Hat is describing a school function via Skype. I witness her frustration in her frowns and the way she narrows her eyes when she’s cross. (A memory: when I was a child we had a book about science, it imagined a far off scenario where we could see the face of the person we were talking to on the phone in a screen opposite. It seemed the stuff of sci-fi movies. Less than a generation ago I marvel momentarily). I was so angry Mum, she says, her brow creasing, her voice rising in volume and pitch. There was this woman right, an Old Girl, not old-old (like me presumably) but Old as in used to come to my school. Yes, I prompt. Well one of the boys in my class, who was sitting at our table, mentioned the school’s new LGBT support. Yeeeees … I say (I think I know where this is going). And she said, LGBT? What? Here?! At this school?! That’s shocking! And then she said, ‘in my day that kind of thing would have been knocked out of kids like that in the shower room’. I’m appalled. Hat clearly is too. How shocking is that Mum? Knocked out of them in the shower room?! What did you say, I ask. Hat drops her head. Nothing, she says. I couldn’t find the words. I empathize. I have been there too. Not long ago. And I have years on Hat, years which ought to have lent me a voice when I really needed one. But I did glare at her. And then I ignored her. So she knew I was disgusted. And I imagine Hat then, titian curls bouncing as she tosses her head to defiantly tip her chin, her hazel eyes hot with indignation. I have to stifle a smile. Well done I say. But next time, I tell Hat, next time a similar situation arises, draw on your inner journalist and ask a question. Say, ‘Why do you find the idea of LGBT support shocking’? I bet they won’t have an answer.
I am not an aspirational mother. But I do make certain demands of my children:
- Be brave and try it (whether it’s lentil curry, an extracurricular activity they’re tempted by and afraid of in equal measure or a terrifyingly ambitious university choice which they’d love to have a go at but can’t bear being rejected from). What’s the worst that can happen is my default position – life doles out plenty of joy and disappointment, the joy is easy to handle. Managing the disappointment takes practice. The earlier you get some in, the better.
- Say thank you. And please. No thank you, I won’t have any more of the lentil curry but I’d love some more of the chicken one please. Manners maketh the Man. And the woman. I cannot abide the lack of.
- Don’t be a sheep. Just because everybody else is – or isn’t – doesn’t mean you have to follow suit; do what feels right. (And that applies to drink/drugs/fags/ignoring the new girl because everybody else is).
- Don’t be a snob. I inherited my maternal grandmother’s abhorrence of snobs. Just because somebody went to an elitist school or university, just because they can afford to attire themselves in expensive brands, just because they have a double barreled surname and live in a palatial home does not make them any more clever/interesting/compassionate/funny than the next person
- Be Kind. To children, old people and animals. Especially old people, given my own advancing decrepitude.
- Open your mind wide. If you narrow it, your view of the world will telescope and you’ll miss all the best bits. The stuff on the edge and in the middle distance which is often over looked.
- Ask questions – there is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers – it’ll ease your way into awkward social scenarios when you feel shy and asking questions is a good way to forget how anxious you feel (mostly because everybody loves talking about themselves.)
Educating our children isn’t, surely, just about making sure they get into the right school, onto the right course, attain the right grades, it’s not just about making sure they understand the perils of drink, drugs and unprotected sex (although, of course, urged a sex coach and friend, we must also ensure they understand that sex is not all bad; we must teach them about the good bits too)? It must also be about guiding them towards becoming reasonable grown-ups? Not just kids we’re proud of but adults we’d enjoy having a drink with? I think most of us do it instinctively. We’re aware of the alternative: imagine having to contend with a dinner party guest who won’t eat what you’ve prepared, having described the various afflictions that render him intolerant of dairy, gluten and lentil curry in particular, forgets to say thank you when you rush off to the kitchen to rustle up something he will eat, ignores the timid lady to his left, drones on about his skiing holiday and his son’s Gap Yah (the same son who went to Eton by the way), surreptitiously kicks your dog under the table, makes homophobic asides, never asks one question of a single person at your table and then ostentatiously regards his Rolex, twisting his wrist this way and that so you can all see it, and says ‘good lord, is that the time?’ and to yours and everybody else’s relief, ‘I must go’. You wouldn’t ask him back again.