I Don’t Dance, But I Do Write

At the beginning of every year I volunteer to teach drama at my kids’ primary school. The kids love it (half an hour a week where you’re instructed to play, how cool is that?), the teachers love it (someone else to do the drama component of the curriculum when you don’t have the skills, awesome) and I love it.

I love that drama is for everyone. Each child can be involved as much or as little as they like. The look-at-me types get what they have been craving all day, the don’t-look-at-me types feel safe in the crowd of group work or can crawl out of their shell when everyone is working individually (busy and focused, so no one is looking at anyone else). The biggest smile in the room is on the face of the boy with mobility issues who, though in a wheelchair, is as involved as everyone else.

So after working with Goldilocks’ year 3 class for six months I leapt at the opportunity to assist in the preparation for the end of year concert.

“That’s great! Thanks so much!” gushed Goldilocks’ teacher. “You can take these four girls. They’ll be pretending to be the singers – miming the words while everyone else dances around them. We want them to be really big – exaggerated. Do whatever you like.”

Excellent, I thought. I had it all worked out. Those evenings spent watching The X Factor while on holidays with my sister-in-law’s family hadn’t been wasted after all. Overacting popstars? No worries.

“Let’s just listen to the music first.” I said and we sat around the CD player. All except Goldilocks’ best friend Millie who stood in the middle of the room, feet firmly planted, eyes cast to the floor, clearly in performance-preparation-position. It’s kind of like 3rd position in ballet but without the ballet-ness.

I pressed play. She began. She had an entire dance routine already worked out. I knew she wasn’t improvising because every time it came back to the chorus she pulled out the same moves.

I started fidgeting. This wasn’t in the script. This was dancing. I don’t do dancing. Well I dance, badly, with lubrication or silly friends or pre-teen daughters, but I don’t teach dance.

Tori was watching Millie carefully. “I really like those moves Millie, and in this bit we could do this.” She bopped about, expertly executing tight dance moves in perfect time to the music.

My shoulders relaxed and I stopped clenching my fingers as I realised I wasn’t required to do anything. With Millie’s passion and Tori’s skill this gig was sorted.

Jazzy noticed what was happening and jumped up. “What about this?” she said punching the sky randomly with her right arm. “And then here we can do this.” She cartwheeled across the room, narrowly missing Millie’s head and the CD player. OK, so maybe I was needed after all, in order to channel Jazzy’s enthusiasm and to encourage quiet Caroline who hadn’t said one word or moved more than 10cm during the whole song.

After 40 minutes they had choreographed the whole dance. I tried hard to look like I was keeping up, but after hearing “No Heidi, it goes like this.” from Tori for the sixth time I gave up, figuring I was just slowing them down.

They showed their teacher and she loved it.
“They didn’t have to dance.” She said, obviously impressed.
“Actually they did. I couldn’t stop them.”

And just as well. They were inspired. I’m pretty sure that was the best part of the day for those four girls. They were passionate about putting actions to the music, bringing life to the song, and (especially Millie) dreaming of performing in front of the whole school community in six weeks’ time.

So they have inspired me. I love to write. I’m passionate about it and I’m better at it than I am at dancing. It’s November and there’s no way I can commit to NaNoWriMo – 50 000 words is way too much pressure for me. But I have committed to writing something every day. I’m not even specifying what something is. Yeah, call me a wimp, maybe next month I’ll be more transparent and accountable.

But here’s day 1’s effort – on day 2, I know. See, I’m already behind. At least I’m inspired. Now I’m off to write page 3 of my next ten minute play.

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Cut Those Apron Strings

They’re growing up. Right now Sluggie (13), MissChief (11) and Goldilocks (8) are on the local school oval doing target practice for this afternoon’s Nerf war. Sluggie is the trainer, of course, and owner of the massive arsenal, but the girls are very keen to learn. It’s raining, but that just adds to the boot camp feel.

Usually I’d go with them, but I’m still in my pjs and The Cute One (5) hasn’t finished breakfast. It’s midday. It’s school holidays. And all’s well.

They do this quite a bit now – two or three of them going bike riding for a couple of hours. I’m trying hard not to be a helicopter parent, waving them off with nothing but a return time. OK, I lie, they do take Sluggie’s mobile phone, but that’s just being sensible isn’t it? Things are different to when we were kids aren’t they? Or is it all a media beat-up?

I’m walking the tightrope of parenting while juggling trust, risk, freedom, protection, faith, growth and any number of other ideals. I fear if I drop one they’ll be too scared to try new things as adults, another and they’ll never hold down a job, a third and they’ll be in counseling for decades, a fourth and they’ll become addicted to bungy jumping, skydiving and Impro. (Ooh, maybe that last one’s not such a bad thing.)

So when MissChief asked if she could go to the movies with a couple of friends – and no adults – I said yes. OK, I know you’re thinking “What? You’ve never let her do that before?!” Or perhaps “You let her do what?!” like the person who told MissChief “I’m sure your Mum wouldn’t let you do that – haven’t you heard the story about the girl in America who was kidnapped from a shopping mall when yadda yadda yadda?” I spent that evening attempting to unfreak her.

On Sunday Mr Wonderful dropped her at the cinema and left once she met up with her friends. They bought the obligatory food supplies (except MissChief who had taken her own safe supply) and went into the theatre. The ads came on, and went on and on and on and on. The girls began fidgeting, wondering if perhaps they were in the wrong theatre. Miss ABC went out to check which number they were in. When would the movie start? Finally it began, except it wasn’t the movie they had paid for, but something they’d never heard of.

Miss ABC came back: “We’re in 6 not 7!” So the girls packed up their collection of popcorn, choc tops, ridiculously large soft drinks and cups of lollies, excused themselves past people in the dark and made it out of the theatre. MissChief looked up at the numbers. “No we’re not – we’re in 7! That’s 6 over there!” They trooped back in as the credits rolled on the animated short – for that is all it was. Just in time for the feature film – Brave. Which is exactly what they were.

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In Sickness and In Health

Mr Wonderful’s sister became engaged 18 months ago. Fanfare, excitement and five girls trembling with extreme flower girl anticipation. Oh, and one pageboy nonchalantly accepting his role.

In 2006 MissChief and Goldilocks were flowergirls for my sister. MissChief was 5 and had the task of holding her 3 year old sister’s hand, leading the way across what must have seemed to her a vast expanse of grassy paddock. The photos show a determined frown on her beautiful face – just as angels have when on an important mission.

Goldilocks (8) can’t remember much about that wedding so MissChief (11) had four eager pupils in her How To Be A Flower Girl training camp, the others being The Cute One (5) and a couple of cousins aged 5 and 7. They live in Sydney, but whenever we’ve met up over the last year and a half the girls’ conversation has been of dresses and hair, flowers and walking, holding hands and smiling, peppered with observations regarding eating yummy food and staying up really really late.

The weekend before the big day we double checked that everything was ready: dresses, shoes, stockings and suit were all sorted for the kids. Socks! Must buy Sluggie black socks. Tick.

Tuesday afternoon I picked the girls up from school. Every afternoon The Cute One runs out of the classroom, dumps her bag and jumper at my feet and chases her friends around the playground.
“Put your jumper on, it’s freezing!” I plead and she yells back
“I’m not cold!” I shake my head and shiver in the 9 degrees that is a wintery Canberra afternoon.

So I knew something was wrong when she emerged white-faced and frowning, wearing her jumper. “I’ve been cold all day.” she said clinging to me. She had a temperature and was asleep by 7pm. Wednesday afternoon Goldilocks succumbed and was joined a day later by MissChief. I counted the days and figured I’d get it just in time for the wedding on Sunday.

Saturday morning we had four very excited Cherubim. The Cute One was recovering nicely which was just as well because nobody could make her smile a few days earlier. Besides, a red nose and dark circles under the eyes really aren’t ideal flower girl makeup.

We packed the car in the rain, piled in (with four extra boxes of tissues) and made our way to Sydney (in the rain) in perfect time for the wedding practice (still raining). There was much squealing and running down the aisle when the cousins got together – well, one crawling down the aisle, actually. There were eight in total and they were ecstatic to be together. We oohed and aahed as they cutely practiced their special walk – the only challenge was encouraging some of them to slooooooow dooooown. “It’s not a race to the end of the aisle!”

The kids had an early dinner and were in bed by 6:30, lights off at 7. They were smashed. Sluggie (13) had a temp of nearly 39 degrees so we dosed him up on paracetamol. Twelve hours sleep would be just what he needed to get over this virus. It was a shame Goldilocks coughed all night.

At 4:30 Sluggie appeared in our doorway.
“What are you doing? Go back to bed.”
BAM. He hit the floor. Mr Wonderful carried him back to bed. He slept ‘til 7:30 then went to the bathroom. Later he told me he was washing his hands when he started feeling weird. He could hear the water running but couldn’t see it. He fumbled to turn off the tap then was desperate to get out of the bathroom – he was scared now and wanted help. He still couldn’t see but somehow made it to the kitchen where he collapsed once again. Back to bed until 9:30, by which time the fever had gone, praise God.

“You just have to make it from one end of the church to the other boy, and hand the rings over.”
He did, even managing smiles for most of the photos.

It was a beautiful day – the first sunny day in Sydney for weeks – and everyone had a fabulous time, but that’s for another blog post.

We made it back to our accommodation by midnight and the kids settled down to sleep. We weren’t far behind them.

2:30am Sluggie appeared in the doorway. He didn’t collapse this time, but neither was he awake. He was having a night terror and it took both of us a good fifteen minutes to calm him down so he could sleep peacefully. Whatever he could see was very real to him and we couldn’t wake him up.

Morning came and Sluggie was himself again: smiling, happy, annoying his sisters. The world was spinning in its correct orbit and all was as it should be. The kids went to the park while we packed the car.

I heard a cry. And a garbage truck. I ran outside to find Mr Wonderful lying on the grass. He had twisted his ankle climbing backwards out of our van, fallen on the road, heard the truck coming and dragged himself out of its path. A neighbour on his way out kindly stopped his car in case the truck driver couldn’t see the invalid on the ground.

So I drove home a carload of exhausted, coughing, whingey Cherubim and a husband with a swollen ankle. It turns out he’s torn four ligaments, but broken no bones, and isn’t to go to work for the rest of the week.

How often would we like to spend time together kid-free? Well, here’s our chance. If only I could stop coughing and get rid of this headache.

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Let’s Go Shopping

MissChief (11) had an idea.

MC: Can MissChief2 and I go shopping next Sunday after church?
Me: Where?
MC: You could drop us at the shopping centre and I could take Sluggie’s phone and then you could pick us up later. I wouldn’t have to take any money, I just like window shopping.
Me (somewhat distracted): Mmmm, we’ll see.

MissChief’s friend ABC had a better idea. Next day, at school…

MC: My mum said I can go shopping with MissChief2 next weekend.
ABC: Oh cool! Can I come?
MC: Ask your mum.
ABC: And then we can go to the movies as well!

That night…

ABC: Muuuuum, can I go shopping with MissChief and MissChief2 on the weekend?
Mum: No.
ABC: But MissChief’s mum said it was ok.
Mum: Really?
ABC: Yes! It’s all organised.
Mum: Oh, well if Heidi said it’s ok, then that’s different. But if you’re going to be doing this more often you’ll need a phone of your own.
ABC: And can we go to the movies too?
Mum: We’ll see.

And so it was organised… behind my back and without my knowledge. And it looks like ABC might even get a phone out of it.

The two mums got together and worked out the facts of the matter (it turned out MissChief2 couldn’t come because she was grounded – but that’s another story). We ditched the movie idea. Maybe later. Like when they’re 25.

I had to take Sluggie shopping for Page Boy shoes anyway. And oh, wasn’t he soooo excited about the prospect of shopping for shoes. Not. So we met ABC at the centre and parted ways. The girls linked arms and wandered off, looking kind-of-a-little lost. Actually make that more than a little, looking quite lost. But only for a second. Then they had a twinkle in their eyes that said “We’re grown up, look at us!”

We met up an hour later (with Page Boy shoes, hooray) at that institute of girly heaven, Diva. The 6 foot signs in the window declared “Nothing Over $6”. I told the girls they had five more minutes. They looked at each other in anguish and flitted about the shop until it was time to go. MissChief came to me with her selection. “Can I buy these with my pocket money?” Just then I noticed the fine print on the Diva signs.

*Sale items only. Full priced items not included.

I pointed it out to MissChief. Her shoulders slumped and she put back the $20 items she had chosen, replacing them with a $4 set of headbands that were actually on sale.

I was cross.

Me: That sign is very misleading.
Poor Diva Checkout Chick: Oh?
Me: The girls are really disappointed. They came here thinking everything was under $6. It’s false advertising.
PDCC: Oh.
Me: I know it’s not your fault. But what the sign really means is “Nothing over $6 except for all the things that are over $6.” Right?
PDCC: Ahh, yeah, I guess.
Me: Well, you can pass that on as customer feedback. I know it’s not your fault.
PDCC (smiling weakly): Yeah, I thought it was weird too.

So it’s not the scary strangers my daughter has to be wary of when out shopping with girlfriends, it’s the shops themselves. She’s learning lessons and gaining skills so that when she does go out without me she’ll know how to deal with all manner of dodginess.

But 25 is a long time away.

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Bullying – Zero Tolerance

Bullying. What does the word conjure up for you? A newspaper article? A You Tube video? A personal experience? Your entire schooling? A workplace incident?

It brings out the mama bear in me.

Two weeks ago Sluggie (13) came home from a 12 hour school excursion with a face that said ‘don’t come near me’ but eyes that begged for a hug. He’d had a terrible day at the hands of fellow year 7 boys. It started with name-calling and general harassment, progressed to stone throwing and even involved kicking at one point. All when the teachers were looking the other way of course.

I was furious. With claws out and teeth bared I wanted to know who did what exactly and when. I wanted to know how Sluggie had responded. I wanted to know what his friends were doing at the time. I wanted to know – but this wasn’t my job. I had to take a deep breath and put my big mama bear suit away. What my boy needed was acceptance and cuddles, a safe place to be, sympathy and peaceful sleep. Mum getting all worked up at 9pm wasn’t going to help him at all.

So he talked and we prayed and I kissed him goodnight. Then I ranted and raved to Mr Wonderful who could cope with it much better than Sluggie could. I was upset about the day’s events, sure, but the big issue for me was a feeling of here-we-go-again.

Sluggie was the victim of bullying some years ago and we were incredibly frustrated with how the school dealt with his situation. Every school has a policy for dealing with bullying and they all look pretty good on paper, but it’s the application that matters. And for Sluggie in years gone by this policy was like a $1 bottle of Hollywood Glitz nail polish – you apply it, but within a couple of days it’s flaking off.

I heard lots of comments like these from teachers and executive staff:
1. “It’s very difficult with these situations.”
2. “Sluggie really needs to develop some resilience.”
3. “Bully X comes from a very troubled background.”
4. “These issues take time to resolve.”
5. “We’re doing everything we can.”

My responses – sometimes in my head, sometimes aloud, sometimes very loud.
1. Yes, it is very difficult. But it’s your responsibility to resolve these situations.
2. Yes, he does. You’re right. But is ongoing bullying the best way for him to do so? I don’t think so.
3. I understand that, I really do. But that’s no reason for him to take it out on my son.
4. How long? What are you doing? How will we measure progress? Let’s make a plan.
5. No. You. Are. Not.

So I was nervous that I was going to have to go in to bat for my son again, but now in high school. A whole new world.

The next day I wrote an email to the classroom teacher explaining what had happened on the excursion. He wrote back within 5 minutes saying he had noticed occurrences in class that morning that concerned him and fitted with what I had said. He asked me for names.

Emails continued back and forth, now involving the head teacher for that subject. The boys in question were taken out of class and spoken to in very serious terms. They were given a warning. They know they are being watched. Another teacher organised for Sluggie to see the counsellor – someone to listen and to give him skills in resilience and dealing with bullies. One boy approached Sluggie and asked if they could get on better (almost an apology!).

Two weeks on he is once more enjoying that class. The few times any of the boys has begun something they have been stomped on immediately. The positive behaviour has spilled over into other classes they share with Sluggie.

Sluggie needs to continue to develop his own strategies and build up that resilience, but now he doesn’t feel he is fighting this battle alone. The school acted immediately and at multiple levels. There was no softly-softly approach to the bullies but neither did I need to roar into the playground and rip off heads in order to protect my baby – something for which Sluggie will be eternally grateful. I’m sure he’d never live that one down.

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Run Towards the Monster

In Impro we are encouraged to “run towards the monster” in order to create scenes with depth, character, humour, dramatic tension and/or narrative strength. We need to be encouraged to do this because when someone says “Aaagh there’s a dragon” or “I’ve had it with you always eating the last Tim Tam” the 21st century grown up’s instinct is to run away – which makes for boring (and very short) scenes.

Children are different. Not only do they run towards the monster, they spend hours constructing the monster in intricate detail, befriending it and even playing with it on the slippery dip.

The Cute One (5) has lots of friends at school but none closer than Tilly. They met last year in preschool and have a shared love of box construction, letter writing and chasing games as well as a shared disdain for annoying older brothers.

Their mutual understanding of things present only in their imagination is another reason their friendship is so strong. I was recently allowed a precious glimpse into the inner mind workings of these two gurus of improvisation.

The Cute One: Mummy, did you know that there are actually real monsters in the world?
Me: No I didn’t know that. Tell me about them.
TCO: Well they’re not in Australia. They live in a small little land called Monster Land.
Me: And where is Monster Land?
TCO: Well, the way you get there is a secret. Tilly told me how to get there but she said I can’t tell anyone.

TCO knows that it’s ok to tell any secret to Mummy and Daddy, so she did tell me how to get to Monster Land on the proviso that I keep the knowledge to myself. So, sorry, but I’m sure you understand. Actually, I’m probably not breaking any confidences by informing you that the instructions begin at Tilly’s house and involve many left and right turns before climbing rocks into clouds. I hope I haven’t said too much.

Me: What is Monster Land like?
TCO: Tilly has been there and played on the monster playground with them.
Me: Who was there with her?
TCO: There were five monsters: there was a Mummy and a Daddy and three baby monsters. They all had purple or pink spots on a green and purple background. They were big and on the side of the slippery dip were pictures of monsters. That’s how she knew she was in Monster Land.

The Cute One is now planning her trip. Sadly I’m not allowed to go, but maybe when she gets back we can create monsters of our own and play with them on the swings.

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Hope For The Future

I am haunted by a memory.

I am about six years old. There is a girl in my class called Anna who was born in Sri Lanka. She has very dark skin. I don’t know many people with dark skin. I like Anna, she’s nice.

One day at lunch time a group of kids surround Anna and start chanting
“Anna, Anna, black banana!”
over and over again.

I join in.

I don’t think about it, I just do it. I don’t think how Anna must feel, though I can see it on her face.

When I get home from school I tell Mummy about my day. I tell her what some kids said to Anna at lunch time. She is shocked that they would say that to her.
“You didn’t say it did you?”

I lie.

I see from the horror on my mother’s face that this was a terrible, awful thing to have done. I don’t want her to know I was involved and I know I will never do it again.

Children can be cruel – sometimes intentionally leading the charge, sometimes joining in the pack mentality. Both are cruel and ignorance is no excuse.

Girls can be particularly nasty. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to testify to the nastiness of girls. Not only have I been one, I also have two younger sisters, I’ve been through school with plenty of girls, I’ve taught girls and now I have three of my own.

I have tried to raise my kids to be kind and friendly but feared that they wouldn’t be. Who knows what happens at school or football training when I’m not there?

And then I find out.

MissChief (11) is in Year 6. She has some good friends at school – they’ve had a few issues over time but they’ve resolved them well. She’s been on the receiving end of some nastiness from a couple of girls in her year, but fortunately she’s resilient enough to roll her eyes at them and walk away (over and over again as required).

I’m learning that she’s also a fabulous role model and a quiet but strong leader.

There’s a girl she knows who is a talented artist but finds other subject areas difficult. She doesn’t have many friends and MissChief works hard to honour and recognise her talent, to include her and befriend her even though her own friends aren’t keen to do so.

Recently the kids had to choose a partner for some class work. MissChief chose to work with another girl in her class who struggles with learning. “Most kids don’t like working with her, but I do. I thought maybe I could help her.” MissChief did the writing and her friend came up with some awesome ideas demonstrating creativity and lateral thinking. They enjoyed working together and learning from each other.

Another girl has physical disabilities which mean kids have to have patience and make an effort when communicating with her. MissChief does.

She’s no saint. She can be pretty awful to her siblings at times (creative name-calling is her forte and she sometimes leaves her patience at school) but she does apologise and when it comes to the crunch she’s a protective and loving big sister. I’m proud of her and excited to see where her compassion and empathy will lead her as she grows up.

Perhaps my nastiness as a six-year-old had a positive effect in the end. The look on my mother’s face taught me more than any lecture or punishment would have. My parents valued people no matter what they looked like, sounded like or what their abilities were. They passed these values on to me, and it looks like Mr Wonderful and I may have succeeded in passing them on again.

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