Friday, December 3, 2010

The survival of curiosity

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

Madette turned rapidly from a tiny premature scrap to a hollering monster to a sharp intellectual pebble, never content with a "that's how it is" explanation. Clever and determined, she commanded input from all around her. Junior Mad was a placid, easy baby with a cheerful disposition and a wicked smile. Separated by only twenty-three months, they rapdily became playmates. He had keen knack for winding up his big sister. She would patronise him with her superior language and understanding and he would retaliate with a tease. "You're a mushroom, you're a teapot, you're a mushpot", he would sing. They both loved to sit and listen to stories, reading being a passion in the Mad household.

Madette howled at being abandoned at nursery school. Junior Mad howled because he was too young to stay. A sociable, jolly little boy he joined in all the activities with enthusiasm once he was old enough to stay.

When Madette went to school, she could read a little and write her name. Within a few weeks, she was composing grand stories about monsters and dragons in a neat script. By seven, she had read "Swallows and Amazons". Junior Mad was fascinated by how the world worked. His first visit to the Science Museum at three left him breathless and pink-cheeked with excitement. When our two hour slot in the Launch Pad was up, I had to carry him out under my arm because he was desperate to stay. He'd probably still be there now.

So when he started school at four and a half, I had few worries about him. Sociable, sparky and cheery, I expected a period of settling in as he got the hang of the routine and while reading and writing embedded. There was no settling in. It started bad and got worse. "Is it a school day, Mummy?", he would ask. If I said yes, then he turned his face to the wall.

We asked if he could see the Educational Psychologist. No point, said the school. He's just immature and not very motivated. He was, after all, barely five! But he was so deeply interested in everything outside school. In desperation, we saw a private Ed Psych. The school refused to read the report. "A waste of time". A pity really. She had found a very bright little boy with some writing difficulties. School managed to lose the writing aid that she recommended.

Months went by and the situation did not improve. He got into trouble because he lost his temper. Each child had been asked to give a little talk to the class. He chose satellites. When he got to the bit explaining how a satellite was in geostationary orbit, the other children became a bit bored, so the teacher stopped him. He was furious and telling her so earned him the punishment of losing break-time. He was six.

Parents evening was torture. The little heap of books showed almost no achievements, a few tatty sentences painfully scribed at the top of the first page in most books and nothing else. "It's very difficult, Mrs Mad. You shouldn't compare him to Madette. He can be lovely in his own way". "You are telling me that he's thick, aren't you?", I questioned angrily. "This is something very hard for educated middle-class parents to accept". Just who are you calling effing middle-class?

Eventually, another mother came to talk to me in the playground. She had seen Junior Mad reduced to tears in the class by the carelessly cruel remarks of his teacher. She had labelled him lazy and ignorant. That was the last time they had the opportunity to hurt him. He left that day.

But they had done such a lot of damage in the time he was there. His confidence was knocked sideways and he never quite regained the easy manner which allowed him to make friends readily. The next school peeled back the protective outer layer and provided him with the support he needed. Choices around senior school were hard. I couldn't bear the idea of sending him away to board so senior school was a curate's egg. Not all bad, although it was dispiriting to have to explain dyslexia to some teachers. But we were very fortunate to have the resources to provide support that he didn't get in school.

Sixth-form was mainly a good experience since he had a nice group of friends and he focused on the sciences where he excelled. An inspirational teacher encouraged him to take a Nuffield Bursary with a placement at a space science laboratory. His curiosity continued to unfurl. After a gap year, he set off to university. One of those Russell Group institutions, not normally renowned for taking students who are "lovely in their own way". He got a First.

So what's he doing now? Well, today he's probably nursing a bit of a hangover. But yesterday, he was awarded his PhD.

That's right Dr Junior Mad. Ha! I can say, "My son, the doctor". Don't go to him if you're bleeding or the like ... he's not that sort of a doctor.

And just in case you're wondering why my son is wearing a colander in the first picture ... it was so he could look at the lights through the holes. He'd noticed they looked different with / without the holes.

This is not a dish best served cold. Yes , I bit of me would like to string some of his early teachers up by their toes but, hey, it's in the past.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day."

Both quotations are from Albert Einstein. They said he was a bit thick too.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Shaken from white wash buckets down the sky ...

A bit chilly, eh? Sunday afternoon it was -10C. And that was when the sun was out. Last January, they said that the weather was "a once in a generation event". Hey-ho.

And, I heard a punter on Radio 4 declaiming that it was "time that this country stopped being so insular". For an island, that may be a challenge. Anyone feel like getting out and giving us a push?

I never quite know whether I like the white stuff. The sensible bit of me sees the chaos and danger and the bone-chilling hard work for the farmers and other outdoor workers. It was much easier being ten.

In 1963, I had just turned ten and loved the stuff. The pleasure was heightened by the fact that school was closed for weeks. The ancient pipes had burst and we had to go in every day for 6 weeks, sign the register and then go home.

We had no running water for two months and drinking water had to be collected from a standpipe a quarter of a mile away. Snow was gathered in big pans and heated on the Rayburn to give us water to wash. Ten year olds don't need much washing anyway.

My mother frantically tried to keep the house clean against melted slush trailing through. Dad delivered milk every day and always checked on the old and frail on his milkround. I would help him carry freezing bottles up grey stone paths. He trudged with icy cold metal milk crates, his hands chilled to the bone in fingerless gloves. The gloves would be put in the slow oven to dry and warm up before he went out again.

My dad's friend was the undertaker and he made me a sledge out of a failed coffin side. Dad polished it up and fixed a box seat and ropes for steering. The final embellishment was the runners. Two stair-rods were screwed in place and we buffed the monster up a bit to give it extra whizz. It certainly had extra whizz and I trudged up the hill valiantly until my legs were like jelly. The descent was a few moments of squealing delight.

Ten was just the age to be, eh?

"Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."

Dylan Thomas