Half term is nearly here, and the last few weeks have passed by quickly. Routine seems to have accelerated time, and this somewhat unnatural boarding school procedure is developing into a bit of a habit. One of the reasons that it has gone by so quickly is the ease with which he now returns to school on a Monday - certainly when compared with the emotional effort it took at the beginning of term. He strolls into school on Monday mornings apparently without a care in the world, and his mood remains upbeat for the whole of the car journey. Owing to the bank holidays, he now has had a couple of weeks which consist of only four and a half school days rather than five and a half school. This makes a huge difference. The other terms seem to have dragged on endlessly; this summer term is skipping by with a lightness in its step. The dread and drudgery of the winter term is a distant memory. Those Monday mornings of setting off in the dark on the long solemn drive seem to have existed in a parallel universe. We were men condemned, hoping our short drive would not reach its inevitable end. These days the car journey is full of care-free chatter. We are no longer in a state of shock.
It is not that life at school has got easier: the days are still long; he still only gets 45 minutes to himself all day; the ballet has become more demanding now that the expectations on them are higher; he still spends his days away from the support of his family. Nor has the pain become dulled. I am still aware of his absence everyday, and there are times when I wish that a child at boarding school was an just an idea or a suggestion rather than a very present reality. I painfully notice the empty chair at the dinner table. I still miss him, and I imagine that he still misses us, sometimes.
The big difference that the summer term offers that none of the other terms afford is a clear overview. This term presents us with five weeks - some shorter than normal - followed by a week off, and then five more weeks culminating in a couple of big performances. The end is in sight and getting there is manageable. This seems like the time for a horse-racing image: we have nearly reached the final furlong, and the last reserves of energy may now be used up in the sprint to the finish.
We have promised him two summer months of being 'normal' and only as much reminding of the ballet world as he feel he can deal with. Next academic year will be different. He will be able to manage his expectations with the benefit of hindsight - one week at a time, and the new year sevens will have arrived; he will no longer be the youngest child in the school. We'll all cope with the situation differently.
A week ago I woke up - like many others - feeling disillusioned, angry and sick. We enjoy a good election in our house, and this one was no exception. The build-up prompted some healthy discussion, even if we observed that the campaigns might have been driven more by policy rather than personality, and we settled into the twenty-four hour period of voting and counting, analysis and results with hope and anticipation. It seems foolish now to have believed in the Conservative majority decreasing rather than increasing. At best I was expecting a Labour / SNP coalition, at worse I was expecting a hung parliament and another election in eighteen months. I suppose that anyone who has been figuratively or literally hit by a train claims that they didn't see it coming.
Apparently debate was also rife at the ballet school. A speaker had been engaged from the House of Lords - he couldn't remember her name, but it began with 'Baroness'. They had had a mock vote, and despite the hard work of an eleven-year-old fighting for the arts, the Conservative Party had won; an unsurprising result, but apparently, a surprisingly narrow margin. My first thought in the early hours of Friday morning was 'it's a catastrophe beyond imagining'. My second thought was, 'what do I tell our son?'
We've brought our children up free from religion, but with a strong moral belief - be kind, and, be inclusive. We have simplified the right / left divide as 'there are those who believe in making individual wealth a priority, and there are those who believe that supporting communities is a priority.' Perhaps we oversimplify the matter. We have also taught them to make up their own minds. They can vote for whichever party they feel supports the epithet: be kind and be inclusive. We've also made it clear that if they vote Tory, they have to find somewhere else to live. (That last one is a joke!)
I only get to see him for a day and a half, so I didn't want the political state of the country to impact too heavily on family time. He said he was 'disappointed' and a 'bit upset', and then asked how I was coping. I echoed his sentiments rather than explaining that I was trying to deal with uncontainable rage and the paralysis of sadness. I felt like the dad who encourages his son to support a really crap football team; destined to a life of misery until the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates buys the club and invests in better players. The fortunes of Manchester City Football Club, are not going to be repeated for the Labour Party. So, I'm left with the remorse of having brought my children up to support a potentially really crap team.
It is the realisation that hurts the most - thirty-seven percent of this country do not seem to believe in either inclusivity or kindness. They support a party that advocates twelve billion in welfare cuts while raising the 40% tax threshold for the wealthy, and eliminating inheritance tax for estates under a million. Day-centres will close, provision for the vulnerable will become more scarce, families will lose their homes if they dare to have a spare bedroom. People are being made homeless while businesses are being given 'the most competitive taxes of any major economy'. Against this paradoxical and hypocritical backdrop of austerity, we have a son whose dreams are not to be a banker, lawyer or GP. His vocation is to dance in classical ballet, and his training depends on a huge grant from the Department of Education. 'The time is out of joint. O cursed Spite.' What do we tell him?
We explain that nearly thirty-one percent of the electorate believe as we do. (Add an additional five percent of SNP voters, if you wish.) And, next time we will be better organised. Meanwhile, we will fight. We'll fight for the NHS, and the Human Rights Act. We'll give a voice to those who are made to live on society's periphery through no fault of their own. We'll support the arts - theatre, dance, film and music - because we believe it essentially feeds our soul even though it doesn't make money. We won't demonise those whose opinions we disagree with, and even though they are in power, we'll remain respectful and dignified. And as his father, it's my job to reassure him that as he grows up, there are many others who also believe, deep in their hearts, in being inclusive and kind.
A New Level of Understanding
I have hardly left the house for four days. It is not flippancy to say that I fear the onset of some kind of agoraphobic state of mind. I've been travelling for work again, and arrived back late last week. I'm prevented by professional constraints from telling you exactly where I was, but I spent five days last week in a very different environment from where I sit, typing. Now, the window is open, the sun is shining and a cool breeze is enabling the flow of thoughts inside my head. I've come back from a place where some of the conditions that we in the West perceive as freedoms are not available: choosing how to dress; who to socialise with; where to socialise; expressing opinions; having a vote.
The work had its rewards, and yet I am depleted. I am aware of the reason. For five solid days, I had little or no time to myself. Our hosts were gracious and kind, but perhaps a little worried of the mischief we might cause in such an unfamiliar environment. They filled all our available spare time with a visit or event. I am of course grateful to have been so well looked after, and return with a sense of the warmth of human spirit that can be extended across cultural boundaries. However, I spent a relentless five days with people whom I had no choice but to spend time with. Incidentally, I tried to break free - a forty minute walk, but in the heat, and with no pavements, it meant that I got nowhere. This is not a reflection of the personalities involved, all of whom display a plethora of merits. I am aware that I am not the easiest person to spend time with. Undermining, capricious and sardonic are some of my least attractive qualities. Being glued together for the equivalent of a working week took me through a range of responses which culminated in an extreme sense of restriction: a skull clamping, chest tightening, enervating sensation. I began to question my most basic responses. In nearly all non-work related situations, I began to view myself as a bit of an idiot: trivial, unfunny and banal. If this was my own impression of myself, I can't imagine what it must have been like for those around me.
As I sit at home in silence, and my personality again dares to unfurl, I gain a new level of understanding. This is what it is like for our son at ballet school. This is why he comes home at weekends and wishes to spend time at home, or walking no further than the area he grew up in as a small child. There is a need for him to reassert who he is and where he came from. As I have discovered, when private responses are always assessed publicly, it leaves you with nowhere to go and and a profound need to hide. It can sometimes feel like an assault, the only barricade is a fixed false smile. An inner scream concealed by The Joker's grin.
There is doubtless great love and care at his school, but this is compensation for having to be the best version of your public self during every waking moment, surrounded at all times by scores of other children.
At the weekend, I looked at our son with a new admiration for his strength and determination. I was and warmer father, and gave him more space. Today I have an empty diary and an open window besides which to recover. He is back in the ballet studio, and tonight he'll be sharing a room with eleven other boys.