A Voyage Around my Grandfather

I remember only one encounter with my grandad.  I was four or five and he was standing at the end of a long hallway in a Victorian terraced house, bending down with his arms outstretched to greet me and chuckling delightedly as I ran into his arms.  There were clearly many forgotten meetings before that, but few after it.  He and my grandmother moved to the coast where he remained as an invalid for the rest of his short life, dying when I was nine.

Historical map with Bohemia proper outlined in...

Historical map with Bohemia proper outlined in pink, Moravia in yellow, and Austrian Silesia in orange. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As children we were simply told he was too ill to see us and our exotic Bohemian grandfather (that’s a geographical term, not a comment on his lifestyle) became a shadowy  figure of mystery.

Grandad Oscar had arrived on these shores to seek his fortune at the beginning of the twentieth century.  He was a barber-surgeon, possessing in his tool kit, amongst other things, an amputation saw and an amazing machine with dials and probes that produced some kind of early electro-therapy.

He seems to have wasted little time in sweeping the daughter of a London policeman off her feet and together they produced three sons in quick succession, the oldest being my dad.

As I understood it, when the First World War broke out, Grandad’s pronounced Germanic accent didn’t go down too well with the British authorities and he was interned for the duration of the War, leaving his young bride to rear the little boys alone and in considerable hardship.

Eventually the family was reunited and Dad told fond stories of how he accompanied his father on foraging trips in Epping Forest, collecting mushrooms, or of the hands-on healing skills he employed to relieve Dad’s migraines.  It made me long to have known this gentle, sweet man for longer.

Something I’d all but forgotten was that a portrait of him as a young man, drawn in pastels, had been passed down to me by my father.  In the manner of such heirlooms in bad novels and TV antique shows, it really had lain at the back of a garage for many years, swathed in bubble wrap.

Grandad OscarYesterday, when the Ex arrived at the cottage with a car-full of my possessions, the portrait re-emerged.  The frame had come loose, so we took the opportunity to prise it apart and examine the picture.  Once the glass was removed and cleaned, I was able to see the image clearly for the first time.

Quite apart from the time-slip sensation of staring into the eyes of my grandfather as a man around my son’s age, I was impressed with the skill of the artist.

Hidden beneath the frame was a signature: Lino Ve?co 1916.  The letter in the centre of the surname was either a ‘g’ or an ‘s’.  I Googled both.

A famous auction house had recently sold a landscape by Lino Vegco for a couple of hundred pounds.  They’d clearly had the same problem we had in reading the signature.

Lino Vesco, however, appeared as an Austrian artist born in 1879.  His pictures were selling for considerably more.This rather wonderful interior, for example, changed hands for over $3000.

 Animation dans la galerie des Abencerage by Lino Vesco So how did my grandfather come to sit for so distinguished an artist?

“He was your grandfather’s best friend,” my Ex informed my casually.  “He did the portrait as a present.”

Apparently my father had shared this information with him, but neglected to tell my brother or myself.

Quite how it came to be drawn during the middle of the war, when Grandad was in a prison camp, I’m not sure, but still.

The next mystery was the ornate frame.  The carefully carved oval at the top has a strange inscription.  This really is sounding more like a cheap detective story by the minute, don’t you think?

2015-01-25 17.15.36Here’s a very blurred image of the inscription, to give you a general idea.

I hadn’t a clue what language it was in, let alone what it said.  My son, having done some searches of his own, tells me it’s Arabic and seems to be a name – Arno Lawrence being the most likely translation.

I wish I could end this post by explaining the link.  I fear it will forever remain a mystery.  (Although yet another Google search revealed that around a hundred years ago DH Lawrence was staying in a room overlooking the River Arno and that TE Lawrence  – Lawrence of Arabia – was fighting in Arab lands…)

Hmm.

Perhaps one day, when time and funds allow, I’ll try researching my family tree and discover more about this grandfather I barely knew and his friends.  For now though, although mystery will continue to surround him, I will enjoy our new-found connection as he gazes thoughtfully down at me from the wall of my living room in Lime Cottage.

 

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The Matter of Life and Death

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I’ll call her Cherry.  Mutual friends will understand why.

And yes, the manner in which I discovered the news was – when you come to think about it – an inevitable product of the world we live in.

Cherry and I began teaching at the same school on the same day.  We also, by some odd quirk of fate, gratefully accepted a voluntary redundancy package some seventeen years later and left on the same day too.

It was a small school, with a small staff, so we saw plenty of each other and got along just fine.  The word ‘colleague’ sounds rather harsh and impersonal but I can’t say we were ever friends as such.  I knew her kids by sight and a little about her life, and she knew much the same about me.  I knew nothing of her dreams and fears, her aspirations and beliefs, as colleagues usually don’t.

Cherry tree blossoms

Cherry tree blossoms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we left work I moved out of the area.  She stayed.  Unsurprisingly we lost touch.  That was until, quite out of the blue, I received a Facebook friend request from her.
‘How nice,’ I thought and happily accepted.

So for the last few years, Cherry and I have ‘met’ via Facebook.  I’ve ‘liked’ many of her posts with a trite little thumbs up symbol.  She’s ‘liked’ many of mine in the same way.  I noticed, but never spoke about, the fact that we had far more interests and ideas in common than I’d ever realised when we used to see one another every day.

Around New Year, Cherry stopped liking my posts.  She also stopped adding her own quirky interesting pictures and videos.  I have to confess I barely noticed.

And then, a couple of days ago, I flicked Facebook on and noticed a red 1 next to the little speech bubble icon.  Someone had messaged me.

With hardly a thought, I opened the message.  The name of the sender was unfamiliar at first, despite the ‘Hi Jan’ greeting.  As I read on, I discovered that it was Cherry’s daughter.  She apologised profusely for informing me via Facebook, but it was the only contact she had – and she wanted me to know that Cherry had died the day before.

Cherry.

Dead.

I had no idea of the circumstances, and it certainly wasn’t appropriate to send back a string of questions.  I sent a short message of thanks to the daughter and sympathy to the family and switched off.

Every day we receive news of cyber deaths; personalities we never met but felt we knew have photos and obituaries posted up on social media and we react according to the degree of vicarious attachment we felt to those people.  This was my first personal cyber death announcement and it shocked me to the core.

You see I had no context for Cherry to be dead in.  Accident?  Illness?  Quick or lingering?  Painless or agonising?  I couldn’t know.  Cherry had simply ceased to be a human being and THAT was the thought that stayed with me.

For the next two days, she was seldom out of my thoughts.  I’m not afraid of death.  I have complete and total belief in the eternal, undying nature of our greater selves and the transitory nature of incarnation – a game we play for a few 3D decades to gain experience, interact physically with others, bring Love to our corporeal existence and expand the Cosmos.  I’m free of any fear of divine retribution or judgement.  I knew that Cherry, in terms of her own essence, was still very much alive and aware.

What was affecting me – in a way I would never have expected – was the thought that as I went about my everyday, mundane tasks, she was not.  I cleaned my teeth.  She didn’t.  I went shopping.  She didn’t.  I relaxed with a cup of tea.  She didn’t.  All of these taken-for-granted earthly experiences had been Cherry’s to share.  Now they weren’t.  I’ve had many encounters with death, but none has affected me this way.

It was still bothering me last night, when I was fortunate enough to join a meditation channelled by a friend in the US via Skype.  Before the main meditation took place, her Guides turned to me and asked whether I had anything troubling me.  Rumbled.  So I told my little story and explained that I couldn’t understand why this was bothering me so deeply.

“Let’s breathe together while we find your answer,” they said, through my friend’s voice.

To my surprise and delight, they made contact with Cherry.  She wanted me to know she was fine.  But I already knew that.  Then they explained that although we’d not had a close relationship, there was still a connection.
“When you dream or leave your body in other ways,” they said, “you make contracts and agreements with others.  You and this colleague made an agreement that when she died, she would use her death to show you what an amazing, wonderful, precious experience life on this planet is.”

What a gift that was.

Thank you, Cherry.  I hope very much that – unknown to my conscious self, perhaps – I was at some time able to give sudden, special insights to you in return.

I wish you well on your cosmic journey from here on and congratulate you on completing another round of corporeal experience.  I’ll welcome that transition when it comes to me, but meanwhile – thanks to your gift – I’ll value these everyday physical experiences and feel profound gratitude for being human.

 

 

 

Learning with Ruby

English: A "puzzle" ribbon to promot...

What a wonderful start to my new year.

I’m what’s commonly called a semi-retired teacher, although I prefer the term ‘freelance educator’.  It means I’ve swapped the restrictions of the classroom for a free-wheeling life where I can more or less teach who I like, when I like.  Perfect!

Spring Term started this week, and with it a new enquiry from the mother of a home-educated 10 year old.  I’ll call her Ruby.
“She didn’t get on too well with school,” the mum explained. “She was doing okay with the work but had some negative experiences.”
There was a slight pause, then, “She’s Aspergers…”

I assured her that I was pretty familiar with Aspergers and (because I generally do find myself able to react appropriately in social situations) resisted the urge to punch the air and shout, “YESSSSSS!”

You see I love – totally love – working with Aspie kids.  I consider it the greatest privilege to be given a glimpse of how their minds work.  They’re always exciting, unpredictable and endlessly interesting.

Ruby didn’t disappoint. Her soft, slow, dreamy voice was enchanting.  Every word was carefully considered and chosen for exact meaning.

As I knew nothing about what she had learned so far, we started with an assessment of her maths ability.

“Do you know the meaning of ‘parallel’?” I asked.

Her eyes shone.  “I’m familiar with the idea of parallel universes,” she told me, and went on to share her knowledge on that subject, giggling with pure delight at the idea that things we can barely imagine could be happening elsewhere, in other dimensions.

I forced myself back to the maths.  Could she name the different types of triangles?

“Well that one looks the same shape as the Illuminati symbol,” she informed me.  “You know – like on American money…  Do you know about the Illuminati?” and she proceeded to share her knowledge on that subject, too, before I could answer.

Time was slipping by and when I gently pointed out that we needed to complete some of the work on the table, as her mother was paying me to teach her English and maths, she regarded me seriously.
“That’s right,” she said slowly and wonderingly.  “Everyone needs money, because that’s the way they are able to get the things they need.”
She spoke as if she’d just strayed on to this planet and now understood this strange but widespread custom.

“Some of the people in my school found me annoying,” she commented once, but with no trace of malice.

I nodded sadly.  Everyone I’d met who perceived and behaved in the way labelled ‘Aspergers Syndrome’ had suffered at the hands of those unable to tolerate diversity.  Others were unnerved by their honesty, their willingness to question everything and their need to explore the minutest details of whatever was interesting to them at that moment.  Teachers became frustrated and impatient; fellow pupils mocked and teased – or worse.

Ruby selected a reading book from the pile in my study – a Jacqueline Wilson story with a very direct approach to the problems facing a child whose parents had divorced.

“Oh!” she cried, after reading the first page.  “You know this is just about telling the story of my life.”

“Is it going to be too upsetting for you?” I asked, wondering whether I should have steered her towards some lighter reading.

She thought for a moment.  “Not upsetting,” she finally said.  “It is emotional because my dad said just the things her dad is saying to her and I had to choose which parent to live with, too.  But I think it will be good for me to read this book because I can understand what is happening.”

In school, I’d have had to produce comprehension sheets on the set book.  Thank goodness I’m freelance.  With an Aspergers child, it’s wise to throw away all the planning, advice and text books and to gently sit beside them as they make their educational journey.

I feel so lucky to be sharing in Ruby’s for a while.

 

A Raw Nerve

 

Wasn’t intending at all to write about this today, but here goes…

It’s not my normal style, and I’m not posting this story to gain pity or settle old scores, merely to show that once any system is ruled by fear, it is ruined.  In my very long career in the education system, I watched that happen, and it has continued apace since I left six and a half years ago.

I was just told by a friend on Facebook of a horrible incident from her childhood.  She’d been in an excellent school where all the children were learning well and very happy, yet a sour, vindictive school inspector came in, found the one child with mild learning difficulties, reduced him to jelly and verbally trashed the teacher, who went home and committed suicide.

Inspectors – like all manner of ‘experts’ – are people who swan into a setting for about 20 minutes and believe they have the knowledge and ability to sum the situation up and make life-changing judgements.

They don’t.

Let me tell you my inspector story – mild by comparison, but the raw nerve that was touched by my friend’s memory.

I posted once about a very special and experimental class I taught. The link to the original post is here.  The children were in a mainstream school but between them they had a huge range of problems and life circumstances which would reduce almost anyone to a gibbering mess.  Several had been on the brink of permanent exclusion because their behaviour was so extreme.

Well they made massive progress, and the following year I returned to teaching a ‘normal’ class of 10 and 11 year olds – except that this normal class contained a large proportion of the children I’d been working with the year before.

There was Shaun whose dad had died a year or two back after years of alcoholism, Daniel whose dad had just come out of prison and was now back to running a crack house, Isla who had just been moved from her long-term foster-carers and was being rehoused almost every week, Carly whose dad had terminal cancer, Sam who had suffered severe physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a teenage brother and various step parents… and those are just the ones that spring to mind.

By and large, we got along just fine.  Plenty of learning took place and although I often had to make allowances for these damaged and traumatised kids, who had a shorter fuse than most, with help from my brilliant learning support team, I was able to achieve my targets and they were making progress – in the ways our leaders required, as well as socially and emotionally (which to me was far more important).

Then we discovered that we were to be inspected by an OFSTED team.

An urgent class discussion took place.
“We really need to show these people how far you’ve come,” I told them. “That means while they’re here, it would really help if you could stay in your chairs, not have any arguments with each other or freak out if you feel a bit challenged.  I promise I’ll support you all and it won’t last long.”

Shaun gave an agonised scream.  “Can’t do it Miss,” he bellowed.  “I know I’ll get stressed out just ‘cos they’re here and then I’ll lose it big time and you’ll get in trouble.  I can’t handle it!”

That started an avalanche of worries and tears.  In each case it was the same.  They were terrified that they would let me, the class and the school down.  Day to day living was enough of a challenge for many of them.  This was a step too far.

My wonderful teaching assistants and I reassured them, praised them, reminded them how far they’d come and declared our absolute confidence that they could manage this.

The inspector arrived.  A roundish, well-heeled lady with a posh accent.  As she walked in, the children were immersed in the activity I’d set.  All was calm; all were bright.  True, Sam waited for the first opportunity when her gaze was averted and crawled under his table, where he remained trembling but otherwise immobile for the rest of the lesson, but this went quite unnoticed and no one showed any inclination to draw it to her attention.  The kids covered for him beautifully and kept him well concealed.

Children answered her questions politely and participated with enthusiasm and exemplary behaviour.

The blanket and pillow in the reading corner that doubled as a bed for anyone who hadn't been able to sleep the night before.

The blanket and pillow in the reading corner that doubled as a bed for anyone who hadn’t been able to sleep the night before.

When she’d left, we dusted Sam down and told the children how proud we were of them and how wonderfully they had behaved.  I was bursting with pride when I headed off to lunch that day.

After school, though, I had my feedback session with the inspector.

“Come in dear,” she smiled.  “Yes, a perfectly adequate lesson.  No problems and I could see learning taking place.  But…”  she looked slightly reproachful,  “I mean they’re a very well-behaved, good natured class, aren’t they dear?  I do feel you could have pushed them a bit harder – given them more challenge.”

There was the briefest of pauses where I could have responded.  I considered it.  I think the reason I didn’t was the same as Sam’s or Shaun’s.  The fear and stress and anxiety had been so overwhelming that I didn’t trust myself to say a word, for fear of letting the school, the class and everyone down.  If she believed that my class were well-behaved, then that was all I needed.  Yet I’d be lying if I said that her pronouncement on my lesson – ‘average’ – didn’t sting.

I feel no animosity towards the posh inspector.  She was simply doing her job.  Was she adequate?  Who am I to say?

The next day I told the class how impressed she’d been with their work and behaviour.  That was all they needed to know.  And I began planning my exit from the English state education system.