Before the Cock Crows ...
It was early in the morning, and I was sitting in the back of a taxi. The taxi driver was telling me stories of his children. One was an undercover police officer; another was studying to be a doctor; the third was excelling at school and probably going to be a lawyer. All three were intent on making the world a better place. "So," he asked, "do your children go to state school?"
There are times when questions about my children's schooling set me on edge. I become immediately defensive.
"Oh yes!" I replied with an unnatural emphasis. I was thinking about the younger one as I spoke.
"The one at secondary school, too?"
"Oh yes." This sounded more like a whimper. I offered no further information.
Could the taxi driver see the chink in my armour?
This is not the first time that I have concealed the nature of our son's schooling. There are times when it is more convenient that ballet remains a hidden secret. Often, I find it difficult admitting that my son attends a private school, and even more difficult - on occasion - revealing that it is a ballet school. Sometimes harsh reality does not correlate with the desired image. The perceived privilege of ballet does not fit in with who I like to believe I am: egalitarian, left-wing, iconoclastic. I fear that people will judge me to be entitled, elitist and pretentious. There is every danger that this second list is perhaps closer to who I am. But, if I admit that I have a son who dances ballet, and that I am paying for his education, it will be indisputable proof that I have become the very person I loathe. It distils into something potent - shame and embarrassment.
Sometimes I tell people that he is at ballet school, but I add a caveat. "Yea, but I didn't want him to go" or "He was taken against our wishes," or the even more fatalistic, "It wasn't my decision." The cognitive dissonance between what I want to be and how I fear I'll be perceived is so loud that all I can manage is a meek apology for my identity, and that of my son and family. I imagine a stubborn lack of comprehension, and so I subvert and undermine before I have even given myself a chance. I suspect that this is a pattern. I do this often - even when ballet is not the dirty secret. There are other things I conceal: my love of doing nothing; how much I care about cake; my passion for teenage American television; my fascination with the X-factor. I pay three quid a month so that I don't get adverts when I watch ITV on catch-up. I don't tell many people this. It doesn't fit in with the image I cultivate. Perhaps it's time to drop the hypothetical image. I have a child at a private school.
The reality is that life at a ballet school is tough. Our son displays resilience, courage and determination daily. He is living apart from the family who love him and developing a wisdom and independence beyond his years. It might be an environment that suggests exclusivity, but it is certainly not one of entitlement and privilege. He works hard and sacrifices a great deal. He has decided that there is something bigger than himself which he is willing to dedicate his life to. These are complex concepts to explain at six-thirty in the morning in a taxi to Heathrow. And sometimes it is just easier to keep things hidden, rather than attempt an explanation.
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.
High Hopes for Half-term
The last five weeks have been gruelling. They seem to have lasted longer than the whole of the Christmas term. There are several reasons for this: the pupils have not had a weekend off, and have attended Saturday school every week; they have been preparing for the annual assessments; the pressure has built up in school and at home. Time as a family in the last few weeks has seemed rushed; we have all been getting used to a new rhythm; he used to come home on a Friday. Now the weekend begins on a Saturday afternoon. So, we find ourselves tripping joyously into half-term. Is it right to be focusing so intently on the holidays that we are wishing away large chunks of our lives?
I haven't booked any work in for the week - except for one conference call. During the last conference call I did at home, connecting people from UK, US, and Australia, the dog unexpectedly decided to bark. I denied that I could hear anything unusual on the line, and said it was probably an antipodean technical gremlin. This time that gremlin could sound like a dog, or either of the children - probably screeching about killing skellybuts on Minecraft.
I have learned my lesson, and with no work booked in, I have just gloriously lowered my expectations. I am not going to plan much; I'll just let events take their own course. I will not be arranging an itinerary of activities or ensuring that every hour of every day is accounted for. He spends his life packing and unpacking bags, so we will not be repeating this activity and carting him off to an airport. Like the hard-drive on an old computer, we'll all just defragment at home. Let's have the chance to catch up, watch movies, play games, go for walks, eat and chat. We will meander and drift lazily through the week. Perhaps, on one day, we will have lunch out. It will be a chance for him not to be in a dormitory, not to always be surrounded by other children, and not to have every second of his day timetabled. I imagine the siblings getting reacquainted and their banter echoing through the house; peals of laughter cascading down the stairs.
Then, as we hurtle towards this blissful week off, I catch myself. I'm walking the dog and the thought hits me - a sobering wet fish slap in the face. I'm being dishonest. I might not be planning a week of activity, but I am putting just as much pressure on all of us. In my head, I am imagining half-term to exist at the very pinnacle of my blue-sky-thinking. I see us as the Waltons, or the idyllic characters from a pastoral, healing and licking our wounds - caused by the excesses of ballet. We are reunited and have returned home for the simple life. We are the dirndl wearing, doh-a-deer singing Von Trapps fleeing formality, tradition and fascism - climbing every mountain. I have no evidence that this is anyone else's fantasy but my own. There are three others involved in this story, and the dog can also prove quite wilful. I am expecting us to instantly develop skills of communication and collaboration that we have probably never possessed. In my head, no-one is squabbling or arguing or getting cross because they were the one to unload the dishwasher ... again. I have forgotten how much time is taken in preparing three meals a day for a whole family - how much salad will be washed, pasta endlessly drained, and toast buttered. I have also forgotten the frustrations of Minecraft, and how hard it is finding activities to suit children who are six years apart in age. Fatally, I haven't asked anyone else what they want, or given them the chance to contribute to this vision. Perhaps, after five weeks intense classical ballet training, he will just want to spend the whole week sucked into YouTube videos - a headphone-wearing zombie pretending that he is just a normal non-communicative eleven-year-old. It is more than likely that our daughter will reject the back-catalogue of Miyazaki cartoons I have planned, because she just wants to watch Tracey Beaker.
Back to the drawing board, or not - as the case may be. I'll let you know.
To be continued ...