Leaping into the unknown …

With it being a leap year, it seems appropriate that I’ve made some pretty huge decisions over the last couple of weeks, the result of which means that I am taking a leap into the unknown.

The biggest decision I have had to make has been with regards my job. I have been a Primary School teacher, at the same school, for the past 13 years. Two weeks ago I resigned.

This wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I have three young boys to raise so giving up a permanent job seemed foolish, and perhaps a little selfish. I was giving up stability, a good income with all the perks of being employed (sick pay, pension etc.) When I was discussing my decision with a very close friend and mentioned these things, she simply said, ‘Carry on as you are and you won’t be here to see your pension.’ Her words were like a punch in the stomach. She was 100% right.

I won’t go into detail about why my situation at work had become unbearable (it’s too raw for me to talk about), but it’s enough to say that for the last three years, I have driven to work each morning in tears, and each morning, a little part of me has died. It left me empty – empty of feeling, empty of self-confidence, empty of self-worth.

So financially, it may have been a very unwise decision to make. Health wise, it has been the best decision I have ever made. The moment the resignation letter dropped from my hands into the post box something in me shifted. It was like the tiniest flutter in my stomach. I stood staring at the post box, not quite able to believe that I had finally done it … that I had taken that leap into the unknown.

I have always done what I believe is right. I have always gone out of my way to please others. I have always shied away from being daring. When you suffer with anxiety and a trip into town can bring on a panic attack, it has always made sense to keep things simple, stick to what I know, do what’s right for everyone else.

But two weeks ago, for the first time ever, I decided to do what was right for me. It is such a strange and unfamiliar feeling. For the first time in my life, I’m looking at the future as me. First and foremost, I am Mam. I want to be there for my boys. I want to take them to school and pick them up. I want to be cheering on the sideline on Sports Day. I want to sit in the front row at the school concert. I want to give them my time – time for homework and reading, time to sit and chat or snuggle on the sofa, time to play. There will be no more shooing them off to bed early because I have tomorrow’s lessons to prepare. There will be no more sitting marking all weekend whilst they play at my feet.

Secondly, I am Sharon. And what do I want for me? To write. It’s that simple. Writing is such a huge part of me. So, I’m going to write more than the odd half hour I used to squeeze in here and there. I may do an MA in Creative Writing which I’ve always wanted to do.

And once my body is up to it, I’ll take up running again. You may think these are trivial. You may say, but you could do that before. Maybe, but now I’ll have the luxury of enjoying them. I won’t be looking at my watch every few minutes during a run thinking about the mountain of school work waiting for me. I won’t have to give precious writing time up for planning and marking.

I’m not completely delusional. I know we need an income from me. For that, I’ll do supply teaching and I’m also hoping to start some writing workshops in schools (I had a recent meeting about this possibility so I’m keeping my fingers crossed).

So yes, taking a leap into the unknown has been terrifying, but at the same time exhilarating. Who knows what the future has in store for me. For the first time in my life, I’m little bit excited by the uncertainty. Bring it on!

Hwyl am y tro x

 

 

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Boys vs Girls

I always read with interest debates about there being ‘books for girls’ and ‘books for boys’. Pink vs Blue. Fairies vs Pirates. It baffles me.

I was in a book shop the other day, standing next to a lady who was studying the children’s colouring books, sighing and tutting as she did so. She turned to me and said, ‘Excuse me, do you have a daughter?’ ‘No,’ I answered, ‘I have three sons.’ ‘Oh,’ she sighed, ‘I want to buy a colouring book for a girl but none of these look particularly girly and I don’t think she’ll like them.’ Puzzled, I looked at the shelf of colouring books. ‘This is my best bet,’ she said, picking up a ‘Under the Sea’ colouring book. ‘The cover’s blue, mind.’ Then with another sigh and a tut, she walked away to the till, leaving me to stare in confusion at her retreating back. I mean, we had just been talking about children’s colouring books, hadn’t we?

As a child, I would spend ages in the morning choosing my outfit, always colour-matching my top, skirt and socks. My favourite colour was, and still is, pink. So did this mean I only played with ‘pink and pretty’ things? Only read about fairies and princesses? NO!!!

I had barbies, lots and lots of barbies. I also had a Playmobil set of little construction men and their tools. Enid Blyton sat next to Roald Dahl and Ted Hughes on my book shelf. I had a magic crab apple tree at the bottom of the front garden, which was home to the Crabble Fairies. Our back patio was my pirate ship, on which I would sail the seas on perilous adventures.

My sister, on the other hand, hated pink (she still hates pink and refused to wear a pink dress as my bridesmaid). As a child, she would throw on a random pair of shorts and a t-shirt and go and cause mayhem and mischief with our older brother – getting stuck in trees and losing wellies in streams.

We may have been like chalk and cheese, yet in the evenings, we would snuggle on her bed and read together – it didn’t matter what the book was, it was just the joy of reading aloud together.

Children are children. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I have three sons. My eldest loves football and rugby. My 4 year-old loves Peppa Pig and Rosie. My 18 month-old loves to empty cupboards and put toys in the washing machine or down the toilet. They are three individual, boisterously beautiful boys who have their own minds.

When I got my publishing deal and plucked up the courage to start telling people, their first response was, ‘Oooh, how exciting! What’s it about?’ When they learnt that my main character is a girl, they would say, ‘Oh. You have three boys. I’d have thought that you’d write a boys book.’ Really, yes, I have had that comment countless times.

I didn’t set out to write a book for girls or a book for boys. I set out to write a children’s book. End of. If we restrict children’s reading because of gender, then we are teaching them that they have to fit into a pre-conceived mould. Boys shouldn’t like pink – this would confuse my 4 year-old no end. Girls shouldn’t like dangerous adventure, but should sit daintily making daisy chains – this would have enraged my sister!

This may be an exaggeration, but the message really does come across like that if we continue to talk about books for boys and books for girls. We’re turning it into boys vs girls. They are children’s books for little people who have their own minds and a wonderful capacity to imagine. So let’s leave them to choose what they want to read and not make a child feel uncomfortable about wanting to read a book that’s ‘not meant’ for them.

Hwyl am y tro x

 

 

The Equation of Creativity

As a Primary School teacher, I have become increasingly frustrated over the last couple of years with how we are expected to teach English/Welsh to the pupils. Creative writing has become crippled by the weight of key skills and success criteria. ‘Should we use adjectives and similes in our story?’ pupils ask eagerly, then, ‘Miss, why are you banging your head against the wall?’ Or, ‘How many WOW words should we use?’, followed by, ‘Miss? Miss? Where did Miss go?’ (Drives away in a fog of frustrated fumes).

Please don’t worry, I haven’t actually whacked my head against the classroom wall (well, not in front of the pupils anyway), or driven away and left a classroom of pupils to stare in wide-eyed wonderment at my squealing tyres. Yet, I have wanted to. Oh boy have I wanted to.

As a child, I was so lucky to be immersed in the magic of stories. When I held a book in my hands, my fingers would tingle with anticipation of the adventure that awaited. I would constantly create stories. The crab apple tree at the foot of our garden was home to the Crabble Fairies. Our back patio was a pirate ship, my hula hoop balancing on the hedge its helm; my pet rabbit my trusted parrot. I can’t remember ever worrying about how many similes I should include in my stories, or whether I had used enough WOW words to warrant success. What my stories had were adventure and magic, imagination and wonderment. These were my success criteria.

But now, as a teacher, if a child hasn’t grappled painstakingly with a thesaurus and included at least five WOW words in their story, then I have failed. I was externally assessed a couple of years ago and I was so thrilled that the lesson, in my eyes, went brilliantly. The pupils were fully engaged, they were excited, they wanted to carry on working at playtime, I was bubbling with enthusiastic energy. When I finally managed to shoo them out, with a promise that we’d carry on after play, I turned bright-eyed to my assessor, who peered at me over her glasses and said, ‘It’s such a shame that you didn’t ask them to write down the success criteria at the start, because it could have been an outstanding lesson.’ Pop. The pin stuck in. How could I have been so careless? In the excitement and enjoyment how could I have forgotten to write down the success criteria?

I think that was the start for me. The realisation that I couldn’t enjoy being a teacher anymore. I’ve never been mathematically minded, so to have my profession become so rigorously governed by data and targets, test results and tables, my confidence has plummeted, my energy has zapped and my vision has become blurred by tears of frustration. I can’t turn writing creatively into an equation of 5 similes + 10 adjectives + 3 WOW words = a successful story. It goes against everything I believe in.

One of the worst examples of the dreaded WOW words came about last September, after I returned to teaching having been on maternity leave for a year. The pupils were writing about their favourite day of the Summer holidays. One girl was writing about the first day of her holiday in Ibiza … ‘After breakfast, we promenaded to the beach as it only took five minutes from our hotel.’ I asked her why didn’t she just say that they had walked to the beach. ‘Walked isn’t a good word. It’s not a WOW word,’ she said.

Now had she been writing a historical piece set in Victorian times, I would have congratulated her for using her imagination and exploring language and its effect. But sadly in this instance, it simply made me cringe. It was nothing more than a building block for her to reach what she believed would make her writing successful. Story writing has become a recipe – a list of pre-agreed ingredients that need to be thrown into the mixing bowl. Leave one ingredient out and your story will be bland. It should also come clearly labelled with a health warning – ‘Seriously damages your creativity.’

I have always loved language. I love words – the way they look, the way they sound, the way they make us feel. I love playing with language – turning old-fashioned idioms upside down to create new ones, creating new words, finding words that I’ve never heard before. My 8 year-old was reading ‘Pete and the Five-a-side Vampires’ by Malachy Doyle and came across the word ‘discombobulate’. It was like finding a piece of buried treasure. He laughed at it, rolled it around on his tongue, used it in conversation for days. That, for me, was a perfect example of a WOW word.

I’m always telling my pupils that WOW words are not the words we pick at random from the thesaurus for the sake of forcing them into our writing like the wrong missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. WOW words are words we create, words that have special meanings to us, words that make us feel something. I remember my pupils writing autobiographies a few years ago after reading Roald Dahl’s ‘Boy’. A boy named Finn called his autobiography, ‘My Finntabulous Life’. And there it was – his WOW word – created naturally by him for the sole purpose of entertaining the reader. He was using his imagination, not a thesaurus, to write creatively.

It is so important to nurture a child’s imagination. They can become so dependent on seeking entertainment from their technological devices these days that they become numb to the magic around them. If I were a child today, would I have noticed the fairy door on our crab apple tree and scrunched my eyes closed, tapped on it three times and entered the Crabble Kingdom? I hope so. And that is what I want to give to children. The power to do just that. The power to not see the patio through the window, but a pirate ship ready to sail the seven seas.

I want a child to read aloud their story in breathless excitement. I want that child to realise that it’s their imagination that has made their story a success. I want that child to see that their work is an abundance of WOW words, rich in adjectives and similes, without even having thought about it. I want that child to have the freedom to tell their story creatively.

Hwyl am y tro x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Library of Dreams …

As a child, a visit to the library was the highlight of my week. It would usually be on a Wednesday and I would race home from school, grab my pile of books and skip the five minutes to the small town library.

During that hour, in the safe haven of paperback friends, I didn’t have to worry about the kids in school who picked on me for being a ‘swot’. I didn’t have to listen to the sniggering whispers of ‘teacher’s pet’ behind my back. I didn’t have to blush in shame for putting my hand up in class because I knew the answer.

I could pick up a book and disappear inside its pages. I didn’t have to be me. I could be a pirate, a princess, a witch or a wizard. I could travel back in time or to distant lands – real and imaginary. I could befriend pigs and dogs and a man made out of scrap iron. I could climb trees and disappear behind waterfalls.

I could dream.

I was expected home by five o’clock therefore at 4.55pm, I’d pick up my new selection, balance them precariously in my arms and totter home.

Whilst we weren’t a poor family, money was tight and with two brothers and a sister, my parents had to limit what we could do. I never had piano or swimming lessons. I never had ballet or modern dance classes. I was never allowed to buy a new book from the Book Club magazine sent home from school. But the library was a certainty. I didn’t have to worry about not being allowed to go. A library doesn’t judge you. It welcomes you with open arms and embraces you in its warmth.

Our next door neighbour was an elderly lady who would occasionally wait for me by her garden gate and ask me to return her books to the library for 50p and a packet of Jammie Dodgers. I would have done it every day for nothing.

It saddens me that that magical place which let me escape for one hour every week no longer exists in the small town where I grew up. Why? Why close the door on a child’s dreams?

A library is so much more than four walls and military-lined books. A library is a place to nurture a child’s imagination. A library is a haven for magical adventures, a place to escape.

Were it not for that small library of my childhood which gave me access to all those magical dreams, I doubt I’d be sitting here today, brimming with excitement that my debut book for children will be publishing this Autumn. To think that a child who feels like I once did might pick up my book and dream my dreams … well, I can’t put it into words. So let that child, let every child have a world of imagination, a world of dreams … let every child have a library.