And while they are gone throughout the day to various parts of the Hertfordshire woods for workshops and rehearsals, Squirrel is groaning and moaning that life is boring without sisters. That statement I am preserving so I can haunt her with it later.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Do you love us mummy?

A huge amount, I blithely say. More than all the tea in China.

But perhaps not quite enough to repeat those last ten hours in my life, ok?

I know that you Shark, now say you love camping. And you Tiger, say tents are fun for a first night. Even you Squirrel, my diamante daughter, add that you enjoyed the idea and now are we going home?

But let's not mince words. Let's say that for mama the first night in a tent was A LIVING HELL.

How do I count the problems? Let me do it in order, procedurally. In that way, it will be like basketry, and I shall weave out my peace and calm.

My first problem is the countryside sinks into darkness and there is no electricity.

I admit. I did not actually think ahead when I said Fantastic! Let's go live in a tent! I will blame the kids and say my total lack of speculation was guided by my children. And they never think more than ten seconds ahead. Which at the time of agreeing to camp in a field, seemed a better guide than planning. And my outlook is, your attitude to a new situation predicts how much you're going to enjoy it. So of course that all fits. I wanted the children to enjoy living under nylon. Say nothing about dangers, horrors, spiders, creepy crawlies in my socks. I did not think of these. I did not want to think of much at all.

In my defence, that lack of planning was also a protection. Because I might betray to myself how much of a town girl I really am. While I love striding across those fields feeling the wind on my face by day, I also like, by night, brick walls, electric light sockets and warm beds.

But look! In the countryside it falls dark! How beautiful is the grey cloak of dusk settling upon us in the wooded glade.

Where are the torches mama?

What torches?

What do we have apart from NO TORCHES? Well, we have NO TORCHES. Aha! We have one wind up lantern! Where is that? Oh yes, where is that.

Remind me now, where is Shark? Shark has declared she is not staying with us thank you very much. We are undignified and our tent is embarrassing. Shark has found herself somewhere else to stay. A nice cosy spot in the organiser's tent down the other end of the field. And she'll have that wind up lantern, thanks.

So with a falling down tent and one child disappeared to someone else's tent in the dark dark woods carrying the only light we have, there is only one thing to do. GO TO BED.

Oh dear. Let me pause to weave another therapeutic basket.

My second problem becomes apparent twenty minutes after climbing in a cold sleeping bag. I am lying on the world's quickest deflating airbed. Once Grit's fat arse climbs aboard it sinks quicker than the Titanic. Thanks mainly to the FIVE HOLES. How many holes I do not discover until daylight, when I drench every inch of that airbed in cold tea and bitter tears to discover at which point the little air bubbles ooze up and prompt me to slap on another rubber patch from the bicycle wheel puncture repair kit.

But it is daylight.

And the next problem is the composting toilet.

Now I'm sure there are many models and makes of composting toilet. You can tell me they are very worthy and good. Then you can slap me round the face for pining after a draining system that will destroy the earth.

Because this particular model of composting toilet has a sort of partition inside the bowl, where you aim the pee in one area and the poopy in the other. I know really it is straightforward, because unless there is something tragically wrong with your body, then pee comes out the front and poo comes out the back.

But you try getting those in the right order after four hours of broken sleep on a hard cold forest floor, a torture interrupted only by the dream of pain that you are being eaten alive by badgers who are mocking you because they have torches and you do not.

Now, my darling Shark, Tiger, and Squirrel. I love you more than all the tea in China. But after the first night of living hell I am ready to up sticks and leg it out of that tent quicker than a rat up a drainpipe propelled by rocket fuel. I know now it will take more than LOVE to make me stay one more night in this tent, even if it means you get to flit about in Shakespearean mode coached by Danny Nussbaum.

To stay here, I can no longer force my brain to shut off and shrivel to the size of a pea. Let's face it, I did that already. And it did not work. No. I now come with a LIST OF DEMANDS.

1. I want a self-inflating mattress like Michelle's otherwise the deal is off.
2. I want a proper set of wind up torches otherwise the deal is off.
3. I want a proper sleeping bag, and extra duvet, otherwise the deal is off.
4. I want to go home today, use the toilet and the shower, otherwise the deal is off.
5. I want to stock the car with beer, red wine, bars of chocolate and those delicious breadsticks from Waitrose, otherwise the deal is off.

And on those terms, and only those terms, I might stay just ONE more night.

And love, ladies, has nothing to do with it.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

There is a path that leads the other way

One pro school argument I've heard is that school offers such fantastic educational opportunities, that you simply cannot match what they do.

Do I believe that? Like in an average school exam mill little Moonbeam has the opportunity to be beaten up in the playground for wearing the wrong socks, or the opportunity to be taught indifferently by a maths teacher coasting to retirement, or perhaps the opportunity for the French lesson to be taken by the maths teacher again because Miss is having a breakdown apres le hammer incident.

If the look on my face says to that pro schooler not convinced about those fantastic opportunities, I may hear about how the Year 9 group got to work with a real! live! artist!

And if I question that claim closely I find that last year in a desperate bid to crawl out of special measures the school sent in the community artists, and 5 out of 150 kids were given special permission to attend a workshop for an afternoon. Today the school still crow about it like they'd dug up Picasso and found he was alive and well and buried by accident.

Or then there's the fantastic school trip to London. Whoopee. The type of school trip where two hours in the Science museum is all you get and you spend one hour queuing. Or try me on the fantastic trip to Switzerland. The one of astronomical cost, where Bazza, Gazza and Wazzer were airlifted to a hospital for alcohol poisoning and Tinkertop came home pregnant.

Honestly, I have not yet found any activity in school that home educators cannot do better out of school.

Likewise, there are a ton of activities home educators can do that schools can't do or won't do.

In the worst case, what schools won't do includes science lessons. And don't tell me that's not true, because I've covered classes for the science teacher on sick leave after the gas taps incident. I've been told by year 10 kids that a cover teacher makes no difference, since they don't do the experiments anyway thanks to Mad Pete who cannot be allowed near rubber tubes. Either that or the four day risk assessment that must be carried out because Tinkertop might come near wood, or water, or whatever is this month's killer. So the science class watches the experiment on video and kids write up the procedure at home. Or at least the A-C candidates do.

Then again, home educators are saved from plenty of activities in school that would boggle your mind, if only you knew, and you would not want them replicated anywhere near your darling Tinkertop Moonbeam.

Seriously, there is such a range of activities home educators can choose or create for their kids outside school - and I would stick out my neck and say there is nothing we home educators cannot find - that far from me being overawed by schools as fantastic places of educational opportunity, I have to question why they exist at all. Unless it is to provide child care while parents go to work.

The only problem is, of course, is that to drag Tinkertop out of school, take on those educational responsibilities and support her while she teaches herself - to actually do this home education thing - you must effect a lifestyle change; you must compromise your cash, time and home. You must be a parent of bloody minded determination, thick skin, and fistfulls of knuckles made of steel that won't snap when you chew them down. And your place in the neighbourhood? Social status? Out the window, along with free time, a disposable income, posh friends who invite you to lunch, and all fantasies involving clickclacking about shopping centres footswathed in Jimmy Choos.

Which brings me to the nitty gritty of our home ed life - which is what this blog is about - and what the home educated Tiger and Shark have opted to do for the next few days. They will be working with an all-age group of kids and a team of actors and artists to recreate Midsummer Night's Dream on a five-day outdoor summer school. And it's only for home educated children, so the pro schoolies can go queue at the Science Museum. We'll wait until school starts again and the place falls quiet before we go to see Wallace and Gromit.

But here's the rub. Having Tiger and Shark running about in a field for five days dressed as fairies requires one big lifestyle commitment. From mamma.

And that one big commitment - not the food supply or a continuous smile of support no matter how crap everyone is - is to break her rule forever and sleep, for four nights, in a wet field in Hertfordshire without phone contact, computer, sense, or sanity, and worse, with a composting toilet, in a construction which looks shockingly like this:

Now those parents who next time try and tell me what fantastic opportunities are available to Tinkertop, while scuttling back to work and contemplating the purchase of kitten heels over lunchtime, I can see where you are really coming from, and what you are really saying. You are saying Lifestyle change? Not bloody likely.

Friday, 21 August 2009

And Grit doesn't even pray, so get this!

Because guess what? Four good things happen in one day!

1) Tiger's bike, the one stolen Monday night, is returned.

A call from the lady at the local police station tells me they have a girl's bike, so come and look at it. She adds her life would be very easy if we said this bike was actually the one stolen because it is a revolting heap of a thing and she has nowhere to keep it.

Fortunately, Tiger says the bike is hers, so that's settled.

Apparently a bloke with a limp and a twitch walked with it into the local library. Perhaps my entreaties worked. I'd splattered the back gate with posters, inviting all comers to take a heavy guilt trip on account of the weeping nine-year old with a stolen bike. Suggesting a life filled with psychiatric treatment for the nine-year old and a hell up Satan's bottom for the damned may have helped.

2) We sit in Northampton Fishmarket and hear about the history of the trumpet.

Yes, this is Good News. This music session is totally fascinating, lively and fun, and we hear a live trumpet performance which sounds not at all bad.

I am so transported I whimsy that now is the time to encourage one of the little grits to learn the trumpet. That is, until I slap myself to remember that a trumpet played by a professional musician who practices five hours a day is a damn big difference to a trumpet attacked by Shark at 7am in the morning after one enthusiastic half-hour lesson with Grit who doesn't play the trumpet but who, in a blind and deaf fit, has bought a trumpet for £500 and taken a teach yourself book out the library.

3) Wandering back through Northampton to the car park we tour the charity shops and discover not one, not two, but three blue cotton dresses that fit Shark, and which she says she will wear.

Given that these three dresses are identical and cost £1 each only adds to the pleasure of this find. Shark is a lady who cannot be bothered to waste more than five seconds thinking about what she will wear. You could use those five seconds wondering about killer whales, or Tintin on the moon, or Harry Potter, or any infinite subject. Everything except what you might wear, because that is totally pointless.

4) There is still time after arriving home to declare today is Tiger's naming day, make a chocolate cake that Tiger proudly asserts is a clock when everyone else says it is a stegosaurus, and then welcome Holly to tea.

Holly is a beautiful retired lady with perfect manners who does not put her elbows on the table or slouch. She is a constant improving presence for Shark, Squirrel and Tiger and I am pleased to report that in all her time with us over tea, the little grits never once shouted ohmygodbloodyhelldamnpissoff, picked their noses, or farted.

About the most satisfying day we can have. And probably a calm before another storm.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

There's always a feeling of satisfaction knowing something is complete

We put aside our weeping and wailing for one day to visit the Northampton Fishmarket for a one-man performance of Robinson Crusoe.

I need to write that here because this blog is very useful for recording these educational projects in the life of Shark, Tiger and Squirrel.

And this performance marks a sort of a closure to our several-month project on Robinson Crusoe.

For several weeks this year I forced everyone to listen to mama reading the Puffin Classics edited version of this Defoe story, starting from the basis that it is a flippin good read for children and they should know about it, because I say so.

Foolishly I never got around to reading this work myself in childhood. I had to wait until I hit an undergraduate course at York when it wasn't fun at all. There, the last thing on Grit's Must Do list was hide in a hole and start working out how to carry blackberries home to a shelter made of twigs and mud. But aged 9, this book would've been a perfect source.

The little Grits have truly enjoyed listening to Robinson Crusoe, although we'll leave the grown up version including all the moral wrangling until later. It has been a perfect back story for all the den building activity and has greatly assisted in Grit's master plan: that cunning weeze where all the gritlets flee to separate parts of the garden and set about creating primitive societies using planks of wood and grass clippings.

But now the day is duly recorded. We have read Robinson Crusoe, talked about themes, characters, plots, narratives, what makes up a novel, found out about trade routes, old ship sailing, Alexander Selkirk, drawn pictures of goats and listed their uses, invented a map, found a variety of islands on the light-up globe, built some dens, waved to passing ships from a perch in a tree, and today finally sat in a fishmarket and watched an actor talk to a teddy bear called Friday on the basis that teddy bears lack colour, religion, dietary requirements and anything else which makes them controversial.

Really, we have enjoyed ourselves, but I do not know whether all this Crusoe inspired study counts as educational in the eyes of the local authority. Anyone there could of course say we have failed. If Badman has his way, they probably will, and could choose anything they like to show us up as an example. Like, we did not convert to Christianity in the course of our labours.

However, I feel secure that should the local authority knock at the door demanding to see evidence of education, we can easily show off our knowledge by recreating that discussion about whose leg we would stew first if we were all stranded on a desert island pissing each other off.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

We were on a roll for mostly happiness and delight this summer

But now that the bicycle thief has wheeled off with our treasures in the night, there is pretty much a grey wet blanket of despair flopping over this house right now.

Part of me simply shrugs my shoulders about the theft of Tiger's bike, because hey, it's summer, kids are out and about, her bike was a beat up old wreck suitable for museum display, and I wouldn't mind a White Bicycle Plan round here, so I can hardly shake my fist at the local bicycle entrepreneur.

But then there are those welling tears and the heaving sobs from my little girl. Those little crystal droplets rolling down her pink cheeks do not signal her forgiveness and understanding, and if I could grab that bicycle thief by the scruff of the neck, show him what torture he's wrought and then give him a good sharp kick on his saddlesore behind, I would do that. I would call it revenge, and probably be fined, but that's how I feel on behalf of Tiger.

Fortunately for us all, the sun comes out and I take Tiger, Squirrel and Shark to the weekly Wednesday summer playdate in the woods. Here the hammocks, nets, swings and weaving stuff are all scattered about and the kids scamper off. Tiger would like me to take photographs of her on the swing. I say that this week I would but I have left my camera behind. I really hope I have done that, and I haven't left it carelessly thrown on the passenger seat of the car, where a casual thief with a chunk of rock might pass by on this sunny afternoon, and simply help himself.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Tears, tears, tears

Because Tiger shot off in the garden last night to collect her bike for cycling to the Co-op with daddy Dig, and found her bike, stolen.

Tiger's bike should be leaning against the wall under the shade of a sprawling fig tree. Along with the old purple-framed, spiky saddle, boneshaker of a bike me and Dig have wobbled about on all summer. Both were missing. The back gate was open.

I guess whoever took the bikes needed some late night transport. They would have been able to see the bikes through a gap in the gate caused by a missing wooden panel. Incidentally, that's the same wooden panel that Mr Pod upstairs has been routinely kicking in morningtimes, and I have been routinely hammering back on, nighttimes.

That's the neighbourhood for you.

Tiger is inconsolable. I have sticky-taped guilt-inducing messages on the back gate, we have trolled around the backstreets looking for the dumped remains of her precious bike, and we have visited the local police station to report it lost. Lost, rather than stolen, because I think there's more chance of it being found like that, and we don't need a crime reference number for the insurance. All our bikes come from freecycle or the local tip, and we just do them up with oil, inner tubes and washing up liquid, then mostly we can wobble down the road and back.

I've spent the evening on freecycle and Bumblebee and said we will do all we can, because tears alone don't bring things back.

But Tiger has gone to bed feeling the worst thing in the world is other people, and I raise my eyes to the sky and think we've just got off lightly in Smalltown.

Monday, 17 August 2009

No, we don't teach everything

Grit keeps her eyes open, like all keen home educators, for workshops, classes, lessons, practical experience and social activities at all times of the year, not just six weeks over the summer holidays.

We can sniff out a good deal within hours of it on a website or in a local newspaper or because telephone signals are tingling. I swear it's a sixth sense that all home educators develop and become total experts at exploiting.

Like I stood in an ordinary queue at the start of this ordinary summer holiday and I earwig a conversation behind me. And one woman, probably about thirty, is saying to the other about what can kids do in the holidays? and the other woman says, Yeah, I think there's a playground at the lake. I don't know where it is. I think there are ropes or something.

And I had to physically wrestle myself to stop my face spinning round and saying the playground is open all hours but the coffee shop which overlooks it opens only 11am to 4pm and the ropes are 50 metres turn left past the family pub, steel gateway, book at the hut, cost £10 per child, try for a multiple entry discount, and the lake also offers sailing, windsurfing, knee boarding and kayaking, and here's the course start dates, and the instructor I recommend, plus telephone number, and the off peak price structure that they may not publicise but don't forget to ask.

But I do not share this information. Not one bit.

Now I have nothing to do with the education industry as such, but I know where those local resources are and I have no doubt myself or one of our home educating families round here will find out within a click of your fingers where the best opportunities are, the best deals, group discounts, free testers and cheap deals.

Basically, we've done nothing for the last few years except take up these local services, and that involves a lot of intensive negotiation over desks and telephones with people in our communities. Try it. As a home educator you will soon be buttonholing that woman at the entrance desk and arguing why your group should all get in at a ten per cent discount because it is Wednesday and the least they can offer is a free annual pass for the kids.

And with this attitude - the sort of attitude that says these are our services to negotiate, encourage, use, demand - throughout these last years we have done some fantastic activities, straight in there with musicians, artists, performers, linguists, with people who really love doing what they do, who do that job whether you pay them or not because they are so committed to what they do and passionate about doing it. Possibly nothing on earth would stop some of the people I've met lead these services, and I feel so privileged to meet them through this world of home ed.

So today, when we sniff out a fantastic opportunity to work with artists who are - get this - prepared to take all three of my children away from me for five hours, then I absolutely know why I do not share the information that I have with any non home educators who may be standing behind me in the queue for the toilets.

Because, ladies, places today are limited. And the art workshop is FREE.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

I know just what we need. Another den.

Four planks of wood and one side of a Mothercare cot, a lot of nails, a hammer, two plastic chairs from the tip and a bit of shouting and we have this.

Some discarded emulsion paint, lace curtain from scrapstore, and a small Squirrel with a book, and we have this.

Dig says it is so well constructed it should last until September.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Someone grounded them in reality

Grit: Look! Squirrel, Shark, Tiger! Isn't the Wye Valley beautiful! Let's live here forever!
Squirrel: Mummy? Can you see that house down there? It costs more money than you have.

Grit: I can see people kayaking on the river! I want to go kayaking!
Shark: Mummy, you do not know how to kayak.
Grit: Not knowing how to do something has never stopped me having a go!
Tiger: Yes, and it is embarrassing.

Grit: Shark! Can you see the wild peregrine falcons nesting round the Symonds Yat cliffs?
Shark: No. Did you get these binoculars from freecycle?

Grit: There's one! Look! I've found one!
Tiger: Mummy, give that model back to the RSPB man. He thinks you're stealing it.

Grit: Let's take a lovely walk together!
Tiger: Run! The watties are coming!

Grit: Here we are! Clearwell Caves. These are ancient. Let's imagine. People have mined red ochre paint in these caves for seven thousand years!
Shark: And now you can buy it at Hobbycraft.

Grit: Feel these rocks and look at the iron pigment on your fingers! Imagine if you were a stone age child digging this rock by hand! What pictures would you paint?
Squirrel: A telephone.

Grit: This tour is amazing! There are miles of passageways underground! Would you like to come caving?
Shark: No. Unless there are fish.
Squirrel: Are we allowed down here?
Tiger: Mummy! Stop taking photographs. It is completely dark and they won't come out.

Grit: That was a fantastic day out, wasn't it, girls? Now we're in the car to go back home, you can tell us all about your adventure week at PGL, Squirrel.


Friday, 14 August 2009


Yes Squirrel, I miss you. And this week I know exactly why you came by your pet name. Squirrel.

The first time, I was shocked. I discovered exactly what you had stowed away in your secret bed each night. That first haul may have included a plank of wood and pair of scissors. But now, they are normal.

When I gulp down the weekly anti allergy tablet and swallow a medicinal brandy to gather the strength to face that skip, the place you call my bed, to shovel out a landfill of junk, I do so carefully, and I try to be respectful.

I know that it is not crap. It is treasure. Worth more than gold.

The chewed blue shoe belonging to Sindy, fourteen rubber bands, and the old tissue box cradling a furry sea otter, two crayons, a letter of complaint, and a plastic toaster, are all cherished items. They did not arrive here at this waste disposal unit without being loved and caressed by you en route, and placed here to be watched over with all the ferocity of a small squirrel guarding their Class A hazelnuts.

Some stuff I leave where I find them. I won't say anything, but I urge you to return them discreetly. Like Shark's bed knobs. She has been eyeing you suspiciously and complaining that you nick them since the day you started sharing this bedroom. So far she has yet to find hard evidence. Even Shark approaches your bedclothes with trepidation.

But there's more to your squirrelling behaviour than your bed stash.

You especially like small things. Tiny shapes woven with microscopic textures that you hide inside your little hands. Fragments of gravel, threads of fabric, infinitesimally torn fragments of paper and sparkles of beads and sequins are all treasured items that you find beautiful. You will squirrel them into your pockets, behind curtains and down between cracks in the floorboards. The last, you will cry about later.

Over the years I have learned to be careful about removal and disposal of your treasures, and not shout too loud about the bloody crap invading my once delightful home. Your box of small things might stay there for a week or two. The pile of soil in the bedroom, three days, because mama does not sweep the floors of this house on daily rotation. But even then your cute ways and tales of sparkling soil allowed you to get away with it.

Of course I think all this squirrelling instinct comes not from my genes, but because you are a sibling. From your birth point you became painfully aware that right next to you there is an enemy who looks exactly like you and who is always ready to snatch treasures off you. You have probably developed your small stuff tendency because of those early beginnings.

But my goodness, how that strange little quirk of toddler mine!mine!mine! behaviour has grown into what folks might think of as some sort of compulsive disorder rightly calling for the scrutiny of a team of trained clinicians with clipboards.

Because now you troll the house and garden seeking out small things to classify before squirrelling.

I know you like databases. Like the database you keep of all the cats in the area. And I know you have been ordering your stuff in degrees of shininess, size, and whether it bends. The way you have started labelling stuff has helped, because now I can see the broken object for what it is. Not a piece of plastic insect nose snapped off from Build a Beetle but a carefully catalogued sample of yellow. Give it two years and you'll be adding heat moulded, poss. polymer, length 1.2 mm, date of acquisition 12/3/09.

In fact so advanced are your sorting, categorising, recording and squirrelling skills, that you may make a fine museum attendant, librarian, or lawyer. We of course aspire to the latter, on account of how you can present all details in such excruciating, drawn out precision, that we often give in and feed you ice cream to shut you up before you have finished explaining why (paragraph 2.3 subsection 1.2.2, clause 3) your sister deserved locking in the bedroom by covert removal of doorknob for thirty minutes while you came down, ate Shreddies, and then walked upstairs to calmly reinsert the doorknob, and let her out again. And that, thanks to the precise and punctilious manner of your explanation, comes across to me as a totally justified and reasonable thing to do. You see? Lawyer.

With these fond memories, and your bed littered with broken objects, I turn to your desk, and I miss you there too. I would clean that up while you are away from us this week, but I dare not.

I can see you have been filling hazelnut shells with scrapings of wax, then sticking threads in the centre. Those, Tiger tells me, are candles for fairies. I could probably put those safely somewhere. But it is the sand and dust particles on your desk. They might be sand and dust, or they might be significant. I just do not know. You might be classifying eight different varieties of sand and dust by colour, silica shape, and dustiness, finding it all beautiful, and intriging and delightful.

Which is what I most love about you. Not the mountains of crap you refuse to discard but the way you interact with all your precious squirreled items with absolute joy in their concealment and disclosure.

Squirrel, I look forward to you being back home. This house strewn with junk will all become treasure again.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

At least this has stopped the damn den building

The next obsession sweeping this house is here.

Consequently I am sweeping the floor of paper cuttlefish, squid, killer whales and fried eggs.

This is all thanks to the origami workshop I coerce Shark and Tiger to attend down the library at the last minute today as a distraction from the damn den dwelling.

I shall be glad when these holiday activities are over and we can get back to normal.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

I will find peace in the woods. Take the noose off me first.

Hobbling, bent double, and limp armed with hammer fatigue. Also, driven mad with constant demands for den building.

Every item of junk from house now strewn over garden. Includes ten-year old sun umbrella found behind hedge, pressed into service as new den roof.

I may sue Interaction for mental pain and psychological abuse, unleashed on Monday.

But I am Grit. I remain determined not to die. And it is Wednesday, and Wednesday means fun in the woods. Rain is pissing down. Never mind.

Hunting down the woodland playworker we find him stringing up netting between trees.

Tiger attacks that while I lie on the cool woodland floor and groan.

Next, swinging on a rope. Her, not me.

I complete a course of woodland therapy by basket weaving a furry woollen fish and hanging it in the trees where I can watch it gently swim through the air.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Fule Grit speaks too soon

Because I have entered the dark pit of hell, otherwise known as the garage and hauled out from there an old bed. Then I have scattered bits of the old bed on the patch of land visible from the kitchen window. Until now I had been pleased to call this delightful shady border the wildlife garden in an attempt to romanticise over the fact that it is really a patch of soil round the side of the house undisturbed by any creature except rats for the past ten years. Now it resembles an overflow landfill site.

But anyway, the bed is there. In bits. Some parts are strapped together with duct tape and the whole resembles what we are calling a den.

Like I thought I might get away with not turning the entire house and grounds into a den building activity area following yesterday's session down at Interaction.

After I'd hauled the old bed about from garage to garden, grunting and sweating and covered in bee droppings and twigs, of course a fight breaks out immediately over whose den it is. Mine! I shout, hoping that by offering Shark and Tiger a common enemy I can unite the warring factions and they can both play in it and defend it from the mummies, otherwise known as the Watties (why I don't know, don't ask).

That tactic didn't work. Shark is now standing guard over the old bed in the rat garden with a snarl on her face looking like a particularly bad-tempered, snake-strangled Medusa.

I am pissed off that my total devotion to the den building enterprise, even at the cost of myself, our once delightful grounds, and the relinquishing of an old bed that I'm sure would have been alright somewhere should we have needed it - all of that was futile. Not for a moment did my labours create the joyful garden day I had fondly dreamed about, and which I might have called, with misty tears pricking my eyes as I speak to Dig on Skype, that yes, the children are happily playing in the summer sun.

So I took a box containing a hammer, screwdriver and lots of screws and I set about spitefully making a den only for Tiger out of some old wood and a lot more grunting and thrashing about. Here it is. A work in progress.

Soon it looks like this.

So now I have two areas of my once beautiful garden covered in old beds, bits of wood, the contents of my fabric box, and piles of junk. Along with two daughters who aren't speaking to each other, and a mother who looks like she has dragged a bed from a disused garage infested by bees and mice and creatures of the swamp and has been thrashing around in garden undergrowth for three hours before hitting her finger with a hammer trying to bang in a screw, then losing her temper and having a big squeal.

And somehow, I do not think I am going to get away with having only two den areas here when Squirrel returns.

There is only one word to cover this mayhem and mishap. Let's call it education.

Monday, 10 August 2009

And not in my back yard, so possibly perfect

Den building day. Thanks to the fantastic people over here.

Shark and Tiger amuse themselves for hours with old junk rescued from skips, landfill and scrapstore, which makes a change from the junk they sweep out of the house to chuck all over the garden for this particular summertime activity.

And like we haven't got enough junk at home, I visit a charity shop, buy a new outfit and fifteen more books.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

And a good time was had by nearly all, in Gloucester

It starts here, and thanks to breakfast, Premier Inn totally wins. Tiger is gleeful. Last time we stayed in a Travelodge I force fed her cornflakes with a fork at 7.25am and she's never forgiven me. Shark is simply licking her lips at the sight of the Sunday morning spread which, coming down to £2.50 each - and I haven't had any hand in the preparation, cooking or presentation, and do not have to wash up - means that by 9.05am my first preference is to come and live here forever.

If staying in a Premier Inn with their delicious breakfast wasn't simply the best start to a budget day out in Gloucester, we then hoof it over here, to the cathedral

where I am delighted to find the tomb of Edward II

who gets my vote as the most entertaining and pointless king Britain has ever had, possibly until we arrive at Charles III.

From there it's over to Gloucester docks

where we take to the National Waterways Museum to continue an educational day and find out about the history of the canals in England.*

* Actually, read there, 'play with the toddler water table until we are forcibly removed from it yelling like an albatross because the woman from reception will come round with the keys to lock up. You can tell by the sour look of misery on her face she has been on reception all day putting up with this sort of customer when she should by rights be sat at home in front of half a roast Sunday cow'.