We are on the move. Our house is up for sale. We are preparing to down-size. For a number of reasons. Partly financial. Partly because our teenage son will be leaving home come September and it seems crazy for two of us plus a dog and a cat to be rattling around a house of this size. Plus, we have been here longer than we have been in any house during the course of our married lives. It feels like time for a change. A new challenge. Our circumstances have changed dramatically since we moved here.
Nine years ago, I was an assistant head in a secondary school in Willenhall – a part of the sprawling urban mass of the West Midlands conurbation. North of Birmingham. On the border between the two larger towns of Wolverhampton and Walsall. Neither of which can easily claim to be beautiful. (Though I would argue that there are places of great beauty in both.) Both of which have more than their fair share of “areas of social deprivation.” Both of which have probably seen better days. Too many charity shops, closed down pubs, boarded up high streets. But, I love that part of the world and I loved my job. Loved the students I taught. Loved the colleagues with whom I worked. Well, most of the time, I did. There were moments. But most of my stress was caused, not by the school where I worked, but by the larger, more systemic failings of the English education system. On the whole, I loved where I worked. And, I think, I worked hard. Long hours. 12 hour days were the norm. Plus another 6-8 hours at weekends. I wasn’t really at home much. Spent more time at school than in my own house. I was a Drama teacher. We were a specialist school for Performing Arts. There was always a show or a concert or some training event going on most evenings and I felt that it was my job to be there if I could. Consequently, I spent most of my waking life in a very urban, man-made environment. I dwelt in the darkness of the Drama studio. In winter, I went weeks without feeling natural sun-light on my skin. Sure, I went walking and mountain-biking at weekends and holidays. But my average daily experience was quite divorced from the Natural world. Concrete and tarmac were the landscapes I trod.
But, I was paid well and that enabled us to buy a nice house in Much Wenlock. Which is quite different to where I worked. Quite different to where I grew up. Much Wenlock is very much a rural community. There is an orientation towards farming or the rural industries. Industries that obviously depend upon the natural environment. That demand space. Quarrying, for instance, is big round these parts.
Much Wenlock is a small town of a little under 3000 inhabitants (in the parish) and there is a strong sense of community here. It is quite a remarkable place. I wrote more about the town in an earlier blog. So, go here if you want to know more about the town. https://andyjukes.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/the-festival/
What I want to write about now is my relationship to the place. When we first moved here, and for several years after that, I was not really part of the community here. Yes, I joined the Parent Teachers Association of my son’s primary school and tried to do my bit. Going to sparsely attended fund-raising barn dances. Sitting through painful school concerts. Being a good, supportive, middle-class parent. I did my best. Within three weeks of Sam attending the school, I was dressed up as the Native American from the Village People, dancing to Y.M.C.A. with a bunch of other hapless fathers in front of a bemused audience of pupils and parents. I went out drinking with the other fathers. On the occasion of my first Wenlock Christmas, the fathers kindly invited me to the George & Dragon for the traditional celebration of the holiday season. I was pleased to have been invited, so I engaged with gusto. I was first in the pub and I manfully stayed there until the messy conclusion in the Indian restaurant. I don’t think it is quite the done thing to throw up in the Much Wenlock High Street, but at least I made it outside the restaurant.
So, you see, I made a strong effort to join in but, in truth, I never really felt part of the Wenlock community. My community was in Willenhall. Where I worked. It was there that I felt most connected. My soul, my sense of who I really was – that lay in the grey, urban heart of the West Midlands. Not the soft, pastoral beauty of South Shropshire. And, to a certain extent, that is still the case. But, I do, now, undoubtedly, feel much more a part of the Much Wenlock community. So, what has changed?
Well, the obvious thing is that I had to give up work. My Parkinson’s separated me from my community in Willenhall. Suddenly, I didn’t go there any more. I can still remember driving through those blue metal entrance gates after my leaving do and thinking “Well, that’s it – I’ll never set foot here again.” Weird feeling – to know that this is the last time you will see the place in which you have invested the vast majority of your time and energy during your adult life. Even weirder – I felt no sadness or regret – none whatsoever. I felt light and energetic. Excited. I had just been forcibly cut off from the community that had, for the past fifteen years, given me a sense of purpose and belonging. And I was happy! What was that about?
I think that it was about a realisation that I had chosen that community. I hadn’t been born into it. In fact, I had,in many ways, created the community around me. I realised that I had gone out looking for people that shared some of my core values – my dreams, my ideas, my hopes. I had gathered them around me. Created roles for them. Introduced them to each other. Made teams of them. I had created my own odd little universe around me. I hope that I did some good in the process. Hope that what I created had some educational value. Hope that I inspired some other people to create their own little worlds around themselves.
Because, in the end, I think that that is all you can do – work hard to create your own little world around you. You put some energy into the system. Some other people will pick up on that energy. If you are lucky, your energies will mesh to create a new energy which you can put back into the system. And because you are a part of that system, you will get that energy back. Which will give you more energy. Which you put back in again. And the loop is moving. The ball is rolling. Gaining momentum. Gathering more people towards it. People attracted by the energy that’s being given off. And you have begun to create a community. A group of people powered by a particular energy. Until, eventually, you can walk away and the ball will keep rolling. It has its own momentum. It doesn’t need you any more.
I was happy because I knew that, if I had done it once, I could do it all again. Some place else. Of course, creating worlds is not as easy as I have made it sound. You have to work hard. You have to put a lot of energy out, especially in the early days, in order to overcome the initial inertia. But everybody is doing it. Whether they want to or not. Whether they know it or not. Nobody has a choice. The energy that you put out creates the world you inhabit. Which is why you have to be careful about the energy you put out. Ever noticed how people that like to moan are never short of stuff to moan about? How funny things happen to people who laugh a lot?
I am conscious that I am in danger of falling into writing new age babble about “Putting out positive energies, maaaaaan” so let me put it another way: If you are in The Dragon’s Den pitching your business idea, looking for funding, you stand a much better chance of attracting a financial backer if you are well presented, confident and able to communicate your idea with passion and enthusiasm. You need the backer to share your belief in your idea. They need to feel as sure as you do that your idea will succeed. In other words, you need them to share your energy. It’s the same thing. Just shorthand.
The other thing about creating your world around you is that so is everybody else. At some point, you are bound to come across worlds that are in conflict with your own. Worlds that will attempt to bring you into their orbit, take your energy, swallow you up. And some of these enemy worlds will have already have been going for some time. They will have swallowed up a lot of worlds already. They will have a huge amount of energy powering them. Big suckers! Impossible to beat. Difficult to resist. They are behemoths. They crush everything in their path. Demand that all worlds surrender and become part of their mega-world. They are so huge that they seem to be inevitable. They seem to have been here forever. They seem like they always will be.
What can you do if you come head to head with one of these mothers?
Well, just remember that all worlds rise and fall. Nothing is forever. Everything is in a cycle of becoming and undoing and becoming again. Always moving. Never still. Just pay attention to the Natural World. How the seasons come and go. Change is the only constant.
And, no matter how big a world is, it is still only someone’s idea.
Just stay true to your idea. Be clear in your own mind.
And know your enemies. Don’t be fooled. You have to have your eyes open. These mega-worlds are the institutions, the paradigms that, together, have created the Modern World. They are so all pervasive that they will appear to be Reality. Common Sense. The Way Things Are.
But they are just someone’s idea.
For me, in Education, the mega-world was Ofsted – the institution created by the English Government to monitor the effectiveness of schools. Huge, powerful, the measure by which everything was judged. Ofsted inspectors would come to your school and pass judgement upon you. They would look at your exam results, watch some lessons, talk to some pupils, parents, staff, assess your plans for the future. Then decide if you were Good. Or even Outstanding. We were always Satisfactory. Which was not good enough. Which I always thought was strange as I had thought that the definition of “satisfactory” was “good enough.” Not in the crazy world of Ofsted. In fact, eventually, they got rid of that category altogether. It is no longer possible to be Satisfactory. You are either Outstanding, Good or In Deep Shit.
During my time as a teacher, I was judged by Ofsted many times. Sometimes my lesson was judged to be Outstanding. Sometimes not. Let me tell you a story about that.
I was teaching English to a lively Year 8 class. We were looking at imagery in poetry. To try to encourage them to think in images, they had been planning film versions of poems. Drawing story-boards, writing scripts. On this particular day, I had promised them that they would finally be filming. This was way before every kid had a mobile phone sophisticated enough to make a video and post it to you-tube without blinking. I had pulled in a lot of favours to gather together as many video cameras as I could so that the students could work in small groups and make their films simultaneously. We were all set to go. It was ground breaking stuff at the time. We were all excited. Nobody we knew had done this before. We didn’t quite know exactly what would happen.
And then I was told that an Inspector would be observing my lesson that day. The sensible option would be to play it safe – teach a lesson I was familiar with. Tried and tested. But, the class were expecting to film. Anything else would be a big disappointment. Which would lead to expression of dissatisfaction on their part. Which would not be good. So, I decided to stick with the plan – we would film as promised.
So, the lesson had barely begun when the Inspector entered the room. I was about to put the class into groups. I wanted them to work with their friends – people they trusted to help them realise their ideas. But, as a teacher, you never say “Work with whoever you like.” That just leads to chaos and arguments around friendship groups. Plus it means giving up control. Teachers always have to maintain the illusion of being in control, even though both students and teacher know that it is an illusion – a contract between them that only works as long as it seems to be mutually beneficial. So, I set parameters which maintained the illusion that I was in control whilst actually giving the class the freedom to choose their own groups and maintaining a light hearted atmosphere. I told them to get into groups with people wearing the same coloured underwear.
So, they swiftly got into groups knowing that I was not going to check what colour underpants they were wearing, I issued each group a video camera and they disappeared out of the classroom and off around the school to film as planned. Leaving me and the Inspector alone in the classroom.
“Did you group them according to ability?” he asked. At which moment I realised that he was not really watching very hard and that he could only ever see what he wanted and expected to see.
“No. The colour of their underpants.”
I watched as he looked down at his clipboard and ticked a box marked “Requires Improvement.” Then he left.
A little later, the students returned, eager to show their films to the Important Visitor.
“Where is he?” they asked.
I explained that he had important work to do and had to leave. The students wanted their visitor to see the work they had done and of which they were proud. They were upset that he hadn’t shown them the respect of waiting to see what they had achieved. As they returned to their seats to watch the films, I overheard one student mutter to his classmate,
“What a tosser, eh!”
These days, in Much Wenlock, I have an enviable degree of freedom from mega-worlds. I am able to play around with who I want to be and people seem remarkably tolerant of that. There seems to be a place for me here. A place for me to explore who I am. I used to feel that I didn’t quite fit in here. Because I was looking from outside. I was putting a frame around the Much Wenlock community so that it was easy for me to see. I was defining what the community was and could be in order to pass judgement upon it. Same way Ofsted did to my school. And, like Ofsted, I was missing the point. Like Ofsted, I was imposing limitations, seeing only what I wanted to see. Missing the full picture. Blind.
I now realise that you can only see the full picture by being an active part of a community. You cannot know a community from outside. You have to be a part of it. And, to do that, you have to give of yourself. Contribute your energy. Not in order to fit in but in order to live where ever you are fully as yourself, conscious of the fact that communities are always dynamic and that your very presence in a community alters that community, contributes to what it is.
Much Wenlock is, like any community, not what it initially appears to be when viewed from outside. It is far richer and more fabulous than you could imagine. So is Willenhall. So is anywhere.
Perhaps we don’t need to move after all.